ARTS: THE JULIAN SCHNI.ABEL EXPERIENCE
Julian Schnabel is making a movie about the New York art scene. It stars Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper and David Bowie. Oh, and Julian's Mom and Dad too
Sunday 22 October 1995
The British actor Gary Oldman, who plays Albert Milo, the Julian-like character in the movie, has a more existential view of Julian. He was lounging in a chair on the set one day. He was wearing pyjamas, because Julian usually wears pyjamas 24 hours a day. The pair that Gary was wearing was a pair of Julian's actual pyjamas. Gary is pale-eyed, sharp-chinned, vaguely feline, and skinny. Julian is not. Julian's pyjamas were a lot of pyjama for Gary. "Julian is Julian," Gary was saying. He narrowed his eyes. "He's very Julian." He turned toward Julian and said, "Julian, you know, the you-ness that is you is very you."
"I know, Gary," Julian replied. "And, you know, I'm very glad that you're me."
Stella Schnabel, Julian's 12-year-old daughter, is also in the movie, which is called Build a Fort, Set It on Fire. Stella plays the Stella- like character. As her scene was being set up, she was wondering whether to perform barefoot or wearing a pair of red Chinese shoes. She was considering the choice while balancing on one leg in Julian's real living-room, in Greenwich Village, which appears in the movie as Albert Milo's living- room. "Dad!" she called out. "Shoes or no shoes?"
"I'm not your father any more, Stella," Julian said. "I'm your director."
"I still need to know about the shoes," Stella said.
"No shoes," Gary said.
THE CREW spent several days shooting at Mr Chow, a restaurant on East 57th Street that was an art-world hangout in the Eighties, which is when the movie takes place. One afternoon, some of the extras were picking at the food that was on the tables; it was real food, but it was meant to be left on the tables as prop food. Olatz Schnabel, Julian's wife, was shooting a video of the proceedings for the Schnabels to watch later at home; the video would include some moments of Julian directing interspersed with some moments of the extras sneaking mouthfuls of fried seaweed. Olatz was wearing a teensy white dress and looked cool and pretty. The scene at Mr Chow included Gary Oldman; David Bowie, who plays Andy Warhol; Jeffrey Wright, who plays Basquiat; Dennis Hopper, who plays the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger; Parker Posey, who plays the art dealer Mary Boone; and Lola Schnabel, Julian's 14-year-old daughter, who was filling in at the last minute as the Julian character's first wife, because Julian wasn't happy with the wife the casting agency had sent him. Also in the scene were Julian's Dad and Mom, as Milo's Dad and Mom. The scene was taking forever. During a break, Julian's mother, Esther, sneaked off to use the restaurant's phone to call her sister in New Jersey. "I thought we'd be done by now," she whispered into the phone. "We sat around, we had lunch, we're sitting around some more. There are a million people here ... OK, actually there are about 150. Anyway, you know Julian. So will you call Dr Huppert and tell him we're stuck in the city at Julian's movie?"
"Hello everybody!" Julian called out. "Could we possibly get some quiet on the set and get this thing going?"
A crew member held up the clapper and called out, "Basquiat, Scene 56".
"Where's my Dad?" Julian said, looking around. "Dad, we need you." His father waved to him and walked toward his place on the set. Julian said, "Dad, I know it's not a big part, but it's important to get it right."
"OK, Julian," Jack said, sitting down at the table with David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, and his granddaughter Lola. "After all, Julian, you're the director."
"Great, Dad," Julian said. "OK, let's go, let's go!" The cameraman signalled the crew to start shooting. The actors were performing just a few feet in front of Julian, but he didn't look directly at them; he was watching them on a tiny video monitor that was set up on a tripod. When Julian looks at something, he studies it with his neck bent and his eyebrows arched, like a diamond cutter. After a few takes, he liked what he saw, so he yelled "Cut!" and then yelled "Great, Dad!" He sighed and said under his breath, "I must be out of my mind."
Julian drives a lot of people crazy. Some of the people he drives crazy actually know him, but most of them don't: they are just people who have heard about him - about his big, high-priced, feverish paintings; about his shows at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Tate in London, and at other museums around the world; about the auction at Sotheby's in 1983, when he was just 31 years old, where a crockery-encrusted painting of his sold for $93,000; about his wealth and his industrial-size house and his beautiful wives - and have then decided that they don't like what they imagine a person like Julian must be like. One of the producers of Julian's movie told me that before he met Julian he'd heard that he was a monster, but that within five minutes of meeting him he knew he would agree to produce the movie, because Julian had sucked him in like a vacuum cleaner. The producer meant this as a compliment, a tribute to the power and appeal of Julian's personality. This producer also said that he considers Julian a force of nature. Julian's reputation might make you think that the force of nature he most resembles is a typhoon, but in fact he is more like an expanding warm front that pushes forward and spreads and eventually dominates the atmosphere. He is now 43, and has root-beer-coloured hair, a large oval face, cinnamon-coloured sideburns, a Van Dyck beard, and the kingly physique of someone who is either a bit out of shape or very powerful. When he isn't wearing pyjamas, he often wears a tailored shirt and a sarong, like a character out of South Pacific. What he enjoys, he enjoys with gusto. A scene in the movie includes shots of an actor playing a guy Julian knows who sells toy ducks from a pushcart in SoHo. Julian loves these ducks and loved the idea of having the guy depicted in the movie; the day he shot the scene and most of the next day, Julian kept doing a little jig and singing, "Duckman! Duckman! Hey, Mr Duckman!"
In the last year or two, Julian's paintings have caused less of a commotion than they did back in the Eighties, when they signalled the end of Minimalist art and the rise of exuberant, sloppy Neo-Expressionism. But Julian, instead of quietening down and becoming merely an artist painting his way through mid-life, recently published a memoir and released an album of himself singing his own rock'n'roll ballads and love songs; both projects probably enlarged his ability to drive people crazy. Julian says he has gone into the movie business because he loves movies. For a million bucks, you probably wouldn't be able to name a movie he hasn't seen, and it probably wouldn't be worth betting him that he couldn't quote long stretches of dialogue from most of them. When he quotes a scene, he acts out several parts. One recent afternoon, he peppered a conversation with performances from The Missouri Breaks, Scarface, Carlito's Way and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among other movies. He's a pretty good mimic; his Al Pacinos are particularly strong. He says that he didn't exactly plan on becoming a director, but that after he was interviewed by a film-maker planning his own movie about Basquiat and the Eighties art-world scene, he decided that rather than be interviewed for someone else's movie he would like to make a movie himself. He wants his Basquiat movie to be not obscure, not complicated, and not gloomy, even though Basquiat spends much of the movie either dreaming of fame, being bowled over by fame, or being stoned. "Life's sad and funny, so the movie is sad and funny," Julian said. "Jean Michel had lots of fun, and he did what he wanted with his life. The movie isn't going to be a lot of Sturm and Drang, with him running around crying into his beer." He says he wants it to be accessible, but that it will have more in common with The 400 Blows than with Terminator 2. Julian says that he is pleased that it will be the first movie about Basquiat's life. He also remarked that he thought it bothered people that he was often the first person to do certain things. "Things like having my work shown in two galleries," he said. "I was the first. And now being an artist directing a movie about an artist - that's a first." We were in his house at the time, and suddenly he interrupted himself and said, "Come look at this window, look how nice this view is. I put this window in. I thought of opening this wall up so you could see the garden, so I put the window in." He took a deep breath and muttered to himself: "I, I, I, I, I."
SO MANY people think he's such a pig," Olatz said on the set one day. "I don't understand it. Once, when I was modelling, I was saying something about him, and one of the stylists heard me say the name Julian Schnabel and she said to me, 'Oh, do you know him? I hear he's such a pig!' I said to her, 'Oh, really? A pig? Do you even know him?' She said she didn't, and I said, 'Well, I do. He's my husband.' "
Stella walked by. "Who's a pig?" she asked.
"Daddy, honey," Olatz said, smoothing Stella's hair. "It's nothing. Some people are just jealous, that's all. He's not a pig. He's the best. He's a teddy bear."
David Bowie, dressed as Andy Warhol, heard Olatz talking. "There's something Orson Wellesian about Julian, I think," he said. He twirled a strand of Andy's snowy-white wig around one finger. The wig was one of Andy's actual wigs. It was a little small for David, so it sat high on his head, like a mushroom cap. "I think there's a forging ahead in Julian's nature that makes people uncomfortable," he went on. "I love it. I don't particularly even enjoy doing movies. I'm in a lot of dumpers, actually. I'm really only doing this because of Julian. It was really interesting to see Julian go from being a painter to being a director in about seven minutes. I think the movie's an homage - it's about the end of modern American art."
Julian came over. "What are you saying about me, David?"
"I said that this movie is about the end of American art, Julian," David said. "American art is dead. It's dead. Except for you, of course." "That's ridiculous," Julian said. "That's like saying except for Hitler there are no Germans."
The two of them got into a fight for a while, and then Julian got up and went back to direct a scene. David watched him walk away, then leant over to me and said, "He's just wrong. American art is dead. The climate for art in America isn't right any more. Julian's just wrong."
The assistant director called for all hands to take their places. Julian studied the monitor, told the assistant director to hold on for a moment, and then called me over and whispered, "I just want you to know that David's wrong. I mean, what does he know about American art?"
LOLA SCHNABEL had finished performing her role as the Julian character's wife, but she came by the set the next day to watch her father work. She brought him a tuna sandwich for lunch. "Thanks sweetie," Julian said, smiling at her. "It's great. Now give me a napkin so I can wipe tuna fish all over my face."
Gary Oldman's mother, Kay, had just flown in from England, and she was sitting beside Julian, smoking a cigarette. Kay turned to Lola and asked, "Are you in the movie, dear?" Lola said she was and Kay said, "I was in Gary's last film. They did us all in make-up and costumes and, honestly, it was something. Did you like being in the movie?"
"No, I didn't like it, really," Lola said.
A day or so later, the production moved to a gallery in SoHo. Two Japanese teenagers with pink hair and tattooed arms were dawdling on the sidewalk in front of the gallery. In the next doorway, a musclebound young man with milky skin was modelling jeans for a photographer who was shooting an ad, and down the street the crew of a Demi Moore movie was setting up. Traffic had backed up along the block and curled around the far corner; someone was pounding on a busted car horn which made a noise like a dog with a bone caught in its throat. One of the Japanese kids was scratching his pink hair and saying, "Is this the new Julian Schnabel show? I don't understand! I thought he was done with the big paintings! I thought he was doing little ones now!" Inside the gallery, several of Julian's huge paintings were hanging on the walls; among them was one of the paintings layered with broken plates which made him famous. Gary Oldman stared at it and said, "Julian, this painting is so good you could eat dinner off of it." "Cute, no?" Julian said to me.
Julian suggested that he and David Bowie take their lunch break together. A knot of young people was waiting beside the door as they stepped outside. Several had cameras and took David's picture.
"Maybe we shouldn't walk," Julian said, cheerfully. "I'll have someone call for the car." A few minutes later, Julian's driver took several of us three blocks away, to a little French restaurant decorated with dozens of pots filled with fake flowers. David ordered vegetable couscous. Julian ordered a salad, a croque monsieur, and a steak. When the dishes arrived, Julian said, "I would say this is a lot of food." He sounded awed. Leaning back in his seat, he surveyed the table and then said, "David, have some meat."
"I don't eat meat, Julian," David said. He tugged at his wig. "Not never ever, but not right now." They dug into their lunches and then talked for a while about the idea of working together on a computer-art project.
"Would that be American or British?" Julian asked, poking his steak and giving David a devilish look.
"Oh, no, not that again," David said. "Don't start with me, Julian."
A friend of Julian's stopped by to say hello. Julian introduced him as the man who had put Woodstock together. Then David's personal assistant stopped by and said she had urgent business to discuss with him about his upcoming video. David excused himself, leaving most of his couscous. Julian stayed and finished his sandwich and his steak, and then we got back in the car to return to the set. Julian was in a buoyant mood, and he sang "Duckman! Duckman!" as the car inched along. He mentioned that after he broke up with his first wife he was so sad and lonely that he bought four of the ducks, took them with him to the movies, and lined them up in the row in front of him so he could see their four fuzzy heads during the movie. "Now the Duckman's in my movie," he said, jiggling his knees and tapping the car seat, like a little kid. "Duckman! Duckman! Duckman!"
JULIAN SAYS he's not particularly afraid of failure. It bores him to think about doing something just because you know you can do it, he says, and he's not worried about making a movie for the first time. His directorial manner is swashbuckling, in spite of the fact that he's brand-new to movie- making. One afternoon, he was directing a scene in which Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat go shopping for caviar at Dean & DeLuca, the gourmet food store in SoHo. In the scene, Jean Michel, who had been a destitute graffiti artist, has just been discovered by the art world and become celebrated and wealthy; he goes to the counter at Dean & DeLuca and orders a big tin of caviar as if it were penny candy. The scene was being shot in a cramped corner of the store. All around us, actual shoppers were shopping, and every minute or two some of them would wander into camera range and bump into lights and equipment with their wire baskets.
"Julian, we need another rehearsal," the assistant director said.
"Nah," Julian said. "Fuck the rehearsal." A member of the crew came up to Julian holding a copy of a cookbook called The Foods of Vietnam. "Doesn't this look like a good book?" he asked Julian.
"You want that?" Julian asked him. "I'll tell Olatz. We'll put it on our Christmas list." After a moment, he added, "Hey, tell her to put two. If it's good, I want one, too."
"Quiet, please!" the assistant director yelled.
"Welcome to the Julian Schnabel experience," someone behind us said.
Julian was squinting at the monitor. Suddenly, he turned to me and said, "You know, I was thinking this morning about success. Last night, Olatz and I and our two babies had to sleep over at my ex-wife Jacqueline's house, because we have all the equipment at our house for the scenes we're shooting there, and I woke up this morning with Olatz and the babies, and down the hall were Jacqueline and our kids, and I thought, Here I am, with Olatz and Jacqueline and the five kids, and everything under one roof, and I thought, This is success. This is success! If this isn't success, I don't know what is."
! Reprinted by permission; r Susan Orlean. Originally published in the 'New Yorker'.
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