Miramax’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” flew into the Fine Arts Theater on Friday night as part of the Variety Screening Series. Director Julian Schnabel was joined onstage by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik and stars Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Max von Sydow.
Pic is based on the memoir of late Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from ‘locked-in syndrome’ following a stroke that left him paralyzed from head to toe with the exception of his left eyelid, which he then used to write his autobiography by painstakingly blinking the text letter by letter.
Johnny Depp was originally set to play Bauby but his commitment to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels forced him to exit the project, though not before securing Schnabel’s services.
“I had seen ‘Before Night Falls’ but I have to give Johnny Depp a lot of credit in this process because when we were talking to Johnny about starring in this movie, Johnny had an incredibly wonderful relationship with Julian, and when he read the script he immediately thought of Julian,” Kennedy explained. “At the time, it was clear to me that this was probably the definition of an art film and so the opporunity to have somebody like Julian interpret that from the standpoint of a real artist, I think, is what really gives it an enormous visual style.”
Indeed, the film is filled with imaginative visual flourishes that help communicate Bauby’s deepest thoughts and fears and express his active imagination.
“Ron’s script offered the possibility of filling in some of my own blanks that I wanted to use, so I transposed these things and that was really key for me,” said Schnabel. “To see the image of the glacier falling into the sea and to hear him say ‘Had I been blind and deaf would it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature,’ I thought… okay, I like that. That was his epiphany and then he decided that he would escape his diving bell and he would get on with his life and become the point of view of the butterfly.”
As shot by Kaminski (Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaborator), the film takes on the point-of-view of its protagonist, and Bauby’s face isn’t fully visible until nearly 45 minutes into the film.
“It was really difficult because the lens doesn’t really respond to you. It’s cold, and when you’re an actor you like sharing with other actors,” Croze lamented.
Schnabel commented on the unusual set-up. “I think sometimes, what actors are used to doing is they act and they react to other people that are saying things to them. Well when that’s not happening, I think actors get a chance to do something else and not get distracted. So in a sense, working with another actor is like an escape from yourself. But to me, it was a great gift to watch people pour their humanity and their love into this character that they were going to help.”