By S.T. VanAirsdale
The New York Film Festival's press preview screenings kicked off Monday exactly the way they should have, with the irascible Julian Schnabel dropping by to discuss his selection The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The New York art icon and director of previous biopics Basquiat and Before Night Falls (about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas), who claimed to not know French before taking on his most recent project about the stricken, paralyzed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, shared everything from camera tricks to Cannes politics in a 40-minute conference following the film.
And make no mistake about Diving Bell: Schnabel is the story, a self-taught filmmaker with a painter's mind, a dynamic craftsman of texture who, for all his source material's romance, alloys character and image here in thoroughly unforeseen and original ways. The film's first act, told almost entirely from the point of view of Bauby's one good eye, compels the same fury in Schnabel's viewer as it does in his subject; soon enough it evokes honest compassion as familiarity settles in and Bauby, his nurses, his family and his surroundings come to grips with each others' new influence and potential.
"I think that the crew thought I was going to abandon that at a certain moment -- you know, 'How long can people take this before they get dizzy?' " Schnabel told The Reeler when asked about the first-person technique developed with cinematographer Janus Kaminski. " 'Is it going to get in the way of the storytelling?' When I first read this thing, I wondered, 'How the hell do you do this?' Do I lie in the hospital bed? Am I the cameraman? How to you get actors not to feel like this is surgically prepared?' "
Schnabel's cast (Mathieu Amalric is literally otherworldly as Bauby; Emmanuelle Seigner tiptoes from cautious curiosity to pity to devotion as his estranged wife) has drawn deserved praise since the film premiered at Cannes, partly for its technical acuity but most appropriately for its work within Diving Bell's striking visual parameters. Kaminski's innovations should be heralded like those of Emmanuel Lubezki's in 2006's Children of Men; you haven't quite lived until you've seen eyelids sewn shut from the inside. Schnabel said he would occasionally screw his glasses onto the camera to achieve sudden, radical shifts in focus; he and Kaminski exaggerated that technique with a "swing-and-tilt" lens that approximated the softer focus shifts associated with Bauby's initial convalescence. The point of view opened the director to infinite compositions implying everything from meditation and panic, emphasizing the chopped-off perspective of legs, torsos, floors and anywhere else the impulse to stare struck Bauby.
"Most of the things that would be done digitally we did in the camera," Schnabel continued. "You start thinking of things that I don't know if anybody was thinking about, like how many different kinds of blinks are there? Usually people talk about blinks as cuts in a movie, and I was thinking when I was working on the script, 'OK, I can blink and open to the next scene all the time.' But as you make a physical fact out of it -- like you're building a sculpture or something -- you realize how you need to adjust to do that."
Later in the press conference, Schnabel bristled at allusions to his biopic loyalty. "I guess I know more about being an artist than I do about being a stockbroker," he said. "I don't know a damn thing about basketball. I was asked to make... 4, 6 Mile?" Schnabel turned to NYFF program director Richard Peña. "What was it called?"
"8 Mile," Peña replied.
"8 Mile," Schnabel said. "Or I even was sent the script to American Gangster or Million Dollar Baby or whatever. They don't need me to do that. I was just reading this book What is the What by Dave Eggers. I just started it; the first page is a killer. I love Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it's not my intention to do biographies in particular. I think most things come from life. Even novels come from life -- they come from experience. I guess I make movies about things I'm familiar with."
He also hinted at a juror controversy at Cannes that supposedly precluded Diving Bell from claiming this year's Palme d'Or. (It eventually went to the Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.) "I guess they made some kind of a deal because it's a political situation, and then I got Best Director -- which is more than I ever bargained for," he said with a shrug. "I shook hands with everybody, even if they didn't vote for me. Like Michel Piccoli. I'm sure he didn't. He's a Communist. But I don't have a problem with that either."
Posted at September 18, 2007 2:59 PM
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