Julian Schnabel

Directors in the Oscar race

The three films directed by Schnabel, an abstract expressionist painter who gained notoriety during the art boom of the ’80s, involve creative personalities who struggle against the odds to express themselves artistically. “There are different aspects of what making art is about that manifests itself in these different films,” explains the director of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” about former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby and his struggle with “locked-in syndrome” — the result of a massive stroke that leaves him paralyzed and only able to communicate by blinking his left eye, a process by which he wrote the memoir of the title. “In the case of Jean-Dominique, he needed to escape from that diving bell. And the way he did that was by filling up his day with work.”

“Diving Bell” is based on yet another one of those largely interior books that supposedly couldn’t be filmed, which is precisely the kind of challenge Schnabel thrives on. “There’s a line in the book,” says Schnabel, “where he said: ‘Swimming up from the mist of a coma, you never have the luxury of your dreams evaporating.’ What does that tell a filmmaker? It means to me that I could blur the lines between dream, writing and what we think is real. And there’s a layering, almost like a Jacob’s ladder effect: Just when you think you’re going to get back to reality you’re in some other place.”

GENESIS: Schnabel knew Bauby and was introduced to the book by performance artist Laurie Anderson. When his father fell gravely ill in 2003, producer Kathleen Kennedy sent him Ronald Harwood’s script, which mirrored what he was experiencing. “That’s what I tried to show from the inside of (Bauby’s) p.o.v. as he’s looking out. I was trying to think of what my dad was seeing.”

VISION: There were certain elements Schnabel knew he wanted to incorporate from the beginning, such as stock footage of melting glaciers collapsing into the sea. “The glaciers were key to me, and the text. I had this U2 song in my head, and the shot of (actress) Marina Hands’ hair flying around like that.”

CHALLENGES: In one flashback scene, camera operator Gilbert Lecluyse placed the camera on top of a car. “I said, ‘Why is it mounted there?’ And he said there are four ways to shoot a car scene. I said, ‘If there are four ways to shoot a car scene, I’m going home now, and so can you.’ ” Schnabel suggested he lay on the floor of the passenger side and shoot upward, “because I wanted him to see the trees. I knew what I wanted to see.”

MAGIC: “You just lean towards the divine light and hope that it hits you.”

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