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Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls Special
Behind-The-Scenes Director Interview: Julian Schnabel

By Dennis Hopper
Interview Magazine
April 2001



You’re in Sicily, brother.

I’m here in Palermo for the world premiere of Before Night Falls.

Isn’t that amazing?! How long ago was it that we finished making Basquiat? [Schnabel’s first movie, in which Hopper played art dealer Bruno Bischofberger]

It came out in August or July of ‘96.

Mmm, right. And you started this one almost immediately after, didn’t you?

I guess I was still finishing Basquiat, and I knew I’d better see it through before I started thinking about making another movie. But I thought that if I ever did, Reinaldo [Arenas] seemed to have a really interesting story to tell.

I remember telling you that I didn’t think you should do this movie, that you should establish yourself as a commercial entity, and then you could do anything you want. Thank God you didn’t listen to me, because you’ve made a great movie. The last time I saw it, I left feeling like I’d seen the world from Reinaldo’s point of view. That’s a remarkable thing you’ve done. What amazing work by Sean Penn [who has a cameo as the perpetually bewildered oxcart driver Cuco Sanchez] and Johnny Depp [who plays both Bon Bon, a transvestite who smuggles things in and out of prison, and Lt. Victor, the guy who runs the prison]. And Javier Bardem gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. To me, it’s as great as Hilary Swank’s becoming a man in Boys Don’t Cry. It’s that kind of departure for him.

Well, both Sean and Johnny are totally uncompromised in their work. Johnny is incredibly exacting, he brings energy and a sense of playfulness to his roles. He’s just inspired—and he’s totally free, no hang-ups. That’s the great thing about Javier, too. As an actor, he doesn’t have any sexual hang-ups, he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the part. He also comes from a family of Communists, so it was very brave for him to decide to play Reinaldo, a role that so clearly defines the intolerance of Castro—someone who has been a hero to many Communists. You know, we had a press conference today, in Rome, and people from Amnesty International came and spoke. So many people have responded to this movie on so many different levels.

To me, one of the things that comes across so powerfully is how Castro got rid of the intellectuals who were writing against his regime—how he figured out that so many of them were homosexual and that if he just made it illegal for them to exist in his society and put them in prison, he could stop all the criticism of his regime.

It wasn’t even that they were necessarily criticizing the regime. Some of them were just writing. And that’s what is so extraordinary, that simply being true to your own imagination was a counterrevolutionary act.

Right. One of the great things Reinaldo says in his book is that in a Communist country if you do something wrong and they punish you, you must applaud, while in the United States, at least you can scream.

But he also said that he didn’t want to be used by the Right or the Left, he just told his truth. I’ve been able to pursue my life freely. I was always a painter, and I was always encouraged. Nobody tried to make me what I wasn’t, and for that, I will always be grateful to my parents. If you’ve had those kinds of opportunities and . . .

. . . and have the courage of your convictions, then it’s your responsibility to speak up for people who don’t have that same human right.

Right. People need to hear other people’s stories. The point is, Reinaldo had a lot to say.

I remember arriving in Mexico [where the film was shot] as a visitor and a voyeur of this film, and discovered you had been walking around on a swollen, blue ankle for two weeks, directing. It looked like it was going to have to be amputated. To get you to the hospital I said, “Hey man, you can direct a movie in a wheelchair, but you can’t get another leg.” Of course, it ended up being broken . . . . That’s the kind of intense focus that you were creating with.

I had a crew of people there who were ready to march through hell for the film. They trusted me enough to do things that they’d never done before. One day we were shooting something, and I really liked the way it looked when the cameraman, Memo Rosas, put the camera on the floor. I said, “Why don’t you shoot this one blind, without looking in the eyepiece?” He said, “I’ve done forty films, and no director has ever asked me to do that before. OK.” He did it. My team was really willing to jump in there with me.

Well, it shows. You know, when I was down in Mexico I saw a lot of rushes, and I thought, My God, it’s going to be impossible for him to cut all these beautiful shots. But in the end, you had such incredible discipline and kept cutting out great things to hone it in.

Maybe it’s because of all those experiments I’ve been able to work out over the years as a painter. Even though I can become attached to the things that I find beautiful, everything you do has to serve the meaning of the painting as a whole—if you get too attached, the entire work suffers. I think that’s true of film, also.

Well, you’ve got to get to a premiere, so we should end this. Thank you.

Thank you. And thank you for repairing my leg and insisting I go to the hospital.

[laughs] All right, brother.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors