Julian Schnabel — by Allen Rcuker

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From Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol, many a famous artist has taken a stab at directing movies, with results ranging from the eccentric to the moronic. But world-renowned painter Julian Schnabel continues to make movies that are accessible and sure-handed. So far, he’s directed three acclaimed features: Basquiat (1993), about another celebrated artist who was his friend; Before Night Falls (2000), about a defiant gay Cuban writer; and his current release, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), about a magazine editor imprisoned within his own paralyzed body.

In term of accolades and media noise, Diving Bell is Schnabel’s breakthrough film. At this writing, he’d won Best Director at Cannes, Best Director at the Golden Globes—where his film also took best picture—and had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. And this was just as awards season was getting started.

Not bad for a Neo-expressionist painter from New York.

When I spoke with Schnabel early one Monday at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, he was in his trademark bathrobe, chatting in Italian with someone in Milan. A big bear of a guy, it didn’t take much to get him talking about Diving Bell and the path that led him to it.

Back in 1979, when his first art exhibit opened, one critic called it “a bonfire over Manhattan.” Schnabel’s paintings were outrageously bold and his ego even bolder. As he once famously crowed, “I’m as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this f**king life.” In terms of self-regard, he was the Donald Trump of the art world.

So why switch to filmmaking and take the risk of stumbling? He suggests that it was simply a logical extension of painterly mythmaking reborn as celluloid storytelling. Besides, he’s says, it was time to grow up: “I’m getting too old to be an enfant terrible,” he admits. Perhaps, as well, there wasn’t such a huge divide between the old medium and the new: “I make art because that is what I do, and making films is part of my work as an artist.”

Still, it took him decades to get around to it, especially given that Schnabel recalls having an epiphany as a kid when he saw the Red Sea part in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, The Ten Commandments. “I don’t know whether it was the red velvet robes…or the way people looked at that movie like they were looking at God.” Either way, the film made an indelible impression on him.

The artist likens painting to playing saxophone: You blow and see what comes out. “You don’t need to know if it’s good or bad when you do it. You can determine that the next day, so its total freedom.” Movies, on the other hand, demand more discipline of him. He must also play well with others. At the same time, the newer medium offers him a different kind of liberation.

“When I’m editing,” he has said, “I feel like I’m painting. I know what I’m supposed to do and I throw the script away… Life has to happen to you.”

The shifts between painting and filmmaking are akin to a farmer who plants carrots one season and potatoes the next, so the soil isn’t robbed of vital nutrients. His harvest to date has been real-life stories of artists struggling against oppression, which has become a personal theme.“I’m sure that it’s because I’m an artist that I knew, or at least thought I knew, something about the topic.” Diving Bell is not only derived from a writer’s memoir, it’s in many ways about the writing of that memoir, about the artistic act itself.

Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby was the fashionable, fast-living 42-year-old editor of Elle magazine in Paris, when he suffered a stroke in his brain stem that left him about as paralyzed as you can get and still be alive. The condition, called Locked-in Syndrome, rendered him 100 percent immobile and without speech. He could hear, think and blink his eyes—actually only one of his eyes, since the other had to be sewn shut. His only way to communicate with the world was by blinking that one eye. A dedicated speech therapist devised a system for him to communicate by the way he blinked, which allowed him to write his autobiography.

Schnabel had no idea how people with a disability would react to his film. After it was done, he decided to show it to a friend in Paris who was recovering from a severe stroke as well. “I took a DVD over to his apartment and we watched it together. The bed he was on was shaking because he was crying the whole time. I said, “Do you want me to turn it off?” He said, “No, please, don’t turn it off.”

It was important for his friend to experience the full range of his emotions, Schnabel suspects. And his friend is not alone in that. “Maybe the thing that I’ve found most satisfying about this whole experience—and I had no idea that this was going to happen—is that people want to show this movie in stroke wards. In many screenings where there is a Q & A, a doctor will invariably come up and say, “Look, we’ve got to show this to young doctors and nurses, because we feel it gives them hope that there can be some kind of dialogue (with patients who are severely disabled).”

Still it’s a daunting assignment to make a two-hour movie about a guy who can only blink one eye. It seems a crazy thing to take on. Yet Schnabel had been aware of Bauby’s story for years. He didn’t know him personally, but he knew a number of people in France who knew him. “In fact, his girlfriend once told me, “You were at the bullfights at Nimes, and we were right behind you. You didn’t see us, but we saw you.”

Schnabel immediately knew the group she was with, where they hung out, and so on. He had a sense of the life that Bauby—played by French actor Mathieu Amalric—had led. For instance, there’s a bullfight scene in the movie that isn’t in the book. It was something Schnabel knew that Bauby would have liked. But the director had no interest in depicting the professional life of a chic magazine editor. “I mean, if anything, that would have kept me from actually making the movie,” he says.

Another inspiration for the film was Schnabel’s friend, Fred Hughes, who once ran Andy Warhol’s ... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Cheryl Hines issue include Headlines—MDA, Microsoft, Pepsico and more; Humor Therapy; Gone, Baby Gone; George Covington—On he Real Charlie Wilson; One Boy's Story—'Buy Me Something'; Green Pages—Warm Tips for Cold Weather; Tech Access—A Mother and Son Push Boundaries; Diana and Kathy—A Film About Friendship; Objective Science; Ricky James—Part II; Motorcycle Safety—Air Bags, Helmets, Leatt's Brace; DRLC—Respect-ABILITY Statewide Conference; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Cheryl Hines issue:

Cheryl Hines ? Interview Podcast

CVS — Leveling the Playground For All Kids

Julian Schnabel — by Allen Rcuker

UCP — Wheeling Around the World

Motorcycle Safety — Air Bags, Helmets, Leatt’s Brace

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