Ronald Harwood on Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel, director of ’The Diving Bell and the Butterfly‘ is a notorious ego-maniac. So what‘s it like to work with him? Dave Calhoun pays a visit to screenwriter Ronald Harwood

Ronald Harwood on Julian Schnabel
Ronald Harwood enjoyed a distant relationship with Julian Schnabel

It’s no secret that Julian Schnabel, the American artist and the director of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ can be one hell of a pain in the backside. I have my own experience of trying to interview Schnabel in front of an audience during the last London Film Festival. I soon discovered that the stage wasn’t big enough for the two of us. ‘Let’s not talk,’ he suggested. ‘Let’s just sit here in silence and think about the film.’ That said, I still rather admired the man’s head-in-the-clouds obduracy and there’s no escaping what I think about his new film, his third after ‘Basquiat’ and ‘Before Night Falls’, which is a sensitive, imaginative adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of overcoming near-total paralysis to dictate a book by blinking one eye. It’s a terrific achievement, which justly won him the directing prize at Cannes.

With all this in mind, I’m intrigued to hear what it was like for Ronald Harwood, the writer of the screenplay of ‘The Diving Bell…’, to work with Schnabel. Which is why I’m round at Harwood’s Kensington flat one morning when he should be packing his suitcase to attend the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, but because of the writers’ strike is preparing for a few days away in the countryside (‘My absence won’t be missed, but I don’t feel comfortable going over and getting publicity’). I find 73-year-old Harwood to be a delight, a true professional of the old school whose friendliness and sanguine attitude to the film business must arise partly from the fact that he found real success in cinema relatively late in life with his screenplays for Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Oliver Twist’. ‘They offer me a lot of things these days and I can choose,’ he says, before mocking the empty heads of Hollywood. ‘“You’re a great talent,” that’s a very common phrase – and of course we’re going to get attention with this new film, but it’s as fleeting as blinking your eyelid.’

He’s not green. He trained at RADA after arriving in London in 1951, aged 17, from South Africa and later joined Donald Wolfit’s Shakespeare company for several years. He’s enjoyed success with plays such as ‘Taking Sides’ since the 1960s, as well as writing scripts for films such as ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ (1995) and ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1970). He was nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for adapting his play ‘The Dresser’. But it was his Oscar for ‘The Pianist’ in 2003 that gave his career a late boost, even if he still considers himself a man more of the theatre than the cinema. His latest play opens at the Palace Theatre, Watford this month.

It’s the film industry that keeps several roofs – Kensington, Paris, Sussex – over his head. Lately he has written ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ for Mike Newell and ‘Australia’ for Baz Luhrmann. Adaptations are his thing. If he has an original idea, he says frankly, while puffing away on cigarettes in the corner of his living room, he’ll plough it into a play or a book. His approach to adaptation is to serve the material. ‘Adaptations go off the rails when the writer thinks he can invent a truth more important than the one he’s adapting,’ he offers. He admits that he hasn’t entirely ditched the snobbery that film is inferior to other art forms. ‘It’s what one grew up with: novels were important, plays were important, films were… popular,’ he says apologetically. He agrees that his relaxed attitude puts him in good stead for working with difficult directors and for taking a step back from his scripts.

And so to ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’. The quick answer to the question of exactly how Harwood collaborated with Schnabel is simple: he didn’t. ‘You probably spent more time with him than me,’ he jokes. Harwood had already finished his English-language script for ‘The Diving Bell…’ when Schnabel came on board and had it translated into French. The pair had one meeting and exchanged some emails. ‘Then he never consulted me again. I think it’s because he does a lot of the work on the floor and in the edit. It’s not my preferred mode of working. I prefer to have at least three or four weeks with the director going through it line by line, as I do with Polanski, and as I did with Mike Newell. Schnabel is a different animal. I didn’t like being so removed.’

Harwood’s too much of a gentleman to stick the knife in – but he can’t resist the odd bit of gossip about his brushes with Schnabel on the publicity circuit in America. ‘He’s done us very proud with the film, so we shouldn’t be complaining. But one can’t help it. The ego is very embracing – it’s odd, I’ve never come across it to such a degree.’ He tells a quick tale: ‘We were all being presented for a Q&A in Hollywood and he never mentioned Janusz (Kaminski), the cinematographer once. Towards the end, I whispered, “Janusz, he hasn’t mentioned you.” And Janusz said (he adopts a world weary Polish accent), “Well, Ronald, I only swept up after the day’s shooting!” You have to take it like that. You have to be amused.’

Harwood stresses again how much he likes Schnabel’s film. He also finds the Schnabel roadshow amusing, if a little bewildering and exasperating. Let’s just say that Harwood is now mindful to look back at the notoriously egocentric Donald Wolfit – his nightmare boss in the 1950s – as a pussy-cat and a paragon of humility. ‘Compared to Schnabel, he looks like a monk on his knees crawling to Jerusalem,’ he says, laughing.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ opens on February 8.

Author: Rob Greig





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