As an accomplished modern artist, sometime provocateur and acclaimed film director, Julian Schnabel’s long and diverse career has taken him from much-lauded exhibitions of his paintings to widespread critical praise — and several Academy Award nominations — for his movies.
Schnabel’s feature-film career began with 1996’s Basquiat, a portrait of fellow American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat that allowed the director to explore his interest in lives lived on the margins of society. His follow-up, 2000’s Before Night Falls, garnered star Javier Bardem’s first Oscar nomination, for his affecting portrayal of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It was Schnabel’s next film, however, that solidified his reputation as a unique director with a bold stylistic approach: 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, shot largely through a subjective POV of the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Jean-Dominique Bauby, was a critical smash, earning the filmmaker a nomination for Best Director from the Academy.
This week, Schnabel returns with his latest project, Miral. Drawn from the novel by Rula Jebreal, it’s an emotional journey that follows several generations of Palestinian women against the turbulent landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the central story refracted through the experience of teenage Miral — played by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto.
We sat down with Schnabel this week and asked him to talk about his Five Favorite Films, and in doing so got some insight into his own directing process. “Okay, let’s try to figure them out,” Schnabel ponders, with the first of several long, thoughtful pauses. “I mean, I like Kaspar Hauser by Werner Herzog and… I think I need 10, man. [laughs] Viridiana by Bunuel… Raging Bull, Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada… did I say 400 Blows? Oh, another movie that I loved that I’d put up there is I Am Cuba. It’s a responsibility to talk about the movies and they all have different qualities. I think there are things that exist in these other movies that don’t exist in the first five.”
Andrei Rublev (1966, 93% Tomatometer)
Well, I think one thing is I love seeing the 15th century in black and white, in the 20th century. The physical imagery… that scene in the balloon at the beginning of the movie, the way that it’s cut together and the way that it functions and what he’s looking at. The sound, the music. Tarkovsky is one of my favorite directors and I think there’s just a great abstract quality in his films, where you see something and, as you’re looking at it, it transforms in front of your eyes. Things happen that you can’t believe you’re looking at — a horse falling down a flight of stairs; all of a sudden there’s a moment where you’ve got Christ, in the snow, carrying his cross up a hill. The kind of subliminal violence that occurs — when this guy gouges the eyes out of one of those journeymen, artisans that are leaving the reconstruction of a church; the apathy in the violence reminds me of the W.H. Auden poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The old masters, they really knew about human suffering.
And I guess in that particular film, what I’m thinking about is the length of the takes, and the surprise of what you actually see being filmed. The way slow motion is used in that movie also; the way that movies are not like that anymore. The scale and the depth of field of what you’re seeing is vast. So there’s a poetic quality to that. I’d have to mention The Passenger also, because there’s a moment when Antonioni has Jack Nicholson sticking his arms outside of a cable car, and for that moment you just have this sense of observing observation — that’s a big part of moviemaking to me, or painting. That kind of filmmaking, where the camera is still but everything around it is moving, and moving at different speeds, is something that I’m attracted to.
The Battle of Algiers (1966, 99% Tomatometer)
The notion of making a fiction — meaning you look at it and you think it’s all documentary footage, but it’s all shot. And the reality factor of that is something that makes you able to escape into the film; the fabric of that fiction is so believable and completely knitted together that you buy the proposition of the film — even when you see people getting shot and there’s no blood coming out of their bodies or whatever. There’s something about shooting something [in black and white] — and I’m talking about two movies that are in black and white, we should say, except for the part [in Andrei Rublev] where they show the color of the fresco of the Russian icons. I really like movies that are in black and white, because you feel like you are watching a movie. We associate it with things that were filmed at that time, that would have been filmed in black and white. So there are different concessions and commitments to make to a limited palette for a reason. When I make a movie like Miral, there’s a kind of reversal stock that I’m using outside and sometimes it really feels like Technicolor, like a movie like Exodus, and there are other moments when it’s rougher and it feels like The Bad Lieutenant, or something like that.
The Godfather (1972, 100% Tomatometer)
The Godfather, Part II (1974, 98% Tomatometer)
Godfather one and two, as one movie — but not blended together; I don’t think that worked when they tried to combine them [for the TV version]. I have to just say that The Godfather is a quintessential American film, where it’s absolutely satisfying. The writing is so excellent — what is being said, and the nuance of what is being said, is so understood. And the color, again, situates you in a particular moment in time. It’s a portrait of America. It’s one of those things where storytelling and acting found one of those magical, elegant solutions…
Raging Bull (1980, 98% Tomatometer)
…and it’s something that happens with Raging Bull, also. And Marty Scorsese’s notion of sound — the memory. Sound memory is so important in Raging Bull; when you see the scene where Robert De Niro shows Cathy Moriarty his father’s house and tells him about the bird — “It was a bird, it’s dead” — and what’s going on around in the street, and you realize how important sound is. The other thing is the acting: Joe Pesci and Robert are so great together. I mean, the hardest thing in the world to do is just shoot two people in a room. All these other things are very easy to do — you get 150 people, you turn your camera on, you create a situation and as long as nobody looks at the camera you can make them seem very real. [Two people in a room] is really difficult. If I think of Robert Duvall, say, talking to Al Pacino in The Godfather two, when Al says to him, “Well what’d you get my son for Christmas?” and he says, “I got him a little car,” and Robert Duvall puts his hand over the couch — these are gestures that people understand as human gestures and they bring you into the storytelling.
The 400 Blows (1959, 100% Tomatometer)
Here’s one where the music is so important. And the decision where the camera movement is. There’s one moment in particular in 400 Blows, where the two boys skip school and they go into this centrifuge, and the kids are spinning around and you’re watching the movie and then all of a sudden you realize you’re watching something on the screen — you’re seeing this pole in the middle and these bodies flying by. I guess they’re just epiphanies of humanness that resonate, and I guess all that comes out of really physical human decisions — whether it’s about where you point your camera, what and how you’re editing, or how people are acting. But in all of these movies I can’t think of one that is depending on special effects. So I would say that what drives me is something that has to do with things that seem much more fundamental to storytelling, that are simple things… but maybe that’s because I’m a primitive kind of person.
Julian Schnabel’s Miral is released in theaters this week.