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Filmmaker as artist.

With so much talent, what's a little ego?

Julian Schnabel , an artist first, then an auteur.
Julian Schnabel , an artist first, then an auteur.Read moreEVAN AGOSTINI / AP

It could be a Zen koan, what just came out of Julian Schnabel's mouth: "Nobody knows better than you what you need to do, even if you don't know what you're doing."

Well, Zen with the hubris filter turned off.

Thumping around the country, presenting his brilliant, beautiful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to film societies and fans - and doing rounds of Q&As and press interviews - Schnabel pulled into Philadelphia last week.

After the end credits rolled at the Ritz at the Bourse the other night, the moderator for the event introduced the world-famous artist-turned-director as "Julian Snabbel," sans the shhh. A tad irritably, Schnabel corrected him. A while later he threatened to quit the room if a couple gabbing up front didn't shut up.


Actually, Schnabel, a grand figure with a Van Dyke beard and a penchant for Vans sneakers, can be a teddy bear of a guy. A day after showing his film, the 56-year-old Brooklynite was all charm, not the demanding, distracted, self-promoting, self-obsessed dude whose press preceded him.

Well, he wasn't, and he was. The man is not modest, but someone who has made three successively more accomplished films - Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000) are the others - and whose canvases hang in museums and galleries around the world, has the right to a little bombast.

"Like a guy said to me yesterday, 'I didn't know if I was supposed to be scared to meet you. You seem not anything like you're supposed to be,' " Schnabel says. "What is the deal? It's like I have a terrible reputation."

And why's that?

"Probably because I didn't cow down to people, or did things my way, or didn't try to nurture relationships with journalists, and said what I thought sometimes. Also, I cracked a lot of jokes, and people maybe didn't think they were funny."

Like saying that Michel Piccoli, the French actor who was among the jurors at this year's Cannes Film Festival, was a communist, and that's why he didn't favor The Diving Bell for the coveted Palme d'Or. "He probably didn't vote for me because he thought I was too successful, or having too much fun," Schnabel says.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly didn't win the Palme d'Or, but Schnabel won best director, and the film - based on the memoir of Paris fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby - is an inspiring, heartbreaking, gorgeous work. It's about a guy whose life is supermodels, mistresses and fancy cars until, at 43, he suffers a massive seizure that leaves him paralyzed. All he can do is blink.

Thanks to a bevy of dedicated rehabilitation nurses and speech therapists, he learns to communicate by blinking one eyelid. Then he writes a book about his experiences.

Shot from Bauby's point of view - with his frightened, ironic, imaginative and lucid interior monologue - and from the vantage of the staff, friends and family attending to the quadriplegic in a French seaside hospital, the film is by turns sad, funny, and deeply moving. It's about the life of the mind.

"It addresses all the issues that I was interested in in the first place," says Schnabel, picking at a crabcake at the Four Seasons' Fountain restaurant. "Life, death, what does it mean? What is seeing about? What am I doing here? What is it to make art?"

Schnabel believes that given the choice between carrying on as editor of French Elle and experiencing the massive stroke that left him with "locked-in syndrome," Bauby would have chosen the latter.

"I think that he felt like he was selected," Schnabel says. "I mean, I know that he felt like that. And that's crazy, 'cause I didn't understand that at the beginning. I had no idea. I didn't see that at all."

Being around the hospital where The Diving Bell was shot - the same facility where Bauby was treated in the mid-'90s, on the Normandy coast - opened Schnabel's eyes. The paralyzed, the handicapped - "it was just about being around these people, and realizing that they have a life. They're not just glued to a wheelchair."

Schnabel thinks Bauby accepted that life. "He had a chance to become a great artist, and that is what the trade-off was," says the filmmaker. "That he could accomplish a great work of art."

When Schnabel signed on to do The Diving Bell, Johnny Depp was to star. Depp and Schnabel are buddies, they play music together, and the actor - who lives in France with his French girlfriend, Vanessa Paradis - was ready.

"It still would have been made in French, in France," says Schnabel, who lost Depp to those Pirates movies, and hired the amazing, but considerably less famous Mathieu Amalric, in Depp's place.

"I think Johnny would have done a great job," Schnabel says. "Obviously Mathieu - he's born French, so he's got all of these colloquial expressions at the tip of his tongue. But Johnny is a miraculous being."

Schnabel's filmmaking chops and film knowledge are estimable - he went to the Kingsway moviehouse in Coney Island "every day" as a kid, he says - but he still considers himself foremost a guy who uses brushes and canvas for a living.

"I'm a painter. I've always been a painter," he says. "And I couldn't have made this movie if I came from a different background."

And so he approaches film from a different place.

"I've been thinking about the rectangle in a totally different way," Schnabel says. "I don't want to know what went on in film school, and I don't want to know what anybody else is doing. . . . It's better that way.

"They don't have another way to express themselves. I need to break everything down to basic language, and I just had to tell the story when I was making Basquiat. I tried to tell the story when I was making Before Night Falls.

"But in this - 28 years ago I made a painting called The Patients and the Doctors. I'm 56 years old, so 28 years later this must be the second 28 years when you have your second epiphany. I'm doing The Patients and the Doctors again."

When the promotion for The Diving Bell is done - which might not be until Feb. 24, after the Oscars - Schnabel plans to get back to his Manhattan studio. And get away with his wife, Olatz López Garmendia, who appears as a speech therapist in the film, to an estate they recently purchased in Mexico.

"I'm going to go, hang around down there, get used to it," he says. "It's a place that a woman built years ago that's in the middle of a palm grove that looks like it's in Africa, with these huts that look like a camp. I like to surf, so I'm going to stop eating all this [bad stuff] and lose a bunch of weight and go surfing and come back and I'll be a new person."

Surf, OK. Lose weight, maybe. Come back a new person - highly unlikely.