Director Julian Schnabel talks Miral, discovering the Rula Jebreal novel, working with Freida Pinto, the MPAA rating, his new Johnny Depp project, and more.
Julian Schnabel is a director that certainly doesn't rush into his projects. His 15-year career has spawned only four narrative features Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and his latest cinematic venture Miral, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on July 12. Despite the lack of quantity in his work, there is no doubt he makes up for it in quality.
Miral, which is based on the novel by Rula Jebreal, centers on a young Palestinian woman who grows up in the safety of her orphanage, hidden from the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine. When she goes to teach at a refugee camp, she is exposed to the real world of her surroundings, while falling for a political activist.
Can you first talk a bit about how you discovered Rula's novel and what attracted you to the story?
Julian Schnabel: I was in Italy and I was showing some paitings, and I met her there. She told me there was a script that had been written about her book, and asked if I'd take a look at it. She needed to sign off on it for some Italian production company. They were going to make a movie from her book, and I said, 'OK, I probably won't like it, but I'll look at it.' I read it and I didn't like it, but she didn't write it, it was somebody else's script that she was supposed to OK. I read it, and I thought it was probably based off a good book, so I asked her if I could read her book. When I read the book, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought the story and the girl's perspective on everything that happened to her was very poignant. When I read the book, I thought that was more like a script than the script. I just felt like I could be responsible for that material, and nobody else was going to make a movie like that, not where I was coming from. I wanted to make a movie from a Palestinian girl's point of view.
The novel is semi-autobiographical. Were there real-life instances that were incorporated into the film that weren't in the novel?
Julian Schnabel: Yes, there were, in fact. That's a good question. When her book was published in the United States, she added things that were actually not in the book in its Italian incarnation. There were things that came out when I interviewed her and talked to her about what she was writing and what she didn't write. It's funny. I'm reading this book by Nick Tosches called In the Hand of Dante and he writes, 'It's what we don't do that kills us, not what we do do.' So, I felt there were things that needed to be added there that might be very difficult for her to talk about or show, but, as a filmmaker, I felt like a detective who needed to present things in the most honest way possible.
I was shocked when I saw a photo of Rula. She's almost a spitting image of Freida Pinto. Was that casting almost a no-brainer? Were you even considering anyone else?
Julian Schnabel: I think it was a no-brainer. I actually had people question that at a certain moment, why did I pick someone who was Indian? It was so obvious, because when I first met Rula, I asked her if she was Indian. Danny Boyle put Freida on tape, where he played her father. They did the scene when he was sick, and I found it heartbreaking. I was crying while looking at the monitor. I thought this girl has a lot of love for her father and has a lot of soul. I thought she's be great, and she was. I loved working with her.
You shot this in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Can you talk about the importance of shooting in those locations, as opposed to trying to shoot it somewhere else?
Julian Schnabel: Oh yeah, absolutely. I also shot in Akko and Ramallah, all over the place. I actually shot very little in Tel Aviv. The way Sidney Lumet would say New York City is a character in his films, you needed to go there. I couldn't shoot this movie in Morocco. When those two girls are driving through that rocky landscape on the way to Jerusalem, you can't substitute something for that. I shot the scene where her mother is raped, in the house where it happened. When her mother was committing suicide, the young girl Yasmine Elmasri, who was playing her mother, told me she couldn't swim five days before we shot it. I got her swimming lessons and I had Rula swim out there and reenact her mother's suicide. It was pretty heavy, but I wanted it to be authentic.
Can you talk a bit about the MPAA's initial rating? There have been some filmmakers who haven't been successful in overturning the original rating. Can you talk about the decision to appeal?
Julian Schnabel: Well, the reason why they changed the decision is because they realized it was absolutely absurd. I mean, what's happening was the subject matter of the movie was so demanding for people, and it was a simple story, and I don't know why, but I guess it was. That's the reason why I made the film. They're talking about the rape scene and I can't remember what the other scene was, but the guy has underwear on when he stands up. You don't see anything. In fact, I had to explain to the little girl's parents that it's going to look like she saw something, but she's not even going to be in that shot, and they agreed. There wasn't anything that was R about the film. Showing it to them and being there with a new group of people, they all voted to change the ruling. It was pretty obvious, but I think the fact that it presented a Palestinian narrative really freaked people out, and particularly told by a Jewish person. The only way we're going to have peace is if we treat people like human beings, especially people like us who have suffered so much. I think that the rating that came out of it, had more to do with censoring the film, because I was very conscious of what I was doing when I was shooting it, and I was making sure it wasn't going to be an R rating. They agreed, but I just had to call everybody on that. Even when we showed the film at the United Nations, it was amazing that the American Jewish committee tried to get the President of the General Assembly not to show the film. They went to his office and tried to get him to stop the film from being screened there. It was amazing because other Jewish groups stood up and defended the film, which was great because all of the sudden there was a dialogue in the Jewish community. The film stayed around in New York for about six weeks. I knew from the beginning it was going to be a difficult topic, but why make a movie about anything else? I love the film and I had a great time doing it. It was worth all the trouble.
Is there anything you're currently working on or developing that you can talk about?
Julian Schnabel:Johnny Depp gave me a book called In the Hand of Dante. It's a great book and I'm just reading it now. Maybe in a couple of years we'll do this movie together. I'm not doing anything now. I'm painting now. I don't want to make a movie for awhile.
Is that your normal process, to space your movies out like that?
Julian Schnabel: Yeah, well if you look at the dates on all the movies... I do them when I'm ready to do them as an artist. Right now, I need to paint, I want to paint. If you would see where I'm sitting and talking to you from, I'm lying in a hammock looking at the sky through a bunch of trees which looks like I'm in Africa. I made it back from the battle. Every year I come back to this place in Montauk where I live. When I'm walking on the path between the studio and my house, I figure I've made it another year.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see Miral in theaters, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD tomorrow?
Julian Schnabel: Well, if they like any of the other films I've made and are interested in my work as an artist and a filmmaker, I feel like they should watch it. I don't want to force-feed anyone. The name of a painting I once made was called Oar For the One Who Comes Out to No Fear. I think I needed to come out to understand something that we don't really know much about. I think it gives people another perspective, and I think there is some great acting in it also. If they have never been to Israel or Palestine, I think it will take them to a place they've never been before, and if they have been there, they'll recognize it.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, Julian. Thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with your paintings and that new movie in a few years.
Julian Schnabel: All right, buddy.