Iain Blair
Issue: December 1, 2007


HOLLYWOOD — With his third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, director and artist Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) tells the harrowing story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the high-flying editor of French Elle who was suddenly and completely paralyzed — except for his left eye — by a devastating stroke. Despite this, he managed to dictate a book — communicating solely by blinking — about his ordeal. Shot entirely on location in France by two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich), the film was produced by Kathleen Kennedy and top independent producer Jon Kilik (Babel, Pollock, A Bronx Tale), who also produced Schnabel’s other films.

During a recent lunch with the director, he discussed making the film (he won Best Director at Cannes) and his love of editing and post.

POST: What attracted you to this project?

JULIAN SCHNABEL: “Several things. It presented a very radical and satisfying way to tell a story with the camera, because of the limitations of this man and the things I needed to invent to tell the story. There’s a lot of freedom in that. It’s also a universal topic — we all have to face life and death. And I had a big personal connection. My mother died two years ago, and my father died right after her, she was 89, he was 92, and I thought they’d live forever. And my father was terrified of death, so I felt if I could rob him of that fear, I’d be a good son.”

POST: The film has a unique look. How much of that was accomplished in the shoot and how much in post?

SCHNABEL: “It was a bit of both. The script was written as a POV, and first-person is something I like. Even though he has just one eye, it doesn’t mean he looks at [people] all the time when they come in and talk to him. Maybe he looks at the floor or the ceiling. You don’t have to have someone in the middle of the frame. So we used a swing and tilt lens, so the image could be fuzzy on the edge and clear in the middle, and we could make it as irregular as we wanted.

“And I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what should be in the frame. So if I want to see a color instead of a person, or part of a hand or leg, we’d just shoot that way. Then there’s the whole thing with blinks, which are like cuts. Most was done in-camera, and Janusz used a few secrets, like rewinding the film on top of itself at different speeds, but we also manipulated a lot of the blinks in post, both in terms of color and speed. We also edited things in a very physical way, so that there’s lots of movement even though he’s paralyzed.”

POST:  Who was the editor?

SCHNABEL: “Juliette Welfling, who cut Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. She’s brilliant, and the fact that she speaks French meant she could create this whole rhythm of blinking, as if he was speaking. I’m very involved in editing, and that was probably the closest relationship I had on the whole film. I felt very strongly that a woman should edit this, as it’s ultimately about all the women in his life.

“She didn’t come on the set at all. We cut on Avid, and I was there every day for several months. She really understood what I was trying to do. Every time he closes his eye, it’s a cut, and when he opens it again, you’re in another place. There was this one scene, for instance, where he’s walking out on the street, and it’s a big crane shot, and it cuts, and it’s the same scene but it’s another shot, this time with a dog there. And I liked that. I have no problem that it’s a bit jarring, and she totally got that.”

POST:  Where did you do post?

SCHNABEL: “All post was done in France. We did the editing and recording at Studios Joinville/Boulogne, lab work at Duboicolor, and post sound at DuBois in Paris. The visual effects were done at Éclair VFX.”

POST: How do you like the post process?

SCHNABEL: “I love it. Editing is just like painting to me. It’s what you choose to let exist. It’s how you find your vision for the story. We did the color grading on [Autodesk] Lustre and, as you might guess, I’m very specific about the color of every frame.

POST: How important was audio and music to the project?

SCHNABEL: “It’s all so important to me. I’d play a lot of music on the set while watching dailies, and gradually find stuff that worked. Tom Waits is a good friend, so he contributed some songs, and the score by Paul Cantelon is perfect.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you’d first imagined it?

SCHNABEL: “It did. It’s obviously a very tough subject, but I had an incredible cast and great collaborators. I still think of myself as a painter first — I just opened a show in Hong Kong, but they’re really part of the same creative thing. And I’ll keep making films. Basically I make them when I find a great story like this one that I can’t pass up.”