Opening today is the extraordinary film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, directed by one of our favorite painters, Julian Schnabel. As you’ve probably heard, the movie follows the life of Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby, formerly the editor of French Elle, in the wake of a sudden stroke that leaves him “locked-in,” almost completely paralyzed but mentally lucid. Able to communicate only by blinking his left eye, Bauby ultimately dictated–letter by letter–the 1997 bestselling book on which the film is based.
From the series of 100-year-old X-rays (unearthed by Schnabel in a house a few miles from the French hospital where the film was shot) that serve as the background for the film’s opening credits to the closing slow-motion rewind of ice blue glaciers plummeting into the Alaskan sea, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is visually fascinating, thanks to Schnabel and Janusz Kaminski, the film’s director of photography. The saturated reds and fiery crimsons that Schnabel loves on the canvas are here restrained–save for Bauby’s dreamy memories of his pre-stroke days–and replaced with a palette of shimmering, cool hues.
“I read Ron [Harwood]‘s script and thought ‘This is really good. I’ve got to do something with this,’” said Schnabel when we caught up with him after a recent preview of the film in New York. “I thought that with this movie, you can do anything in it, even put in Marlon Brando in a wig,” (Schnabel’s own photo of a bewigged Brando shows up in one particularly whimsical sequence).
As that quote suggests, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was an unconventional production. Schnabel and producer Jon Kilik insisted the film be translated and shot in French (though Schnabel says that he spoke only “restaurant French” at the time), never asked any of the actors (also French) to audition, and didn’t shoot in a studio (setting the film in and around Berck Maritime Hospital, where Bauby stayed). There were no rehearsals, and shooting wrapped two weeks ahead of schedule.
That’s not to say it was an easy film to make–or write. “When I got the idea that the camera should be hidden, it was quite easy to tell the story,” explained Harwood, the writer who adapted Bauby’s story for the screen. “I decided that the camera should be blinking.” According to producer Kilik, figuring out how to make the camera blink convincingly was one of the biggest challenges of making the film. “When someone says they blink, there’s about fifty different blinks,” said Schnabel. The winning approach? A guy scissoring two fingers over the camera lens. “I thought that that was the best blink, not a digital effect.”
Schnabel and Kaminski were determined to make it seem as if the actors were talking to Bauby, not simply to the camera. To do so, they needed to mimic human eyesight more generally, beyond the blinking effect. “Usually when you watch movies, it’s like a magazine–everything is in focus, everything is in the same plane,” said Schnabel. Human vision was imitated with a swing and tilt lens, and later in the film, as Bauby drifts in and out of consciousness, a crank camera that captured traces of multiple images shot at various speeds in a single frame.
For Schnabel, Bauby’s story about the power of creation, not affliction. “Writing was the thing that saved Jean-Do,” he said. “His interior life came alive because he started to write the book. So I think the film is very much about the process of making art.”