Julian Schnabel is death-haunted. This might sound odd about the acclaimed artist and scenester noted for the raw energy of his work, a man with an ego to match his outsize canvases, who has segued with seeming ease from painting to filmmaking. Yet ask Schnabel about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” his latest (and third) cinematic outing, and he inevitably circles back to a core idea: he made the film to allay his own and other people’s fear of dying. No question, “Diving Bell” – which nabbed Best Director in Cannes and is a serious awards contender this year – feels like a dispatch to the living from the other side. Adapted by Ronald Harwood from the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, it revisits the ordeal of the high-rolling editor of French Elle, who at 43 suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed, in a condition called “locked-in syndrome,” with only a single eye in working order. Astonishingly, Bauby was able to dictate his memoir by blinking his eye to select letters on a chart. Schnabel transforms what could have been a disease-of-the-week sermon into a visually lush adventure in filmmaking. Miramax Films opens the film Friday November 30.
Set in France and translated into French from Harwood’s script, “Diving Bell” boasts an international name cast, headed by Mathieu Almaric, who portrays Bauby mostly through voiceovers and a single popped out eye. The punishing sight of Bauby is mercifully balanced by a bevy of gorgeous women (“des magnifiques” his neurologist promises), ranging from dedicated hospital workers, to Bauby’s loyal (though discarded) wife, to ex-girlfriends resurfacing in memory.
A leading figure in the ’80s of neo-expressionism (a term he dislikes), Schnabel is known outside the art world primarily for giant paintings using broken crockery. In his bold confrontational work he hopes to convey, he has said, an emotional state that people can literally walk into and be engulfed.” Certainly, that’s the viewer’s experience of “Diving Bell.” Schnabel daringly (some would say too literally) turns Bauby’s one working eye into the camera, so practically the first half of the film is shot from his POV. The viewer is trapped in there with him, as images waver in and out of focus, and the edges of the screen feather into blackness. But once Bauby’s imagination roams freely, Schnabel splashes the screen with soaring mountain scapes, glaucous ocean depths, rose-tinted glaciers collapsing and reforming. Even the opening credits, which play over eerie pictures of antique French X-rays, distill a disquieting poetry, speaking to the secret life of the body and its inevitable betrayal while the nostalgia-lite of “La Mer” floats on the soundtrack.
indieWIRE interviewed Schnabel at a press junket in New York’s Regency Hotel. I found him sprawled belly down on the sofa in a darkened room, presumably leveled by the rigors of promoting his film. But once he perked up, he was voluble, remarkably unguarded, and passionate about a project most would consider unfilmable.
IndieWIRE: In what way does this film, as you state in the press notes, help people handle their own death?
Julian Schnabel: Let me ask you that question.
iW: I found Bauby’s condition terrifying.
JS: So, I think you should see the movie again.
iW: I’ve seen it twice.
JS: Oh, good. So one more time then. Me, I have claustrophobia. And being buried alive is like the worst [thing] that could happen to me. A Reiki master once said as a child I was killed and buried alive in a kind of rock fall or something. Anyway, the diving bell itself is like death. And Jean-Do’s flights outside of that are his escapes from death. My father was always scared to die. I didn’t really notice it that much until like the last part of his life, but at 92 he did finally die at my house. A couple of weeks before, he felt like he was falling. And I wished I could kind of put the floor underneath him in some way, to fix it for him so he wouldn’t be scared. I used to take a nap with my dad every day in the summer. I’d lie there and have my arm around him. Now he’s not there and I lie on that bed in my studio and my son Vito puts his arm around me. And we’re just on a conveyor belt, y’know?
Anyway, I was always scared to die my whole life. The question I’ve asked myself is, When is that moment when you feel like you can accept your own death? When it’s just not a freakout any more? I thought Jean-Do was reporting back from this place that nobody had ever reported back from. And for that year that he wrote the book he became an artist. He found his interior life. He was able to transgress [sic] death by writing that book. To find that kind of peace [as Jean-Do did] is a confidante [sic] to anybody who might be sick or alone. Because you feel it happening to you and to him at the same time and the line between those two things is invisible.
[Much more in this vein, including quotations from a poem written by his late father before his death. But moving right along.]
iW: Why did you choose to make the film in French, an obvious damper in the American market?
JS: The Berck Maritime Hospital [in Normandy] is where Jean-Do spent most of the rest of his life. You can’t manufacture a landscape like that, and this man sat in that place and on the beach — when the tide went out, it looked like he was sitting on the moon. And to try to reconstruct that in California and have an American actor play it seemed absurd to me. The subject is obviously universal, but I think his sensibility and his sexuality are French and it would be fake if I did it another way.
iW: Did you ever worry that viewers would stay away in droves from a film about a guy in a hospital?
JS: When I saw the documentary that was made about Jean-Do, my wife was watching it with me, and she said, What, are you nuts? You wanna make a movie about this? It looks so depressing. I said, I don’t see it that way, this is funny. This guy has got this great sense of humor. And he speaks to you past death. And I could put in anything I want to in this movie. This is a guy who could go wherever he wants. He could time travel. Be with the women that he likes. Whatever he imagines, he can have.
As a film director, I thought, ‘ah,’ this is a pretty interesting palette to give oneself. It’s not really about a guy in a hospital. It’s about grabbing onto life. When people see it, if they’ve got kids, they go home and grab their kids and squeeze them. I think a movie like “No Country For Old Men,” which is an excellent film, gave me more creeps about dying. It’s like you get shot in the head out in the desert and there’s flies on you and that’s it. There’s a kind of nihilism. Mine was more upbeat, life affirming. If people can look into their interior life, they can use their consciousness to arrive at a place that doesn’t have any bounds. When the glaciers come out of the sea and form themselves again, you feel [Jean-Do] is a part of everything that is there before and after. I guess it’s a Buddhist movie in some way.
iW: What’s the deal with those gorgeous therapists who cared for Bauby. They seem more like angelic visitations than typical hospital workers.
JS: When the doctors tells him, I’m not kidding you, these girls are really beautiful, I thought, I need to show some beautiful girls. It would be depressing if he said that, and then they’re not really that good looking — like the doctor doesn’t see so good either. Actually, one of them is my wife. She’s the one who sticks her tongue out and takes him to the church to be baptized.
iW: How did you know what Jean-Do would see in his condition?
JS: I put myself in his position. If someone is talking to me, I don’t have a clear image of that person the whole time they’re talking. Even right now, instead of looking at you, I’m looking at the corner of this table, and thinking about a rectangle. And then my eye comes back and sees you — wow! what kind of a cut was that. And you start looking at film a different way. That was interesting to me.
iW: What camera tricks did you use to approximate the movement of the eye?
JS: They weren’t tricks. We used a camera like a guy or woman — would use a paint brush. You stick it in your hand and you move it around and decide how to do it. I used a swing and tilt lens, which means that part of the image is out of focus and part in. So it made the whole film feel like it had a texture, a body; the whole screen is like a skin, and that’s how I see painting. Take your glasses off for a minute. How do I look?
JS: Okay put your glasses on sideways, like this. Leave ’em like that. So that’s what I did. I took off my glasses and screwed them to the lens. And when Jean-Do is blinking, I told the camera man to put his fingers [scissored] over the lens and and go like that. It wasn’t done digitally or mechanically. It turns out there are at least 50 kinds of blinks. How many movies have you seen where one of the concerns is how many kinds of blinks there are? I also decided to put black and green linoleum on the floor of the room and make the room a certain color so it felt like he was in a pool. Then I broke up the green with these black shapes that are interrupted by people’s legs. It creates another kind of space and you start looking at it like an abstract painting. But the viewer doesn’t think that way. You just know he can’t see so good.
iW: The camera is so dynamic in this film. I loved the scene where it circles Jean-Do giving his father [Max von Sydow] a shave.
JS: I don’t like something on a dolly that’s fixed. I’ll have someone sitting on something that’s moving and that’s hand-held at the same time. So you feel a little bit of breathing in it, the humanness of it.
iW: How did you learn to direct?
JS: I didn’t. You just get familiar with the materials. I love actors. I’ve always been a movie fan. One thing I learned early on: Shoot the rehearsal. Don’t wait till someone says this great sutff and then turn on the camera. Most great actors will give it to you different each time anyway.
iW: How is your work as a painter of mega-collages reflected in your films?
JS: I wouldn’t call my work mega-collages. They’re more a fragment of a larger whole.
iW: I stand corrected.
JS: No no, I don’t want to correct you. When we see Emmanuelle Seignier [his wife] come up to Jean-Do in his wheelchair, and lean directly into his vision, we feel like this woman must be 150 feet tall and we’re like Lilliputians.
IW: So you’re playing with a sense of scale.
JS: Yes, and you get the sense that the screen itself is an object. We’re not looking at a picture that’s fitting into it — we’re looking at a picture that’s going past it. And that was something that as a painter was always interesting to me. So obviously that’s something that figures into how I see movies. Also, I like to write and tell stories. And [making films] is a way of using that part of my brain that I don’t use when I’m painting. Or that doesn’t get recorded — I’m not sure that I’m not speaking to myself. The other day in L.A. Harry Dean Stanton said to me, ‘I’m nothing. And you’re nothing. ‘ I said, ‘yes, you’re right. But I like to make things.’
iW: Does it work in reverse, too? Has filmmaking affected your work as a painter?
JS: Yes. In the beginning of the movie you see these X-rays from 1905. Later, I made some paintings from these images. And you don’t know what the hell they are, they’re about 13 feet tall and they look like abstract paintings.
iW: Why, in the opening credits, did you decide to play the song “La Mer” over shots of those X-rays.
JS: I like the incongruity of things. In “Diving Bell” you think [“La Mer”] is the music of humanity asleep. It’s beautiful, it’s saccharine, it has nothing to do with what’s happening to Jean-Do in this moment. Later, when you hear it again over the accident [when he has his stroke], that’s when you get the bang out of your bucks. That’s when I was talking about humanity asleep. I’ve never said that before to anybody.
iW: What do you love or hate about the film business?
JS: Why don’t I just tell you what I love. I love working with actors, with people I admire.
iW: And it’s not as lonely as painting?
JS: I’m not lonely when I’m painting. Painting is a confidante [sic] to me, it’s a way of making my life complete. I’m lonely when I’m out in the world. When I’m painting I feel like I can handle everything.
iW: Why do you always wear pajamas?
JS: I consider we’re all in the hospital and I’m an out patient.