Julian Schnabel confronts notions of mortality with 'Diving Bell'

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In early 2001, Julian Schnabel's friend Fred Hughes was dying. A longtime associate of the artist Andy Warhol, Hughes was in the final stages of a protracted battle with multiple sclerosis, and as he neared the end, Schnabel would read to him -- passages from "The Recognitions" by William Gaddis and "View of Dawn in the Tropics" by Guillermo Cabrera Infante -- hoping that the marvelously written tales might comfort him in his final days. It was during this time that Hughes' nurse gave Schnabel a copy of another book, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby. A stroke at the age of 43 had left the former editor of Elle France magazine almost entirely paralyzed, yet Bauby had managed to dictate the volume while lying in a hospital bed, communicating with his caregivers by blinking his left eye.

Schnabel admits he "didn't pay much attention" to Bauby's story at the time. But a few years later, as the artist-turned-filmmaker was coming to terms with another imminent death -- his father's -- Bauby entered his life once more in the form of a screenplay drafted by Ronald Harwood. Producer Kathleen Kennedy had offered Schnabel the chance to direct, and the story of Bauby's suffering affected him so profoundly, he ultimately agreed.

"The thing about my dad is, he was never sick in his life, but he was very, very scared to die, and I couldn't help him," Schnabel recalls. "I couldn't take away his fear of death, but through this film, I thought I could speak to people that were sick, that are scared to die. I could talk to someone about what consciousness is about, what it is to be alive."

Schnabel's drive to communicate his feelings about one of mankind's most primal fears led him to overcome hurdles that might have felled a less determined director. Along the way, he insisted that the film be shot in French, rather than English, as it originally had been conceived. He convinced the financiers to accept a relative unknown, Mathieu Amalric, in the lead, instead of Johnny Depp, who first had been attached to the project. He persuaded the hospital where Bauby had been treated to allow the production to film there. And he badgered a sometimes skeptical crew to accept his experimental notions about how the project should be shot.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was that last challenge that proved the most difficult for the auteur. "I feel I lost the faith of the people who worked on the movie for a little while," he says. "They thought I was crazy, (and) I was thinking, 'How many times do I have to prove myself to these people?'"

Schnabel certainly had established his cinematic credentials in the critical community with his previous films: 1996's "Basquiat" and 2000's "Before Night Falls." Schnable had met Depp on the set of the latter film, and it was the actor who recommended him as the right man to tackle Bauby's harrowing story to Kennedy.

Kennedy had fallen in love with Bauby's story after reading an English translation of "Diving Bell," but DreamWorks had already bought the rights to adapt the story for the screen. The project languished, however, and when the rights lapsed, Kennedy snapped them up and took the film to Universal, hiring Oscar-winning scripter Harwood (2002's "The Pianist") to pen the screenplay.

"You get one shot at these kinds of stories because studios and financial partners are not usually willing to do draft after draft," Kennedy says. "That was one of the things that got me the most nervous, but I sent (Harwood) the book, and he responded to it the same way I had and said, 'I think I know a way into this.'"

But adapting the memoir proved much more difficult than Harwood had anticipated. "I started to work on it, and then I thought, 'How the hell do you do this?'" he remembers. "I must have been at it four or five weeks without knowing what to do. I was desperate. They sent me (Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1997 Bauby documentary, 'Assigne a residence'), and it was an appalling visual image: this lovely man, 43, attractive, virile, energetic, reduced to this human zombie. I thought, 'You can't go through two hours with him like that.' I was in despair."

And then, weeks in, Harwood found a solution: He would show the world entirely from Bauby's point of view, only permitting the audience glimpses of the man as he passed by a window or saw himself in a mirror. Schnabel later modified that concept -- allowing us to see Bauby in his ruinous state -- but it was the central notion that drove Harwood's writing. "When I came up with this idea, it just went," he says.

Thrilled with the script, Kennedy showed it to Schnabel. "I went to Julian's studio," Kennedy recalls. "He has these giant ceilings, and it's set up so he can work on these huge canvases. We were sitting in this room, with all natural light streaming in, and it turned out that his father, who was fairly elderly, was dying, and he was in the room adjacent to where we were meeting. I spent almost five or six hours sitting, talking to Julian, and he clearly was very passionate about this screenplay and had read the book. He talked a lot about what it meant to him and what he was going through.

"He took me in to meet his dad and was writing down lots of things that his father was saying in the last several weeks," Kennedy continues. "That really informed so much of Julian's point of view on how he was going to approach the film because he was experiencing something so deeply personal at the time."

Intrigued as Schnabel was, he initially was committed to another movie -- an adaptation of the German-language best-seller "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" -- that he had scripted and planned to make with Depp. Before long, however, Schnabel had parted ways with that film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, and the director agreed to make "Diving Bell" his next film, bringing in another producer, Jon Kilik, to join Kennedy.

Quite soon, it became apparent that Schnabel's initial link to the project, Depp, would not be available because of his prior commitments on Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. "He didn't have much time, and he'd have had to cut his beard," Schnabel says. "We are very close friends, and it seemed like added pressure on him. I didn't want to do that to him."

Depp exited the movie, and Schnabel turned to Amalric, a respected French actor whom Kennedy had cast in Steven Spielberg's 2005 drama "Munich." At the same time, he recruited some of the finest actors in Europe -- everyone from Max von Sydow to Niels Arestrup and Emmanuelle Seigner -- for supporting roles in the film.

Unfortunately, when Depp left, he took with him the picture's financing. Universal withdrew from the project, leaving it with no financier and several million dollars in "turnaround" costs. "Once it became obvious that the top list of (Tom) Hanks and (Russell) Crowe and Depp and a few others were not going to do it, it became clear that with a lesser-known actor, it would not be something the studio could move forward with," Kilik says. "It is a risky enough movie even with a well-known actor, but without somebody at that level, it was not something (the studios) were going to do."

Well, maybe not the U.S. majors. French distributor Pathe agreed to fund the film's €10 million ($14 million) budget, but executives there wanted Schnabel to shoot "Diving Bell" in English -- a notion he flatly refused. "The book was written in French, by a Frenchman, in a French hospital," Schnabel says, "and I'd be damned if English and American people were going to make believe they are French. It felt like it needed to be authentic."

Finally, the company relented. "After a while I guess they realized (it was right)," he says. "(Pathe's Jerome Seydoux) called me one day and said, 'OK, you win!' And that was that. I never heard a word about it again. They were extremely supportive through the whole process."

Schnabel began an investigation into Bauby's life, watching Beineix's documentary, visiting the hospital where he had been treated and meeting with some of the key people he'd known. That investigation led Schnabel to make some modifications to Harwood's script -- he reworked a sequence where Bauby encounters a former colleague who had been held as a hostage for four years in Lebanon -- and to decide to abandon historical fact in service of the story.

In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the film, Bauby confesses to his lover, who has refused to visit him, that he still longs to see her every day. In actuality, Schnabel admits, "The girlfriend came and then stopped coming and then started to come again," but he hesitates when asked about the conflict between reality and the movie. "The (larger) point of this film is much more important than the dynamic between that woman and (Bauby)."

What was more important, Schnabel says, was the way to visually represent Bauby's "locked-in syndrome," as it is referred to in the film. "I needed to figure out how to shoot it," he says. "Where do you put the camera? How do you make this work? How long can people accept (seeing the world from Bauby's point of view)?

"You start thinking about stuff that you never thought about," he continues. "How many kinds of blinks are there? When somebody blinks, is it black or is it gray? Is it translucent? Is it red when it's in the sun? Is it going to look mechanical?"

Schnabel worked closely with two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (1993's "Schindler's List" and 1998's "Saving Private Ryan") to answer those questions. "What is so great about Julian is, because he is a visual artist, he was totally open to things that are not conventional," Kaminski says. "He wants to show the way curtains blow in the wind, light moving across the world. But we were making a movie that was supposed to communicate to a broader audience, not an art piece. So the challenge was to find a balance between the two."

To convey Bauby's viewpoint, Kaminski used what he refers to as a "rubber lens." "It is a lens that has a little shock absorber," he says, "and when you mount it on a camera, everything seems out of focus, but the rubber part allows you to manually adjust the lens to find the focus. We also used swing-and-shift lenses, a technique borrowed from still photographs. If you look at the biggest-format cameras, with the bellows and the guy who covers himself with black, those bellows allow you to selectively choose the focus of the image. Very few shots of the movie were photographed with conventional lenses."

Not everyone was quite as taken with the experimental flourishes, however. Schnabel remembers one crew member who, during the course of the shoot -- which got under way in Calais, France, in September of last year -- asked him, "'How long are you going to do this?' I said, 'The whole movie! We are never going to lose his point of view.'"

"When you have an unconventional style and you step across the boundaries, some people aren't used to that," Kilik says. "But the few people who weren't sure, at the end they were extremely gratified."

All in all, the shoot was relatively trouble free, and it even came in eight days ahead of schedule. The finished product, too, seems to be enjoying a charmed life: "Diving Bell" earned Schnabel the best director award at the Festival de Cannes, where it premiered earlier this year. It also became the subject of a bidding war, with Miramax shelling out roughly $3 million for North American rights to the project, and is headed to the Toronto International Film Festival as a special presentation. Miramax will open "Diving Bell" in limited release Dec. 19.

For Schnabel, though, the most remarkable thing about this experience is the way it has impacted his own thinking. "I have always been very scared to die," he reflects. "Somehow, through making this film, it has diminished my fear. I am less scared to die than I was before."


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