Julian Schnabel, with Tina, in his studio in Brooklyn. His latest film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” opens Nov. 30
Don’t Call Him a Filmmaker, at Least Not First
THE paintings on broken plates that made Julian Schnabel an art-world star in the early 1980s seemed to announce their importance not just by their retrograde swagger but also by their sheer weight. Hanging one on a wall was like suspending a cabinet full of Buffalo china.
The other day in a former smelting factory near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a bunch of new paintings that he had hanging on the walls seemed by contrast to be almost weightless, looking as if skeins of smoke had settled on the canvas. But they were actually digitally printed blow-ups of antique French hospital X-rays that he had come across last year in northern Normandy. And as such they were pieces not simply of art but of argument, Mr. Schnabel’s pointed way of saying that while his life as a filmmaker may be threatening to eclipse his life as a painter, he still has his palette firmly in hand.
He found the X-rays in a building near the naval hospital at Berck-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast, where he had just finished directing “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” his movie based on the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle magazine in France. In 1995 Mr. Bauby suffered a stroke that left him with a condition called locked-in syndrome, conscious but paralyzed, with only his left eye remaining functional, and he composed the memoir painstakingly by blinking that eye to select letters on a chart.
The movie, which will open Nov. 30 in New York and Los Angeles, has proved to be a kind of hat trick for Mr. Schnabel, whose first film, “Basquiat” in 1996, got a respectable reception considering his inexperience and his share of detractors in the art world, where it was set. His second movie, “Before Night Falls” in 2000, about the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, established him solidly as a filmmaker, earning an Oscar nomination for its star, Javier Bardem. And “The Diving Bell” has been even more widely praised in the early going, winning Mr. Schnabel the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival and fueling Oscar dreams on the part of Miramax, its American distributor.
The only problem with this track record, of course, is that it has a lot of people describing Mr. Schnabel as a director who paints, and not the other way around. This development does not always sit well with a man who has made thousands of paintings — and millions of dollars from them — over the last 30 years and who once declared that he was the “closest you’ll get to Picasso in this life.”
“I don’t think that people know too much about painting,” he said. “I don’t think that they really understand what it is. I mean, I don’t want to put anybody down. I just think more people understand the language of movies than of paintings.”
While “The Diving Bell” seems like the kind of movie that was conceived with him specifically in mind — another biopic about suffering and art, albeit this time about an unintentional artist — the movie fell into his lap almost by accident during the unsuccessful pursuit of another project, a film version of the Patrick Süskind novel “Perfume: The Story of a Murder,” about a murderer with olfactory obsessions. (That movie was released last year by another director; Mr. Schnabel pronounced it “very bad” and “just a tragedy.”)
The rights to “The Diving Bell” had been bought by the veteran Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy, who planned to make the movie with Universal Pictures and with Johnny Depp as the star. Mr. Depp, a friend of Mr. Schnabel who played two roles in “Before Night Falls,” was interested and said he wanted Mr. Schnabel as the director. But then Mr. Depp fell out because of his commitment to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise — “that pirate thing,” as Mr. Schnabel describes it.
And so instead of making a movie aimed at a broader audience, something of a Francophile “My Left Foot” (the movie’s jokey nickname on the festival circuit has been “My Left Eye”), Mr. Schnabel and Jon Kilik, his longtime producer, along with Ms. Kennedy, put together one that all but manufactured its own hurdles. It has a mainly French cast with no bankable stars, a story witnessed in many scenes through the blurry lens of a single camera serving as Bauby’s eye and — quelle horreur, at least for the American market — it was made entirely in French by a director whose grasp of the language was not good. “Now it is,” he reports. “It was sort of fancy restaurant French before that.”
Even the film’s other backer, the French company Pathé, wanted the film to be in English. “Their concern,” said Mr. Kilik, who last year produced “Babel,” another heavily subtitled film, “was that this is a hard enough subject to tackle and a hard enough subject to find an audience for, and ‘You’re going to make it even harder by making it in French?’”
But the filmmakers insisted, and Mr. Schnabel set about translating the script by Ron Harwood (who won an Oscar for “The Pianist”) with the help of his actors.
Perhaps because of all these box-office challenges, the tone that Mr. Schnabel achieves in a movie with such a grim plot — Mr. Bauby, who was beginning to recover some of his vocal abilities, died just two days after the publication of his memoir — is anything but grim. It is often, like the memoir, very funny and in many passages has a kind of Gallic elegance, as if it were telling the story of a paralyzed Tintin with a script written by Françoise Sagan.
As with his previous two films, it was also another chance for Mr. Schnabel — a film fanatic with an Antonioni fixation — to deploy many of the visual set pieces he has been carrying around in his head. In one scene, for example, in which a younger Bauby visits Lourdes with a religiously inclined girlfriend, the camera lingers for an unusually long while on a close-up of the girl’s long brown hair flying back and dancing as she sits in the back of a speeding convertible. It was an image he had wanted to shoot for years, Mr. Schnabel said, and the first one he shot in the movie, though it was not in the script.
He achieved it only by having the actress, Marina Hands, sit in the back of a moving flatbed truck with fans blasting at her. “Somebody’s hair doesn’t go like that so easily just out of a car,” he said. “I mean, you have to agitate it a bit.”
In conversations with Mr. Schnabel you get the idea that the movie ended up with its visual and emotional lushness in part because he views Mr. Bauby as a man more fortunate than tragic, struck by a lightning bolt of fate that robbed him of his body but granted him an afterlife in literature.
The fate of Mr. Schnabel, who recently turned 56, seems to be one in which such existential tradeoffs have not been required. His reputation as an artist might not be as secure as he would like. He still, for example, has no painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. But he is in other museum collections and shows regularly around the world, and many of his works have sold at auction recently for several hundred thousand dollars, sometimes respectably higher than their estimates. He is handsomely wealthy and recently unveiled a castlelike expansion of his West Village home and studio, which he calls the Palazzo Chupi — now 17 stories tall, with condominiums added for investors. And he is married to a former model, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who also stars in “The Diving Bell.”
Interviews with Mr. Schnabel, and there have been many dozens since he first became well known, tend to take a familiar form. Remarks about his dislike of encumbering clothing and penchant for sarongs and bathrobes. (The other day in Brooklyn, where he has been painting during the renovation of his studio, he was wearing plain old pants and a shirt and purple-checked Vans sneakers.) His celebrity cortege. (Mr. Schnabel does not so much drop names as carpet-bomb them: Mr. Depp, Laurie Anderson, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel; he was with Mr. Keitel in Cannes years ago, he said, when he got the idea for the convertible-hair-whipping scene.) His bombast and volubility. (At one point during the interview he asked an assistant for a cigarette but was talking so intently about a painting that when the cigarette came, prelighted, he did not notice that it was handed hot end first, and he burned his hand.)
But one thing that also becomes instructively clear in a visit to his studio is that his painting life resembles nothing so much as a movie set, churning with people and noise and a bull terrier named Tina and Mr. Schnabel’s phone, which he keeps at hand even during interviews, chirping constantly. (He interrupted himself to take a call from one of the movie’s other actresses, Anne Consigny, who was in China. “What time is it over there?” he asked. It was 4:30 in the morning.) He has lived his entire adult life in a crowd and seems most comfortable at the center of one, issuing orders. In that light his movie life seems less like empire building than like an inevitable career development.
The actors who have worked with him say this aspect of Mr. Schnabel often gives him the ability to think decisively on his feet and react in the moment to capture energy that can easily dissipate on a set. Marie-Josée Croze, who plays one of Bauby’s speech therapists, described a pivotal scene in which she asks her imprisoned patient to spell his first words, and they are: “I want death.” The script called for her to reprimand him, but she felt, having talked to one of Mr. Bauby’s real-life therapists, Sandrine Fichou, that her character would never have had such an unprofessional reaction. Mr. Schnabel told her tersely to follow the script.
“He said, ‘I need this scene, I need the emotion — it’s not a documentary, it’s a movie,’ ” she recalled in a telephone interview. Ms. Croze was upset and channeled the emotion into the scene, which ended with her fleeing the room in tears. Mr. Schnabel kept the camera rolling and yelled at her to come back in and apologize to the character of Bauby for her outburst. She did, in character, and the powerful scene was kept in the movie.
“It was in real time, we didn’t cut,” she said, “and that scene for me just built all the other scenes I had play.”
Such a seat-of-the-pants philosophy “was a bit stressful in a way,” she said. “We thought maybe we could do more and do better if we shot it again, but he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, O.K., that’s all I need.’” (Mr. Schnabel also likes to point out that he brought the movie in on budget and ahead of schedule, which gave him time to prowl the vicinity of the naval hospital, where the movie was filmed, and come across the old X-rays, which he also put to use as a backdrop for the opening credits.)
It is the kind of Julian dictatorship, benevolent by turns, that seems to prevail no matter what Mr. Schnabel is doing. As the interview in his studio was coming to an end on a muggy late-summer day, an assistant brought a reporter a glass of water. Mr. Schnabel asked a Miramax publicist sitting nearby if she wanted some too. She said no, thanks.
“You want to give her some water too, please?” he said to the assistant. The assistant said he did not think she wanted any.
“She’ll take it,” Mr. Schnabel said. “She needs it.”
Need it or not, she took it.