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Julian Schnabel – Continues to Dive Into Filmmaking with The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel

Continues to Dive Into Filmmaking with The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

by Brad Balfour

Director Julian Schnabel comes to filmmaking under odd circumstances. Long before he made his first film, he was a world-class fine artist – the self-proclaimed lion of the New York art world – whose paintings and other works were not only in museums internationally, but have become worth millions. So he didn’t turn to filmmaking as the core expression of his art-making. Prior to establishing this cinematic turn, he made a name for himself throughout the 1980s as a neo-expressionist painter (some of his work involved painted-over smashed plates glued to wooden panels).

Accordingly, the 56-year-old Brooklyn-born creator has been very picky about what films he decided to make. His first screen effort, Basquiat, was a biopic made in ’96 about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young painter who came of age in the early ’80s, just as Schnabel did, but died of a heroin overdose at 28.

Schnabel then released his second film, Before Night Falls, in 2000, a tale about another doomed artist, Reinaldo Arenas, the late Cuban poet/novelist who was persecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality in his homeland and then escaped to New York where he committed suicide (with drugs and alcohol in 1990) after battling AIDS. That film garnered much praise and an Oscar nom for Javier Bardem who played Arenas.

While Schnabel struggled for several years to do the film Perfume, he was handed Jean-Dominque (Jean-Do) Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, and decided that would be his next project. Shot entirely in French – starring actors Mathieu Amalric as Bauby and Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette (his nurse) who, ironically, were both in Steven Spielberg’s Munich (though they had no scenes together). Schnabel is apparently now at work on a doc about Lou Reed’s 2006 live concert performance of his 1973 concept album Berlin, filmed over five nights at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

You have been quoted as saying, “I wanted this film – like the book – to be a device to help you handle your own death.” Can you elaborate on that?

My father was always scared to die. I didn’t really notice that until the last part of his life. At 92, he did finally die at my house and, a couple weeks before, he felt like he was falling all the time. I wish I could have put the floor underneath him in some way.  I used to take a nap every day in the summer with my father. So I’d lie there, with my arm around him. Now he’s not there and I lie in that bed in my studio and my son puts his arm around me. Anyway, I was always scared to die my whole life. I was trying to fix it for him so he wouldn’t be scared. I made it as comfortable as I could for him.

I was getting ready to go to a show on a Friday night. I was in bed with my wife and she said, “I don’t think your dad’s going to be here when we get back.” I said, you think he looks that bad? So I went upstairs and put him in the bathtub. I told him not to shit in the bathtub, but he did anyway. He was relaxed. Darren [McCormick, who was his father’s nurse], who actually gave me the book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was in the room. He was so nervous. I was pouring hot water from the sink into the bathtub. My father gave me this text, an epic poem which is five pages long – and he never written a word in his life. In it, he wrote, “You’re a gem of a man, I wonder where people like you are hatched. God sent you to me. Do me a favor, give me a scratch. Put me to sleep so I can be reborn. I wish my wife was alive, she’d tell you what a good man I am.” So the state my father was in was this place between life and death. I know he felt good when I put him in the bath. The next morning, Darren called me and asked about him. Five minutes later he came up. My dad had bile coming out of his mouth, his eyes were flickering, and he looked terrified. And then he died. I said “Dad!” thinking that he had enough oxygen in his head to hear my voice.

I didn’t want to make this movie at first, you know? Fred Hughes [who had been Andy Warhol’s business partner and friend] was sick [he died in 2001 of complications from multiple sclerosis]. I used to read to Fred over on Lexington Avenue. Darren worked for me [at the time]. He handed me this book almost seven years ago. At the time, I was so involved with [making a film of the book]

Julian Schnabel making "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Julian Schnabel making “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Perfume, I really wanted to make the movie about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille [the lead character in the novel], but both of them I thought, “What is that thing that movies can do? It’s that parallel life that runs along the other life.” Like in Sunset Boulevard, [there is] Bill Holden’s line about himself while [he’s] in the swimming pool. “There I am in dead in the swimming pool.” And he can speak to you from that. It’s encouraging and so I thought that Jean-Dominique Bauby was reporting back from this place that nobody had ever reported back from. And in that he found a whole other life. That year he spent writing that book – in the process of working, in the process of becoming an artist, he gave up his body to have that P.O.V. I think he found his interior life. The question I have asked myself my whole life is, “When is that moment, when you feel like you can accept your own death.” It’s not just a freak-out anymore. When is that moment?

One day I was sitting in Cannes with my son, Vito, and my father had died. All of a sudden [Vito] stood up and put his hand on my back and he left the table. At that moment, he turned into my father. That transference had taken place. I was always wondering when do you become mature? My mother’s case, she had congestive heart failure, so she died so many times she wasn’t scared. My dad who had never been sick was just the nothingness. But somehow through this, I found that there’s a permanence. I was reading this stuff by [the late Russian director Andrei] Tarkovsky recently and he was talking about, “Life contains death. Art, unlike life, doesn’t contain death.” So it’s a denial of death; it’s life-affirming. As [Tarkovsky] said, “There’s no optimistic or pessimistic artist. There’s just talent and mediocrity.” Even if the subject is in ruin or disaster, there’s no pessimistic art.

And I thought, this guy [Bauby] turned his life into art and what he was able to do, what was satisfying about it, is that he was able to [transcend] death by writing that book. When sound goes out of the movie and you hear Claude’s voice say, “I had one last thought, ‘I’m going to be late to the theater.’ Then I sank into a coma.” And she’s got the book in her hand, and he’s managed to hand over the baton to her. I think that the information of looking into your interior life makes you alive. The people who are just living and are unconscious, they’re not alive, whether your body is working or not. He had that opportunity to look into his interior life. I think that, to find that kind of peace in there is confidant to anybody who would be sick, anybody who would feel alone because you really feel like it’s happening to you. You look at the movie and it’s happening to him and it’s happening to you at the same time. The line between those two things is invisible.

Some of your paintings are about destruction and rebirth. Do you consider art your assignment of immortality?

Yes. I didn’t know that as a kid. I thought it was too pretentious to think that you want to have immortality and a heavy-handed thing to talk about if you’re just making stuff. But as I get older, and realize what things last – that you can pick up a book by W.H. Auden and can read his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” and he’s talking about Icarus in that poem. When you see how those sculptures in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and a young, beautiful woman is looking at the torso of Aristotle or someone, and we’re looking at her…

I was talking to [the actor] Harry Dean Stanton the other day, who is 81 years old now, he said “We’re nothing. I’m nothing.” And I said, “Yes, I am nothing too. We’re both nothing, but I like to make things. And that’s something.” But on the other hand, if you look at Reinaldo Arenas he said the same thing: “This is nothing. But when I write about it, it will be something.” That’s an interesting thing to think about [Schnabel made his second film, Before Night Falls based on the memoirs of this gay exiled Cuban novelist]. I remember when [art rebel and Warhol actor] Rene Ricard said, “When I talk, people think I’m silly. But when I write it down, they believe it’s true.” I think art does function as some kind of chance to – just think we can watch the movie Andrei Rublev [directed by Tarkovsky; released in 1973]. We can see the 16th century in black and white in Russia. It’s timeless.

And so I didn’t know I was going to make movies also. They don’t take the place of making paintings. But I like that about it too. Making a film about this subject, which dogged me and bothered me in life, has been extremely helpful. You probably go to a lot of roundtables where you talk to a lot of actors, a lot of directors, but I wonder how many of them actually talk about this stuff. Maybe everybody does, but that seems to really be about “What are we about?” “What is consciousness?” “What is love?” It doesn’t seem to be about beyond the story.

The about the look of the film perfectly fits the subject; what kind of input did you have with your cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski?

No, no. He did everything [laughs].

Emmanuelle Seigner in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Emmanuelle Seigner in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

How did you pick him?

I saw him at the Oscars. When he received the thing for [Steven Spielberg’s] Schindler’s List [he also won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.]. I thought that if I could get him then I could make a good movie. And he was excellent. He’s very fast and understood what I wanted to do. He once said to me, “Is this going to be an experimental film?” I said I hope so. But I think what he was saying to me when he said it was, “Were only four people going to watch it?” And I thought it was a big film because it was a big topic. I knew what I wanted the movie to look like. I obviously, the way I tell a story, the language is printed on the page. Then there are images that run alongside of it, and music influences and is equivalent to storytelling. I knew what kind of lens I wanted to use from the beginning. I think what he was able to bring to it was many things. He has so much experience. He’s been good with temporal light. In Munich, when they’re walking in Tel Aviv, you feel like it’s the ’70s and it’s in Tel Aviv.

Or in Saving Private Ryan, those kind of crushed blacks and that sort of thing. But in this particular case, he had the opportunity to do things that most people wouldn’t do. Shooting the waking-up scene, the death scene. He’s got this crank camera, and he’s winding and rewinding at different speeds on top of his own film. It’s done right away. So it’s not done in post-production. When I’ve got somebody blinking, I got my fingers on the lens. And that’s the eyelashes there. There’s other kinds of blinks my editor, Juliette Welfling… she did a great job. Probably of all the people, except maybe Mathieu Amalric, and the other actors, who was my favorite person to work with. This woman edited Jacques Audiard’s films, Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. She’s a great editor. She was not hung up on things that wouldn’t bother me also. There was a freedom in the she would do stuff and the brutal physicality in that film. Everybody else said yes, and I had my ideal cast. It was beautiful. That’s the greatest compliment.

Filmmaking can be a frustrating process. Would you make more films if it were a less complicated process?

I think that I make the movies at the speed I like to make them. I would have made Perfume probably – that’s the only movie I wanted to make. Seven years went by and it evolved into this movie. When people come out of the movie, there’s some sort of spell on them. It sounds a little pretentious, but they walk out and they seem affected in some way, like they took a drug. I don’t think I’m exaggerating?

It evokes a sensory reaction, I wouldn’t call it a smell, but…

It doesn’t have to be about smell but you are altered in some way.

The movie makes you feel differently about sensory perception.

The idea is that if art can make you see the world differently then it has worked. I thought maybe my dad could have included some of this information into his psyche and then went to that place and he could have come up in those glaciers just like Jean-Do [Bauby] did. Now I’ve shown this movie to some people who were paralyzed. Paul Cantelon, the composer [of the soundtrack], who from five to 12, was a child prodigy; then he was hit by a car when he was 12. He had total amnesia. The guy who trained him wasted seven years of his life with him other than the pleasure of playing with him. At 17, he’s playing the piano one day, and he goes to his mother, who is a piano teacher, “Hey mom check this it, I just made this.” She goes, “Come on, Paul, that’s just Bach.” It came back.

Max Von Sydow and Mathieu Amalric in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Max Von Sydow and Mathieu Amalric in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

The respect and delicacy with which he was treated with the hospital milieu, was that in the book or was that your take on it?

I felt that delicacy and compassion and love from the people who worked in the hospital. So I just took the high road and went with them. And any bickering that was among the women who all loved him – for example Sandrine, who was Henriette, and who probably wanted to transcribe his book but couldn’t…. Interestingly, I showed the script to Isabel Huppert and she said she wanted to be – well she actually wanted to be Jean-Do [laughs] – Sandrine or Henriette and Claude [all three of the women]. The fact is one could not accommodate this, and he needed these real women in his life to accommodate his own desires. And whatever the truth was about the wife and the girlfriend – really the girlfriend spent more time with him and he left the book to his wife and kids so he wrote it like that. I included more stuff about how he really loved that girl. And he didn’t live at home.

I thought what he had to say to other people like my dad or people who were sick and in hospitals – I’ve had doctors and nurses who have asked to show this film in hospitals for the patients and themselves because they felt like somebody was understanding what was being communicated – was more important than the petty jealousies between them. So I thought, the true story – his wife was not at his deathbed, his girlfriend was. In the script she wasn’t but I put her in there. But I also found out things about his death that were not in the script that I needed to know in order to tell the story the right way.

If somebody asked me if I wanted to hear the reviews before I died of my show, I’d say no. But that’s me and my life. Jean-Do wanted to be on that [TV] show Apostrophe and he wanted people to know he wrote that book and that they did that documentary about him. Matthieu said he’d say yes. I went looking into it and I asked Bernard [Chapuey] about the last day and he said, “We all went into the room at a different moment. And then there was one moment when I was talking and the doctor said, ‘He’s dead.’ I said, ‘What do you mean he’s dead? His eye’s open, he’s breathing. The doctor said, ‘It’s the machine.’ She’s reading the reviews to a dead guy.” So it just worked for the movie. It had just that irony. I don’t know what the word is. But what I wanted to say in that he accomplished what he wanted to and it didn’t matter what the reviews were.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: January 22, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2008. Courtesy of Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2008. Courtesy of Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2008. Courtesy of Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.#4 © 2008. Courtesy of Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.

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