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The Diving Bell & The Butterfly - Julian Schnabel interview

Julian Schnabel, director of The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OSCAR nominated and Golden Globe winning director Julian Schnabel talks about some of the challenges of making The Diving Bell & The Butterfly in French and working with his actors “without a safety net”.

The film tells the remarkable true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), the charismatic editor-in-chief of French Elle, who believes he is living life to the fullest until a sudden stroke leaves him in a life-altered state. Struck by ‘locked in syndrome’ he is almost totally paralysed but is reborn through his left eye, the one body part that retains movement.

Q. I can’t imagine anything more difficult than making a film in another language…
Julian Schnabel: I had a crash course on French immediately when I started. But I think that this movie is about communicating. And I think that the parallel to my needing to communicate, or learning how to speak, was useful if you think of it as method directing [laughs]. You hear things and you start thinking about that. There’s this guy lying in bed and he can’t even close the window. He can’t even tell anybody that a sound is driving him nuts, so he has to lie there until somebody else turns it off or it turns off by itself. You start being in that situation and thinking about what is it to exist. I was just thinking today, Mathieu [Amalric] had a patch over one eye, he had a contact lens with veins on it that obscured part of his eye, he wasn’t talking and just lying there… how long do you think somebody could do that? I don’t know that I could do that. I’d just jump out of my skin after a while.

So, I think there’s a lot of things that put you into a place where you can tell a story like this that you have to go into that place to tell the story. For instance, I had to go into that hospital. I couldn’t have done it in a sound stage in Los Angeles. I needed it to be in French because I needed it to be authentic for me. If it was fake for me and I didn’t feel that it was real, then what do I need me for? So, there were battles that I had to fight that were things worth fighting for, or asking for. So when I said that I wanted to make a French film, I said: “I tell you what, I’ll give you a French film and I will give you an English dub of it and I’ll have all the people do the dubbing themselves. But not to be distributed [in cinemas], just for the DVD.” But they said: “It’s hard enough to get one good performance, how do you expect to get a performance in two languages on this schedule?” But it was a relatively sane schedule compared to some of my other films and I finished two weeks early.

Q. Do you like to challenge yourself when making films?
Julian Schnabel: Well, I don’t like it when people say things are impossible. I don’t like to take “no” for an answer. I like to say “yes” whenever I can. But I don’t know what I’m going to do while I’m doing this and I don’t work with a safety net. So, if I fall I’m going to land on the hard pavement. Many directors or people that are involved in this process, I think they have a script and then they have storyboards and they kind of know what they’re going to do. Now I’ve always finished the movies that I’ve made on time, or before, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know that I’m going to put myself in a situation and the actors are going to be in that situation… but I guess my system of movie making is that we jump in the pit and if we can climb out, we get to go home at night. If somebody is trying to climb out of the pit they’re not going to be acting, they’re just going to be trying to get their fingernails into the side of the hole so they can actually get out. But we don’t rehearse. [On this] we read the script and I broke it down and translated each part with the different actors and they knew how I felt about their character. But they trusted me and I never had to wait for an actor during the course of making this movie. They were always ready to do whatever and they gave me everything. They were amazingly generous with me. I put them in situations where they climbed out of the pit.

Q. For the first 20 minutes where Mathieu is just responding to people talking to him [directly to camera], was he actually there during filming for the actors to work off? Was he responding with his lines or were they added afterwards?
Julian Schnabel: When you start to do something like this, you start to ask: “Do I hold the camera? Is Mathieu the cameraman? Who are the actors talking to? Do they need to be talking to him in order to respond and seem like they’re talking to a person?” You have to ask yourself these questions. And the answer is that Mathieu is not there. The actors are talking to a camera and Mathieu is in a sound box off of the set where he can hear what everybody is saying to him. He can see them and he can say whatever the hell he wants.

I’ve got a track with all of this stuff on it so that I can have all of these spontaneous responses. I think to come in and look at it afterwards is again unnatural. So, you have to think that all of these actors are acting to the camera. Usually, actors can work with other actors who can give them something they can relate to but in this case they’re bringing everything to it themselves. And it’s amazing what they did, really, because they’re all monologues. But you never feel like that. I think the interesting thing about making this film is that because of the physical limitations of these different situations they were forced to invent new ways to tell the story and that was something that was very attractive to me.

Q. A lot of your characters seem to be under a death sentence of some kind? Is that a pre-occupation with you?
Julian Schnabel: Yes. I think about it a lot. My dad at 92 was terrified of death and he’d never been sick in his life. My mum and my dad lived together for 60 years. She died a couple of years before him. He had prostate cancer and it just got worse after she died. He was just terrified and I’ve always been terrified of death. But somehow by making this film it was like a self-help device for me and I feel good after I see it. It’s sort of an emotional roller-coaster. You feel like he comes back and becomes part of everything again. There’s something optimistic about it. He’s at least found peace in the fact that he could articulate his story and accomplish the book. He created this job for himself that was really about writing the book. And I think that he had a chance to adjust his consciousness to the things that he missed and that he was unconscious about when he was healthy. So, there was a sense of completion and closure that he had.

One of my big concerns would be that when I die will I just be scared and think: “There’s no reason for being here.” And then there’s nothingness. But I felt that in his case he learned the value of what he thought was important and what he thought it was to be alive. I think also that he found something. He started to use a part of his body that he never used. And he started to use his imagination in a way that he’d never used it. He literally funnelled the vastness and the futility of his inability into some kind of vortex. He positioned it into this place where he could open it back up again and it was this thing that was in his head. It’s the same way that somebody who became crippled and couldn’t walk had to use their arms to work the wheelchair, their upper body mass would grow. It’s like his brain became his instrument and with that he was able to leave his body.

Q. How different would this have been if you’d managed to get your original first choice star Johnny Depp in this?
Julian Schnabel: I would have still shot it in the hospital and I would have still surrounded Johnny with French people. And Johnny would have spoke French. I think he’d have done whatever I asked him to do.

Read our review of The Diving Bell & The Butterfly