Drawing from Arenas' novels and poetry as well as his posthumous 1993 memoirs, Before Night Falls mirrors Arenas' writing in its beauty, force and multiplicity of meaning. It is at once a vivid portrait of a prodigiously talented and responsive human being; a piercing account of political repression, persecution and exile; and a soaring testament to art's liberating power, its ability to confront, illuminate and transcend.
Painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel first became aware of Reinaldo Arenas when he saw the documentary Havana, an oral history of Cuba directed by Jana Bokova. Arenas captured Schnabel's attention and imagination, both with his story and the way he told it. Recalls Schnabel, "He said: 'For the moment, my name is Reinaldo Arenas and I'm a citizen of nowhere. The State Department has declared me stateless, so legally I don't exist.' I thought he was very funny and very humble. Then there was a fragment of a prose poem called 'The Parade Ends,' which gave me the idea that his life could be a film."
'The Parade Ends' by Reinaldo Arenas
Walking along streets that collapse from crumbling sewers
Past buildings you jump to avoid... in case they fall on you
Past grim faces that size you up and sentence you
Past closed shops, cinemas, closed parks, closed cafes,
Some of them showing dusty signs (justifications):
"CLOSED FOR RENOVATION"
"CLOSED FOR REPAIRS"
What repairs? When will these renovations be finished?
When at least will they begin?
Closed... closed... closed... everything closed
I arrive, open countless padlocks and run up the temporary stairs
There she is, waiting for me
I pull off the typewriter cover, and stare at her dusty, cold shape
I clean off the dust and caress her
With my hand, I brush clean her back, her base and her sides
I sit down in front of her, desperate and happy
I run my fingers over her keyboard and suddenly it all starts up
With a tinkling sound the music begins, then speeds up more and more
Walls, trees, streets, cathedrals, faces and beaches...
Cells, mini-cells, huge cells
Starry nights, bare feet, pines clouds
Hundreds, thousands, a million parrots, stools, a climbing plant
The walls recede, the roof vanishes, and you float quite naturally
You float uprooted, dragged off, lifted high
You are transported, immortalized, saved, honored
Thanks to that subtle, continuous rhythm..
That music, that incessant tap-tap
Schnabel had recently completed work on Basquiat (1996), his acclaimed 1996 directorial debut about his friend and fellow painter Jean Michael Basquiat. "I didn't know if I was going to make another movie. When Reinaldo showed up, there was so much he had to say that touched me. I can't give you a logical answer why it was so important for me to tell this story," he acknowledges; instead, he cites "The Parade Ends," (above) in which Arenas evokes the liberating power of the creative process as he sends forth a dazzling cascade of images. "He talks about all these things that arrive with the tap-tap of his typewriter: people, places, a climbing plant, a parrot, a million parrots, whatever comes to his mind. And so what is a movie, anyway? It's an art form that can conjure a world. "
In making Before Night Falls, Schnabel set out to conjure Reinaldo Arenas' world in its many permutations: the temporal world that he lived in as a child and an adult, the world of his imagination and the world he created on the page. The film draws from several of Arenas' works, including his posthumously published memoir, also titled 'Before Night Falls'; the novels 'Hallucinations', 'The Color of Summer' and 'The Palace of the White Skunks'.
It also draws on his poems including 'The Parade Begins' and 'The Parade Ends,' one poem combining two poems written 20 years apart, illustrating both the enthusiasm and disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution. Before Night Falls gives equal weight to invented and recorded indicents, moving fluidly between moments of poetic beauty and gritty reality. In so doing, the film achieves an uncommon immediacy and intimacy.
Before Night Falls also incorporates the personal stories and recollections of Arenas' close friend and heir, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, who shares screenplay credit with Cunningham O'Keefe and Schnabel. Carriles recalls that he spent hours discussing his friend with Schnabel. "When it comes to Reinaldo, I could talk forever. But Julian never got tired; he patiently listened to everything I said. That commitment to his work, I think, is reflected in the movie. "
Before Night Falls evokes the event, color and texture of Arenas' life, beginning with his childhood in the Cuban countryside. Translating Arenas' lyrical descriptions of the natural landscape to film, Before Night Falls imbues water, forests and earth with a breathtaking physicality and richness. By anchoring the narrative in Arenas' childhood, the film also highlights the contrast between Arenas' youth and his adult life, between the indifference of nature and the cruelty of social and political structures. "The concept of being free in nature and restricted by society is just a fact," notes Schnabel. "Even though nature can be violent or brutal, it's never perverse, cruel. People have a monopoly on those qualities. "
These two fundamental aspects of Arenas' being would make him an outlaw when the Revolution turned on writers and homosexuals in the late 1960s. Despite the threat of confiscation, prison and worse, Arenas did not stop writing. Some manuscripts were confiscated, others lost, and others Arenas had no choice but to destroy. He always re-wrote them, sometimes five times. Meanwhile, the sexual revolution flourished amidst the crackdown.
Javier Bardem, the award-winning Spanish actor who portrays Arenas, believes the writer could no more quash his creative impulse than he could his homosexuality. "If you need to write, even if they cut off your hands, you will write with your mouth. And if they tell you that you have to be macho, a "real man," and they put you in a cage for ten years - when you get out, you will have sex with the first boy that expresses interest. It's inside of you; it's something that you cannot fight against, nor should you have to. "
Arenas literally risked his life to be his true self; paradoxically, as Bardem notes, "That's why he survived. Reinaldo had to write, or he would have died. He used his writing, his humor, his pain and his homosexuality as weapons against the regime. "
Before Night Falls captures the distinctive humor that marked Arenas' work, a humor that veers rapidly into horror and back again. The dynamic is memorably illustrated by the interlocking stories of Bon Bon, the prison transvestite/smuggler to whom Reinaldo entrusts his manuscript, and Lieutenant Victor, the suavely brutal official who intercepts the writer's "counter-revolutionary poop. "
Discussing the film's humor, Schnabel comments, "I think there are moments that are funny, but punishment is always looming. People living in precarious situations have to develop a sense of humor or drown. I think Cubans have developed a particularly acute and unique sense of humor and Reinaldo is a stunning example of that. He jumps from giddiness to horror without missing a beat. "
In casting Johnny Depp as both Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor, Schnabel was inspired by a recurring motif in Arenas' work. "In Reinaldo's writing, one character can be two, three different personages; somebody can be a man and a woman at the same time," the filmmaker explains. "I also like to think that Reinaldo would imagine that Lieutenant Victor and Bon Bon could be the same person - that Cuban State Security would go to such extravagant lengths to undermine the stability of the prisoners. The fact that Bon Bon/Lieutenant Victor could be Reinaldo's vision of beauty and his destruction is a constant in Reinaldo's work. Reinaldo's only real body is the body of his work - he turned everything into literature. "
Before Night Falls makes a powerful statement about human rights, representing Arenas' experience of repression, persecution and exile without losing sight of the human being at its core. "What I wanted was to be true to Reinaldo's voice," Schnabel explains. "I didn't have preconceptions about Castro. As Reinaldo says: 'I'm not from the right. I'm not from the left. ' I'm not gay. I'm not Cuban. I just tried to tell Reinaldo's story. "
At the same time, he doesn't shy away from the film's political dimensions and notes that the suffering visited upon Arenas are part of a larger pattern. "These things have happened not only in Cuba; they've happened in Chile, in Brazil, all over Latin America. These things have happened in the United States too. I think that Reinaldo's story is the story of many people; after all, how many of our relatives are exiles from somewhere? We are a country of exiles. " he adds.
Before Night Falls addresses the complex experience of exile as it follows Arenas' journey from Mariel Harbor into the United States and the final years of his life. It is an odyssey that begins with the pure magic of a nocturnal drive through Manhattan beneath a snowy sky; and ends in poverty, loneliness, and the agony of AIDS. Although Reinaldo died at a young age, he made it very clear to Lázaro, that it is important to understand that his work was complete. There should be no speculation: "If only he had lived longer"
The filmmaker made Javier Bardem his partner in bringing Reinaldo Arenas to life on film. Schnabel, who lives in Spain and New York, was familiar with the actor's work in such films as Jamon, jamon (1992) and Días contados as well as Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh (1997) and High Heels (1992). "Javier's a great actor and I think he gave the performance of a lifetime. His performance is so original," Schnabel enthuses. "He really found Reinaldo's rhythm, his sense of humor and self-effacing quality. "
Bardem had agreed to play the part of Lázaro when Schnabel unexpectedly asked him to play Reinaldo instead. "My answer was very straightforward: I said, 'No,'" the actor recalls, laughing. "I said, 'I can't handle that, it's too much for me. I don't speak English very well. This guy is Cuban; I'm not Cuban. '" Schnabel was persistent, however, and Bardem said he would read Arenas' books before rendering a final decision. "Once I started reading his books, I found something that felt familiar to me. Reinaldo wasn't an intellectual; he was a person who was writing because he really needed to say something. He wrote from the depths of his self, using the hate, the anger and the love in order to express himself. I'm not an intellectual; I'm only an actor and sometimes a very impulsive one. So that was a point of connection. "
He was also impressed by Schnabel's dedication to the film. "Julian didn't need to do this movie. He's a very recognized painter; he didn't need to get involved in this struggle. To be truthful, I was a little worried what people's reaction would be to an American director making a film about a Cuban writer, and in English, also. But Julian was so sincere in his desire to tell this story simply and in a way that was true to Reinaldo's voice that it didn't matter what language it was in. So I said, 'Okay. '"
Bardem relished the opportunity to play what he considers a once-in-a-lifetime role. "Because of who he was as a person, and because of all the things happened to him, Reinaldo was incredibly alive. When a person is really alive, he feels every kind of emotion: rage, pain, passion, love, humor. As actor, you cannot play a role like this as if it doesn't have anything to do with you, otherwise you will be not respectful to this person who lived. So this was a great gift for me. "
Schnabel commended Bardem's commitment to the role, which included months of English lessons. "He worked so damned hard and always brought something to the set. He had very good questions; he's someone you can really create something with. "
The filmmaker also praises the film's co-stars. "Olivier Martinez (who portrayed Lázaro) is the child of refugees; he is someone who is always on the edge in the same way that Lázaro is. And Andrea di Stefano invented a great character for himself as Pepe Malas. "
Several of Schnabel's friends, including filmmakers Hector Babenco (pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)) and Jerzy Skolimowski (Moonlighting, The Shout) lent their support to the film by stepping into cameo roles. Actors Sean Penn and Johnny Depp also took time out of their packed schedules to play character parts. Penn is all but unrecognizable as Cuco Sanchez, the peculiar peasant who encounters the teenage Reinaldo on his way to join the rebels. Remembers Schnabel, "It was brutally hot when we shot that scene and Sean had all this make-up on, plus he had to learn how to drive those oxen, very quickly. But I think he had fun with it. It made me very happy when Sean showed up in Mexico. "
Bardem says he was thrilled to work alongside Johnny Depp, who took on the dual role of Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor. "I think Johnny did amazing work, and he was very generous, very helpful. He really got into the mood of the character, Bon Bon, and that scene with him as Lieutenant Victor is something that will stay in my memory. I admire him a great deal, as an actor and a human being. "
Also featured in the film is Michael Wincott (Basquiat (1996)), whose fictitious character Heberto Zorilla Ochoa - based on two real people Heberto Padilla and General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez - suffers a fate visited upon many Cubans when he is called upon to renounce his work in public and to denounce his family and friends. "It's a pivotal role," observes Schnabel. "You've seen this man in the background, he's been part of the city's cultural life and then all of a sudden, he's singled out. Michael was able to be very still and yet convey this interior emotion. "
Before Night Falls was shot in Mexico for 60 days in 1999, primarily in Veracruz and Merida. Schnabel credits production designer Salvador Parra, as well as the many people they met in Mexico, for helping create a stunningly realistic Cuba in the middle of Mexico. Often the local landmarks and architecture were adapted to the film's needs. Doubling for El Morro, the 17th Century Spanish colonial fortress where Arenas was imprisoned, was San Juan de Ulúa, another Spanish colonial fortress that had also been a dreaded prison (both have been converted into tourist attractions). Schnabel had previously toured El Morro and found San Juan de Ulúa to be quite similar. "It was obviously designed by the same interior decorator," he notes dryly. "The Spanish had a way with prisons. " However, the prison bars had been removed from San Juan de Ulúa, so Parra and his crew constructed wooden bars that were strong enough to support dozens of men standing and hanging on them. The prison tourist office was so delighted by the bars that they asked to keep them.
Other locations required more effort. A 200-meter replica on the Malecon, Cuba's famous seawall and the site of Pepe Malas' balloon crash, was constructed in Veracruz. Explains Schnabel: "The seawall is the Malecon is very distinctive; it has pediments and capitals that anyone who has been to Havana would recognize. People who have seen the movie have asked how we could shoot a scene like that in Cuba. The fact is, we didn't. "
In creating a realistic portrait of Cuba from 1943-1990, Schnabel was able to consult a number of Cuban exiles, including friends from New York and expatriates living in and around Veracruz. They offered advice on everything from household products to the color of buses. For those observing the shoot as well as participating, it was often an emotional experience. Schnabel remembers one man who observed the scene involving the purging of writer Heberto Zorilla Ochoa. "He must have been about 65, and after we stopped shooting, he started crying. It turned out that he had been in a situation that was not dissimilar to what we had just filmed. That happened a lot, where people would see a set-up and get very emotional about revisiting that moment in their lives. A lot of the extras in the Mariel Harbor scene actually were participants in the Mariel Harbor exodus. "
After shooting finished in Mexico, the production moved to New York for the completion of principal photography. Schnabel then turned his attention to the film's soundtrack, putting together a rich and surprising blend of original and source music. The film's original score is by Carter Burwell, while Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson contributed additional music. The source music ranges from film scores (passages from Ennio Morricone's The Battle of Algiers and Popol Vuh's Aguirre: The Wrath of God) to popular music by Cuban artists including Beny More, Trio Matamoros, Bebo Valdez and Bola De Nieve; from Mahler's "Symphony #5" to the music of Lebanese singer Fairuz.
Schnabel often let the film's music speak for an entire sequence, omitting dialogue entirely. In one striking passage, Reinaldo goes to a Havana nightclub with Pepe Malas. A delicate ballet of romance and betrayal, the sequence unfolds to the melancholy, sensual strains of Lou Reed's "Rouge. " Noting that the song isn't congruous with the nightclub setting, Schnabel comments, "I had re-recorded two traditional Cuban songs with the band that was actually playing in the scene. But then I decided 'Rouge' was more like a map of what's going on in Reinaldo's heart. "
Lázaro Gómez Carriles feels that Before Night Falls itself is a map of his friend's heart. "I was very close to Reinaldo, and I spoke with him every day. And that proximity blinded me to a lot of his qualities, things that I could not see because I just saw him as my friend. Now Julian has shown me new sides of Reinaldo, and I thank him for that. He's brought me even closer to Rey. "