Director Julian Schnabel on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The RT Interview

We talk to the helmer of one of this year's Cannes triumphs.

by | February 8, 2008 | Comments

Julian Schnabel - M. Caulfield/WireImage.comThe Diving Bell and The Butterfly is the title of a book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at the age of 42 and while the editor of Elle in France suffered a massive stroke, which should have killed him. Instead it left him with a condition called Locked-In Syndrome, however his imagination remained intact, as did the ability to blink one eye and so he dictated his story.

Julian Schnabel‘s previous films Basquiat and Before Night Falls are tales of real lives dominated by trauma and tragedy. Schnabel is an artist in the truest sense; he makes art. He attracts like-minded individuals; Johnny Depp is not so much an admirer, more a kindred spirit. Transforming a heart-breaking story into an entertaining film needed an artist’s hand and eye and luckily this film got it. RT sat down with Schnabel to learn more.

Now it’s all done how do you view the film and the book?

Julian Schnabel: I think the book was a good place to begin. It’s a wonderful book and I think Jean-Dominique’s contribution was bigger than the battles between the women that were coveting his attention. Also for them there was a cloud and a lack of closure, which the movie settles. The children told me that they could get on with their lives and I think everybody was happy.

How did you react to the children saying that?

JS: I felt very good. His girlfriend told me they has seen me at a bullfight, and that’s how I knew that he went to the town of Nimes and so all of the images that came out of the bullfights were in there, so she was really helpful.

Many people who aren’t mentioned in the book or the film were really very helpful. But I needed to go to the hospital, see all those people and I figured that once I got there I would figure out how to start.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The opening sequence is extraordinary; we, the audience, become Bauby’s one working eye, which is how the book starts. Were you tempted to do it differently?

JS: No. Ron Harwood wrote it into his script, but it is the way of showing it, which is specific to the experience. For example, the opening credits are these X-Rays, so it puts you in the mood right away. Especially when the music comes in, and the sound of a bullfighting drinking song in his head, which is what he heard in his coma, which gradually fades away as he comes back to life. Most of the shot is done inside the camera, and we filmed in the actual hospital.

What I liked about it is that there is no prelude you just jump in and you are there. You get the picture as soon as the guy says to him, “Don’t worry, your speech will come back.” And then he realises nobody’s hearing him.

So there were a lot of different elements to what finally became the opening shot and the movie as a whole.

Tell me about the humour, because on the face of it this is an extremely sad and tragic tale but there is a lot of humour in the movie.

JS: Somebody told me the movie is funnier than the book. I think it’s a combination of Mathieu Amalric (the actor who plays Bauby) and me looking at what was in front of us, with me putting it there and him seeing it and saying whatever came into his mind. This is a collaborative effort remember; the book, Ron Harwood’s script and Mathieu who is in a sound proof box where he can see what the camera sees and he can say whatever he wants in response.

I think it was also important not to lose the poetic nature of Jean’s language, which I think could scare a writer, thinking it will be too flowery. But you have this other voice; the one of the jokes, the one of talking about what is happening as it’s going on. But the writer’s voice is important when Jean-Dominique asks of himself, “Had I been blind and deaf or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?” Or, “My life was a string of misses and the women I was unable to love.” I thought these lines were brilliant and if you hear them next to those images – a glacier going into the sea for example – then you can get the meaning better, and accept the poetic nature. It’s important to get his different voices.

Remember a guy is writing a book and if he doesn’t write this book he is stuck in his diving bell and the only way to escape from there is to write this book, and while he is doing this he gets to imagine all these things every day so we get to see them.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

You manage to reign in the maudlin feeling, through the home movies in Jean-Dominique’s head. Although it’s tragic and moving, the film isn’t a weepie.

JS: I can’t tell you how much going to the hospital informed this movie; Seeing and being surrounded by that compassion from the physiotherapist and the guys that pick up his wheelchair when he is on the beach. Witnessing the compassion within the actors themselves as people. Even hearing it in French seems to make the alphabet palatable.

Actors often say they enjoy the experience of working with directors who are also actors, Robert Redford or Sean Penn for example. Does it help being a director with an artist’s eye?

JS: I don’t know any other way. I’ve been a painter all my life. Every movie director is different; there isn’t a mould that they come from. I’m sure Paul Thomas Anderson approaches it one way and Sean Penn another way and everybody does it different. You could say look how great the actors are in Sean’s movies because he’s an actor; but I could say look how great the actors are in my films and I’m a painter! I think generalities about how this all works just numbs things and doesn’t really clarify anything. But being a painter and not having an education at film school probably informs what my movie looks like because I don’t have to unlearn anything.

Paul McCartney said he had to play guitar at least once a day, do you sketch or paint every day?

JS: No I don’t feel the need to. Why doesn’t he sketch every day?