Julian Schnabel is no stranger to being the subject of intense debate and discussion in his primary career as a painter, but now he’s feeling that heat in his side gig as a filmmaker. With two rapturously reviewed movies included in his sparse filmography (2000’s Javier Bardem drama Before Night Falls and 2007’s Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Schnabel decided to mount a big-screen adaptation of Rula Jebreal’s novel Miral, but the response to it has been divisive: Festival audiences gave the movie mixed reviews in the fall (it’s now being released in a shorter, leaner cut), and some Jewish organizations are protesting the film for its sympathetic take on conflict in Israel through the eyes of a Palestinian woman. Vulture sat down with Schnabel this week to discuss how he feels about the controversy and his reluctance to making movies.
Do you think your attitude is different as a filmmaker as opposed to as a painter?
Yeah. One thing is that the whole schedule of making a movie is so [difficult]. We become creatures of habit, and I usually paint in Montauk in the summer, come back in the fall, the art world starts up, and then I try to go somewhere else in the winter that’s warmer so I can have another summer and paint some more, because I like to paint outside. If you think of a director like Woody Allen, he makes one or two movies a year and he’s got a system of all of these things that is designed to get him behind the camera, but for me, I have to change everything and restructure my pace and shut my life down. It’s really oppressive, and I dread the beginning of a movie. For filmmakers, I’m sure it’s really exciting to get the process together, because they’re going to get to do the thing they do, but—
Although Steven Soderbergh recently said that he’s retiring because if he has to get in another van to scout locations for a movie, he’ll shoot himself.
Okay, I know exactly what he’s talking about. I felt like that when I was making this movie. You hear people say that when a director is shooting, they smell a different way, they have different habits. You’re stuck in a situation that you’ve committed to and you’re responsible and you’ve given your word that you’ll see it through, but I remember when I first met Rula, I couldn’t just say right away, “I’ll commit three years of my life to doing this.” The thing I dig is working with actors who can do something that you can’t do. I made those movies with Javier, with Mathieu Amalric, with Frieda [Pinto] — I can do something with them that I can’t do by myself, and that I enjoy.
I also enjoy putting everybody in a situation where I can realize an image I have in my head. Like the scene where I knock that building down? I built that building so I could knock it down … I remember the D.P. and the first A.D. saying, “Why don’t we just shoot the people first and then the building, since we don’t have that many cameras.” I said, “You don’t get it. Those people are not going to be looking the same way if they’re not watching that building being torn down. You need to shoot them and that at the same time.” When I was doing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I remember the assistant director calling on the telephone to have the phone call when Jean-Do is listening to his father. I said, “You’re going to be on the phone?” He said, “Yeah, we always do it like this,” and I said, “Well, you’re not going to do it like that on my film. I want Max von Sydow to be on the phone.” “We don’t know where he is.” “Well, I’ll call him!” And I called him and asked, “Max, would you please … ” and he said, “Of course.” It’s a huge difference if Max is talking. That kind of decision-making … I mean, I paint my own paintings, I don’t have assistants do them.
Why does the MPAA like to give your movies an R rating, Julian?
Ah, fuck, man. [Laughs.]
Is there anything you have learned about the MPAA through these experiences?
Actually, I was able to explain to the MPAA the reasons why this movie should be PG-13, and they agreed with me. Because it’s such a heavy topic and such an emotional movie, I think they were affected and thought it was too heavy for kids to see. But the truth is that [during the rape scene], you’re looking at a piece of metal moving up and down, and you think, “Oh, that’s weird. Something bad’s going on.” Then you see a guy get up — and you don’t see his ass or anything — and you see a girl looking scared. That’s done in a way that should be rewarded as good filmmaking, not censored. I said this to them, that you can read the newspaper and see someone like [conservative activist] Brigitte Gabriel discussing her witch hunt against Muslims and espousing hate, but kids can’t see a movie about a kid that’s their age? I said, “You’re censoring this movie from the people who I made it for.” Kids should see this movie.
How do you feel when people accuse you of being a self-hating Jew for making this movie?
Well, nobody’s said that to my face. I didn’t know I was being called that, but you know, if you look at a family, there is criticism. You criticize your kids, or your parents criticize you, and if you don’t, you don’t have good communication with them. If everything was fine, there’d be no reason to make the movie! Does trying to fix it mean that you have self-hate? I don’t think so. My sister, who was the president of Hadassah also, was at the U.N. with my brother, and they’re older than me and more conservative but I think they’re very proud. I don’t think there’s any self-hating in there at all.
The American Jewish Committee claims the Israeli Mission to the U.N. was “not even given the minimal courtesy of being consulted” on your recent premiere at the U.N. Your response?
I have no idea if that’s even true or not, but do we need to ask them to show a movie over there? I don’t think so.
You’ve made several biographical films about artists. Were there other, different projects you were interested in along the way?
There’s one other movie that I really wanted to make: I wrote a script for the novel Perfume, by Patrick Süskind.
And then Tom Tykwer ended up making that movie. Did you ever see his take on the material?
I did. I didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was terrible. What a wasted opportunity!