Julian Schnabel: interview

Julian Schnabel tells Dave Calhoun about learning French, travelling with Christopher Walken and why he loves the London Film Festival

Julian Schnabel – 55, painter, filmmaker, bon viveur – is coming to London at the end of the month. ‘I love the festival. I was there with “Basquiat” in 1996 and I had the funniest time.’

That was eleven years ago. This time, Schnabel will arrive in town with ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (‘Le Scaphandre et le Papillon’), his adaptation of the popular French book of the same name – the meditations of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a magazine editor who suffered a paralysing stroke in December 1995 and dictated an entire book by blinking one eye. The book was published in March 1997 and Bauby (or ‘Jean-Do’, as his friends call him) died ten days later. Schnabel first presented his film – a lush, impressionistic affair with Mathieu Amalric as Bauby – at this year’s Cannes, where he won the Best Director prize.

But first, let’s go back eleven years. Why such fond memories of the London Film Festival? ‘I went with Chris Walken, who was in “Basquiat”,’ Schnabel recalls. ‘Basquiat’ was Schnabel’s first film: a portrait of the American artist played by Jeffrey Wright. ‘And Chris said to me on the plane, “I’ve seen this movie more times than I’ve seen ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. I’m going to drink 80 vodkas.” ’

Schnabel is getting into the swing of his story; he’s on the mobile from San Sebastian airport, we’re at the end of a 45-minute conversation, and his wife is waiting for him in the terminal – but he continues.

‘He starts drinking on the plane. By the time we got to the screening in Leicester Square, he wanted to go to Blakes for more drinks and I lost him. So I introduced the film, went to Blakes and then I needed to get back for the Q&A . Well, we tried to get back to the cinema and there was a traffic jam at Piccadilly Circus. You know there’s that brass rail there? Well, he gets out of the car and he’s holding on to this thing, walking at a 45-degree angle, and I thought: he’s going to get himself killed and I’m going to come home without him. So I told him to go to Mr Chow and by the time I got back to the cinema all the lights are on in the theatre and they’re saying: “Where’s Mr Schnabel? Has anybody seen Mr Schnabel?” I said: “Here I am,” and ran up to the front. I like the London Film Festival.’

Evidently, Schnabel is a larger-than-life figure. He’s been a lively presence on the New York art scene as a painter since the early 1980s and his face is a regular on the city’s party pages. He doesn’t come quietly: earlier this year he attracted the scorn of his neighbours in Manhattan when he added 11 stories, all of them painted pink, to the three-storey studio he already owns in the city’s West Village.

And now ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is the Time Out special screening at this year’s London Film Festival, where it will receive its UK premiere. It’s Schnabel’s third film after both ‘Basquiat’ and ‘Before Night Falls’, his 2000 film about the gay Cuban poet and writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was played by Javier Bardem. It’s a real delight, which may sound odd considering the subject, a man committed to a hospital bed, almost entirely paralysed. But Schnabel carves beauty from Bauby’s situation, both from his experiment with how to represent Bauby’s condition from an interior viewpoint – ie literally through Bauby’s own eyes – and from the release felt by Bauby when he begins to experience the wonderful freedom of writing.

Schnabel uses a mixture of first-person and third-person perspectives, a chopped-up chronology and footage such as icebergs melting and a terrific aerial shot of a skier careening down a mountain to represent Bauby’s life and illness. His film is anything but a sappy bedside drama that’s weighed down by its own misery.

‘I remember when we started to make the film, the director of photography, Janusz Kaminski said to me: “Is this going to be an experimental film?” I said: “I hope so.”’

There was already a complete script by Ronald Harwood, the writer of ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ and Polanski’s ‘Oliver Twist’ when the producer Kathleen Kennedy sent a copy to Schnabel, sensing that it may interest him. ‘I didn’t work with Ron after he gave me the script,’ explains Schnabel, who took the text somewhere else entirely, not least by deciding to shoot the film in French.

‘The guy was a French writer in the first place,’ Schnabel reasons. And so he translated the script in cahoots with each of the actors individually. ‘Ultimately, they’re the ones who will have the words coming out of their mouths.’

And is it true that he learned French from scratch solely to be able to make the film? ‘Si, mais maintenant je pouvoir parle le français, si tu veux. Si je voudrais faire un film français, je besoin a travailler avec les Francaises (sic).’

‘In a crazy way, I was sort of like Jean-Do. I didn’t speak French, I had to learn French and I had to learn to communicate. I needed help in the same way he did.’

The film won’t be released in Britain until next February. Schnabel, however, will be introducing the film and talking afterwards at the film’s festival screening in Leicester Square at the end of the month. Let’s just hope it runs smoothly. Maybe someone should warn the doorman at Blakes.

‘I’ll be there, I promise. And I don’t think Chris Walken will come with me this time.’

Full coverage of the Times BFI 51st London Film Festival can be found at timeout.com/lff,
including previews, interviews, listings and a daily blog during the festival.

‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ will screen at the Odeon West End on Oct 21 and 22 and will be released on Feb 8.





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