Schnabel Films Lover’s Life Story, Wolfs Down Pizza: Interview

Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel shoots a scene from his movie "Miral" in front of a Palestinian orphanage in Jerusalem. The movie was one of 24 contestants for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, ending Sept. 11. Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg

Julian Schnabel interrupted a frantic promotion schedule to chew on a slice of pizza margherita.

The New York artist-filmmaker was on Venice’s Lido island for the premiere of his new movie “Miral.” Clad in his trademark pajama pants, the bulky 58-year-old held forth on a hotel terrace overlooking the Adriatic.

Close by was his Palestinian girlfriend Rula Jebreal, 37, whose story inspired “Miral.” Orphaned as a kid, she was housed and schooled by the well-known Jerusalem educator Hind Husseini, and sent to Italy, where she’s now a TV personality.

Glamorously outfitted in green satin, with one high shoe kicked off to rest her feet, Jebreal said she met Schnabel at an exhibition he had in Rome.

She sent him a script based on her novel, which he disliked, so the two drew up a new one and made the movie. Their relationship burgeoned in the process. They only ever argued about his look, she said, and the pajamas.

I caught up with Schnabel as he worked his way through the pizza slice, and asked him what made him adapt Jebreal’s novel.

Being Responsible

Schnabel: I really felt like, I need to deal with this. I haven’t dealt with this at all, and this is something I have to be responsible for.

Nayeri: Why? Other Jewish American directors don’t feel this duty.

Schnabel: I don’t know. My mother, after the Second World War, was shuttling Jews from the concentration camps into new homes in the United States. My sister, who is about 11 1/2 half years older than me, said, “There were people in the house wearing Mom’s clothes all the time, and they were gone after a week, and we didn’t know who they were.”

I think there was a similarity between Hind Husseini and my mother, in a way. My mother was the president of Hadassah (a volunteer body defined on its website as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America) in 1948 in Brooklyn. I didn’t even know what that meant, really, until I started arriving at that through the process of this. I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot since I’ve been doing this.

Nayeri: So you stayed away from the Palestinian issue?

Schnabel: No, you know what? I didn’t care, really, about the Israeli issue either. I mean, I had a Bar Mitzvah.

Many kids from Brooklyn had a Bar Mitzvah in Israel. I moved to Texas, I went surfing, I was a painter, I went to Mexico. It had more to do with being a member of the urban community, the Jewish community in New York, than it did being a surfer that was living on the edge of society in Brownsville, Texas, the marijuana hub of the world.

It’s hard to know when you’re going to arrive at a moment where you have to deal with certain things.

Top of Game

Nayeri: You’re at the top of your game also as a contemporary artist. How do you straddle the two?

Schnabel: I don’t make as many paintings as I would normally if I’m shooting.

Usually, I always make things. When I get home, I don’t have a hobby and I’m not retired. What I do is, I like to make things.

I had a studio in Paris when I was doing “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and I’d make paintings or navigation drawings. When I was making “Before Night Falls,” I made a big painting on pieces of wood that I gave to some guy who let me stay in his house.

Now, there’s an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario called “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film,” and there are about 40 paintings from 1975 till now, till about two weeks ago, in fact.

I wrote a book in 1987 called “Nicknames of Maitre D’s and Other Excerpts From Life.” I never kept a diary, but I wrote it as if I did, so I could jump around in time. And it really looks like a movie script. I was always a movie fan. It’s just part of my brain as a storyteller that I feel compelled to use.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE