(Originally published in Boston Magazine, 1996)
“It’s harder to paint than to direct a movie,” says painter/director Julian Schnabel, whose first film, Basquiat, mythologizes the life of fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel, who was played by Gary Oldman in the movie, is now preparing for an exhibition of his own paintings, due to open in Bologna this month. The catalogue for that show is being written by Rene Ricard, the poetic art critic who “discovered” Basquiat and who is also a character in the movie (“Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat…”). We had a brief, intense conversation about painting and making movies, and the overlapping, intertwining boundaries between life and art.
Rebecca Nemser: Your paintings are characterized by grand gestures, grand scale, and also found objects, like the broken plates you’re famous for affixing to enormous canvasses. How did you translate those qualities into film?
Julian Schnabel: After shooting for 32 days, and shifting with the ebb and flow of making a movie, I created it like a found object. I made the situation so I could specifically give myself the time to fiddle with it until I found it was perfect.
R: And working with actors?
JS: It’s a wonderful luxury to work with actors. They hit these really idiosyncratic notes. They are like some unnameable color.
R: My favorite scene in the movie is when Basquiat is painting, alone, in the basement.
JS: That’s my favorite, too. Success is when you’re making the work of art. The moment of perfect sonorous bliss. It’s his space. Then the friends come down, and the dealer, and the collectors, and the girlfriend, and after a while there’s no more room down there, and he has to leave. No one is to blame, but they’re blindly pushing him into the next world.
R: Is that a metaphor for why Basquait died — the whole fame thing? Is that what drove him to his early death, from a heroin overdose, at twenty-seven?
JS: He didn’t have a place to get out of the rain. He felt like people were using him. He got paranoid and suspsicious, and a lot of that’s the drugs. Somebody doesn’t always get to grow up. Most of the artists I know — they stay children. They’re big babies. They play in the sandbox. He didn’t grow up. He died. He was very much a child.
R: How did you survive?
JS: I was lucky. I was married. I had two kids. I had a place to retreat, there was some kind of cushion. That was something Jean-Michel didn’t have. It’s very hard to take somebody along on that trip.
R: How autobiographical is Basquiat?
R: The music —
JS: Sound has a way of coloring everything. And some of those songs — he was with me at an opening of mine in Switzerland, and I took off his earphones, and he was listening to Kind of Blue, Flamingo Sketches. He had such a sophisticated and eclectic taste.
The scene when he’s painting — the Charlie Parker and Max Roach riff is from his record collection. It’s very heady at that moment. And the time when he’s stoned, the tire scene, that music was something I heard in a taxi cab, and a Persian taxi driver was playing that tape. And the hibiscus plant was in front of a flower shop. It’s very much like painting, in a sense. When you’re painting, you do something and respond to it. I behave the same way no matter what I do.
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com