Director brings story of paralyzed editor to screen
rick mcginnis/metro toronto
Director Julian Schnabel
It was during time spent reading to his friend Fred Hughes — pop culture icon Andy Warhol’s longtime manager and overseer of his legendary Factory studio — in the early 2000s that artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel was handed the book The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and became re-acquainted with the fascinating story of resilience.
Hughes had long been bed-ridden due to complications from multiple sclerosis and Diving Bell chronicled the last days of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the influential editor of French Elle magazine in the 1990s who, after suffering a debilitating stroke, found himself completely paralyzed by a rare condition called Locked-In Syndrome.
Bauby could only communicate by blinking his left eye and spelled out words with the help of a nurse who would slowly read out the alphabet. The author and journalist would blink to indicate a letter he wanted to communicate. In this state, Bauby wrote Diving Bell and chronicled his life in a physical prison.
Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) used his time with Hughes and his deceased father’s fear of death as inspiration in adapting the book, published only 10 days before the author’s death in 1997.
“The extreme point of view situation of the vantage point of the author created such a dynamic opportunity to invent any kind of structure that I wanted for a movie,” Schnabel told Metro.
Schnabel chose to shoot almost the first half of the movie from Bauby’s claustrophobic viewpoint as a means to depict the limitations of his physical world.
The director explains how his non-hierarchical approach to art influences his filmmaking techniques, and vice versa. “It all exists on a horizontal plane, so my approach to storytelling is not obvious, so there’s room for the subconscious to enter in as part of the storytelling.”