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January 22, 2008.
Schnabel comes to filmmaking under odd circumstances. Long before he made
his first film, he was a world-class fine artist – the self-proclaimed lion
of the New York art world – whose paintings and other works were not only in
museums internationally, but have become worth millions. So he didn't turn
to filmmaking as the core expression of his art-making. Prior to
establishing this cinematic turn, he made a name for himself throughout the
1980s as a neo-expressionist painter (some of his work involved painted-over
smashed plates glued to wooden panels).
56-year-old Brooklyn-born creator has been very picky about what films he
decided to make. His first screen effort, Basquiat, was a biopic made
in '96 about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young painter who came of age in the
early '80s, just as Schnabel did, but died of a heroin overdose at 28.
Schnabel then released
his second film, Before Night Falls, in 2000, a tale about another
doomed artist, Reinaldo Arenas, the late Cuban poet/novelist who was
persecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality in his homeland and then
escaped to New York where he committed suicide (with drugs and alcohol in
1990) after battling AIDS. That film garnered much praise and an Oscar nom
for Javier Bardem who played Arenas.
struggled for several years to do the film Perfume, he was handed
Jean-Dominque (Jean-Do) Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,
and decided that would be his next project. Shot entirely in French –
starring actors Mathieu Amalric as Bauby and Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette
(his nurse) who, ironically, were both in Steven Spielberg's Munich
(though they had no scenes together). Schnabel is apparently now at work on
a doc about Lou Reed's 2006 live concert performance of his 1973 concept
album Berlin, filmed over five nights at St. Ann's Warehouse in
You have been quoted
as saying, “I wanted this film – like the book – to be a device to help you
handle your own death.” Can you elaborate on that?
My father was always
scared to die. I didn't really notice that until the last part of his life.
At 92, he did finally die at my house and, a couple weeks before, he felt
like he was falling all the time. I wish I could have put the floor
underneath him in some way. I used to take a nap every day in the summer
with my father. So I'd lie there, with my arm around him. Now he's not there
and I lie in that bed in my studio and my son puts his arm around me.
Anyway, I was always scared to die my whole life. I was trying to fix it for
him so he wouldn't be scared. I made it as comfortable as I could for him.
I was getting ready to
go to a show on a Friday night. I was in bed with my wife and she said, “I
don't think your dad's going to be here when we get back.” I said, you think
he looks that bad? So I went upstairs and put him in the bathtub. I told him
not to shit in the bathtub, but he did anyway. He was relaxed. Darren
[McCormick, who was his father's nurse], who actually gave me the book,
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was in the room. He was so nervous. I
was pouring hot water from the sink into the bathtub. My father gave me this
text, an epic poem which is five pages long – and he never written a word in
his life. In it, he wrote, “You're a gem of a man, I wonder where people
like you are hatched. God sent you to me. Do me a favor, give me a scratch.
Put me to sleep so I can be reborn. I wish my wife was alive, she'd tell you
what a good man I am.” So the state my father was in was this place between
life and death. I know he felt good when I put him in the bath. The next
morning, Darren called me and asked about him. Five minutes later he came
up. My dad had bile coming out of his mouth, his eyes were flickering, and
he looked terrified. And then he died. I said “Dad!” thinking that he had
enough oxygen in his head to hear my voice.
I didn't want to make
this movie at first, you know? Fred Hughes [who had been Andy Warhol's
business partner and friend] was sick [he died in 2001 of complications from
multiple sclerosis]. I used to read to Fred over on Lexington Avenue. Darren
worked for me [at the time]. He handed me this book almost seven years ago.
At the time, I was so involved with [making a film of the book] Perfume,
I really wanted to make the movie about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille [the lead
character in the novel], but both of them I thought, “What is that thing
that movies can do? It's that parallel life that runs along the other life.”
Like in Sunset Boulevard, [there is] Bill Holden's line about himself
while [he's] in the swimming pool. “There I am in dead in the swimming
pool.” And he can speak to you from that. It's encouraging and so I thought
that Jean-Dominique Bauby was reporting back from this place that nobody had
ever reported back from. And in that he found a whole other life. That year
he spent writing that book – in the process of working, in the process of
becoming an artist, he gave up his body to have that P.O.V. I think he found
his interior life. The question I have asked myself my whole life is, “When
is that moment, when you feel like you can accept your own death.” It's not
just a freak-out anymore. When is that moment?
One day I was sitting
in Cannes with my son, Vito, and my father had died. All of a sudden [Vito]
stood up and put his hand on my back and he left the table. At that moment,
he turned into my father. That transference had taken place. I was always
wondering when do you become mature? My mother's case, she had congestive
heart failure, so she died so many times she wasn't scared. My dad who had
never been sick was just the nothingness. But somehow through this, I found
that there's a permanence. I was reading this stuff by [the late Russian
director Andrei] Tarkovsky recently and he was talking about, “Life contains
death. Art, unlike life, doesn't contain death.” So it's a denial of death;
it's life-affirming. As [Tarkovsky] said, “There's no optimistic or
pessimistic artist. There's just talent and mediocrity.” Even if the subject
is in ruin or disaster, there's no pessimistic art.
And I thought, this
guy [Bauby] turned his life into art and what he was able to do, what was
satisfying about it, is that he was able to [transcend] death by writing
that book. When sound goes out of the movie and you hear Claude's voice say,
“I had one last thought, ‘I'm going to be late to the theater.’ Then I sank
into a coma.” And she's got the book in her hand, and he's managed to hand
over the baton to her. I think that the information of looking into your
interior life makes you alive. The people who are just living and are
unconscious, they're not alive, whether your body is working or not. He had
that opportunity to look into his interior life. I think that, to find that
kind of peace in there is confidant to anybody who would be sick, anybody
who would feel alone because you really feel like it's happening to you. You
look at the movie and it's happening to him and it's happening to you at the
same time. The line between those two things is invisible.
Some of your paintings
are about destruction and rebirth. Do you consider art your assignment of
Yes. I didn't know
that as a kid. I thought it was too pretentious to think that you want to
have immortality and a heavy-handed thing to talk about if you're just
making stuff. But as I get older, and realize what things last – that you
can pick up a book by W.H. Auden and can read his poem, "Musee des Beaux
Arts" and he's talking about Icarus in that poem. When you see how those
sculptures in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and a young, beautiful woman
is looking at the torso of Aristotle or someone, and we're looking at
I was talking to [the
actor] Harry Dean Stanton the other day, who is 81 years old now, he said
“We're nothing. I'm nothing.” And I said, “Yes, I am nothing too. We're both
nothing, but I like to make things. And that's something.” But on the other
hand, if you look at Reinaldo Arenas he said the same thing: “This is
nothing. But when I write about it, it will be something.” That's an
interesting thing to think about [Schnabel made his second film, Before
Night Falls based on the memoirs of this gay exiled Cuban novelist]. I
remember when [art rebel and Warhol actor] Rene Ricard said, “When I talk,
people think I'm silly. But when I write it down, they believe it's true.” I
think art does function as some kind of chance to – just think we can watch
the movie Andrei Rublev [directed by Tarkovsky; released in 1973]. We
can see the 16th century in black and white in Russia. It's timeless.
And so I didn't know I
was going to make movies also. They don't take the place of making
paintings. But I like that about it too. Making a film about this subject,
which dogged me and bothered me in life, has been extremely helpful. You
probably go to a lot of roundtables where you talk to a lot of actors, a lot
of directors, but I wonder how many of them actually talk about this stuff.
Maybe everybody does, but that seems to really be about “What are we about?”
“What is consciousness?” “What is love?” It doesn't seem to be about beyond
The about the look of
the film perfectly fits the subject; what kind of input did you have with
your cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski?
No, no. He did
How did you pick him?
I saw him at the
Oscars. When he received the thing for [Steven Spielberg's] Schindler's
List [he also won an Oscar for Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.].
I thought that if I could get him then I could make a good movie. And he was
excellent. He's very fast and understood what I wanted to do. He once said
to me, “Is this going to be an experimental film?” I said I hope so. But I
think what he was saying to me when he said it was, “Were only four people
going to watch it?” And I thought it was a big film because it was a big
topic. I knew what I wanted the movie to look like. I obviously, the way I
tell a story, the language is printed on the page. Then there are images
that run alongside of it, and music influences and is equivalent to
storytelling. I knew what kind of lens I wanted to use from the beginning. I
think what he was able to bring to it was many things. He has so much
experience. He's been good with temporal light. In Munich, when
they're walking in Tel Aviv, you feel like it's the '70s and it's in Tel
Or in Saving
Private Ryan, those kind of crushed blacks and that sort of thing. But
in this particular case, he had the opportunity to do things that most
people wouldn't do. Shooting the waking-up scene, the death scene. He's got
this crank camera, and he's winding and rewinding at different speeds on top
of his own film. It's done right away. So it's not done in post-production.
When I've got somebody blinking, I got my fingers on the lens. And that's
the eyelashes there. There's other kinds of blinks my editor, Juliette
Welfling... she did a great job. Probably of all the people, except maybe
Mathieu Amalric, and the other actors, who was my favorite person to work
with. This woman edited Jacques Audiard's films, Read My Lips and
The Beat That My Heart Skipped. She's a great editor. She was not hung
up on things that wouldn't bother me also. There was a freedom in the she
would do stuff and the brutal physicality in that film. Everybody else said
yes, and I had my ideal cast. It was beautiful. That's the greatest
Filmmaking can be a
frustrating process. Would you make more films if it were a less complicated
I think that I make
the movies at the speed I like to make them. I would have made Perfume
probably – that's the only movie I wanted to make. Seven years went by and
it evolved into this movie. When people come out of the movie, there's some
sort of spell on them. It sounds a little pretentious, but they walk out and
they seem affected in some way, like they took a drug. I don't think I'm
It evokes a sensory
reaction, I wouldn't call it a smell, but...
It doesn't have to be
about smell but you are altered in some way.
The movie makes you
feel differently about sensory perception.
The idea is that if
art can make you see the world differently then it has worked. I thought
maybe my dad could have included some of this information into his psyche
and then went to that place and he could have come up in those glaciers just
like Jean-Do [Bauby] did. Now I've shown this movie to some people who were
paralyzed. Paul Cantelon, the composer [of the soundtrack], who from five to
12, was a child prodigy; then he was hit by a car when he was 12. He had
total amnesia. The guy who trained him wasted seven years of his life with
him other than the pleasure of playing with him. At 17, he's playing the
piano one day, and he goes to his mother, who is a piano teacher, “Hey mom
check this it, I just made this.” She goes, “Come on, Paul, that's just
Bach.” It came back.
The respect and
delicacy with which he was treated with the hospital milieu, was that in the
book or was that your take on it?
I felt that delicacy
and compassion and love from the people who worked in the hospital. So I
just took the high road and went with them. And any bickering that was among
the women who all loved him – for example Sandrine, who was Henriette, and
who probably wanted to transcribe his book but couldn't.... Interestingly, I
showed the script to Isabel Huppert and she said she wanted to be – well she
actually wanted to be Jean-Do [laughs] – Sandrine or Henriette and
Claude [all three of the women]. The fact is one could not accommodate this,
and he needed these real women in his life to accommodate his own desires.
And whatever the truth was about the wife and the girlfriend – really the
girlfriend spent more time with him and he left the book to his wife and
kids so he wrote it like that. I included more stuff about how he really
loved that girl. And he didn't live at home.
I thought what he had
to say to other people like my dad or people who were sick and in hospitals
– I've had doctors and nurses who have asked to show this film in hospitals
for the patients and themselves because they felt like somebody was
understanding what was being communicated – was more important than the
petty jealousies between them. So I thought, the true story – his wife was
not at his deathbed, his girlfriend was. In the script she wasn't but I put
her in there. But I also found out things about his death that were not in
the script that I needed to know in order to tell the story the right way.
If somebody asked me
if I wanted to hear the reviews before I died of my show, I'd say no. But
that's me and my life. Jean-Do wanted to be on that [TV] show Apostrophe
and he wanted people to know he wrote that book and that they did that
documentary about him. Matthieu said he'd say yes. I went looking into it
and I asked Bernard [Chapuey] about the last day and he said, “We all went
into the room at a different moment. And then there was one moment when I
was talking and the doctor said, 'He's dead.' I said, 'What do you mean he's
dead? His eye's open, he's breathing. The doctor said, 'It's the machine.'
She's reading the reviews to a dead guy.” So it just worked for the movie.
It had just that irony. I don't know what the word is. But what I wanted to
say in that he accomplished what he wanted to and it didn't matter what the
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