Interview: Julian Schnabel on ‘Miral,’ His L.A. View, and Shunning Storyboards

By  · Published on April 2nd, 2011

“Wait a minute, Jack. Excuse me, but can we talk in about eight minutes? Would you call back through the office? I was just on the phone with Javier Bardem, and I forgot I was talking to him. Can I just call him back?”

Those were the first words acclaimed artist Julian Schnabel said to me. Of course, being the polite gent that I am, I said “no problem at all,” because it wasn’t a problem, even though the wait was for more than eight minutes. During the duration of time I waited to get a call back, a serious problem arose. I began to ponder what it must be like for Julian Schnabel to go from talking to someone as interesting as Javier Bardem to… well, me. I started to feel uneasy, which is a sensation I rarely get before an interview. But really, who on earth would want to go from speaking with Javier Bardem to the young guy from Film School Rejects?

I certainly wouldn’t. And how do you forget you were talking to Javier Bardem? But Schnabel did call back, and it was as interesting a conversation as I could’ve hoped. My questions weren’t exactly focused on his latest film, Miral, as I was adamant about getting his thoughts on commercialism, what type of prep he does, and his collaborative process.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to take him up on his offer mentioned below, but based on our 15 minute conversation, I would have loved nothing more than to converse with the man in person. While I felt nervous about the Bardem comment, there was an openness and personableness to Schnabel that made me feel generally at ease, despite an awkward moment or two.

And if you’re wondering why “His L.A. View” was discussed, well, just read ahead:

[Presumably a few moments after Schnabel gets off the phone with Javier Bardem.]

Is this a bad time?

No, I guess I’m as good as I’m going to get, Jack.

Well, I really appreciate you making the time and congratulations on the film.

Did you like it?

I enjoyed it. I thought it was really well-crafted.

It’s touchy, isn’t it?

I still want a few more days to think about it.

Okay. I’m with you. So what do you want to know, kid?

To start off, I’m kind of curious about this whole interview process for you, because as an artist, a lot of your work deals with interpretation…

Interpretation, about interpretation. Okay. Well, actually, my work’s not about interpretation. Movies are about interpretation. Art is about presentation, how you present something; you don’t represent something. So movies are more like translating things. You translate a book to a movie, a script to an actor, ideas to kind of illustrations of ideas.

So it’s more tedious and labor…it’s just like making a sculpture than painting. You know, painting’s more like playing the saxophone. If you feel like hitting a note, you hit it. You don’t have to explain to anybody if it’s good or bad, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just know that you’re out there operating without any sound methods and it’s okay.

Do you find it tricky talking about your films then? Since they are about interpretation, and yet you have to explain your intentions during this process.

Oh well, actually, I don’t usually just talk about my intentions. Sometimes I find myself talking about people’s responses, or what they don’t understand, or trying to explain arts.

Understood. When you make a film like Miral, do you think about commercialism or is that something you never think about when it comes to your work?

I’ve never made movies to make money. I’ve just made movies to tell a story. I never really felt like people needed to see a movie until I made this movie, more so than all the other ones, just because of the big problem in Israel and Palestine. And we don’t want any more people to die. I don’t. So I don’t know that I can do anything with it, or that I can do anything to deter that. I believe, actually, that we put ideas in people’s heads and we give them prepositions, we give them point of view, and they can either reject it or they can go with it.

And so, I must be very idealistic. I want people to see it, not because I want to make money, I want people to see it because I want them to open up the dialogue about peace, and I want them to think that there are people over there that are not just numbers, statistics, and under the blanket flag of just Palestinians; that they’re all different kind of people, just like Israelis are not all the same, just like Americans are not all the same. It’s logical.

But as a Jewish person, I felt like I should tell a Palestinian person’s story in the same light…Remember in the movie Gandhi when he sees the guy that killed a child, and he felt like he was doomed, and Gandhi says, “Why don’t you find a child about so high and raise him as a Hindi?” I mean he was a Muslim and he says, “Raise him…” Or he was Hindu and he killed a Muslim. And he says, “Raise him as a Muslim.” Understanding the other, that’s super important.

Somebody wrote something recently about the movie and said, “Understand the other, the stranger. Take care of the stranger. Love the stranger. Remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” And so that’s one aspect of the movie, obviously. The other aspect is, “What isn’t”? I mean it’s a form of art. There’s images of people that are talking, that are not talking, there are people that are drowning, there are people that are being killed, there are people that are just communing; there’s a father communicating with his daughter; there are two girls in the car.

Somehow, my big question for myself was, “Can a movie be educational and poetic at the same time?” Can I find an excuse somehow, in the story of this, to not just make something that has something to do with politics or with current events. Just something about one person, about people.”

Considering the subject matter, you really didn’t seem to sugarcoat the film. Did that make acquiring financing difficult?

Well, I’ve been very, very blessed. It’s a good thing if you don’t need something, or you don’t need a job, or you don’t need somebody. That’s the time when usually people give you stuff. Luckily, I made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Jérôme Seydoux, who had a very good experience, even though he wanted me to make that movie in English and I made it in French.

That being said, we were nominated for four Academy Awards and he felt very proud of that film. So when I said I was interested in making this movie, I showed him the story and he loved it. I didn’t have any trouble at all. They tried to make it for as little as possible in one way, and maybe another filmmaker would have said, “I need another $5 million” or something, but I didn’t say that. I didn’t feel that I needed that. I was happy with whatever I had and I made it.

But I never had to go around and shop around and ask people things or pitch things to people. That’s not something that I had to do.

That actually goes back to my earlier question about commercialism. Are they the type of financiers that let you have free reign?

No, I have final cut on the movies I make, and people know that when they get involved with me. I’m willing to listen to anybody that’s got a better idea than I do. But I definitely don’t go into it as an indentured servant. I don’t have to. I make films I feel a responsibility to make and I’m interested in making. I think it’s worth devoting few years of my life to those things. I’m not a journeyman filmmaker.

I’ve talked to a few directors who have final cut, and they usually say it’s not exactly what you think it is where you get everything you want. Is your experience similar to that or is it still very much a collaborative process?

It depends if you want to listen to people or not. If you hire people to advise you and you don’t listen to them, you’re kinda stupid. But at the same time, you have to know what battles you want to fight and what battles are not worth fighting. And sometimes you can lose the battle and win the war.

But, you know, I’m very….I don’t know if the word is content, but satisfied with the final result of the film. There’s many things that I shot that I love that I feel compelled to do and invested a lot of work and time in.

Hi there.

Excuse me?

I’m just talking to a friend of mine. I was looking at the landscape. It’s like Mexico around here!

Where are you?

I’m in Los Angeles. Where are you?

I’m in Washington D.C.

I’ll be coming down that way in some moment, I think. But I’m coming down, so I’ll meet you in person when I come down.

I’d like that. So when you read a script, do you really start to get a sense of what you want visually? Do you storyboard at all?

I’ve never made a storyboard in my life.

Why is that?

Because I don’t want to make drawings of what I’m going to do. I see the stuff in my head and then I go see locations and I decide which places I want to do it. I just don’t do it like that. The closest I got to a storyboard was when I made Before Night Falls and I was looking at the way… So essentially, I was thinking about the way that event happened and how those trucks formed the frame, and how the accumulations of those trucks gave you that feeling. When I first started to make Miral somebody wanted to bring a storyboard person in there. I looked at it and it looked totally irrelevant to me, so I told them to forget it.

Do you get a visual sense for what you want while writing or is it more of finding the feel for the film on set?

Most of the time I write the script. And even in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, there were just things that… this idea of the glacier falling into the water was not in the book. It’s not in the script either. But it was my key to making the movie. I get engaged and form the linear, more narrative aspects of the story.

I’ve heard from some directors who don’t like to storyboard there’s a danger in getting a sense of calculation and coldness. Do you see it that way?

Well, that’s true for me, it’s true for them. I think the converse is that they’re much more premeditated about the way they do it. Marty Scorsese is real premeditated about the way… Is that it? You need more?

Do you gotta go?

Somebody was just calling me, but it’s okay. Any questions about this particular movie?

No, I’ll let you go. And again, I really appreciate your time, so once again, thank you.

Yeah, just write what you feel. Write what you felt about the movie. You know, think about what I said. Maybe if it’s interesting to you, try to make something out of it instead of just repeating what I’m saying. Ultimately, maybe, the kind of high point you have in different movies makes you more attracted to one more than the next. Why does somebody love one painting more than another painting? You know what I mean? We’re prisoners of our own subjectivity, and that’s always subject to change.

I’ll see ya, man.

Miral is now in limited release.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.