“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, started out as a studio project. Initially, DreamWorks had optioned the rights and, when they expired, producer Kathleen Kennedy snapped them up with the aid of Universal, which was then owned by Gallic conglom Vivendi. She brought Ronald Harwood onboard to pen an adaptation.
“Ron was familiar with the story because he lived part time in Paris after being a longtime associate of Roman Polanski,” she says. “Ron’s first draft of the screenplay was wonderful and provided an excellent start toward setting the project up with a director and cast.”
At one point Johnny Depp was in the mix to star as Bauby. “He said, ‘I’d want Julian Schnabel to direct it,’ ” Jon Kilik says, noting that this was how he became involved (Kilik is Schnabel’s longtime producing partner). Later Depp became unavailable due to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. “It took him out of action for years,” Kilik says. “It took the wind out of the sails with Universal, but we continued to work with Kathy, who got more onboard to the style Julian and I are used to — the independent road.”
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Once on that indie road, financing came from French company Pathe, with the stipulation that “Diving Bell” had to qualify as a Gallic production. Shot entirely on location in France, “Diving Bell” utilized a Francophone cast and crew that included many former colleagues. Says Kilik: “‘Babel’ and ‘Alexander’ had a good mix of French crew that we were able to use on this one.”
Kennedy tapped members from her “Munich” cast such as Mathieu Amalric to play Bauby and Marie-Josee Croze to play Bauby’s sign-language decoder. The only major non-French crew member was cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom Kennedy had worked many times before on the films she produced with Steven Spielberg.
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Coin: “The budget was near $13 million, but a significant portion of that were the previous costs from the DreamWorks sale and the Universal costs that had to be absorbed,” says Kennedy. “The actual cost to make the film was $7 million.”
Biggest hurdle: “Taking it from an English to a French production,” says Kilik, “as was doing it for a price with not a name cast and turning this book into a visually interesting movie. Each one of those challenges scared the hell out of everybody. … I get invigorated by that fear. …The reason it turned out the way it did is because everybody was on the edge the whole time.”