Watch CBS News

Julian Schnabel, From Canvas To Camera

Julian Schnabel makes paintings you can't help but notice. And as the Oscar-nominated director of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," he's being noticed, too. CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul takes us to the Red Carpet.

On a giant canvas, it's a small touch - a few delicate strokes by an artist famous for working on a grand scale.

"When somebody asks me how long does something take, I always say it takes 56 years and five minutes," says Julian Schnabel.

Whether it's on his studio wall or on the big screen, his work is always eye-opening. And now the artist who makes paintings you can't help but notice, is being noticed, too. He's been nominated for an Academy Award for directing "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

"I made the movie because I thought it needed to be made," he told CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul. "And I didn't think anybody else could do it.

"I made the movie because my father was terrified of death, and I thought, you know, I need to sort this out. If I could have helped him, I would have been a good son."

The film is based on the true story of French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. At age 43, Bauby was almost completely paralyzed by a stroke.

With his mind otherwise intact, Bauby was trapped in what doctors call "locked-in syndrome."

With Mathieu Amalric in the lead role, Schnabel's flim illustrates that the "diving bell" of Bauby's paralyzed body couldn't prevent the "butterfly" of his imagination from taking flight.

By using the one thing he could still control - his left eyelid - Bauby managed to write a best-selling memoir before his death in 1997.

A speech therapist portrayed by Marie-Josée Croze helped translated the blinking of his eye into letters, then words, and eventually into a literary marvel.

"To me, this particular story was the guy reporting back from a place that nobody had ever reported back from, so it was somewhere in between life and death," Schnabel said.

The first third of the film is told from Bauby's one-eyed point of view, which brings the audience into the uncomfortable experience of the character.

"Well, I think you've gotta eat the blue plate special if you order it!" said Schnabel. "In order to be free later, you have to have that claustrophobia that he felt. In order for it to work, you needed to be in his body. And once you leave his body and he becomes a butterfly, he can do anything."

The film is a cinematic tour de force - perhaps no surprise, considering the director.

The Brooklyn-born Schnabel, age 56, has been an imposing figure in the art world for more than three decades.

He literally broke onto the scene in the late 1970s with oversized canvases covered in shattered dishes.

Instilled with the work ethic of his immigrant father, Schnabel was prolific - and willing to be promoted.

By 1984, a Schnabel could command $100,000 or more. But not everyone was impressed.

"I'm so used to getting attacked all the time, 'cause I think, you know, if you're a painter, they call it criticism."

He chided how the arts is even approached by the media: "Like the name of the newspaper in The New York Times, is 'Arts & Leisure.' Like, what do arts and leisure have to do with each other? Nothing! 'Arts and leisure.' Okay, that sounds good. It's an oxymoron."

The fact is, Schnabel's art - like the artist himself - has always been controversial.

Even his penchant for wearing pajamas all-day has become the stuff of legend.

"When you see somebody walking down the street in pajamas, they think that you just got out of a mental hospital. And when my boys were born, I was in the maternity ward, and I was walking around in my pajamas. And a lady said to me, 'You're on the wrong floor.' I said, 'No, no, no. I'm not. I have these kids.' She said, 'You can't walk around in your pajamas.' And some woman that was a painter said, "That's Julian Schnabel. He walks around in his pajamas. It's okay.'"

Of course, on a movie set, it's the director who calls the shots, and in 1996 Schnabel wrote and directed his first film, "Basquiat," starring Jeffrey Wright.

A fond portrayal of Schnabel's friend and fellow artist, the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the film was less glowing in its depiction of art critics.

"When Chris Walken is interviewing Jeffrey Wright, it's more like an assassination than an interview," Schanbel said. "And we ought to say to young people, 'Thanks,' not, "Why'd you do that?'"

Four years later came "Before Night Falls," and now "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - which earned him best director at Cannes - Schnabel has proven he's more than just a painter dabbling in film.

But he still credits all those years in the art studio for his willingness to trust his instincts and improvise on the movie set.

Does that make his actors crazy?

"No. First, I don't rehearse. They know what they're supposed to do. I believe in them. I don't want them to do something great and then say, 'That was really great. Can you do that again?'

"So I try to keep it spontaneous, which is closer to painting, in a way."

Actress Marie-Josee Croze admits that living up to Schnabel's vision demanded camerawork that was often too close for comfort:

"I felt sometimes like, 'Oh, my God, you have no place to hide. You're completely exposed.' Sometimes it's easier to be naked than be shot like your eyes and your face is. And everybody will see exactly what you think, exactly what you feel."

"I have final cut on the movies that I make," Schnabel said. "So, you know, whatever is good about them or bad about them, I'm guilty. For everything."

And what many feel is that the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby is an inspired work of filmmaking.

For more information on Locked-In Syndrome, contact the French ALIS - Association du Locked-In Syndrome, founded in memory of Jean-Dominique Bauby (visit their English-language Web site).

For information on Jean-Jacques Beineix's documentary about Bauby, "House Arrest" ["Assigné à Résidence"], visit the Cargo Films Web site.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.