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Interview: Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel has the kind of persona that only New York could foster. He’s slightly bombastic, feigning an artistic pretentiousness, traits held since appearing on the New York art scene in the 1980’s.

Julian Schnabel has the kind of persona that only New York could foster. He's slightly bombastic, feigning an artistic pretentiousness, a trait held since appearing on the New York art scene in the 1980’s. Famously quoted as saying “I’m the closest thing you’ll ever get to Picasso,” his work has shown a steady increase in maturity and poignancy over the past decade.

Perhaps his greatest cinematic achievement is his latest The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an elegiac tale of a man who suffers from a stroke, which results in locked-in syndrome, a condition that virtually paralyzes the entire body. Mathieu Amalric turns in a fantastic performance as Jean-Dominique Bauby an editor of French Elle until 1995 when he was found paralyzed save for his left eye. Over the next two years Bauby authored the novel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly via blinking.

Schnabel’s film follows Bauby after the stroke and highlights his attempts to communicate with the world and find solace in his imagination. The film is a testament to finding meaning in the face of unimaginable travesty; it’s also Schnabel’s most mature work to date. I sat down with the enigmatic figure in New York. Bare in mind it’s hard to get a word in edge-wise with Schnabel, so have some patience and enjoy his ramblings, for they’re quite profound.

Julian Schnabel

Q: You’ve stated that you made this film to learn how to better deal with death which I find surprising because I thought the film was a celebration of life, is that wrong?
Julian Schnabel: My father was always scared to die and I didn’t notice that until the last part of his life. He was 92 when he did finally die at my house. During those last few weeks he told me he had this falling sensation and I wished I could somehow put the floor underneath him. I used to take a nap with my dad everyday and I’d lay there with my arm around him, now that he’s not there my son Vito lies with his arm around me. I was always scared to die my whole life and I was trying to fix it so he wouldn’t be scared and I made him as comfortable as I could, but still couldn’t get that sensation of doom out of his mind. Anyway, I had this show in Germany and I was in bed with my wife when she said: “I don’t think your dad’s going to be here when you get back.” I didn’t think he looked that bad, but I went upstairs and put him in the bathtub and I told him: “Don’t shit in the bathtub okay dad?” Of course he did anyway because he was finally relaxed and we used all the hot water in the building because we were so upset. We were reading this text my dad had written for me, and he had never written a word in his life, but before he died he wrote me this epic five-page poem that was absolutely beautiful. So he was in this space between life and death and the next morning I went up to his room and saw him twitching, his eyes were flipping all over the place and he looked terrified. A few minuets later he was dead. I didn’t really set out to make Diving Bell the way I pursued Before Night Falls or Basquiat, I discovered it when I was reading to Fred Hughes when he was dying. I wanted my next film to be Suskind’s Perfume, but I found that both works dealt with that parallel life that can run along side of reality. I thought that the Bauby was reporting back from this space where no one had really spoken from before and in that, he found this whole other life while at the same time becoming an artist. In giving up his body he found an interior life that he never knew existed. So the question became: when is that moment when you’re not afraid of your own death? When is it not a freak out anymore? Well, a few years after my dad had died, I was sitting in Cannes with Vito when he got up from the table and he put his arm around m. At that moment I realized he had turned into my father, that after his death a transference had taken place. When do you become mature? When do you understand what that is? My mother had congestive heart failure so she died so many times that she wasn’t afraid because she thought she was coming back. My dad had never been sick in his life was petrified of the void. I was reading Tarkovsky recently, he was talking about how life contains death but art doesn’t. Art is a denial of death because it’s life affirming. He says: “there’s no optimistic or pessimistic art. There’s just talent and mediocrity.” So Bauby turned his life into art and what he was able to do was transgress death by writing that book. He had the opportunity to turn into his interior life and find a sense of peace.

Q: Do you consider art a portal to immortality
JS: Yes, although I didn’t know that when I was a kid, I thought it was too pretentious to talk about immortality with people who dedicate their lives to creating. But as I get older and realize how things last. I was talking to Harry Dean-Stanton the other day and he told me: “I’m nothing and you’re nothing.” I agreed with him, but added that we like to create things and that’s something. Reynaldo Reyes said almost that same thing, he said: “Now this is nothing, but when I write about it, it will be something.”   It’s an interesting concept to think about. Again in Basquiat, Rene Ricard says: “When I talk people think I’m silly, but when I write it down they believe.” So I think that art functions as kind of palimpsest. Just take a film like Andrei Rublev, we can see medieval Russia in black and white, it’s timeless. I didn’t know that I was going to make films, and I must say that it doesn’t take the place of painting, but I really enjoy the process and the status that films hold in today’s world. Working on this film and this subject has been extremely helpful in dealing with death. (laughs) I wonder how many other film directors actually talk about this stuff with you. But I am interested in questions such as: why we’re alive? What is consciousness? It’s sort of beyond the story

Julian Schnabel behind the scenes

Q: How much did you control the look of the film?

JS: The brilliant Janusz Kaminski was really responsible for that. I saw him at the Oscars when he won for either Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. He worked very fast and understood what I wanted. He told me he didn’t care if it was a large film or a small film, he just wanted it to be an experimental film. I thought it was a big film because it was about a big topic. I knew what I wanted the film to look like, and obviously the way I tell a story has to do with not only the language that’s on the page, but the visuals and the music that goes along with the story. I mean I knew what lens I wanted to use, but I think he was able to bring in many visuals because of his extensive experience. I think he’s very good with temporal light. I think that, in this case, he had the opportunity to do things cinematographers don’t usually get to do, like the scene with Jean-Do waking up, the diving scene or the dying scene. He had a cranked camera, winding and rewinding the film at different speeds, which is an effect that’s normally achieved in post. When Bauby was blinking that’s really my finger opening and closing over the lens. There were other effects that my brilliant editor Juliette Welfing, who’s probably, aside from the actors, my favorite person to work with. She’s edited almost all of Jacques Audiard’s films and she’s just fantastic. Everyone really said, “yes” to doing this film, which was great, I didn’t have to coax anyone on board.

Q: You’ve made three films but have been around for almost thirty years, do you wish you’d made more?
JS: I think I’ve made films at the speed I like to make them. I mean I would have made Perfume, but seven years went by and it evolved into Diving Bell. I think, in a way, I created Perfume making this film. When people come out of this film they feel as if a spell has been put over them and I know it sounds pretentious, but I think it’s true. People seem to be affected, in some way, as if they'd taken a drug. I wish I had made this film before my father died, because I wish he could have taken some of the information and put himself in that place. I’ve shown this film to some people who were paralyzed, in fact, Paul Cantelon, the composer who was a child prodigy at five, got into an accident at twelve and forgot everything. At seventeen he was playing the piano in his house, thinking he was making stuff up, and his mother realized he was playing Bach, it eventually all came back to him.

Julian Schnabel behind the scenes

Q: Everyone in the hospital was very kind and attentive to Bauby, is that realistic of French hospitals?
JS: I felt that delicacy, compassion and love from those people who work in the hospital and so I just took the high road and went with them. Any bickering that existed between the women,in the end they all loved him. I’m sure Henriette would have transcribed the book if she could, but she didn’t have the training. In real life he needed all of these women to accommodate his own desires. I felt what was being communicated through him was more important then any petty jealousy that may have existed between these women in real life. In reality, his wife was not at his deathbed, his girlfriend was, in the script I switched it around. But I found out some things about his death that weren’t in the story or script that I felt I needed to do the film justice. Jean Bauby was dead before he could hear any reviews of his book. The doctors hadn’t told anyone else yet that he was dead, so everyone was reading the reviews to the oxygen generator, and I felt that worked perfectly in the film. It was very ironic. So I felt he had accomplished what he wanted to in life and it didn’t matter what the reviews were.

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