Allen Rucker — On Director Julian Schnabel

Circa 2008

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 worldrenowned 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.

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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.

Scene from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric in pool
Scene from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric in pool

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.

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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 who are disabled 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.”

Scene from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu and Marie-Josée
Scene from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu and Marie-Josée

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.

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Another inspiration for the film was Schnabel’s friend, Fred Hughes, who once ran Andy Warhol’s New York City studio, The Factory. An erudite guy who “started out in Texas and ended up with a kind of an English accent,” Hughes later got Multiple Sclerosis, which became progressively worse. He ended up, angry and abandoned, in a hospital bed in his living room, Schnabel related.

This was around 1999; Bauby’s book came out two years earlier. So some days, Schnabel would go up to Lexington Avenue around 90th Street in Manhattan, where Fred lived, and read to him.

“One day Darin McCormack, who was Fred’s nurse,

gave me the book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I didn’t read it at first. I kind of knew what it was about, but he gave it to me because I was so dedicated to coming and reading to Fred. I remember getting up sometimes, leaving and thinking, I’m ashamed that I can get up and walk out of here.

Fred’s decline had a powerful affect on Schnabel:”I mean, I knew this guy went to all of these places with Andy. His life was so full. There are pictures of him with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and he had cherished notes from Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. I mean, he was everywhere, and he knew everybody.

“So I began by thinking about a film about Fred. And the thing is that the hospital room you see in the movie is really what I did to Fred’s room at the American Hospital. In Bauby’s room, they had pictures and things, but Fred had paintings in his room. What I did was pick etchings that I put upside down, so you’d have an interior world going on, from Bauby’s point of view.

“There were pictures of my parents dancing at the Raleigh Hotel in Monticello, NY, in 1956, because my parents had always been in my other movies, and even though they were dead, I wanted them in this one. Marlon Brando’s boxing gloves were on the wall. It was almost like the wall in Gallipoli, where they hung everything that meant something to them. And I filled the room with flowers all the time. None of this was scripted, but I knew what that room had to be like. And I knew that when someone was talking to him, his eye would drift off and look at other things.”

Schnabel’s wife, Olatz, made the linen sheets and the silk pajamas for the film because Bauby had said, “If I’ve got to drool, I’d rather drool on cashmere.” Schnabel took him at his word.

The director somewhat understood the claustrophobic aspect of feeling locked in from his previous film, Before Night Falls. In it, there is a scene with Javiar Bardem—now drawing raves for his performance in No Country for Old Men—where Bardem’s character is thrown into a tiny, airless isolation cell, not much bigger than a coffin. Schnabel got in that cell with the actor and told the assistant director, “No matter what I do, don’t open that door for five minutes.” When the door closed, he quickly became overcome:

“ ‘Let me out of here!’ I shouted. And they did, quickly. All the heavy breathing and the rolling of the eyes that Bardem does in the scene, that was me, for real. Having Locked-In Syndrome, I realized early on, was my worst fear.”

Yet, after the stroke, Bauby turns an emotional corner in a very short time, deciding to go on with his life. In many cases of paralysis, this process can take years. Schnabel believes that in some ways his subject felt more alive after the stroke than before. The turning point came when Bauby asked himself, Had I been blind and deaf, would it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?

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“That’s what he was looking at—the harsh light of disaster. And he was on the far edge of life. And that’s the point in the film where the image of the massive snow glaciers come in. My editor said, ‘Why are we putting this here?’ And I said, “Because this is when he decides he ain’t gonna just lay there anymore. This is where he decides, ‘Hey, I’m really gonna be bored out of my mind and drown in this, or I’m going to do something.’”

Bauby lived one year and three months after the stroke, and for at least the first 30 days of that time he was unconscious. But just as he embraces life, there is also a moment where he says, “I want death.” Marie-Josee Croze, playing Bauby’s speech therapist, was reluctant to do the scene in which she gets angry with him for giving up. Schnabel directed her to walk out of the room, and then come back in and apologize to Bauby, if that was the way she felt. In a completely improvised and moving moment in the film, she does just that.

Bauby, Schnabel says, “realized at that moment that he was quite superficial. It wasn’t the people around him who were superficial. It was him. He realized that others really cared about him—these were real relationships.”

The former magazine editor “told a friend, ‘I’m not the same guy. I’m reborn as somebody else.’ Bauby felt he was selected and that he had a choice. I think he felt like, OK, I’m a regular guy. I’ve got a regular job. But here I have the chance to write something that might be a really great work. I could be a great artist. Not artist with a capital A, but he could transmute his life into something that could be used by people.”

Schnabel tries to communicate this notion to audiences at screenings. He’ll say, “I don’t know how many people are here, but maybe somebody likes to write. Maybe somebody’s got something that they really would like to do. How many appointments do you have today? Do your kids need something? This guy didn’t have to do anything except think about what he wanted to write every day. And that’s all he did. So he thought about it when he woke up and when he went to sleep, and he created this job for himself. And that’s why he was able to do something so extraordinary: to report back from a place no one has ever written about. “

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What Schnabel himself learned was about living in the present.

“Playing Bauby, Mathieu Amalric understood that, and he made me understand it,” Schnabel says. “He had a patch over one eye. He had a piece of plastic in his nose, a bite plate in the bottom of his mouth, his lips were glued, and he had to lie still for a very long time. And when you lie still like that, people think you’re not there. At first this makes you angry. Then you close your eyes and the space gets bigger and you can have a dialogue with yourself about all these people who are outside your reality. And that’s where the sardonic humor comes from.”

The film’s humor is mentioned in every review, as is the fact that the movie is neither mawkish or sentimental. As Schnabel says, “It could have easily been a triumphof-the-human-spirit kind of movie, but it’s not because it’s filled with humor. Plus, the guy was not a saint… sometimes the truth was brutal, but there is no time for lying. I mean, do we have to get to that state before we can tell the truth to people we are close to?”

The presence of Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father was pivotal to Schnabel. He made the film not only because of his experience with Fred Hughes, but also because of his relationship with his own father, a working-class immigrant from Czechoslovakia. “My dad and I were very close. He died of cancer at 92, absolutely terrified of death. I couldn’t do much to help him.”

“If my father could have seen this film,” he says, “I think he might have felt like there was some peace in the transition between this state and the next, and he might not have been so scared.

“My father died on January 17th, 2004. I got the Diving Bell script in December 2003. At first I didn’t want to do a movie about a guy who lives in his head, and yet my father lived in his, and I’ve always lived in mine. So I came to realize that this was a bigger part of reality.”

This kernel of truth helped the painter/director connect more deeply with his subject, rendering it in a way that is beautiful and resonant.

“When you start to use your brain, your imagination, it’s amazing how deep the feelings can be. Consciousness is life. If you’re unconscious, you’re not here. That’s why memory, for Jean-Do Bauby, became his life, and why he jumped at the chance to have a 20-20 retrospective vision of his whole existence.”

by Allen Rucker

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