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Beautiful “Butterfly:” In as wide open an Oscar season as we have this year the early headline making awards and nominations bestowed by critics groups and other organizations take on more importance than ever because they help define the field of leading contenders.
A case in point is Tuesday’s Spirit Awards nominations, four of which went to Julian Schnabel’s outstanding drama “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The film is a Spirit nominee for best feature, director, screenplay (Ronald Harwood, an Oscar winner for adapting “The Pianist”) and cinematography (Janusz Kaminski, an Oscar winner for “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”). Its 88% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com makes it one of the year’s best reviewed movies.
“Butterfly” truly lives up to the great buzz it’s been generating since being shown last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it brought Schnabel (“Before Night Falls,” “Basquiat”) the best director’s award and a Golden Palm nomination and was picked up by Miramax Films for North American distribution. It looms as a solid contender for Oscar and Golden Globe consideration in prime categories like best picture, director, screenplay (adapted by Harwood from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon”), actor (Mathieu Amalric, a Cesar best actor winner for “Kings and Queen”), supporting actor (Max von Sydow, a supporting actor Oscar nominee for “Pelle the Conqueror”) and cinematography.
A Miramax Films and Pathe Renn presentation, “Butterfly” was produced by Kathleen Kennedy (a best picture Oscar nominee for “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Seabiscuit” and “Munich”) and Jon Kilik (a best picture Oscar nominee for “Babel”). It was executive produced by Pierre Grunstein and Jim Lemley. Besides Amalric and von Sydow, it also stars Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Jean-Pierre Casel and Marina Hands.
“Butterfly,” opening Friday via Miramax in New York and Los Angeles prior to a national rollout, is the heroic story of a man who overcame the extreme adversity of a stroke that left him fully paralyzed except for one eye. By blinking his left eye he was able to dictate a heart-stirring memoir. That man was Jean-Dominique Bauby — Jean-Do, for short — who at the time of his stroke was editor-in-chief of the French magazine Elle, played by Mathieu Amalric (“Munich”).
Amalric’s memorable performance deserves best actor Oscar recognition and Max von Sydow should land a supporting actor nod for his touching performance as Jean-Do’s 92-year-old father. There won’t be many dry eyes in the scene when von Sydow observes in a telephone call to his paralyzed son that now they’re both imprisoned — the elderly and barely mobile father inside his apartment and the son within his own body.
Having decided immediately after seeing “Butterfly” to put it on my Top 10 List for the year, I was delighted to be able to talk to Julian Schnabel Tuesday morning about how it reached the screen. “It started with my friend Fred Hughes, who was sick, who used to work for Andy Warhol (as his business manager for about 25 years and as executor of his estate after Warhol’s death in 1987). He ran (Warhol’s studio) The Factory,” Schnabel told me. “He had MS and when Andy died he got worse and worse and finally he ended up in his own living room in a bed staring out of his body. I used to go and read to him up on Lexington Avenue near 90th Street (in Manhattan) and his nurse, Darin McCormack, gave me this book, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’ because I used to spend this time with Fred.
“A couple of other things sort of folded into this because Fred had an apartment in Paris on Rue de Cherche Midi (in the chic 6th arrondisement). He lived there. When Fred started to become more ill, he had to move to the American hospital so I actually brought the decorations from his house to his room. And really in this movie the room that Jean-Dominque Bauby (is in) looks more like Fred Hughes’ room because I thought Jean-Do’s room looked pretty drab. I thought if it was my friend, he’d have lots of flowers and if I’m going (to be sick and) drool, I’d rather drool on cashmere. My wife made the silk pajamas and the linen sheets for his room and we pampered the boy.”
Schnabel’s own father, he continued, “died on January 17, 2004. He’d never been sick in his life. He was 92 years old. After my mom died, which was a couple years before that, I took my father to Mexico. But I couldn’t do it that year because he was sick. I couldn’t think of anybody to take care of him except Darin McCormack (who came) over to the house and he’s in the room with my father on that day — this was before Christmas in December of 2003 — that the script ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ arrived from Kathy Kennedy. Darin was in the room with my father and I started to look at it.
“I had wanted to make the movie of (the book) ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Suskind. I wasn’t able to because I didn’t get along with the man who owned the rights and I saw the movie differently so he didn’t respond to my vision of it. I had written the script. Basically, I hadn’t made a movie for seven years because I wanted to make this film and that didn’t work. What I did was I took things from that because the main character in that story was a man whose olfactory senses were so supernaturally powerful that I thought he could smell all the way to Egypt or to Alaska! So in the script I had him seeing these ecosystems falling apart in Egypt or wherever. When I received Ron Harwood’s script from Kathy Kennedy I looked at it and I thought, ‘Well, OK, I could work with this’ and started to transpose some of those things (from ‘Perfume’) into this movie because like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (in ‘Perfume’) this man (Jean-Do) was able to travel in his imagination to wherever he wanted to go. I kind of saw a similarity in those two things and it just sort of all merged at that one moment. I also thought that if I was a good son I could save my father from the fear of death. I guess I failed him at that, but in some way used his experience of his death to actually inform the way I filmed this movie.”
Schnabel was already familiar with Bauby’s book when he received the screenplay: “Ron Harwood wrote an excellent screenplay. The screenplay had the convention of Jean-Do being the POV. That was the thing that attracted me the most to (want to make the movie) — that besides all these other personal reasons (that) dogged me until I thought, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ I think when they say that it’s a collaborative medium, it really is. It’s like a conveyor belt, in a way. Kathy did what she did and (Harwood) did what he did. And I brought Jon Kilik in, who always works with me and protects me. He was the only person in the world that wanted me to make this movie in French, besides me, which was really great because I thought that it had to be authentic and I needed to do it in the hospital in France. So I translated Ron Harwood’s script to French with the actors. Each actor, because they are the instrument of themselves, would be saying whatever they were going to say and I wanted it to sound like real people.
“Also, going to the hospital and shooting there because it was so much a part of the book that Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote, you have to respond spontaneously to what’s happening. For example, the tide would go out 500 meters every day and so at one moment the stanchion that was on the beach was on the beach and (at) another moment it was submerged in the water. I thought, ‘Wow, OK, I want to take this guy’s wheelchair and stick it on top of this thing so he’s in the middle of the ocean.’ So that’s not scripted and there’s many things that I would see (and respond to). I guess being a painter (Schnabel’s paintings have been exhibited around the world since the 1970s) I respond to things intuitively and physically (and) not always literally and I find the literal subtext for it later.”
Figuring out how to shoot the film posed a key challenge for Schnabel. “You think people are talking to you, but they’re talking to the camera,” he said. “There’s a similarity between my script of ‘Perfume’ and the script that I was sent (for ‘Butterfly’) — in both cases we know what the main character is thinking, but nobody else does. That was the miracle that I would receive something like that that I could kind of just have the opportunity to work on. The movie, I would say, is about 95% accurate when it comes to science. I even won a science award at one of the film festivals. The one thing that is inaccurate is you’d never take a guy with a tracheotomy and spin him around in the bathtub, but that’s what Ron had written and I thought, ‘OK, this is part of telling Jean’s story about how he is moved around like a baby.’
“But while I was there doing that, I (learned) that usually what they do is lower someone down on kind of a metal gurney into the bathtub and it’s quite static what goes on in there. But after kind of cheating a little bit there, I saw the pool through the doorway and Daniel, who was Jean-Do’s physiotherapist, and said, ‘Daniel, can you hold him in the pool and float around with him?’ You know, you have to go to the place and see what there is. You have to talk to the people (and) they told me many things that I needed to know that made the film more real, better and made me more proud of what was possible.”
Asked how he approached making the film in terms of storyboarding or shot listing, Schnabel replied, “No shot lists. No storyboards. No rehearsal. I think what’s really important is to get the actors to trust you and if they know who they are and they know what they’re supposed to say (that’s what matters most). I don’t ask them to audition when I meet them either. I meet them. I think I can tell what their capabilities are and what they’re like. So I like to keep it fresh. I don’t want to kill the natural spontaneity of these people. I don’t want them to start thinking what I’m thinking about them.”
Since Schnabel’s a well-regarded artist himself, I suggested that he’d probably be very good at turning out his own storyboards. “I never have done that,” he told me. “I don’t like it. I (don’t do it) because I don’t have a preconception about the movie. I’ve got an idea about what it’s supposed to be, but I need to go to the place where it’s going to take place and then I know where to put the camera. When you go to that hospital (where Jean-Do was treated) and you see that terrace outside that he describes as (having) the offbeat charm of a movie set, you know what to do. You think about the rhythm and the syncopation of whatever that would be to panning over to the western ghost town or the suburbs of Berck or whatever and you realize that it’s all there. But you have to go there to see it.”
Casting the role of Jean-Do was obviously critically important to the film’s success. “About eight years ago I was on the jury in San Sebastian where we have a house. My wife’s Spanish (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who plays Marie, the therapist teaching Jean-Do how to swallow) and from that town. I was on the jury of the (San Sebastian) film festival and there was a movie called ‘Late August, Early September’ by Olivier Assayas and he was in this film and so was his first wife, Jeanne Balibar. She actually won best actress at the festival that year (1998). Mathieu was in this film and I saw him and I was very impressed with what I saw then.
“The way this came about is that Universal was going to make this movie and they wanted Johnny Depp to play Jean-Do. I think Johnny said, ‘Yeah, well if Julian Schnabel directs it.’ (Depp had starred opposite Javier Bardem for Schnabel in the 2000 drama ‘Before Night Falls.’) I know that Kathy (Kennedy) loved ‘Before Night Falls’ and Steven Spielberg did. Anyway, Kathy showed up at my door with the script. So Johnny was going to do this and then he (got) involved in the ‘Pirates’ stuff and he didn’t really have much time and it was going to (have to) be fit into something (else and) he couldn’t shave his beard and he couldn’t do this and he couldn’t do that. We’re very close friends and I didn’t want to put that pressure on him because it’s just not the way to do things. And I couldn’t have (been happy doing) it in California.
“I think ultimately I would have had Johnny speak French and surrounded him with French people in France anyway. When that didn’t happen I told Kathy I wanted to make the movie with a French actor. I don’t know how ready she was for that at the beginning. And then she made ‘Munich’ and Mathieu Almaric was in ‘Munich’ and she came back from that saying, ‘I met this French actor who I think would be excellent.’ She said, ‘It’s Mathieu Almaric.’ I said, ‘OK. That’s a great idea! I love it. That’s the guy I want to make it with.’ This was two years ago Thanksgiving. He was at my house within a few days and we spent Thanksgiving together and we read the script together and I knew he was great. He’s a director, also. I couldn’t have made this movie without him.”
I also asked Schnabel about working with Max von Sydow: “He is so great in this movie. My dad was 92 when he died (which is the age that von Sydow’s character is supposed to be). You know, he’s not so old. He really played much older. I mean, he’s as strong as an ox. When he gets up out of his seat (with great difficulty in one scene in the film) that is acting. He was actually in San Sebastian with me and we were going up the stairs near my house in the dark so we were holding hands. The guy’s got hands like baseball mitts and he’s going up these (stairs) like he was in this triathlon.
“Kathy had worked with him before on (Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi thriller ‘Minority Report’ starring Tom Cruise) and knew him. I made a list (of possible actors to play Jean-Do’s father) and Max was on the top of the list. He received Ron Harwood’s script and he loved (it). In fact, he wrote Ron Harwood a letter. It was the only letter Ron Harwood ever received from an actor and the only letter (von Sydow) had ever written to a screenwriter. Then we talked a bit on the phone.”
Schnabel recalled shooting the scene when von Sydow as Jean-Do’s father places a call to him in the hospital because he’s unable to leave his apartment to go there to see him. “It’s funny because he’ll tell you (that in ‘Butterfly’) it’s the only time he ever acted on the telephone,” Schnabel said. “They’re doing a telephone call from the hospital and Anne Consigny (as Jean-Do’s secretary, who’s assisting him with the writing of his book) and Mathieu receive a call from the father (von Sydow), the assistant director said, ‘OK, I’m going to make the call now.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, you’re going to make the call?’ (He said,) ‘Well, I’ll call Mathieu.’ I said, ‘Not in this movie, you’re not. Max von Sydow has to make this telephone call.’ And I said, ‘Where is he?’
“They said, ‘We don’t know. He’s probably working somewhere.’ I said, ‘Just give me a minute here.’ I called him at his house. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m home.’ I said, ‘Look, it’s the scene of the telephone call and the assistant director wants to (do the) call, but I don’t do it like that. I want the real people to call the real people. It affects the performance of everybody else. And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ And 10 minutes later he called back and he made the telephone call. It’s the only time that he’s ever done that and that’s amazing. So he does that from his house in France and then he does it again, obviously, when we see his side of the telephone call, which was done on almost the last day of shooting. I shot this movie from Sept. 4 to Oct. 26 of 2006. I finished 10 days early.”
As for where the money came from to make the film, Schnabel explained, “Pathe financed it totally. Jerome Seydoux (co-chairman of Pathe) was a real prince to me once they accepted the fact that I was going to make this movie in French, which took a bit of arm wrestling at the beginning. But I wasn’t going to change my mind.”
Asked about the toughest challenges of production, he pointed out that on “Butterfly” things really went very smoothly: “I had a wonderful DP (Janusz Kaminski) who could work very quickly (and) who tried to do whatever I asked him. I had a great editor, Juliette Welfling (a two time Cesar winner for ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ and ‘See How They Fall’). My most difficult decision probably was the editor because there were three editors that wanted to do it that were all great — all (of them were) French. That was hard. I had actors that never made me wait for them. I had an incredibly amazing location to work in where if I wanted to shoot something in a corridor that had the right light at 3:30 I could stop what I was doing on one side of the hospital and go to the other.
“I had the support of the workers in the hospital who were actually the real nurses who knew Jean-Do. If I needed to ask (questions about him), they could tell me. And the kind of compassion and empathy that these people had that worked there — and, also, the support of the disabled people that were there — (made it a) kind of serendipitous and charmed environment.”
Even the weather cooperated during production. “The weather, which was terrible when we went there in July to do the scout was absolutely perfect every day when we were (shooting),” Schnabel said. “Everything was right. In October when I needed to shoot these flowers — I actually finished shooting two weeks early — people said to me, ‘There’s a location you should check out. It’s a hundred meters from the hospital.’ It turned out that (the doctor) who ran that hospital at the beginning of the 20th Century was given this house by a rich guy whose son was sick. The people who still owned it didn’t really take care of it. There I found the X-rays that became (the film’s opening visuals during) the credits. I found a garden in October that was filled with flowers that we were able to photograph. It was really a magical and blissful kind of cooperation of nature and people.”
Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 20, 1990’s column: “Sequels usually come years after their originals since it takes time to develop, produce and release them. In the case of Universal and Amblin Entertainment’s ‘Back to the Future,’ however, ‘Part III,’ opening May 25, follows ‘Part II’ by just six months.
“‘We shot them back to back, so the overlap came in postproduction on ‘II,’ director Robert Zemeckis told me…’We did shoot a few scenes at the same time when w were on a location we knew was going to be in both films, but the majority of the overlap came while I was editing ‘II.”
“It’s not something Zemeckis would recommend to other filmmakers: ‘Editing is my favorite part of the process. I didn’t enjoy it as much because I like to be in the cutting room with my film and sit with my editors through the whole process. It makes you realize that the system has evolved for a reason. It’s good for the filmmaker’s spirit. When you’re shooting you’re up against all the pressure of the clock. Then it’s sort of a natural process to be able to come into the cutting room and be relaxed with your film and evaluate it.’
“To shoot both ‘Future’ sequels back to back Zemeckis says, ‘I forced myself to do it. I had a cutting room built in a trailer that was parked next to my trailer. So I had a cutting room on wheels that was with me on the set. We had two editing rooms. The one here (in Los Angeles) was doing the finishing work (like) scoring and dubbing. We had another cutting room on location where we were cutting ‘II’ and assembling ‘III’ as I was shooting it.’
“That’s not, he adds, the way things are generally done: ‘Usually, your editors are working right behind you as you’re shooting so you can get a sense of how the movie’s going. We didn’t have that on ‘III’ because w were all too busy finishing ‘II.’ So as I was shooting ‘III,’ the film was just being put up on the rack. We literally had about 75% of ‘III’ shot by the time ‘II’ came out. Then we just started cutting it — hooking the first shot to the second shot to the third shot — because so much of it was done.
“‘Actually, ‘III’ became a very enjoyable editing experience because I was able to edit basically in continuity. I’ve never been able to do that on a movie because I always edit in the way I shoot it. But I paid for that luxury by not having a lot of time to edit ‘II.’
“Is ‘Future’ a franchise that’s going to end with ‘Part III?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ replies Zemeckis. ‘There’s nothing certain in the world, but it’s about as certain as you can get that there aren’t going to be any more of these. We never intended it to be the typical sequel, which is whatever sort of marketing-thinking (that) creates all these sequels with numbers on them. It was always designed to be a trilogy and, of course, that’s very difficult for anyone to understand because they’re considered to be sequels.'”
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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