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Mathieu Amalric on “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

Mathieu Amalric on “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (photo)

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Julian Schnabel casts from the gut, and his third film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was no exception. The artist/director refused to let his comme ci comme ça French inhibit him from selecting an all-Francophone cast and shooting the film in the native language of its subject, 43-year-old Jean-Dominique (“Jean-Do”) Bauby. To play Bauby, the Parisian Elle editor left paralyzed by a massive stroke who subsequently dictated his memoir using the only part of his body he could still move, his left eyelid, Schnabel approached Mathieu Amalric, a celebrated actor in France but one American audiences may know best from his role in “Munich” as an amoral supplier of information to the highest bidder. Amalric (along with fellow cast members Emanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze and Max Von Sydow) was chosen by Schnabel not only for his talent, but because he felt right, like someone Schnabel wouldn’t mind spending a few weeks with at coastal France’s Berck Maritime Hospital, the location where Bauby spend much of his rehabilitation. It’s a feeling, however, that didn’t stop Schnabel from trying to kill his star, as Amalric suggested when he sat down with me to talk about the challenging role.

Working on a film like this must lead you to some of life’s most painful and important questions — what is a life, what is it to be alive, what would I do or want in this situation — was anyone’s will changed as a result of this film?

Oh definitely. Definitely. For me, the thing that I took away that I still do is just stopping every day and taking a few moments to do this [Amalric flattens his right palm and then contracts it into a fist]. I ask my brain to tell my fingers to move, and then my fingers actually move! It’s a small thing, but it’s amazing, really, when you think about it, that this works, it does exactly what I ask it to do. That reminds me of how lucky I am.

Ronald Harwood’s script was translated into French, but the cast members were encouraged to improvise, did that help smooth any gaps?

Julian was very open to that, especially when we were recording the voice-over. But he would get to something in the script that didn’t quite work and he’d say, “Well, how would you say that?” And we would be able to contribute that way.

So much of Bauby’s internal life is conveyed through your voiceover, which you recorded live in another room while watching your point-of-view on a monitor as it was being shot next door. Did you have any sort of ritual or preparatory technique to get you into the mood to record it?

The place I was in was like a studio, close to the set but in another room — it was actually the ballroom of the hospital, because that was the biggest room. And there was a space for me there with a monitor, behind a curtain, where I would sit in my clothes and my make-up, of course without [the prosthetics]. But yes, I was in my bubble [Amalric leans down as if to cup his hands around a monitor], and trying to find that space and that voice. It wasn’t very fair to the other actors, actually, who had to do all of their acting directly to the camera. And the way it was set up, the cameraman became kind of like an actor in the scene. He would wear headphones and he was the only one who could hear my voice as the scene was going on, so if I started talking about how bored I was and when was this stupid girl going to shut up, the cameraman would let the lens drift to the wall. The woman would notice this, of course, and say, “Mr. Bauby! Mr. Bauby, regardez-moi, s’il vous plait.” And the camera would go back, and I would say to the cameraman, “Now look at the leg, tilt down to her leg!” And we would just have fun, improvising like that — but the poor actors didn’t understand what was happening. And that sort of experience, working like that, it helped me understand how it might be possible to have some fun, in that state — the power of becoming this invisible man.

Julian Schnabel talked about one day of shooting that wasn’t so much fun (involving an underwater scene in which Amalric had to wear a diving bell and a miscommunication between the actor and the cameraman put him in serious jeopardy).

Do you mean in the diving bell?


I almost died. Oh! But I had to do it. I believe in…being strong, in challenging myself in different ways — that is important to me. So I had to do that scene myself. But we shot it at the end, it was the last scene and the last take, so it felt like Julian could say, “Okay, now you can die, and we don’t care! Bastard!” We had everything else in the film — the diving bell was the last sequence. And it was complicated, but we had no rehearsal. So I guess he told you that things went wrong, the hand signals didn’t work and the cameraman wasn’t supposed to lift me out of the water when he did [causing Amalric to nearly drown]. But he didn’t know.

That may have been the most obviously challenging scene, but I imagine the film was physically as well as emotionally demanding — you had to achieve and maintain a complete stillness, with all of that energy contained within. Was it as exhausting as it looked?

Oh, my God. Well, I also do some directing, and I was about to direct my next film. I thought I could take this role — that’s fine, really easy — I’ll do it and be able to lie in a bed all day and think about my film. But that did not happen — it was exhausting. It was totally consuming. Just getting in that position, even holding the position of the hand, the tension of it.

Did you meet with other locked-in patients, or talk to members of Bauby’s family, to help you with the physical aspects of the performance?

Yes. And at the hospital where we shot, some of Jean-Do’s nurses and his physical therapist were still there, so they could say, yes or no, this is what this looks like. What was great though, in talking to his friends and family and listening to them — their stories all contradicted one another, and what I realized what that, “Oh, this is not a hero, this is just…a man.” He liked to travel, he was materialistic, he liked cars, he was shallow, he had a temper, he visited brothels in Brazil — normal things. [laughs] But also, he loved life. Loved his children. That helped me a lot, it freed me, to realize that you don’t become a saint when you have a stroke. Finishing the book, for instance, wasn’t some great, noble thing for Jean-Do. In fact it was very practical: he wanted to leave something that would [generate income] for his kids, and show everyone else that he could do it. For me, what helped was understanding that he was determined to write the book so that his friends in Paris wouldn’t think he was a vegetable! That’s all.

Were you wary of being subjected to the kinds of accusations leveled at films that heroicize afflictions and afflicted characters? I have read the term “disability porn” as a description of that tendency.

Of course, yeah. Well [the threat of that kind of accusation] helps motivate you to not…masturbate yourself in portraying such a character, in order to avoid that.

How long was the shoot for the film?

Well, we had seven weeks, but we finished shooting ten days early, because I guess that’s way Julian works–


Yeah. He works really quickly, with no rehearsal, and I think it’s a very intelligent way of dealing with emotion, to make things very immediate. Instead of wasting time, and take after take, on stupid moments, trying to get something “exactly right.” So, in fact, in the schedule they had three days to do the scene with the kids on the beach, and we finished it in one. Because, with kids, you don’t need to make them do it over and over, you just capture the moment and move on. And Julian understood that.

So you spent seven weeks in this rather exhausting state of being “locked in” all day — how did you cope with that? How did you literally rise up and walk off of the set at the end of each day? How would you unwind?

I went to the casino [close to the hospital where they filmed in Pas de Calais]. I drank a lot, with the other actors, and then won lots of money.

And that helped?

Yeah! Usually, it did.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” opens in limited release on November 30th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.