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Directors Series-Julian Schnabel-The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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By Leonard Klady
A titan of the art world, Julian Schnabel’s large canvas paintings and sculptures became a sensation in the early 1980s and his position in the vanguard has never faltered. Early work that incorporated broken plates on oil paintings pegged him as part of the neo-expressionists, a grouping he bristles at the mere mention of.
In 1996, he directed his first film Basquiat, a portrait of another cutting-edge artist and a contemporary he knew personally and professionally. Four years later he turned his attention to the life of controversial Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which earned him an award for direction at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is based upon the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The editor of French Elle, Bauby suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and incapable of speech. Diagnosed with a rare condition that has become known as “locked-in syndrome,” Bauby used a system of eye-blinking to write his memoir.
Below the Line caught up with Schnabel, initially at the Toronto Film Festival where The Driving Bell and the Butterfly had its North American debut, and subsequently in a taxi cab on its way to Kennedy airport en route to a retrospective of his work in Germany. Bearish in demeanor, he has a genius, disarming personality that accentuates a rapid, random manner of speaking that demands attention.

Julian Schnabel: I’d been thinking about doing a film about Fred Hughes, who ran Andy Warhol’s business and was a close friend. Fred had multiple sclerosis, and when he was hospitalized I spent a lot of time with him. It was during one of those visits that a nurse gave me Bauby’s book.

Below the Line: But it wasn’t simply a matter of shifting gears.

Schnabel: No. I’m not a writer, and while Fred’s story was important to me, I would have had to have spent considerable time with someone who would write the screenplay. It was just such a surprise to be offered the material by (producer) Kathleen Kennedy three years later. Johnny Depp, who’s a friend, was supposed to play Bauby but they couldn’t quite put the financing together.

BTL: That seems very odd.

Schnabel: I honestly don’t know what the problem was. I try to stay out of the financing. I assumed it was dead but Kathleen came back to me a couple of years later and, probably because of my experience on Before Night Falls, I said let’s do it in French.

BTL: You mean not simply the cast but the crew and locations?

Schnabel: The simple answer is yes, but obviously Max (Von Sydow) isn’t French and neither is (cinematographer) Janusz Kaminski. I speak enough French to get in trouble but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that you’re not going to have a problem finding world-class actors and craft people working in France.

BTL: Had you ever met Bauby?

Schnabel: You know, it’s funny you should ask. My wife had to remind me that I’d met him once at the bullfights in Nimes. It was just an introduction, and it was obviously before the accident, but there’s a photograph that was taken where you can see him standing behind me in the arena.

BTL: Do you approach the film frame as another type of canvas?

Schnabel: Absolutely. That reminds me of a funny story. The camera operator started to complain that the framing looked ugly. He felt that having a character in the bottom left side of an otherwise empty frame was unbalanced, and I just shrugged it off. I told him that I’d done plenty of canvases like that and that people got it.

BTL: I read somewhere that Ronald Harwood’s script was written from a first-person perspective.

Schnabel: That’s true, but visually that’s just a starting point. Not to diminish his work, but the writer cannot know where you’re going to be filming. He isn’t going to know the light or the decisions you’ve made with the cameraman and set designer about the color palette. Somehow you have to make what’s on the page practical. For instance, a lot of the film — and certainly the first 40 minutes — are told with a subjective camera. You’re seeing this world from Bauby’s perspective. So the camera is where he should be and that means Mathieu (Amalric), who plays Bauby — brilliantly, I would say — isn’t physically there. Now he has to react. He can’t speak, but you hear his thoughts on the soundtrack, and I thought it would be better if he spoke them in real time rather than record them later in ADR. So we created a sound box in another room where he could hear what was being said when we were filming. And that’s a good example of the type of artistic and technical solution you face all the time.

BTL: You filmed in the actual hospital where he was treated?

Schnabel: That was always in the back of my mind, but until you see the actual space, you don’t know whether it’s practical or whether they’ll let you do it. We kind of wormed our way in, but the people at Berck were extremely hospitable. We built his room and had to do some work on the corridor, but the terrace is as it is, and there were other benefits. We actually finished two weeks early in that location, and rather than go to Paris, one of the hospital workers found us a house we could use for some upcoming scenes. It was his grandfather’s home, who was a doctor, and we found all these old x-rays that I wound up incorporating into the credit sequence.

BTL: Was there something in particular that drew you to use Kaminski?

Schnabel: A lot of things, really, but when I looked at Schindler’s List again — because we thought about filming in black and white — I just said I want something like that; unfussy, fluid and precise.

BTL: I wouldn’t have connected your movie with Schindler. Visually, it seems more poetic and experimental.

Schnabel: I hope so. Janusz is really tireless and very open to changing things. I’m probably not the easiest person to work for because I’ll get ideas on the set that I want to try out. He has this ruthlessness about keeping on schedule, but by the end of the day he’d always find a way to get those other things I wanted. His biggest contribution, though, was the idea of doing everything in the camera. There’s a lot of super imposition that I thought we’d achieve by CGI, but most of it was done very simply by rewinding the film and re-exposing it. I think the only digital effects are about 40 winks among the thousands in the film.

BTL: So would you characterize yourself as collaborative?

Schnabel: (Roaring laughter.) In a dictatorial way. The bottom line is, I’m the boss. That said, you’re a fool if you don’t hire the best people, and anyone that’s at the top of his game is going to have opinions. Not everything is going to work for you and you should expect that at some point someone is going to cross over the line. Without dissuading them of their input, you have to remind them who’s in charge.

BTL: Was there a particular reason why you used two production designers?

Schnabel: (Laughs.) I didn’t. The original production designer had a motorcycle accident and Michel Eric is actually his assistant. Really, he did most of the design and ought to get sole credit, but I think we were obligated contractually to give them both credit. You know, it’s amazing how quickly styles change. This story only happened 10 years ago and I mentioned earlier that we had to build his room and change the corridor. What happened was that they’d renovated, and it was tiny details and things that had been updated — things that a really good designer notices, things that keep the picture honest and accurate.

BTL: You had mentioned your appreciation of The Beat That My Heart Skipped in relationship to casting Niels Arestrup, but you also hired its editor, Juliette Welfling.

Schnabel: There were two editors I considered — both French. What I realized was that it was important to have s
omeone whose first language was French, because there are subtleties and rhythms in the language that I’m not going to get. But aside from that, she is brilliant and, really, I’ve never worked with someone in the cutting room that understood so exactly what I wanted. I’d try to explain something and I kind of realized that my description was inept and she’d just look at me, nod and say “brutale.” She understood somehow or realized the appropriateness of a very hard cut — a violent shift and not a dissolve — and it was like that all the way through the process.

BTL: Do you think it made any difference that she is a woman? Not to over intellectualize the point, but the most nurturing characters in the story are women.

Schnabel: (Laughs.) Or to be a sexist boor. I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand. I don’t know. Maybe? Maybe that’s why she understood me better than anyone else I’ve worked with, but this is a whole different conversation. I’ve had very good professional relationships with both sexes and some seem to be enhanced by an emotional connection while others are not. It doesn’t necessarily help or enhance the work. I’d kind of prefer not to deconstruct that aspect of filmmaking.

BTL: Well, there are certainly more obvious elements of filmmaking that are emotional. Like the music.

Schnabel: I always play music when we screen dailies. It’s not arbitrary, I select music that I think might add something to the experience and, when we were making the film, I had CDs from a lot of soundtracks like Lolita and The 400 Blows, Battle of Algiers and a lot of Nino Rota music. We wound up using a lot of that. I’ll also play songs like the U2 song we use, and there was something I thought “Like a Rolling Stone” would provide a perfect complement for, but we ran into rights problems and I substituted the song by Emmanuelle Seigner.

BTL: What about the original music you use by Paul Cantelon?

Schnabel: That’s an interesting story. I have a friend in the music industry named Sue Jacobs, and I asked her to send over some classical compositions that might be appropriate. I meant to listen to them right away, but I put it off for a long time and I think I wound up listening to them one day when I started to get back to painting in my studio. Paul’s music just stood out, and the funny thing was that I couldn’t tell from the legend who the artist was. I had to call Sue’s office and explain the situation to an assistant. I played the music to her over the phone and she knew what it was right away.

BTL: So, based on that music, what did you tell him you were looking for on the soundtrack?

Schnabel: No, we used the preludes he sent. That just worked perfectly. It was kind of serendipity because Paul had been hit by a car when he was a teenager and had been in a coma. It just informed his music and was ideally suited for the film. Sometimes you’re just lucky to be touched by divine intervention.

Written by Len Klady

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