NYFF Interview: Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel spoke to the assembled audience immediately following the screening of his movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (read my review here); wearing a shirt with the three top buttons undone and a massive beard, Schnabel insisted the moderator wait a few moments before asking questions, to let the audience “digest the film.” The following conversation took some rambling turns, and may require a little work to follow, but is worth the effort.

Schnabel: It’s good to be here. Every day above ground is good. It’s nice to be in New York, it’s nice to be home.

How did the project get to you?

Schnabel: Fred Hughes, who used to work for Andy Warhol, had MS. When Andy died, he got progressively worse, and finally wound up in his house on Lexington Avenue in his bed in the middle of the living room. I used to go and read to him. Darren McCormick, who was his nurse, gave me the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a gift. Some years later my father [...] got sick. I usually go to Mexico for Christmas with the kids, but I couldn’t take him that year, so I called Darren McCormick and asked him if he would watch my dad and write down whatever my father said. He stayed with my father, but the day he arrived, which was December of 2003, the script came from Kathleen Kennedy. When my father died, he was terrified of death. I felt like I had failed him because I couldn’t help him through that. I really made this movie, I think, as a self-help device. I’ve always had a problem with death. I think that Jean-Dominique Bauby actually helped me out a lot. I couldn’t help my dad, but I thought I could help somebody else. I really made it for my father.

Were there any other people who considered it?

Schnabel: Ron Howard wrote a script that Kathleen Kennedy sent to me. Johnny Depp and I are very good friends, so she wanted Johnny to do this, and Johnny wanted me to direct it. Then he fell out of it because of the Pirates stuff. It was too difficult for him to do both, and I didn’t want to put the pressure on him.

What were the biggest problems about making [Mathieu Amalric, who played Bauby] be still? What was the process?

Schnabel: He’s an extraordinary person. He said, ‘I don’t really need to be an actor, I just need to be a human being to do this.’ That’s not really true. He is a great human being, but he’s an incredible actor. Incredible’s sort of an innocuous word; he is brilliant. He really taught me a lot. When we shot, Mathieu was lying there so still for such a long time that I forgot that he could move. After a while I said ‘OK,’ but you know, for such a long time he practiced being still. Can you imagine lying there indefinitely? The kind of self-control was extraordinary. I didn’t go into the diving bell, but I know why Jean-Dominique Bauby picked that metaphor, because it is terrifying in there. We were in the water, he was in this suit. He’s very tough and brave; I never could have gone in there. There was one moment where he was acting like he was freaked out and the guy who was photographing him stopped photographing and pulled him out. This made Mathieu furious, he had to tell the guy, ‘Listen, I’m acting.’ In this case I thought, God, that’s the worst possible thing that could happen to me. Then I talked to [Bauby’s friend] Bernard and he said, ‘You know, Jean-Do said “I have been reborn as someone else.”’ And I think, at that moment, he really felt like he was a good writer. I think in a sense when he was healthy he was quite superficial and very normal. [After the stroke] all of a sudden this guy was put at this vantage point that was very unique. He was able to speak back from that place, and I think he reported back some things that are able to help all of us.

How did you work with your cinematographer and your actors to develop that first-person style in the beginning of the film?

Schnabel: The crew thought I was going to abandon that at certain moments. How long, they thought, can people take this thing? Is this going to get in the way of the storytelling? I felt like his POV was him, was us, I didn’t want to lose that. When I first read this thing, I was wondering ‘How the hell do we do this thing?’ How do you get the actors not to feel like this is surgically prepared? Sometimes I took my glasses off and screwed them into the lens. I decided early on that I wanted to use a swing and tilt lens, which is something that makes it kind of fuzzy, like you put Vaseline on the lens. You can adjust it to make it crisper or more obscure. That was a real key for me, that lens. That’s something that I decided to do before I ever met the DP. Most of the things that would be done digitally we did in the camera. [...] In the case of Claude, he gets so close to her he doesn’t even have to talk to her. You know that he’s thinking what she’s thinking. They evolve into that. [Schnabel goes on to discuss a segment of the film that uses a stock photo of Marlon Brando] He said I’d like to remember myself when I was glamorous and debonair and devilishly handsome. And I thought, ‘Well, he wasn’t really that handsome.’ Jean-Dominique Bauby wasn’t very handsome, and Mathieu can be very attractive but... I thought, everybody will think Marlon Brando is handsome. I love these pictures. I actually own those photographs of him horsing around on the set of Candy. I always wanted to make a movie with Marlon Brando. I had asked him to play Lezama Lima in Before Night Falls, and he called me and said ‘I don’t know if I can do that. Can I play this with a French accent?’ I said ‘You’re playing Jose Lezama Lima, the most important Cuban poet.’ And he said ‘Yeah, but I have this thing where I have a Spanish accent, it wouldn’t be good for my career.’ And I said ‘Your career? What career, you’re Marlon Brando!’ So I got to have him in the movie.

Talk a little about the rhythm of the film. That was the first thing that really struck me.

Schnabel: I’m not going to ask everybody to raise their hand who took LSD in this room. I’ll spare you that embarrassment. I did. I had some good trips and I had some bad ones. When I had one bad one when I was about 16 years old, I went out and I was surfing. My surfboard felt like it was made out of paper. I went on the beach, and all of a sudden that song by the Chambers Brothers comes on [sings] ‘Time...ch ch ch ch ch ch...time!’ And then it got better, and then it came back later. I went home and my father was watching Bonanza from this apartment we had in Texas. I got in bed with my dad and I said ‘Dad, put your arm around me,’ and he did, and I felt the stability of all that. But, the way that would come back. I went to some seafood restaurant about an hour and a half later, and in the bathroom it was ‘Time...ch ch ch ch ch.’ So, the diving bell is death. [...] Maybe death is not horrific for everybody in this room, but in this case it was this thing coming back like a bad trip. He was in that bed, he was in that bed all the time. What he was able to do for himself was figure out a way to escape. The reason the movie starts like that is because you’re in there, and at first, you ain’t getting outta there. [Later talking about the framing of the film] You get wonderful privilege to reframe everything. If you believe that guy can’t move his head, you’re not going to say ‘Hey, this guy Schnabel doesn’t know how to frame a movie, he cut the heads off of these two people. How come he doesn’t move the screen up?’ Some people have to go out into the world and see what they can see, and other people, you look into your interior life, and you can find a rich reservoir of places to go.

Did you know from the start how you wanted to design the credit sequence?

Schnabel: I designed the front and back credits. I usually do everything. I work with everybody, but I kind of have a hand in everything. I think for me, in Perfume [Schnabel originally planned to direct an adaptation of the novel], there were things similar between Jean-Dominique Bauby and Jean-Baptist Grenouille. In Grenouille’s case, he could smell anywhere, he could smell glaciers falling down. Jean-Do could imagine all of these things. There were things that I wanted to put in Perfume that I was able to adapt to this. For me the key of telling the story to this movie was finding those glaciers. I don’t know why, but I saw those glaciers there. Once I found that, I thought, OK I can make this movie. Once you get to that moment in the film, when that happens, you realize I’m going to see something that I’m not expecting to see here, and I’m ready for the ride. And at the end, I wanted him to go and be a part of everything again, as if we could. It’s a Buddhist film in that sense, that we all go back to be part of something.

You have made many of your films about artists. Why is that?

I guess I know more about being an artist than I know about being a stockbroker. I don’t know a damn thing about basketball. When people have asked me to make movies, like I was asked if I wanted to make 8 Mile, or I was even sent the script to American Gangster...they don’t need me to do that. It’s not my intention to do biographies in particular. I think most things come from life, and novels come from life, they come from experiences. I guess make movies about things that I’m familiar with.

How was the film received in Cannes, and how did you feel about the reception?

Schnabel: Well, I did receive Best Director in Cannes, so that was a good response. As far as the distribution, I think the people love the movie in France. I loved the reaction. First of all, all of the people that worked on the movie were great. My cameraman was a little weird sometimes because he thought I was crazy, and I think the crew, sometimes they didn’t know what I was doing. They had to wait and see, and then I think they were happy. But the actors always believed in me, and I never had to wait for one of them or explain too much to anybody. In terms of the response of the people, I think the response was amazing. I think it’s very authentic.

There seem to be a lot of painterly references in this film.

Schnabel: It’s probably the most autobiographical film that I’ve made. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel; I’m just trying to tell the story. It seemed to me, that in this particular situation-- I’m very bored when I see most movies. There’s the two-shot, there’s the over-the-shoulder shot. Whatever the text is, there’s a subtext of visual language that I feel is very tired. This situation gave me a lot of freedom. He could travel with his imagination and his memory-- I could put anything in this movie that I wanted to, and that was very liberating. [...] I think the response was great in France. I think it was quite bold, if you have three directors that you’re going to select from France, that one would be an American who was representing France at the film festival. Probably if I was French I would have won the Palme d’Or. If you really want to know what happened, I was winning the Palme d’Or until about 2 o’clock that day.

How important was it for you to get the biographical details right?

Schnabel: It was extremely important to get it right. I think that Mathieu really understood this character. I translated each of the characters into French with each of the actors. We never rehearsed, we just basically translated each of their roles. I’m in the theory of filmmaking where we all jump in a hole, and if we can crawl out we go home at the end of the day. And it usually works.

Did you have medical advice from doctors, and have you shown this to schools of medicine?

Schnabel: I shot this movie in the hospital. The first woman you see is his nurse. The guy that’s holding him in the pool is his physiotherapist. It’s 95% accurate. I took a couple of liberties. [...] It’s just one of those things where if you lean toward a divine light, maybe it’ll hit you. We showed this film where there’s a hospital where they have locked-in syndrome patients. They invited me to a screening. Doctors and nurses were up there, and a nurse got up and she said that because this film existed, they felt like people understood how they were communicating, encouraged them. The doctors and the patients, it gave them a lot of hope. They showed it to a lot of people who were sick. There was one guy, I was sitting on the bed with him and we were watching this, and bed was shaking because he was crying. I said ‘Do you want me to turn it off?’ and he said ‘No no no, don’t turn it off.’ I don’t know how I got in the head of this thing-- I tried to show what my father was feeling. I didn’t intend this in that way, but the response from the medical community-- I’m very proud that it was so accurate, but all I had to do was ask somebody in the hospital, ‘Would you do this?’ I never could have made this movie in a sound studio in Los Angeles.

What was the experience like for people who had actually worked with Bauby?

Schnabel: The people who worked on this thing I think were very proud. I was very impressed with these people. You wonder, why does somebody have to be paralyzed for you to find compassion out in the world. These people are so patient and they’re so selfless, and it was a pleasure to be around them.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend