The former art star and director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sat down—make that lay down—with Annie Wagner to dis American Beauty, dish about coded messages to his subject’s real-life mistress, and discuss the sensual implications of sensory deprivation.

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What made you agree to make a movie about someone who can only move one eyelid?

Well, I read the script, and that told me, basically, how it could work. I thought two things: If the diving bell was this diving suit that kept him locked up under the water—and that was his body—and if the butterfly was freedom… Now, to me, when I read this, it wasn’t seeing a butterfly. That did not do it for me. I didn’t equate the butterfly—like with that plastic bag in American Beauty, you see an image and that image is going to embody beauty or whatever. What I thought was, if I could see the point of view of the butterfly, then that would be freedom.

Jean-Do said, I can imagine anything at all. All right, I’m down with that. That means I could put anything I want in the film. And I thought that—you know the book Perfume, by Patrick Süskind?—the way that I believed that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, that his sense of smell was so great that he could smell all the way to Egypt, or he could smell ecosystems falling apart. So I kind of took these things that I had written in [a proposed screenplay adaptation of] Perfume, and put it in here, because I thought that Jean-Do could go there with his imagination. That made me think, okay, I can do this. There were a lot of elements that leaned me toward a divine light. There was a possibility of going to a place, if I got on a boat, that I could find. And so I said yes.

It struck me that Jean-Do’s experience of being immobile, only being able to see through one eye—is like seeing a movie.

Thank you. Exactly.

I mean, you are forced to see what the director directs you to see, you can’t direct your own gaze, and it’s through one camera eye, you don’t have that dual perspective.

I think what you’re saying, that it’s like seeing a movie—that’s really interesting. Because usually when we’re watching a movie, we see two people acting something out, or many people. But the fact that you’re just seeing sight is unusual… It seems like the most natural thing in the world. But you wonder, what is going on here? Why does this seem so peculiar to me? Normally when someone talks to the camera in a movie, the movie stops. And you become aware of that. But because everyone’s talking to the camera… He might not be moving, but everything else is. So the movie is very active. And the women are amazing.

It’s amazing how much humanity they have. You know, when actors are acting together, they can derail other actors as well as enhance what they do. Here, there isn’t anybody who’s throwing a monkey wrench into their thing and is going to change it, for better or worse. And I think that Marie-Jo [Marie-Josée Croze, playing one of Jean-Do’s therapists] found that very—I think everybody was scared about that, at first. And Marie-Jo said it was the most difficult job she ever had but it was the best job she ever had. Emmanuelle [Seigner, playing Jean-Do’s wife], on the other hand said, you know, it was a little difficult at first, but then it was really easy, and I liked it and it was not a problem.

To go back to what you can see in Jean-Do’s point of view—that wall full of photographs next to his hospital bed—I was always expecting to go there, eventually, and find out what he was looking at. But it stays peripheral.

It’s interesting, because you’re kind of primed as a viewer, to—and this is how somebody else would make the movie: now we’re going to see these people in this photograph, and now this will come to mind. But I didn’t look at it like that. I actually took these prints and turned them upside down, because I wanted to make a landscape—I wanted to make this place where he could escape to, to get outside the confines of his room.

So there are these two etchings, one upside down and one not—you feel like, are those trees upside down? What the hell am I looking at? Then my parents are on the wall, dancing at the Roy Hotel in 1956 in the Catskill Mountains. They were in both my other films and even though they’re dead now, I felt like they could be in this film too. Marlon Brando’s boxing gloves are on the wall. If you see the documentary that Jean-Jacques Beineix made about Jean-Do that really kind of proved to everybody that he actually wrote the book by blinking his eye—it’s very grim, that room. And it was kind of a shitty curtain. Yeah, it was yellowish, but… When Fred Hughes—who was my friend, I lived in his house on rue du Cherche-Midi from 1987 to around 1990… He had MS, and when he got worse, he had to go to the American hospital. He wanted me to bring things, so I brought a big gold bat—

Like a baseball bat?

No, a bat, with wings. It was beautiful. He had little paintings, and lots of flowers, and I brought a mirror from his room—things that he liked. And so I thought, I’m going to give Jean-Do Fred Hughes’s room. Jean-Do said, “Swimming up from the mist of a coma you never have the luxury of having your dreams evaporate.” That made me think, what reality am I in? He also said, “If I’m going to drool, I’d rather drool on cashmere.” So I thought, I’ll give him linen sheets and silk pajamas, and he will be the bon vivant Beau Brummell that he’s supposed to be.

I want to talk briefly about the scene with Inès [Jean-Do’s mistress] on the phone—

Can I—I’m going to lie on the floor. Can we lie on the floor?

Um, sure.

[Schnabel hunkers next to a table and tells me to where to put the tape recorder, etc. I lie down in the opposite direction.]

Very good.

Okey-doke. That’s better, right?

You gonna take a nap now?

I am one tired guy. But I’m with you! Okay, so Inès.

Yeah, the scene where she calls on the phone and Céline [his estranged wife] has to translate. Because we’re locked in to Jean-Do’s perspective, paradoxically, we sympathize more with Céline.

Yes, yes. Ron Harwood had written this scene where the wife would be there and the telephone call would come, and I thought that was very good. The truth of the thing was, the wife didn’t see him that much when he was there. It was really the girlfriend who saw him more. And I think she felt some kind of injustice about the way the script was. But the thing is, she was pretty much left out of the book, too. Jean-Do decided to do this, to leave this book as an annuity to the mother of his kids and his kids. But I didn’t have that same problem that he had—of guilt, or whatever he had.

I looked into all of these things. And I found out from Anne-Marie Perrier, who worked at French Elle that Florence [Inès’s real name] used to go to the hospital all the time and then they had a fight. Then they didn’t see each other for almost three months. He was getting worse, he was getting really thin. Anne-Marie asked Jean-Do if she could intervene. And she did. And Florence called on the phone and asked if she should come, and he said, “Chaque jour je t’attends”—“Each day I wait for you.” The only people that knew that he said that were Florence and Anne-Marie and me. And I put that in the movie, because I wanted to say to Florence, I know that he loved you.

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That’s lovely.

I was like a detective. I found out different things from Florence. Incredible things. She once said to me, “We’ve seen you before.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Jean-Do and I were behind you at the bullfights in Nîmes.” There’s nothing about bullfighting in this book. But I thought, I can put anything in this movie I want!

And there’s this other moment where he says, “Now I’d like to remember myself when I was devilishly handsome, glamorous, debonair…” And I thought, I don’t think Jean-Do was ever devilishly handsome. And Mathieu Amalric [the actor who plays Jean-Do] is very charming, but I could see some people thinking, ‘That guy’s not handsome!’ I didn’t want to lose my audience. So I thought, okay, everybody will think this guy’s handsome. I own these pictures of Brando, so I called Mike Medavoy, who’s the executor of the estate, and I said, “I have these pictures of Marlon. Can I use them?” He said, “Well, if he looks good…”

I had archivists that were going in, and I said, I want bullfighting stuff, I want skiing, I want glaciers—

Yeah, the glaciers…

That’s the key. That’s the key to the whole thing, isn’t it. Glaciers. And that’s what I had written into Perfume, where Grenouille goes up on top of this mountain and he smells Egypt and he smells ecosystems falling apart, and when I couldn’t do that I thought, okay, I can put it in this movie.

It’s a powerful image, without you having to say anything.

Exactly.

I would like to talk a little bit about the look of the scenes from his past. What were you going for, with the bullfighting, the convertible rides through the French countryside…

Well, I think they’re very different, the way they look from one to the next. You have a sense of time in these things. I mean, he said he could time-travel. You see this shot of Led Hamilton surfing in this giant wave. The color of it is pretty cool. It’s this 16mm look…

[A publicist comes in to warn us time is almost up.]

[To publicist]: Is that a—you look like you’re in a doctor’s coat, like you’re going to operate!

[She responds]: No, it’s a sweater!

Yeah, okay. How much time do we have?

Two minutes.

All right, you’ve got two minutes, girl. Do you want me to finish what I was saying?

Yes.

I wanted to show that—you know, it was not scripted, that he had a convertible. I wanted to see the trees, I wanted…

You wanted to see the hair! That great, abstract shot of the hair in the camera…

I knew that image was going in there with that music before this movie was ever made. That was the first thing I shot.

I think you can tell. That motif repeats—on the beach there’s hair, in the boat there’s women’s hair. It’s all over this movie.

It’s alive, this film. I think you start noticing the way you notice things. It’s like, for all the sensory deprivation that the guy had, it becomes all about the senses.

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