When Pappi Corsicato looked for models for the shape of his profile on Julian Schnabel, whose career spanning painting and filmmaking has been nearly as wild as the unruly brushstrokes that made him such an artistic sensation, he gravitated towards the work of Orson Welles. First recognizing the similarities between Schnabel’s rise from Brownsville, Texas to giving rise to his own empire with the grand Palazzo Chupi building in Greenwich Village where he lives and makes art, Corsicato couldn’t help but think of the self-made man narrative of “Citizen Kane,” but being true to the artistic instincts and enigmatic quality of his subject, he was intrigued with the possibility of doing something more akin to Welles’ kaleidoscopic “Mr. Arkadin.”
“It didn’t really come out like this because I couldn’t have people act in the movie, so I just gave up and let people talk,” Corsicato laughs now, just a few hours before his film “Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Still, Corsicato seems to have managed to get the best of both worlds in the film, which offers up on primer on Schnabel’s work that will no doubt send many to seek out even more if they’re not already familiar while seeing the world through the eyes of someone with a truly different way of looking at the world. Though not locked into any particular time frame, the film is by Schnabel’s side for a whirlwind period in his life starting in 2014 that you suspect isn’t so extraordinary for him, preparing for a show at the Racquel Arnaud Gallery in Spain, playing around with his newborn son Shooter off the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and still being a man about town in New York. Somehow Corsicato manages to capture Schnabel’s every move while collecting interviews from all of the different worlds he inhabits including the likes of movie luminaries Al Pacino, Willem Dafoe, and “Belle de Jour” screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere, art world fixtures such as Peter Brant, Jeff Koons and Mary Boone, and his family members including sister Andrea, children Vito and Stella, and ex-wives Jacqueline Beaurang and Olatz Garmendia.
Though it chronicles a shapeshifter whose ideas about fluidity extend to the way in which he works, “Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait” still is able to pinpoint what makes his work affecting from the plate paintings that used shards of porcelain that proved to be one of his artistic breakthroughs in the early ‘80s to films such as “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Nailing down Schnabel long enough to reflect on his work at any given moment, however, sounds like it might’ve been far harder for the filmmaker, who has known the artist for nearly 30 years from when they became fast friends as recent emigres to New York. Corsicato spoke about making a film about Schnabel, what was important to convey about him and how he was nervous to show him the final product.
How did this come about?
I have to tell you the truth. I borrowed Julian’s life in the sense that [his] life is like a metaphor for what I would call the American Dream. He’s a kid from a humble family that had the desire to become a great artist and he made it, thanks to his talent and his strength. Of course I admire his work, otherwise I wouldn’t bother to start this and we have been friends for a long time, so I know him well and the people around him. But from my point of view, when I say a “Private Portrait,” it’s almost like my personal private eye on him. It’s his life and his testimony, but also I cut in a story that for me was important, to make sure what I admire about him would come out.
For instance, it was quite amazing [to see] a masculine figure like Julian from Texas who could make movies about things that are far away from his sensibility. To me, “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” are two masterpieces and [with] “Before Night Falls,” it’s a theme that you never would think Julian would really relate so much [in telling the story of the gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas], but for me that’s amazing because you can tell how an artist can use [their talent] in all directions. You’re not going to be an artist who just makes painting and sculptures, but when you have this sensibility like Julian, you can do other things. It’s an example of what it means to trust yourself to go forward. When [Julian] changed from painting to movies, he was attacked from the art world very badly and he didn’t stop doing it and he was successful – not just successful in the media/glamour stuff, but really made something that has meaning to people, like these movies, so that is the main idea [of the movie].
Something [else] that I like about Julian is that even though he’s American, when you see his movies and his paintings and even his building Palazzo Chupi [in Brooklyn], there’s nothing really American about it. [“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”] doesn’t seem like a movie made by an American in France. It’s a French movie and I think it’s because he’s very curious about other cultures, all because he [grew up] by the border of Mexico in Texas, with other sensibilities and visual [ideas] that were different from American style, and it’s peculiar that an American artist could change without changing [his American] personality. That’s the main idea of why I chose Julian.
Something I really liked about the film was [seizing] this idea of fluidity in his work, but it extends to how you shot the interviews handheld. How did the style of the film come from an expression of Julian’s outlook on art or life?
It wasn’t on purpose, but in the end, I agree with you, there is something very similar. [laughs] Because I never really shot with a camera, my assistant and I [realized] we couldn’t have like a normal crew with lighting and microphones. I really was forced for practical reasons to shoot with those two cameras and as I say, I’m not a cameraman, so some of the shots are out of focus, but I liked it anyway because in “Before Night Falls,” there are lots of [shots] out of focus – maybe they were voluntarily, mine weren’t [laughs] and I think there’s some roughness about Julian’s painting and also the way he shoots — it’s not too prepared or [polished]. When I shot, I wasn’t thinking of this, but for practical reasons it was done that way.
What was the interview process like? While you have sit-down interviews, they take place in so many locations, it seemed like it might’ve been catch-as-catch can.
We were with Julian almost for a year-and-a-half, split in many months, and I started editing with 80 hours of material between what I shot and from the archive. I was with him all the time, especially at the beginning, but even though he said “Okay, let’s do this,” because I asked him to do it, I’m not sure he felt like sitting and talking, especially in the beginning because there were many events in his life that were sad like his friend Lou Reed died just before we started shooting. So I said, “Don’t worry Julian, whenever you feel [ready], we’ll do it,” so let’s say one day he’s in the bedroom, it’s like, “Okay, let’s do it now.” And we were supposed to be very ready all the time because nothing was planned before. If he said, okay, come tomorrow morning, okay, we do it. But sometimes he would change his mind, so the interviews were very extemporary – I’d say, okay, let’s talk about a movie or the family, or your youth and some of the interviews are similar in different places because I’ll start asking the same question again because maybe the one before was interrupted for some reason.
Did anything surprise you, even though you knew him beforehand?
Pappi Corsicato: No, there was somehing that I hoped would come out and I didn’t force it, but it just came out through the interviews, the fact that Julian, if he has a goal or something that he wants to reach, he does it. Even if he doesn’t know how and there’s no strategy, if he says something, he’s so focused. Also I knew that from an outside point of view, he seems a certain way, but in the end, he’s totally the opposite. He’s very tender and he’s got a very clear vulnerability that you can touch if you start being with him. There are not so many artists today that have this kind of personality and also physically, he’s very cinematic. It’s a mix of toughness, sweetness, strength. He does stuff that I never dreamed to do, even when I was a kid – jumping off a clifftop from 20 meters high or going to surf, even now, so [he has this] self-confidence that makes him an example for people who want to be an artist or want to be in the art world in general, not just an artist as a painter or sculptor, but any field of creativity.
What was it like to go into his archives? There’s a black and white film with him and his family on the beach [“Montauk film” from 1990] that’s particularly striking.
It was beautiful. I knew some of the material before because I knew who made it. In this particular case [of “Montauk film”], it was Sante D’Orazio, a well-known photographer who was also part of this group of friends from the ‘80s in New York, and there were thousands of these beautiful moments so of course we had to make some decisions. [In this film] it was amazing to see the kids, the way [Julian] looked and the way he was painting and because it was shot in the same easy way from his friend [as this film was], I think that’s why it has that very intimate [quality]. And of course, that helped because I wanted to make something that was very emotional, not didactic. This is not like a documentary on the artist, but it’s my point of view on someone that has a certain sensibility, and the idea was to make a movie more than a documentary. I’ve been making documentaries on contemporary art, but always with an approach that is very personal and to make something more emotional, where you could see the artist.
Since Julian’s credited as a producer on the film, did that make access easier to all of the people you interviewed?
Well, that’s a credit, and he was very helpful, but he didn’t get into the creative [aspect of this]. He was very respectful of my work and he knows what I’ve done with many artists like [Robert] Rauschenberg and Richard Serra, so he didn’t say I should do this or do this, but he was very helpful in putting me in touch with people I needed to talk to.
What was it like to show him the film for the first time?
That was the worst moment of all. [laughs] I was afraid to show it to him, of course, because I know Julian, and we spend lots of time together and it could be disappointing for him, like “What did you do?!?” I was in Italy and I sent him 30, 40 minutes [of it], and I was waiting to see [his reaction], but it would be very late at night because [of the time difference] in the States. And I heard, I don’t know if this is a legend, but he stopped another documentary about him years ago and I invested lots of my energy and time, so I was a little scared. But he finally called me — and I was shaking — and he said, “I love the movie very much. It moved me.” Julian is not an easy guy, you would say, and it’s only natural if you had something [made about] you, you could be easily hurt or disappointed, but he loved it and that really made me finally relax about the documentary, I must say.