Painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s third feature film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, opens in the United States this week on the heels of mass critical acclaim at film festivals worldwide, including the 2007 Best Director Prize at Cannes. The film is based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of “French Elle” who suffered a massive stroke at age 43 that left him with no physical capabilities other than the use of his left eye. “Jean-Do”, as his friends and family knew him, learned to communicate by using a system developed by one of his physiotherapists. As she read him the alphabet Jean-Do would blink to signify the letter he was looking for. Using this slow, painstaking method, he dictated his memoir to his literary assistant, letter by letter. It was published in 1997, days before Jean-Do passed away, and became an international bestseller and a testament to not only Jean-Do’s bravery, but also his extraordinary wit and artistry.
ComingSoon.Net and a group of other journalists recently sat down with Schnabel, as well as with actors Marie-Josée Croze and Mathieu Almeric to discuss the film.
In directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel has chosen to return to the central theme of his two prior films, namely an exploration of the life and death of an accomplished male artist who died far too young. Basquiat, his first feature in 1996, depicted the life of ’80s downtown New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose in 1988. His next film, Before Night Falls in 2000, portrayed the life of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who committed suicide in 1990 after years of living with the mental and physical ravages of having AIDS. In The Diving Bell and The Butterfly however, it is by way of his physical and mental struggle that Jean-Do discovers his true artistry.
Unlike Basquiat and Arenas, whose artistic abilities and output were challenged by their illnesses, Jean-Do became a true artist as a direct result (and from rebelling against) his medical condition. Perhaps that explains why this film is so uplifting and affirming — as he faces a sure death, Jean-Do evolves into something more than he had ever imagined becoming.
Jean-Do’s story is one that Schnabel freely admits to feeling strongly connected to on a personal level. Schnabel’s father, who died at 92, lived with Schnabel and his wife during the final stages of his life and, according to Schnabel, was not prepared for death and was in tremendous fear about the unknown. The desire to find the meaning in both life and death was what prompted Schnabel to make this film; “I wanted this film to be a tool, like his [Jean-Do’s] book, a self-help device that can help you handle your own death.”
Schnabel’s personal passion and connection to the material was well known and not lost on the actors, who were eager and ready to follow him on the journey of making this film. Mathieu Almaric, the French actor and director who plays Jean-Do in the film, says that Schnabel “managed to bring us in his head–at one point, even I thought it was autobiographical.”
It’s easy to see connections between Jean-Do and Julian Schnabel. They both have been known for living the high life with the hot people. As editor of French Elle and a man known for his amorous, energetic personality, Jean-Do ranked high among the Paris fashion elite, while Schnabel counts Bono, Lou Reed and Johnny Depp among his close friends. On a deeper level, there is the connection between these two men as artists and as human beings, men who cultivated strong devotion in those around them.
Almaric also noticed Schnabel’s strong connection to Jean-Do as they shot the film: “When he [Schnabel] impersonated Jean-Do, he did a great job, and I understood making the film that we were in his head”.
The chance to get in Schnabel’s head was exactly why Almaric, one of France’s busiest actors, took on the job. Almaric admits that for him, choosing roles is solely based on “the world of the director. Is it somebody that is inhabited by something? I don’t really care about the script or the character.”
When getting involved in the film, diving into the colorful world of Julian Schnabel is exactly what Almaric did. “On the last day of shooting Munich, Kathleen Kennedy [the film’s co-producer] gave me an envelope with the script in it. Julian had seen me in a film 10 years before, so he invited me to New York. I thought I would meet him in a hotel and have good times going to museums, and in fact the car at the airport was going out of the city and it drove somewhere. I asked the driver and I realized I am going to stay four days in his home [in Montauk]. It was Thanksgiving, so we did some cooking and shopping and he showed me surf places.”
Marie-Josée Croze, who also had a role in Munich and who plays Jean-Do’s therapist Henriette, had a similarly intimate experience being cast. “I knew Julian was in Paris to meet actresses for the film and because I was in Munich, I think it helped a little bit and Kathleen Kennedy and he met me among other girls and after ten minutes, he gave me the script. I went home and by the time I arrived he called me and he said, I need people like you in my film. Don’t accept any other film. I want you in my film. I said, I haven’t read it yet! He said say yes. So that’s it. No audition, nothing, just reading and talking.”
After hearing Marie Josée’s story, Almaric smiled. “He’s not really looking for actors. He’s looking for people with whom he’d like to spend a moment and go somewhere together.”
These intimate relationships continued to develop throughout the making of the film. Schnabel in fact relied on his French speaking actors to translate Ronald Harwood’s script from its original English into French.
“He would call us and we went to his house and would work on sequences, stop, have a sandwich,” Croze recalls.
“And always he would want to know, how would YOU say it?” says Almaric.
Johnny Depp was originally the lead contender for the role of Jean Do, and had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. After witnessing Almaric’s performance, however, it is impossible to imagine any other actor playing Jean-Do. “He’s so bright”, Schnabel says, “and the fact that he’s French and he grew up there, he’s got all these colloquial expressions down to the point where, you know, you see this movie and don’t feel like a tourist made this movie. You feel like French people made this movie. It is French.”
One gets the impression that for actors, working for Schnabel is both frightening and exhilarating. It certainly sounds economical, in terms of an actor’s time. Scenes are usually shot in one take. Says Schnabel: “I don’t rehearse with the actors. I sit with them beforehand and I translated the movie into French with each one separately ’cause they’re gonna say whatever, it’s gonna come out of their mouth so I wanted it to feel natural. They trust me and I shoot the rehearsal. So they walk in there, and you know the technicians complain about that a bit but they understand after all because I don’t want somebody to do something really great and then all of a sudden I have to say, can you do that again? ‘Cause they won’t do it again. So a lot of these takes are, you know, the first take.”
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly certainly looks like no film before it. Shot on location in France in the actual seaside hospital where Jean-Do recovered, Schnabel worked closely with his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, to create the visual imagery for the film. Using a device borne out of Ronald Harwood’s script, the entire film is shot from the vantage point of Jean-Do’s point of view. Jean-Do’s remaining vision in his left eye was blurred and fractured, and this is brilliantly rendered on screen. In contrast, when Jean-Do retreats into his inner world of imagination, fantasy and memory, the screen comes to life with lush, fantastic color and life. “I wanted us to be inside his body”, Schnabel says.
Besides the gorgeous imagery Schnabel creates, music plays an integral part in the film, maybe since Schnabel served as his own music supervisor. After failing to secure the rights to a favorite record, “Glenn Gould Plays Bach,” Schnabel and a sound designer spent considerable effort taking the recording apart to recreate it as much as possible. Their end version, for Schnabel, was a concession and “maybe the only compromise in the movie.”
As for other song choices in the film, Schnabel was equally passionate: “I knew that I was gonna use that U2 song [“Ultra Violet (Baby, Light My Way)”] always. I was with him in Cannes [in 1992] and I drove to Neem to meet my wife. I rented this Mercedes and I was driving 120 miles an hour listening to the song and I thought, ‘If I ever make a movie, this song is gonna be there.’ You know, Bono’s a friend of mine and we drive around and he sings to me sometimes in the car when we are driving.”
Another song that made it on the soundtrack was “Chains of Love” by the Detroit-based band The Dirtbombs, whose soul-influenced punk rock sound was an interesting musical choice for the soundtrack alongside songs by the likes of U2 and Tom Waits. When asked how he selected them, Schnabel lit up: “Interesting question. A friend of mine who’s a skateboarder left [the CD] at my house in Montauk and I picked it up by mistake. I didn’t even know what it was and I was in France and I stuck it in and I heard “Chains of Love” and I thought what the hell is this, this is a great song, and they’re great.”
The feeling is mutual. On the band’s website, there is an extremely charming story by the band about being invited to play in Cannes, meeting Schnabel, and being completely blown away by what a great guy he was. One band member wrote: “What a laid-back and cool guy. I was honestly impressed. I remember Jack White saying about Jim Jarmusch that he just ‘seemed like a guy who was in a band’ and while that comment is so obtusely vague, I could immediately understand and comprehend how he meant it. Anyway, Schnabel (to me) just seemed like he was a guy in a band”.
Schabel, the artist, filmmaker, and passable guy from a band, has soared new heights with The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. The real test, of course, is in watching this movie, because as Schnabel himself pointed out, “The movie speaks for itself. Leo Steinberg once said the horse’s mouth is the answer. The Artist is just the horse”.