Mathieu Amalric Interview, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with Mathieu Amalric, one of France’s leading screen stars, at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,” directed by Julian Schnabel.

“The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is the moving true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric), the successful and charismatic editor-in-chief of French Elle, who believes he is living his life to its absolute fullest when a sudden stroke paralyzes him. While the physical challenges of Bauby's fate leave him with little hope for the future, he begins to discover how his life's passions, rich memories and newfound imagination can help him achieve a life without boundaries. Based on the highly lauded book by Bauby, which was adapted for the screen by Ronald Harwood, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” also stars Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, and Patrick Chesnais.

Mathieu Amalric is best known in the U.S. for his role as the French information broker Louis in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” He was recently awarded France’s César Award for Best Actor for his role in the internationally acclaimed comedy “Kings and Queen,” directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Previously, Amalric won the César for Most Promising Actor for his role in Desplechin’s “My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument.”

Amalric began his career as an actor in 1984, appearing in Otar Iosseliani’s “Les favoris de la lune,” and went on to serve as an assistant director to Louis Malle on “Au Revoir Les Enfants.” As an actor, he has since worked with such leading directors as André Téchiné (“Alice & Martin”), Olivier Assayas, Jean-Claude Biette and the Larrieu Brothers. His latest films include Desplechin’s “Un conte de Noel,” Claude Miller’s “Un Secret,” Nicolas Klotz’s “Heart Beat Detector,” Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s “Actrices,” and Vincent Dieutre’s “Fragments sur le grace.” He also appeared in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”

Amalric has written and directed a number of films including “Wimbledon Stage” and, most recently, the documentary short “Let Them Grow Up Here.” In January, he will begin directing “Tournée” about American burlesque girls on tour in France. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new film, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly”:

Q: Did you research or meet anyone in this condition?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: No, I'm more of an Actor's Studio method [actor]. I just got a stroke. It's easy. No, you know, you never know really when you're working. In fact, I met Julian. I felt that this guy just really had to do this film. It was something to do with his father. You can feel that. It's just so, so important for him. That's what made me want to do the journey with him. I don't know if Julian was looking for actors or DPs or an assistant or a location scout. He's just talking to real, like with you, he's not looking for journalists. He just breaks the professional rules, break the habits immediately so that something else happens. So how we prepared in fact, I really don't know. The script was in English of course. Ronald (Harwood) had written it in English. Once it was decided that it would be shot in French, it was translated. We took the translation, spent a lot of time, a lot of nights because he never sleeps, this man, it's exhausting. Julian just works. He has so much energy. So we spent a lot of time with him translating again and trying to write. He would ask us, 'How would you say in French? Say it in French with your words.' So we'd spent time on the text. Then we went to the hospital and shot in the hospital where it really happened. There I spent some time observing. After, you just ask yourself, 'Well, if I want to look like somebody who had a stroke, that means five hours of makeup every morning and the stupidity of you can't shoot when you want because the makeup is a bit [off].' With Julian very quickly he said that's not possible. He shot films without any rehearsing, just like that. Any moment it can happen. He's not going to wait for makeup. So we had to find another way to be believable without makeup.

Q: What about your lip? How did you keep it like that?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I had a dental- - we found this idea of a dental prosthesis that was just argh, but I needed it to be painful to be concentrating on something. And a little glue here and a bit of blood in the eye and wax.

Q: Were you there for reaction shots?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: For the first part of the film where you don't see Jean-Do, we found it more interesting to not do the inner thoughts four months later during editing but do it at the same time.

Q: In another room?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: It wasn't really a room. It was funny because we were shooting in the real hospital and to have some place for the camera, it was of course a set with walls that could [move]. So we were shooting in the ballroom of the hospital. That's where the set was. So there was a little stage on the side with curtains. So in fact, I was ‘en coulisse’ (backstage). It was funny but we did the sound booth ‘en coulisse.’ It was like I was opening a theater and I was going there and I had a little place. I had a monitor, I could see what the actors were doing, the sounds I could hear and a mic. As we had spent quite some time with Julian trying to meet close friends of Bauby, the women he had loved, each woman of course thinking that she was the only one because he was like that. He continued to seduce but he was just a normal guy, not a saint. And reading the book again and all that, I was completely in the sense of humor of this guy, this desperate humor to still be in life. So I tried to respect that. Julian said, 'Just say whatever happens in your mind. React.'

Q: Was any of that in the script?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: The script had the structure and there were some lines for the voice.

Q: But Julian let you improvise?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Yes. Sometimes I really said very stupid things and some were kept in the film.

Q: Would you stay in the chair between takes or get up when Julian called ‘cut’?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I stayed. I just had to because it hurt. In fact, if you try to stay without moving for a long time, very quickly, in fact you need to use all your muscles. It's true. You really have to contract all your muscles not to move. So in fact I was exhausted at the end of the day. And as he shoots without any rehearsing, I had to stay like that all the time. I tried to, and also to help the other actors, the kids for instance, so that they could sort of at one point start to believe that, why doesn't he move? They were forgetting me.

Q: Was it hard to do that?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: No, because in our life we never have time to think. We have so many things to do. We think of stupid things and there I have the luxury just to think.

Q: Relax?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: No, not relax, but think.

Q: What about the personal connection with the real Jean-Dominique Bauby? You were in the same hospital where he had been and you read his book, how did that influence your work.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: And with part of the medical crew who took care of him before. It was just a moral issue for me. I know it’s not real. I know I can move my hand whenever I want. I know I can speak. But I have to make everything so that it seems believable and try to find the sense of humor in something like that.

Q: Do you feel differently now after having been in his shoes?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: The problem with life is you see it differently 24 times per day. You think this and then you think that and then you think this. We’re all lost souls. I’m not saying to you ‘Now I know.’ No. But I do just one exercise. Every day since this film, as I told you, I just spend one minute, but it’s enough, just thinking and okay, I’m going to move my hand. I think it has to do with yoga and things like that. That’s what they do. But in the occidental world, we don’t do that. Not much but just to remember that it’s a miracle. It is a miracle. It’s amazing how the brain gives an impulse and something can move. I think [about] that every day and about the vivacity of the brain. I find the brain absolutely fascinating.

Q: How was it working with Max von Sydow? That was a wonderful scene when you shaved him. He said you cut him.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Yes, I did. It’s his fault. I was afraid of him. I asked the prop man to put in a real blade. To be afraid not of Max von Sydow, but of my own hands not cutting his throat. I didn’t practice. I think that gives a sort of tension to the scene. The sound (of shaving) is the real sound and he has a very hard beard. It was also about trying not to do this scene as if it was a moving, very important scene. We shot that at the end of the shooting and tried to do it like a casual moment because in fact we never know when we live important moments in life. We don’t recognize them. It’s afterwards that we notice that in fact it was an important moment when you understood everything. So I tried to do it… That’s why I had this idea that in fact he was in a hurry. He doesn’t take his coat off like he was just going to shave him and go back out. Le quotidien.

Q: Did you talk with the family?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I talked with Bernard Chaplier who was his best friend. That’s the part played by Isaach de Bankole in the film but he doesn’t look at all like him. Bernard is a white guy and nothing to do with Isaach. I talked a lot because the film is an invention of course. It’s not exactly what happened. It’s not at all what happened in his life. He wasn’t living with his wife. He was separated from the mother of his children and he had been living for 8 months with another woman who came every day.

Q: His girlfriend visited him in the hospital?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Oh yeah.

Q: That’s a big difference from what we see in the film.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Well after all it depends on who has the rights to the book. You see what I mean? Terrible.

Q: The girlfriend is portrayed in a very unfavorable light.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Yes. [In the film] she’s the one that doesn’t have the courage to come.

Q: Ah storytelling.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: So I met this woman who [was his girlfriend]. She’s generous. She works at Elle Magazine and she gave me a lot of things on him.

Q: What about his wife?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: The wife came three times.

Q: I wonder why they changed it?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Why? [Laughs]

Q: How did you feel personally?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: It was very difficult.

Q: Was the girlfriend upset? Did she understand that it was an artistic problem?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: It’s not an artistic problem. It has to do with the rights. It’s not very interesting but the thing is, it’s a film. It’s a movie. It’s not the real life. It’s movie business. Movie is not the reality. You do what you can. She taught me a lot about who he was and I met the children at the screening in Cannes, not before. And I know that for the elder son, the guy that was in the car (when Bauby had the stroke), the fact that the film exists helps him a lot. But how can I tell you? I don’t believe in the idea that you make a film so that it could be a therapy. Schnabel is a bit more interesting than that. It has to do with something you know.

Q: As a Frenchman, when you watch this film, does it feel like a French film or an American film?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I think it’s just a Schnabel délire (delirium).

Q: Do you think Johnny Depp will be pleased when he sees the movie.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I think he saw it. I don’t know. He’s a great friend of Julian’s. They’re very, very close.

Q: Were you familiar with the real situation concerning Bauby?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Yes, when the book was released, I remember. But I did not read the book at that time. It was very famous, yes.

Q: You are a director yourself. Does that sometimes help you work as an actor?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: The thing is I have this chance to not wait for the phone to ring. I feel alive without acting. I’m not waiting for acting. Never. So, in fact, it’s not that I can choose but I do it when it’s irresistible. It’s like this lucky thing, just doing it with great filmmakers. The thing is each time I say ‘Okay, this one is the last one. Now, after, I go back to my stuff.’ Because this makes 5 years I didn’t shoot my own films. I did 3 feature films already but I can’t…and each time there’s another irresistible film and I’m submerged completely by this actor thing. I think that directors love the fact that I’m also a director because actors often don’t know that a director is so alone, you know. They wait. He’s like God. They think the director will give them everything, that he has a response to everything, and he just doesn’t know. He knows nothing in fact. He’s pretending to know because somebody has to pretend because the film won’t be made if somebody doesn’t say, “I know.” But in fact it’s not true and some actors don’t understand that. Being on both sides [of the camera], I love that.

Q: Do you mean Spielberg doesn’t know what he’s doing?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Spielberg doesn’t have any storyboard. Spielberg reacts to what happens in the moment. I was amazed. One moment on “Munich” we were shooting near the opera house in Budapest and that was representing Paris and he hears a violin, people rehearsing, and I was looking. That’s good also to be actor because you fetch lots of ways how a director works so I was always looking at him and how he works. And he says, ‘Wow.’ I hear him call the first AD and he says, ‘For tomorrow, that scene of the killing, what if we start with kids that are rehearsing violin and we get out the window of the opera and we go on the killer.’ And the next day he invents that. So the thing is I hope to make my film but I was supposed to shoot this winter and 5 days ago there was something that I can’t refuse.

Q: What is that?

MATHIEU AMALRIC: I can’t tell you. This one is too funny. When you will learn it, you will learn it very quickly because well it’s just too funny. It has to do with childhood.

Q: You have to be a bad actor so you’ll have time to direct.

MATHIEU AMALRIC: Yes, that’s what everybody tells me.

“The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” opens in theaters on November 30th.

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