Julian Schnabel and cast of “Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

Published in Metromix (RIP), November 27, 2007.

Jean-Dominique Bauby lost it all in the blink of an eye.

Fame, beautiful women, and wealth surrounded him as the editor of Elle magazine’s French edition. But his life was suddenly and permanently altered when a stroke paralyzed his entire body except for his left eye. With the use of a specialized alphabet and the help of loving nurses and friends, Bauby subsequently blinked out a contemplative and, at times, humorous memoir delineating his life of constrained motion. Yes, that’s right, he dictated his story by blinking…

Now, renowned artist and director Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls”) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) bring Bauby’s book, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” to the screen with the help of a phenomenal cast including Mathieu Amalric (“Munich”) as Bauby, Marie-Josée Croze (“Munich,” “The Barbarian Invasions”) as his nurse and the prolific Max Von Sydow as Bauby’s father.

The movie already earned widespread acclaimed and a directing prize for Schnabel at the most recent Cannes film festival. Not that the eccentric filmmaker has let any of that alter his wild image. When Metromix recently sat down to talk with the team behind “Diving Bell,” Schnabel emerged from a hotel pool still wet and wrapped in a sort of towel/sarong/curtain to pontificate on glaciers and consciousness while smoking and sporting what appeared to be old school Ray-Bans indoors.

The rest of the group wasn’t quite so colorful, but they did open up about falling in love with a paraplegic, reasons for almost quitting the film and the miracle of the human body.

Julian, where did you draw the inspiration to make this film?
Julian Schnabel:
 My father got sick and he was dying. He was terrified of death and had never been sick in his life. So he was in this bed at my house, he was staying with me, and this script arrived for ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.’ As my father was dying, I read Ron Harwood’s script.

It gave me a bunch of parameters that would make a film have a totally different structure. As a painter, as someone who doesn’t want to make a painting that looks like the last one I made, I thought it was a really good palette. So personally and artistically these things all came together.

What was the writing process like for you Ron, and why did you choose to work on this film?
Ron Harwood:
 I read the book in one sitting and immediately agreed to do the film. It was a rash thing to do because I started it and realized: ‘wait a minute, I don’t know how to do this at all!’ It was totally bewildering. How could you look at a man in total paralysis for an hour and a half?

For two weeks I paced in my study, and I realized I had to phone in and tell them that I couldn’t do it. But nothing concentrates the mind of a writer more than having to give back the money. I had the idea that Jean-Dominique Bauby should be the camera. The camera should do the blinking. It freed me completely and I knew I could use the voiceover from the book, which is very, very beautiful.

In essence, we are watching a movie from the eyes of a man who is confined to watch the world go by. Julian, can you talk of these layers of voyeurism in the film and how you realized this idea?
 I was extremely bored with stories that are told in the same way. I see the screen as a sculpture. It is essentially a rectangle in which things come into view and exit. It was like Bauby’s eye. So we did everything in the camera, we didn’t use green screen. I even had the camera person put his fingers over the camera and block the lens every time there was a blink. I never went to film school, so I had to untrain everyone. That’s how you make a film like this.

Mathieu, what did it take emotionally and physically to prepare for this role?
Mathieu Amalric:
 You just think of the necessity of making such a film. It became easier when I met Julian and I realized he had to do this film because of intimate things: his father’s death, his fear of death. All my frights disappeared. Julian is quite an alive person, he bigger than life. We weren’t talking about grief or pity, but we were mostly talking about being in the present and how the body is in fact a miracle.

Julian, did your intimate connection with the work continue through filming?
 I came to know the book in a personal way. I thought that if I could have saved my father from his fear of death, and maybe I thought I had to do that for myself, then I would have been a good son. I guess this was a way to make people able to deal with the death of their parents, and how to make them deal with their own deaths. Ultimately, the movie tells you that you need to grab onto life, and you need to live your life. Don’t wait until you don’t have your body anymore, so look into your interior life and make sure you’re really alive. It’s about consciousness.

Marie, do you think that your character [Bauby’s nurse, Henriette] fell in love with her patient?
Marie-Josée Croze:
 Yes, even though she didn’t say it, people around her said that she was in love with him. Everyone was. He was such a charismatic character that there were lots of feelings for him because of his sense of humor.

Max, how did you get involved with this film and what drew you to it?
Max Von Sydow:
 I received the script, and usually I stop reading after page ten, but for this I was taken on page one. I saw it in its final form just the other day [at a theater] and hadn’t realized that there were so many laughs. There is this ironic sense of humor from [Bauby] in this terrible situation. After all, he is still able to comment in a funny way. It’s a wonderful and encouraging piece of film. It’s a story of a hero who doesn’t give up and teaches us not to give up until your last breath, in spite of all terrible odds.