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Pillow talk

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I'm in bed with Julian Schnabel. And he's wearing a skirt.

Perhaps some explanation is in order. I entered Schnabel's Washington, D.C., hotel suite assuming we'd do our interview in a conventional chairs-in-the-living room configuration, but the director/co-writer of Before Night Falls says he'd rather talk in bed. I'm startled for a moment, but hey, I've got a job to do.

As I follow Schnabel into the bedroom, I ponder whether the red-and-yellow skirt he's wearing has a slimming effect on his bulky figure. I've read enough about this celebrity artist to know he likes to wear dresses (for the comfort factor when lounging around, I suppose), and I also know that he's a married man and father. It's becoming clearer why this apparently straight-but-not-narrow artist was drawn to the late gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' memoir "Before Night Falls" -- nonconformity is a shared trait.

For all the scandal in Arenas' life, Schnabel and this reporter are on their best behavior in bed. He stays on his side, answering questions when he isn't taking cell-phone calls, sifting through scripts and all kinds of other stuff piled on the bed, and picking at a sandwich. The plate that holds his snack inevitably reminds me of what made Schnabel such a hotshot in the overheated New York art world of the 1980s: huge neo-expressionist paintings on which he painted figurative imagery and abstract passages on cracked ceramic plates affixed to wooden backing. Schnabel is genial -- at one point he offers me some potato chips -- but his scattered energy lends our conversation the sort of disjointed, fragmentary quality that, come to think of it, also characterizes his painting and filmmaking.

"Before Night Falls" is Schnabel's second film, following his 1996 biopic about the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Unlike the subject of his debut, whom he knew very well, Schnabel never met Reinaldo Arenas. He got to know Arenas through his writings, whose gritty poetry he admired. Schnabel was also drawn to the personality of a writer who was persecuted by Castro's regime, and more generally to the theme of the artist as a marginalized figure in society. "I like dealing with the issue of repression within a community," the director says. "That's a strong issue. Reinaldo was a writer in a totalitarian state, but what attracted me was the fact that here was somebody at odds with the ideology of the people running the country. Somebody like that is isolated, marginalized, and eliminated if possible. The fact that [Arenas] was homosexual was just an added dimension."

Schnabel's love of Cuban culture has led to many trips to that island, and he showed his movie Basquiat at a Havana film festival. For obvious reasons he never could have made "Before Night Falls" in Cuba, and so he shot most of it in Mexico. He hopes the film will encourage more Americans to become interested in Cuban society. As he puts it, "I want to break a cultural embargo."

Asked about the thematic links between his two films, Schnabel acknowledges that his own status as an artist makes this material seem natural for him. "Since I live on the outside of society, I'm sensitive to Reinaldo's vantage point," says Schnabel, perhaps a bit disingenuously -- after all, he is one of the best-connected and wealthiest of New York art-world insiders. "I see things differently than most people. Also, being a painter is about being in the present, and responding to that in a way that's not just illustrating what I see."

He edited "Before Night Falls" in his New York painting studio, where he's eager to return to work on his other medium of choice. "The great thing about painting is that I don't need to talk to anybody," he says. "I don't even need to know what I'm doing."


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