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