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The Inside Man

Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Scott Macaulay interviewed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel for the Fall ’07 issue. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is nominated for Best Director (Julian Schnabel), Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood), Editing (Juliette Welfling) and Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski).

Most films draw us in with some promise of possibility. Buy a ticket, sit back and have your world expanded for a couple of hours. Be someone new and go places you’ll probably never see in your own life.

But there’s another sort of movie that derives its drama from the opposite journey. Movies as diverse as Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot and Gary Tarn’s recent doc Black Sun place the audience within a world that’s drastically — and painfully — smaller than their own. Through the strength of their storytelling, these films both dramatize their protagonists’ quests to conquer the challenges of their new worlds while confronting viewers with the existential questions posed by their dilemmas. Julian Schnabel’s third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is a challenging, sagacious and unexpectedly sensuous addition to this genre. Adapted from the best-selling memoir, the film tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor at French Elle, who is one day stricken with locked-in syndrome. Although his mind functions perfectly, he is paralyzed except for the ability to move one eye. In a harrowing tour de force reel of filmmaking, Schnabel shoots the beginning of the film almost entirely from Bauby’s viewpoint, forcing us into the most extreme identification with his character.

As the film progresses, however, it opens up. The details of this world — the color of the columns in the hospital hallway, the hue of the linoleum on the floor — seduce us. Bauby develops relationships with a series of spectacular nurses who not only teach him to communicate but also enable him to write the book the film is based on. By the film’s end, we are living comfortably within Bauby’s world, like him no longer scared, and a simple change of season provides all the excitement and sense of accomplishment we need.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is Schnabel’s third film dealing with death and an artist, won him the Best Director award at Cannes this year (and will be released by Miramax in November). It caps a typically busy year for him that included not only his art direction of the newly reopened Gramercy Hotel in New York City but also his live theatrical staging of Lou Reed’s Berlin album in New York, Sydney and Los Angeles. In Toronto, he not only screened The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but also his film Berlin, which should also see a release sometime in the next year.


Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you dubbed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a “treatise about dying.” As an artist making a movie about another artist confronting mortality, how did your own feelings about, and perhaps fears of death and dying, affect your approach?

Schnabel: Well fortunately or unfortunately, I think coming to grips with [the process of dying] is part of what it is to be alive. It takes up a good part of being alive, in fact. So I don’t really separate his experience from mine — or yours — and that’s probably what’s good about the movie. But I guess the notion of transgressing death by making art probably had something to do with the making of this movie too.

Filmmaker: You had a certain distance because it was someone else’s story?

Schnabel: I’ve never been able to separate intellect from feeling. People who can do that — I don’t trust them. Fred Hughes, who used to work for Andy Warhol, had MS and got progressively worse over the years. We were friends and when he was lying in his house and couldn’t speak anymore, I used to read to him. His nurse, Darin McCormick, gave me this book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as a gift. One year my kids were out of school for Christmas, and we were going to Mexico. My father, who died on January 17, 2004, [was sick] and I couldn’t bring him with us. I thought of who could take care of him [when I was away] and Darin McCormick came to mind. He came to my studio one day in December, and it was the same day that the script of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly arrived. So I wasn’t analytical at all about it. [Making the movie] had very much to do with me trying to deal with my father’s death. The movie is really a self-help device.

Filmmaker: When you say “the script arrived,” what do you mean? Had you been developing it, or was it something offered to you by a producer?

Schnabel: They had asked Johnny Depp if he wanted to play this role and he wanted me to direct the movie so the script was sent to me. [That script] was written by Ron Harwood, and then I worked on it. Like I said, I had had the book for some years, but I didn’t plan on making the movie. I did think about making a movie about Fred, who I knew pretty well. I thought, here he is lying in this bed, and I know all the things that he did and what an active life he had. The idea of this person being still and the audience knowing what is going on in his head — that’s a structure I like. I had written a script for the book Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that was similar in a way because the main character had a sense of smell that was extraordinary. He could travel through his olfactory senses in the same way that Jean-Dominique Bauby could travel with his imagination and his memory. So I applied some of the [devices] I used in the script for Perfume to the script that I received that day from [producer] Kathy Kennedy.

Filmmaker: How much did you change it?

Schnabel: I made it into French — it was written in English. I couldn’t see having English and American people making believe they have French accents speaking in English and then watching a French audience watch the movie in English reading French subtitles. I also thought it was very important to go to France and be at the hospital where this [story] took place, where Jean-Do actually was. The author wrote it based on the book, but I went there and met his best friends and talked to them and found out a lot of things that made me change things or made things make more sense to me. For example when his wife says to him, “Do you want to see your kids?” and he says, “No” — in the script he originally says “Yes,” but the fact of the matter is that he didn’t want to see his kids. Anne-Marie Perrier, who was his best friend, picked him up in an ambulance one day and took him to see another man with locked-in syndrome who lived at home with his family. The two of them sat facing each other and then at the end of the day he was taken back to the hospital. After seeing how another man who had locked-in syndrome could still be a father, I think he realized that he was still a father. Even a shadow of a father is still a father, and I think he came to understand that later.

Filmmaker: How much of the characters of the nurses are like those real people? To some degree, the film almost has a quality like Fellini’s 8½ with this artist meditating all of these beautiful and interesting women.

Schnabel: The first lady you see is his real nurse, and his physiotherapist, this guy Daniel, the one who is holding him in the swimming pool — he was his nurses’ aide. All the medical details are probably about 95 percent accurate. We had people [in the film] doing what they really did with Jean-Do — they were the actual people who worked with him. [But referring to the principal nurses and the <8½ reference,] I think that’s true. It’s my version obviously of how I see these people. The [real] people are one thing and the people in the movie are something else. What I was more interested in was the bigger picture of what he achieved rather than how his girlfriend and the mother of his kids felt about each other. The movie ended up being about men and women and the way women were able to really be many things to him. He needed all of them in his life for different reasons. One was able to teach him the alphabet, one supplied him with some kind of connection to his kids, another one with a fantasy life. One helped him finish his book.

Filmmaker: Why was it important to shoot in that exact hospital? Your film feels, quite precisely, art-directed — it doesn’t have a doc-like feel at all.

Schnabel: I thought it was very important to go to the hospital where Jean-Do actually was. The tide goes in and out about 500 meters, back and forth, every day there. It looks like you’re on the moon. [Jean-Do] wrote that you’re on the far side of life when you’re out there, and that’s definitely part of this [story]. I think I saw a lot of Antonioni inside of the arch of the hospital and the landscape around there, so [his films] popped into my mind sometimes too. I also built the room that would work for me in the hospital.

Filmmaker: You sort of turned the hospital into a stage?

Schnabel: Yes. I made the floor with linoleum squares because I thought, okay, when people talk to you, well maybe you don’t want to look at them, even if they’re talking to you. You can look at the floor, or their hand, or their leg. Jean-Do could look up at the fluorescent lights and the ceiling, particularly if somebody was telling him something he didn’t want to hear.

Filmmaker: Your films have always mixed score music with very memorable source cues that seem to be drawn from all over. How do you select the music for your films and at what point do those selections occur?

Schanabel: I always listen to music, carry it around with me; I know [certain songs] are going to pop up [in my movies] some time or another. I always thought “Pale Blue Eyes” was going to play in that scene on that boat. Years ago I was going to meet my wife — I was in Cannes and rented this Mercedes convertible and drove 110 miles an hour to meet her listening to “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” by U2, and I knew that I was going to use that song with that girl’s hair flying around way before I shot this movie. Paul Cantelon [who composed the score] was a child prodigy and then was hit by a car and had total amnesia. Years later, he was playing the piano and said, “Hey Mom, listen to this,” and she said, “That’s Bach.” So he identified with this [Jean-Do’s] life and his problem. One day he came to me with these preludes he had written. One of them was perfect, so that was it. There’s some Nino Rota music [in the film] and also Nelson Riddle playing the theme to Lolita. Whenever I would watch the dailies I’d play music and see how things fit. You try to invent other kinds of music, but many times I’ll go back to something I thought of originally. In Before Night Falls I used the Popul Vuh music from Aguirre: the Wrath of God, and there was another bit of Ennio Morricone from The Battle of Algiers.

Filmmaker: You said you spoke to the real people who were involved in this story, but obviously the one person you could not speak to was Jean-Do himself. Did making this film reveal to you something you had not surmised about his character?

Schnabel: I didn’t realize that he probably felt he was selected instead of cursed. It was as if some, I don’t know, God or whoever, said: “You can be a great artist and have no body or you can be perfectly healthy and normal but you’ll be an ordinary person: Which one would you like to be?” I think he was an ordinary guy who was talented when he was a magazine editor but he became somebody else when he became the author of this work.

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