The US producer of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly tells Peter Bowen how he got the film made when both Johnny Depp and Universal dropped out.
The French-language memoir The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon) marks the third collaboration between US producer Jon Kilik and painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel following Basquiat and When Night Falls. For Kilik, who has produced films by Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Tim Robbins, and most recently Babel for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film confirms his talent for making multicultural, international and serious films in the age of blockbusters.
The film, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, seems almost too amazing to be true. In 1995, Bauby, then editor of the French version of Elle magazine, was reduced to a near-vegetative state after a massive stroke, able only to grunt and blink his left eye. But for the next two years, he painstakingly dictated, by blinking his eye, the memoir on which this film is based.
Kathleen Kennedy originally optioned the book for a Universal film with the idea of Johnny Depp playing Bauby, and, on Depp's insistence, Schnabel directing. And although Universal dropped the project when Depp was detoured by his Pirates cruise, Schnabel and Kilik stayed firmly committed to the project. 'Universal thought the only way to make this was as a big Hollywood production,' remarks Kilik. 'We felt we could make it differently, and at a lower cost.'
Their creative strategy was to return to the story's source, France. Ronald Harwood's script for Universal was translated into French. Mathieu Amalric, a French actor with whom Kennedy worked on Munich, was cast as Bauby. And they sought to include Bauby's actual friends and doctors, as well as shoot at the Hopital Maritime De Berck, where Bauby stayed after the stroke. At last year's Cannes film festival, Kilik signed an agreement with Pathe to buy back the rights from Universal and finance the film. By autumn it was in production.
For Kilik, the film 'isn't about being handicapped, but about a man confronting the inevitable - his mortality and his end', a theme that resonated for the film-makers. Kilik remembers how Schnabel's 'mother and father both passed away in the three years up to making the movie, so coping with his fear of death was a way for him to understand this story'.
For Kilik, his collaborations with Schnabel 'are stories about people who have had to struggle against unimaginable conditions to survive their lives'. And the films exhibit the two qualities most important to Kilik as a producer: 'The art and the humanity. That is what I look for in the films and the film-makers I work with.'
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was one of the highlights of this year's Cannes. Schnabel won the best director prize and Miramax bought domestic rights.