“I’m kind of a mess,” volunteers Julian Schnabel, who’s wearing a stained white shirt, open nearly to his navel, and a patterned skirt. When he realizes that one of his two visitors has a camera, the painter and filmmaker excuses himself to exchange the skirt for conservative gray slacks. Schnabel doesn’t go so far as to change—or even button—his shirt, but even so, his wardrobe isn’t half as disheveled as his discourse. Rushing into a discussion of Before Night Falls, his expressionist cinematic biography of persecuted gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, Schnabel is soon discussing the difference between painting and filmmaking, his sentences rushing headlong from Cuba to France to Long Island.

“I remember once seeing Goodfellas in Paris. Enjoying it a lot. Being in the theater there and seeing all the people enjoying it. Then I went down to Nimes, where I had these three 22-foot-square paintings in the Maison Carré. The paintings are sitting in this room that basically Caesar built for his daughter. My ecstasy in a sense was standing alone in that room, looking at these three paintings. My audience was invisible. It’s in a provincial town in the middle of nowhere. People will trek there if they’re interested in those pictures or they want to see the bullfights or look at the architecture. It’s communicating in a different way.

“I used to live in Andy Warhol’s place [in Montauk, N.Y.], and Paul Simon would give these concerts every August, and every August there’s 10,000 fucking people in my yard. I wouldn’t come out. But if somebody had a helicopter and they could see me painting—because I have an open studio that’s 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, no roof—and if they could just see the 10,000 people, like, two blocks in the distance in this field, and this one guy painting these five big pictures, they’d kind of get a sense of the difference between what can be electronically reproduced and what is something that one person makes so they can just see it, and maybe somebody who isn’t born yet will grow up one day and decide that he or she wants to be a painter, and they will kind of take that note and carry the ball or something like that, you know?”

That’s only about a third of what Schnabel has to say on and around that particular topic; in 45 minutes, the director has time to address only three of 15 questions, and it can’t be said that he exactly answers any of them. Asked about his introduction to Arenas—who left Havana for the United States in 1980 and committed suicide in New York 10 years later—Schnabel allows that he first saw the Cuban writer in a film. And then he’s off.

“Jana Bokova made a documentary called Havana, and I was watching it one day on TV. A friend of mine bought a bootleg copy of it at a bodega in Little Havana and brought it over to me, because she saw Reinaldo talking there and she knew me and thought there would be this connection. When he said, ‘For the moment, my name is Reinaldo Arenas. The Justice Department has called me stateless, so legally I don’t exist. I’m on the margin of every society, wherever it is in the world. I’m homosexual, anti-Castro, and not religious,’ I found that to be very, very charming and funny. The guy had a lot to say. I think he was really like the Walt Whitman of his country. He wrote one book when he was 20 that was published there, and everything else he wrote was published abroad.”

Like the hero of Schnabel’s first film, Basquiat, Arenas was an outsider, a rebel, and an artistic martyr. The novelist’s life, his cinematic biographer argues, is a tale of “really fighting for a personal freedom and a much larger freedom also. The fact is that his books were never political attacks on the regime. They were just a guy expressing his imagination, but that was obviously capricious, escapist egoism, I guess. Anything that was outside the ideology of the revolution was against the revolution.”

Before Night Falls is the title of Arenas’ posthumously published memoir, but Schnabel says that he used the title for his film only “so people will read the book.” The movie actually also draws on Arenas’ semiautobiographical fiction, including The Color of Summer, Singing From the Well, and Hallucinations, as well as the prose poem “The Parade Ends.” Schnabel originally collaborated on a script with Cunningham O’Keefe, who the director says is “much straighter in the way that he would approach something.” The screenplay was later reworked with input from Arenas’ longtime friend Lázaro Gómez Carriles.

“Lázaro knows things about Reinaldo that nobody else knows,” Schnabel declares. “In order to tell Reinaldo’s story, in a sense, I had to tell Lázaro’s story. He was working as a baker, delivering bread after he baked it, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for four-and-a-half years. I gave him a job as a script consultant at first, and then we started working together and I gave him a credit because, really, it’s his life.”

The director admits that Lázaro was initially suspicious of him but says that the baker was won over by a visit to Schnabel’s studio. “He looked around, and if you look at the book, Page 312, you’ll see basically that Reinaldo wrote me into the script. He wrote that he dreamed he was a painter and he had this gigantic studio and these huge paintings. And when [Carriles] saw the pictures, the room was pretty much like the description in the book.”

Not knowing Arenas’ work, Schnabel says, is no impediment to understanding the film. “It’s just a story of someone who grew up in the countryside in poverty. I love what he had to say about freedom: The splendor of his childhood was unique because of its absolute poverty and absolute freedom. As he was filtered [through] society, things became more and more claustrophobic.”

The Cuban countryside, which Schnabel’s crew replicated in Mexico, was part of the appeal of the project. “After making a film like Basquiat, which was done in New York City, which is very compartmentalized, I wanted to make a movie like The Seven Samurai or Andrei Rublev—out in the woods, with the elements. So I welcomed the inundations and the rain, and those things really informed what things looked like sometimes. And I had a bunch of people who were very, very competent and were willing to march through hell with me. It was great, I mean brutal. I broke my ankle while I was down there, fell in the mud. And I directed most of the movie on crutches or a wheelchair.”

It’s in telling this anecdote that the director reveals how little he has in common with his subject. Arenas spent years in prison, was utterly marginalized by the Cuban bureaucracy, and lived the last 10 years of his life in a country that barely knew he existed. Schnabel, however, “had a wonderful time down there. The people were extremely helpful, and this guy let me use this palace to live in in Merida so I could shoot in the street in the neighborhood and then actually take a nap in my house in the middle of the whole thing. We were very, very lucky.” And when the director hurt his ankle, visiting celebrity Dennis Hopper insisted that he go to the hospital to have it repaired.

Yet the director identifies with Arenas. Explaining how the novelist’s life became fiction, Schnabel inevitably shifts from “him” to “me.” “There are things that come out of his writing, his imagination, and there are things that really happened to him. When you’re making art, everything gets filtered into your work. Ultimately, your work is what stands. That’s what’s real. Your body’s not going to be there; my body’s not going to be there. It’s the body of work that ultimately becomes your body. Reinaldo would say, ‘This is nothing, but when it’s [transformed into art], it’s going to be something.’” —Mark Jenkins