Ever since “Schindler’s List,” Janusz Kaminski has been Steven Spielberg’s go-to guy, working exclusively with the director to shoot nine features in as many years. But after “Munich,” a window opened when Spielberg was not rushing to do another movie, which freed the Polish-born d.p. to squeeze in a passion project of his choosing.
Kaminski picked “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on a memoir painstakingly “dictated” by former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby from a state of near-full-body paralysis. “Because of my situation with Steven, if I like something, I have the luxury of at least meeting up with a director to express my point of view regarding the story,” he says.
Unlike many directors, Julian Schnabel had never settled on a specific cinematic collaborator, using different lensers on “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” and was happy to take a meeting with Kaminski. “I’ve always admired his work,” Schnabel says. “When I saw him at the Oscars winning for ‘Schindler’s List,’ I thought, ‘If I had that guy, I could make a pretty good movie.'”
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Schnabel, who hails from the New York art world, responded to Kaminski’s experimental sensibility — one designed to capture Bauby’s subjective experience as innovatively as possible without alienating audiences.
“This story, right from the beginning, permits a very unconventional visual approach because we’re looking at the movie from the perspective of a man with locked-in syndrome,” Kaminski explains. “The language I came up with is trying to reflect what his world looks like, knowing that he’s got no movement whatsoever except this one eye, and the eye is kind of giving up occasionally.”
When “Jean-Do” cries, the view seems to water. When he strains, its focus clouds. And when the doctors decide to stitch his right eye shut, the audience experiences the needle piercing the eyelid as if it’s happening to them.
But inside Bauby’s frozen body there still lives a vibrant personality — surly, sensual and even quite funny — which requires the camera to perform in character for much of the movie.
“In that condition, the only freedom you have is focusing somewhere else,” observes Kaminski. “He couldn’t really turn away, but he could direct his attention elsewhere, so that’s why we would sometimes focus on an ear or the wall, or we tilt down and look at a woman’s chest. He was paralyzed, but he wasn’t a dead creature. He had feelings, emotions and desires.”
Because the entire film isn’t spent trapped in Bauby’s head, Kaminski also had to find separate visual solutions for flashbacks and fantasies. But the subjective sequences proved the most innovative and challenging, particularly the scene in which Bauby receives his final visitors.
“The end of the movie, which became these layers of images, that’s all done in camera, with me hand-cranking forward and reversing,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how it must feel when you are dying, because obviously your brain cells are dying, the electric impulses are misfiring, you don’t really know what’s present and what’s past.”
Awards pedigree: Two Oscars (for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) out of three noms, three ASC noms and at least a dozen crix’ awards and a special technical prize from this year’s Cannes.
Mentor/inspiration: Spielberg, although “Diving Bell” went well because “I don’t necessarily require a strong collaboration with a director. I like being left alone and adored.”
Visual aids: “I spent a lot of the time looking at the world with one eye and not moving, just thinking.”
Favorite tools: “I usually mix up the film stocks. I shot all the night exteriors and things that require higher sensitivity with Kodak 5279 (discontinued), and for the rest I used Fuji 250 daylight emulsion.”