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.)