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POPCORN (NO, ICE CREAM) CONVERSATIONS: "THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY" DIRECTOR JULIAN SCHNABEL

The Diving Bell, The Butterfly and Julian Schnabel

PopcornReel.com's Omar P.L. Moore has a conversation with the director about his new film over some very tasty chocolate ice cream

photo of  Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel in May 2006 during the Cannes Film Festival.  At the Cannes this year he was awarded Best Director for his new film "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly".   (Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage)
 

December 9, 2007

By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com

SAN FRANCISCO

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Julian Schnabel is inspecting the mirrors in the suite of a 14th floor hotel here.  Doesn't like them.  Not one bit.  He comments about how much an eyesore the large lantern-like light is -- it is stuck in dead center of the mirror.  He wishes someone would get the lights out of there.  "They don't belong, they look awful," he adds.  The ever-so-mildly irritated Schnabel notes that the lights are like a giant bug on someone's nose.  The fly on the nose observation brings to mind a scene in Mr. Schnabel's latest film "Le Scaphanore Et Le Papillon" (aka "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly"), where a large fly lands on the nose of an immobile Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed from an intense stroke in 1995, resulting in movement of only his left eye.  Mercifully and miraculously, with an apparent nudge of the head by Mr. Bauby (aka Jean-Do), the fly is gone.

In his new film Julian examines the newly-prism life of Mr. Bauby, the editor of Elle Magazine -- a Frenchman described in some accounts as rakish, and presumably carefree.  "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" is already playing in New York and Los Angeles and arriving in San Francisco and numerous other U.S. cities on December 21.  The film is a one-of-a-kind sensation, with camerawork by Janusz Kaminski that is nothing short of amazing, approximating what one human eye sees.  It is an intimate, poignant and magical dreamlike journey and the film's first ten minutes alone are visually astounding.  (Even the art haters of the universe, the anti-Julians, as it were, will come to agree with this assessment.)  Julian takes this cinematic journey with Mr. Bauby (Ronald Harwood adapted the Elle editor's memoir to the big screen) and has talked in the past about the film being a referendum on facing the inevitability of death, and coming to terms with it.  Julian will touch on this later on in this December evening at a post-screening Q&A session of "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly", where he will say to the audience that they all will face the time when death calls.  Schnabel lost his own father, who was 92, in December 2003, and the two were very close.  In the film, Max Von Sydow plays the 92-year-old father of Mr. Bauby (who is played by Mathieu Almaric, whom American audiences may remember from Steven Spielberg's 2005 film "Munich".)

Before then however, Julian is quizzing his interviewer on matters more personal, like how long the interviewer and his girlfriend have been together, what she does for a living, and other related matters.  Exuberant, inquisitive and ingratiating, Julian Schnabel, a born-and-bred New Yorker -- a Brooklynite to be precise -- wants to engage (he encourages, and gets, a bear-hug from an audience member at the screening), and as much as he welcomes the praise for his new film (which won him the Best Director award at Cannes this year), he wants to talk about other things.  In fact, Schnabel is not afraid to talk about anything.  He mentions his kids and his wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia (she appears in the film as Marie Lopez, Mr. Bauby's hospital attendant, and was in her husband's previous film "Before Night Falls" as the mother of Javier Bardem's Reinaldo Areinas character.)  Julian mentions Sidney Lumet's penchant for taking brief naps during the afternoon during breaks in filming, adding that he himself takes 15-minute naps during breaks.


Marie-Josee Croze as Henrietta, the speech therapist for Jean-Dominique Bauby, in a publicity shot for "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly".  (Photo courtesy of Miramax Films)

Simply put, Julian Schnabel loves life.  He surfs, he paints, he plays with his kids, he takes in bullfighting in Spain watching his favorite matador, a picture of whom appears in "Diving Bell".  For at least two decades a world-renowned painter, clothing designer, renaissance man, time on this occasion finds Julian not feeling quite himself however, as some food he ate at this particular hotel has not agreed with him. 

"I never get sick," he says while explaining that he is at a loss as to why he's not quite feeling one hundred percent. 

Nevertheless, he is still standing, arising from the sofa where the interview is taking place.

"Let's have some ice cream!", Julian offers his guest, and brings the tray of chocolate ice-cream over.  With ice-cream in hand, and a sofa cushion at his chest and stomach, with arms folded over the cushion, Julian talks and consumes as his guest does likewise.

"So what else would you like to know about the movie?", he intones.

"Diving Bell" was shot entirely in France and the film's lead role was Johnny Depp's to lose.  Mr. Depp was to play Jean-Dominique Bauby, except that there was some sort of "Pirates" juggernaut that swept him up, up and ahoy.  "He's the one that got me the job, basically," Julian says thankfully.  Depp worked with the director on "Before Night Falls" (released in 2000) in which the Oscar nominee had not one, but two cameos; one in drag, the other as an extra-harsh military interrogator.   Later at the Q&A Julian tells the audience a story about "Diving Bell", where Mr. Depp was to speak French throughout the film -- he lives in the south of France, and Julian was adamant that French actors be used, and that any non-French actors speak only French -- the rest of cast was entirely French, or spoke it.  Mr. Schnabel reveals at this point that he did not tell Universal Pictures, who initially had the film, that Mr. Depp was going to speak French.  With "Pirates" and its overwhelming worldwide success, Julian never needed to cross that bridge with Universal.  Mr. Depp was off to the races with "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski, and out of the picture for Julian.  Mathieu Almaric was the man to take up the mantle as Jean-Dominique Bauby.  Says Schnabel, "the guy can do anything.  I love him.  He really helped me a lot.  He's so smart.  He gave me everything."  Julian says he "found" Mr. Almaric, 43, in a 1998 Oliver Assayas movie entitled "Fin Aout, Debut Septembre" ("Late August, Early September".)  For his role as Bauby, Mr. Almaric had a piece of plastic stuck in his nose, a patch over one eye, wore a contact lens with blood shot veins painted on it, as well as a bite plate in his mouth, with his lip glued to his face, lying on a hospital bed with his hands stuck to some foam.

"If you don't move," the director comments later to the Q&A audience, "people think you're invisible."

photo of  Julian Schnabel, Mathieu Amalric
The director with his lead actor Mathieu Almaric, who plays Jean-Dominique Bauby in "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly", now playing in New York and Los Angeles and arriving in San Francisco and numerous other cities across North America beginning on December 21.  They are pictured here at an event in November 2007.  (Photo: WireImage)

The underlying story of Jean-Dominique Bauby -- a story which by the way, is all true -- is one that is incredibly painstaking yet uplifting.  His speech therapist patiently dictated every single letter to him, and since Bauby could only move his left eye, he would blink once for yes, and twice for no when he heard the letter that he wanted written down.  Sensing that the end was near for him, Mr. Bauby wanted to write his memoirs and relay to the outside world this lonely experience of sight and motion through one eye, while living like he had never lived before.  Remarkably the memoir, entitled Le Scaphanore Et Le Papillon ("The Diving Bell and The Butterfly") was completed after months and months and months.  As he finishes his last scoops of ice cream, and almost a year after completing the film, Julian still marvels at the feat of Bauby, a man completely deprived of the liberty of movement of his body.  "I mean, can you imagine that this man, being so disabled -- the one thing is having a stroke, the other thing is like, not being able to move anything, I mean, except your eye, and actually . . . willing this into being -- the will to do that is -- that is commitment."

Julian was committed to bring Bauby's story to the big screen, and despite missing out on the services of Johnny Depp, the stars were aligned for him in every single way when filming "Diving Bell".  The hospital where Bauby was confined was the same one in which Schnabel and his crew filmed Mr. Almaric.  "The hospital people were great to us . . . the hospital was the studio.  So I built the room and I did what I had to do there, but I also got to use the whole hospital."  The sun shined when Julian wanted it to.  The rain came when Julian wanted it to.  (Regretfully, the interviewer didn't get the chance to ask if a higher power was shining on Julian during the filmmaking process, or whether he himself felt like Him.)

And the film even finished shooting two weeks early.  ("Somebody up there likes me," Julian will say later to the Q&A audience.)

In what has been from the start a free-flowing conversation between interviewer and interviewee, Julian talks about Olmo, his 14-year-old son (Julian has four kids, including twin daughters) and his observations about color, perception and authenticity, in much the same vein that Bauby viewed the world through a fractured lens, are conveyed in the following examples.  When Olmo was nine, Julian recalls, he watched a DVD of "The Pianist", another Ronald Harwood adaptation (which in 2003 won the South African-born writer an Oscar, with Roman Polanski and Adrien Brody being similarly feted) in black-and-white at the Schnabel house in Spain (Julian also has his own building in Greenwich Village in New York City and a house on Long Island in Montauk) and saying that "'this movie looks more . . . authentic in black-and-white, it feels more like it's Germany during the war!'  And it's interesting how even a child gets a sense of time in the way that -- to notice that I thought was really . . ."  While this sentence is one of several left suspended by the director, one gets the feeling that the incompletes of some of Julian's comments were purposeful and in the moment, a stream-of-consciousness sensation.  Without stopping he next talks about his eldest daughter Lola, now 26, who saw a painting of her father's, which originally was nine feet by ten feet, but was shrunk to fit postage-stamp-style in the New York Times, which is where a then-little Lola saw the published painting.  The point Julian is getting to is that "this (new) movie is about perception and really a way of looking at things.  I think, most movies when people talk to the camera, the movie stops.  In this particular case, everybody talks to the camera, it's a convention.  You think, 'well, all movies are like this, there's nothing strange, did you notice anything weird?  No.  There's only one P.O.V. here.'" 

photo of Before Night Falls,  Julian Schnabel, Olatz López Garmendia
The director with Olatz Lopez Garmendia, his wife, who has appeared in the last two of her husband's films.   (Photo: Sam Leivi/WireImage)

Janusz Kaminski, the Oscar-winning cinematographer on (frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg's) "Schindler's List", devised the point-of-view shots in "Diving Bell", attempting to replicate the imagery that the eye sees, registers and perceives, along with the movement that the human eye makes in doing so.  "It was really a swing and tilt lens that . . . has a rubber gasket in it -- the more you move it the more out of whack it gets," described the director.  "So you could make it blurrier, or you could make it clearer to look at someone."  Julian notes that in "Before Night Falls" his camera tried to replicate breathing, and that in "Diving Bell" it tries to emulate a person seeing. 

One of the things that drew Julian to the subject of his new film was Mr. Bauby's writing.  He quotes his questioner several lines from his memoir, citing how beautifully expressed they were, including, "had I been blind and deaf it wouldn't take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature," and, "swimming up in the midst of a coma, you never have the luxury of having your dreams evaporate," or, "my life was a string of near misses, all the women I was unable to love, the moments of joy I let drift away, the race whose result I knew beforehand but failed to bet on the winner."  As you hear Julian read these words, their power and eloquence resonate deeply, a transmission of the heartbeat that inspired them pounding in the mind with the imagery that Mr. Bauby's succinct visions evoke.  "He wrote things that I think in a way scared ("Diving Bell" screenwriter) Ron Harwood at a certain moment because he thought [Bauby] was too literary, and I kind of went back to the book a bit and said, you know, "we got his regular kind of voice here, but . . . I like this guy because he's like that . . . he's not like everybody else.  He's not an ordinary Joe.  He's a good writer and now he's really writing.  Before, God knows what he was doing but now he's plying himself to this thing and he came up to the task."

At the film's post-screening Q&A later this early December midweek night, Julian Schnabel was singing the praises of another recent film based on a true-life story figure.  It was "Into The Wild", directed by Sean Penn, about the story of Christopher McCandless, a 20-something year-old man who chose to strip away the trappings of a privileged life, disavowing his identity and his family and his money to move to the wilds of Alaska.  As he spoke about the director and his well-known activism as a needed voice of American conscience, a voice in the audience cried out, "it doesn't matter, you're the fucking man!"

It was Sean Penn.


"The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" opens in San Francisco and other U.S. cities on December 21, while continuing its special limited engagement theatrical run in New York City and Los Angeles.


photo of Scaphandre et le papillon, Le,  Emmanuelle Seigner, Julian Schnabel, Marie-Josée Croze
Marie-Josee Croze, Julian Schnabel and Emmanuelle Seigner in November 2007.  Ms. Seigner plays Celine, the mother of Jean-Dominique Bauby's three children.  (Photo courtesy: WireImage)


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