Conversation With Julian Schnabel

No matter how strenuously Julian Schnabel insists that he is primarily a painter, it is his work for the big screen that has made this artist’s reputation as big as his famous ego. Given the latter, it’s not surprising that scenes from his life seem to wind up in his films, but the praise greeting his latest cinematic effort, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is enough to swell anyone’s chest. The movie tells the story of Dominique Bauby, the soulless editor of French Elle who suffered “locked-in syndrome,” becoming paralyzed—save for his blinking left eye and his racing thoughts—after a sudden stroke. Lately, Schnabel has been making his presence felt all over New York. He’s developed a 17-story condo building, and a show of his drawings is on view through February 16 at Sperone Westwater Gallery. Linda Yablonsky talks with the 55-year-old artist about death, art and movies as therapy.

You developed your first two films, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), yourself. But The Diving Bell came from Kathleen Kennedy, one of Steven Spielberg’s producers, almost as a commission on someone else’s terms. What made you want to do it?

I used to go up to read to Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business partner, who had multiple sclerosis. And as Fred got worse, he ended up locked inside his body. I had been thinking that I might make a movie about Fred when his nurse, Darren McCormick, gave me Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Then, in 2003, when my father was dying, the script arrived from Kennedy. So it didn’t feel quite like taking on a commissioned job.

Making a feature-length motion picture about a man who can’t speak or move is pretty challenging. How did you begin? 

Once you have a set of parameters, you have a set of solutions. If you are told a guy can’t move his head, then you can cut other heads out of the frame. Just because someone is talking to you does not mean you look at him. You look at his shoes or at something to the left. All around us are things we never see. What we did was make a sound box for Mathieu Amalric [the actor who plays Bauby] to be in—he could only hear the other actors through it. He was not in front of them. You wouldn’t know that, because his responses are so spontaneous. 

I had trouble distinguishing the four women in The Diving Bell from one another—they all have a particular look. In fact, they all look something like your wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who plays one of them. Was that an accident, or did you mean to imply that to the womanizing Bauby, all women were the same? 

All these women were one woman, which is something different. I think Bauby needed women who had different skills and sensibilities. Look at Fellini’s , where the main character, Guido, has fantasies about all these different women; ultimately, one is not enough. I think a lot of my movie is about the relationship between men and women. Do you have to be paralyzed for people to be compassionate? The women do look sort of similar, but they embody different aspects of femaleness. I like how they all become one.

You are a visual artist, director, designer of interiors, husband and father, and now a real estate developer. And you are currently researching a new movie—in fact, you always seem to be thinking about the next film. But you identify yourself primarily as a painter. 

Painting is like breathing to me. It’s what I do all the time. Every day I make art, whether it is painting, writing or making a movie.

Each of your films concerns gifted men who are flawed, even tragic, figures—Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas and now Bauby—yet your own life has been rather charmed. What attracts you to these dark subjects? 

A Reiki master once told me that the reason I had claustrophobia when I was a child was that I had suffocated to death in a previous life. Who knows why we do things? Maybe what my movies have in common is that filmmaking is not just a job to me. In the case of Basquiat, someone else wanted to make a movie about him, and so that was more a rescue mission: I lived through that time, and the other guy did not; I didn’t want a tourist to make that movie. With Before Night Falls, I wanted to go to Cuba. When I went there, I was aware that I had the freedom to do things other people couldn’t. I remember feeling almost ashamed when I could walk out of Fred’s bedroom and he couldn’t. My father was terrified of death, and I wished I could help him through that. I wanted to make this movie almost as a self-help device.

But most people don’t go to movies for therapy.

They want to be entertained.  Most people don’t, but if my father could have seen this movie, he might have been less afraid to look into his interior life. Bauby was not an artist until after he got sick. He once told a friend “I’m reborn as somebody else.” It’s amazing that he felt he had been selected for something. All my movies are about the power of art to be life affirming, no matter how tragic the story. The director Andrei Tarkovsky said that life contains death, and art excludes it. So there can never be pessimistic and optimistic artists, only a talented mediocrity. I believe that.

You work on such a large scale, yet your films, especially The Diving Bell, tend to be quite intimate. How do you reconcile that with the size of your vision? 

Take another look: Even though this movie is intimate, you get to see the whole world in it. 

"Conversation With Julian Schnabel" originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2008 Table of Contents.