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Big man on canvas (screen, too)

In his career, Julian Schnabel has drawn notice for his art, his attitude, and now his status as an auteur

Julian Schnabel Julian Schnabel has drawn notice for his art, his attitude, and now his status as an auteur. (Globe Photo / Wiqan Ang)
Email|Print| Text size + By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / December 15, 2007

Julian Schnabel is not wearing one of his sarongs or viciously attacking art critics or hanging with Johnny Depp or Dennis Hopper or Christopher Walken or doing any of those things that make him the longstanding bad boy of contemporary art.

In fact, sitting down to lunch at the Bristol Lounge to talk about his new film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which last week earned him a Golden Globe best director nomination, he's downright polite. He's wearing a red flannel shirt, worn at the elbows, black sweats, and sneakers. He's often described as a bear of a man, and why stop now. A beard covers his face, thickened at the chin. The hair on his head has been brushed slickly back, Bukowski style, from his forehead. Hair peeks out from his undershirt. He is built like Harvey Weinstein.

But at the moment, Schnabel wants to draw attention to another part of his body.

"Look at these hands," he urges, laying them flat on the table. Why the hands? Though only a few minutes earlier Schnabel claimed not to read his own press, he wants to take issue with a mention in a profile in the current GQ magazine. In the profile, Andrew Corsello describes Schnabel's hands as "thick, unpretty, blue-collar" and his fingers as "scratched, filthy with dirt and paint, medium-sized."

"Do these look blue collar?" he says, and waits until you confirm that they, indeed, do not.

He's not done. He puts out his hand for a shake, and then holds on. It's actually not much of a handshake. In his grasp, Schnabel

keeps the embrace for a good 10 seconds, making sure he's able to show the softness of the skin.

"These are delicate hands," he says.

Argument settled, he calls Corsello an excellent writer and moves on to his next subject.

In the GQ piece, Corsello calls this the "Schnabel segue," a moment in which a lengthy, seemingly endless paragraph may emerge from the artist-turned-film-director's lips, yet one portion may have nothing to do with another. He might ask if the Museum of Fine Arts has continued to display the painting of his it owns. (No, is the answer, though the piece remains in the collection.) He might recount when he broke his leg on the set of "Before Night Falls," his 2000 film, and didn't truly realize it until actor Dennis Hopper, a friend, urged him to go to a doctor. He is at least aware of this tendency, and will caution interviewers to stop him at any time, and draw him back to the target.

That's easy. These days, Schnabel is being asked about "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," his third feature film.

Told in French with English subtitles, it is the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor

of French Elle who, at the age of 43, is felled by a stroke. Bauby wakes from a coma unable to move his body, or speak. But he can hear and see. And he can move his left eye. With the help of a therapist, Bauby learns to blink to signal for letters, painstakingly learning to communicate. His triumph is writing "The Diving Bell," a poetic, heartbreaking, and ultimately

inspiring memoir upon which the film is based.

Schnabel, 56, remains a controversial figure in the art world. His work, from his famous paintings made up of broken plates to his massive creations on animal hides and other materials, has made him a rich man. It has also made him the target of critics who consider his approach lowbrow. But there seems to be no debate about Schnabel, the director. "Before Night Falls," about the life of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, earned rave reviews. Already, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" has earned Schnabel the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival.

It is a film so delicate, so understated, so patient, it's hard to believe it could have been made by a man known for his emotional outbursts, both in interviews and while creating art. Except that Schnabel, in person during a lunch interview this week, doesn't seem combustible. He's confident, sure. And not too shy to lift up his bowl of clam chowder in the middle of all these suits and sloshily scarf it down. But he's no boor. He's simply engaged.

Making "Diving Bell" made perfect sense, he says.

"It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I've been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation," he says. "How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?"

Considering Bauby's state, Schnabel has asked himself what he would choose: To be physically incapacitated and an artist, or perfectly healthy but just a regular guy. He says he doesn't know if he has the guts to choose the former.

As a director, Schnabel is particular about the films he chooses. He is organized and sensible about his budget. But he's also eager to experiment with images and the script. For "Diving Bell," he met with the nurses who worked with Bauby, and the late writer's girlfriend.

He learned from a friend that Bauby did not want to see his children in the hospital at first.

That became part of the script. He also brings alive Bauby's imagination — the writer's great escape — through a climactic series of clips. We are flown over a mountain, into a grainy desert, over a killer wave, and finally we see Bauby imagine himself as Marlon Brando. The actor was never mentioned in the book, but Schnabel chose these photographs, which are in the director's personal collection, for the moment when Bauby imagines himself as being "devilishly attractive."

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has won Oscars for his work on "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List," says that Schnabel is very easy to work with, despite his reputation. Unlike many directors, he doesn't like to reshoot scenes from the same angle.

That worked well on this film, which is largely told from Bauby's perspective.

"He doesn't have the patience to do repetitive takes where the takes are the same," says Kaminski. "Because he's not restrained by formal film language he discovers things for himself. He's doing things that normally would be considered inappropriate. Like

panning away from an actor when an actor is talking."

Kaminski says he also appreciates Schnabel's personality.

"Julian's a great guy," he says. "He loves movies. He recites the dialogue from 'The Godfather.' He recites music from memory. He's a total renaissance man. He's also a

really great salesman. There are many great artists who have no ability to sell themselves. And he knows that controversy creates attention, and he's using that. He's a man looking for attention all his life. Some people do it one way. He does it through his art and being loud."

Not this time, though. Schnabel, at lunch, is careful when he's asked questions about the film industry. In the past, he's been hilariously dismissive of the mainstream. Back in 2001, riding the critical wave of "Before Night Falls," he said, "You know, I watch a movie like 'Cast Away' and I want to, like, commit hara-kiri."

Remembering this, Schnabel pauses. This time, he's going to play it safe. He wants people to see "Diving Bell" and doesn't want his big mouth to get in the way. He also doesn't want to spook the Academy's Oscar-nominating process.

"I find it such a novelty," he says, "so unexpected in my life that that would be possible that I'd

be lying if I said I didn't want to win one."

Then, as if to brace himself for the inevitable, or perhaps because he can't imagine this industry — Hollywood! — could embrace him, Schnabel offers the advice he gave to Javier Bardem after the star of "Before Night Falls" had been nominated for a best actor Oscar.

"I said, 'You gave the best performance this year. This is a rigged game and you probably won't win.' " A pause. " 'Don't worry about it. You already won.' "

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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