The Washington Post

Julian Schnabel speaks at the Hirshhorn

Film director, Julian Schnabel spoke on his film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” last night at the Hirshhorn Museum. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

After last night’s screening of Julian Schnabel’s acclaimed film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” at the Hirshhorn Museum, the filmmaker and visual artist took the stage for an informal question and answer session. The event was the first of two he headlines this week at the museum; the second is a talk tonight at 7 p.m., about his art and thoughts on Blinky Palermo, the subject of the Hirshhorn’s current retrospective.

Last night, Schnabel, who aptly professed himself to be “full of stories,” shared several relishable insights into “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”and his filmmaking style.

The film tells the true story of former Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, after suffering a severe stroke, was left with “locked-in syndrome”: total body paralysis with the exception of one working eye. The film chronicles Bauby’s triumphant inner journey, over the course of which he manages to write a memoir by literally blinking his way through each letter of every word.

Schnabel said he was initially inspired by his frequent visits with Andy Warhol’s former business manager, Fred Hughes, who suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis in the late ’90s. “When we see people that are sick, a lot of times we only see their sickness,” he said.

After hearing Bauby’s story, though, Schnabel said the artistic motivation for the film fell into place. “I realized I could put into this movie whatever I want,” he said. In the film, Schnabel populates Bauby’s imagination with rich visuals of French feasts, caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, French royalty walking the halls of his now-austere hospital in years gone by and recurring footage of the Arctic ice shelf crashing into the water.

At the same time, because of the restricted gaze of the protagonist, Schnabel said he could “make the framing into something you don’t ordinarily see.”

In a few asides, Schnabel expressed his distaste for using constructed sets (his team lived in the hospital for months filming the movie). He also rattled off a list of movies that continually inspire his work, including “The Battle of Algiers” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger.”

This evening at 7 p.m., the filmmaker will turn to art, giving a talk on his artwork and early influences, including Blinky Palermo, whom he met in New York in 1974. Advance tickets are sold out, but there were some empty seats in the theater last night and the Hirshhorn will have a standby line for the event.


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