Director Julian Schnabel set out to make a film about Vincent van Gogh that could express his own relationship to painting.
Schnabel is a gifted painter and visual artist, who was inspired to make a film about van Gogh after visiting an exhibition dedicated to the artist at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. “As we walked through an exhibition, I started to think if we treated the structure as if we were walking through a galley and looking at paintings, at the end you have an accumulative feeling of the whole show, but each one in a sense is a vignette,” Schnabel explains of his approach to his new film At Eternity’s Gate, which hits select theaters Nov. 16.
In the exclusive video above, Schnabel speaks to an exhibit he curated at the Musée d’Orsay titled “Orsay as seen by Julian Schnabel,” which he put together in concert with the film. The exhibition allows renowned works of art, including many by van Gogh, to be in conversation with Schnabel’s own paintings.
Schnabel’s gifts as a painter were essential to the making of the film — he taught star Willem Dafoe to paint in the style of van Gogh so that the actor might be able to recreate some of the painter’s works on-camera. EW caught up with Dafoe to find out what it was like learning to paint from Schnabel, how his experience playing van Gogh has altered the way he sees nature, and how van Gogh expresses some of Schnabel’s own beliefs about painting.
Indeed, Schnabel says, “I get to say a lot of things about painting through Vincent that I’d like to hear Vincent say.” Watch the exclusive clip for more and read on below for our conversation with Dafoe.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you signed on to the project, you knew you were going to play Van Gogh, so you knew you were going to have to paint to some degree. Did the artistic requirements exceed your expectations?
WILLEM DAFOE: I didn’t really know how much painting I would be doing actually in the film because not all of that is indicated in the screenplay. I did know that in order to play the character, I was going to have to paint. There were sequences of him painting, and Julian [Schnabel, the director] said he wanted to teach me how to paint because there wasn’t going to be a stunt painter. The film is different, though, in a very personal way, and you see him paint a lot. So I knew I would have to paint, but I didn’t know how much, and I didn’t know what that process would be. It just made sense that that was the principal action of the character so I would have to learn how to paint to actually play the character.
How much of the artwork we see on screen did you create?
Well, it was always a combination. As far as the set dressing, there was a workshop of people that were copying van Gogh because he lived with his paintings, and he was a very prolific painter toward the end of his life, so that was very important. But there are many scenes where you actually see me paint. One in particular, where I paint the shoes early in the film, that is something that I rehearsed and practiced and was coached on, and we shot that in real time. I did paint that painting from A to Z. Now, some other paintings were sometimes prepared part way, and then I would work in an area, or it was a team effort in the preparation. But in every scene where you see painting or drawing in the film, that’s me doing it.
You’re recreating what are probably some of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Was that daunting?
I was concentrating on the actions, and the most important thing was that I learned how to paint from Julian — a painter making a film about a painter. I began to see in a different way. I learned about making marks, putting colors next to each other and seeing what happened. I learned to look at things differently. I learned to paint the light, not strive to necessarily make a good likeness or a copy or a representation of what I was looking at but to deeply try to see it in a new way. That’s what was essential. That, in combination with some of the writing [van Gogh] does and some of the biographical material, the combination of those things really became the heart of inhabiting that character.
In terms of Julian teaching you to paint, can you tell me more about that process and where you started and ended up?
I’ve known Julian for 30 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time watching him paint and hanging out in his studio. He’s painted a portrait of me, so I knew his way of working and his work quite well. When we started, we simply went out into nature. I got familiar with the materials, and we started very primitively, just with the color, how to mix the materials, how to hold a brush, how to touch the canvas. Once you’re able to get into those actions, he really started teaching me how to look at things.
I remember one time in particular, we were painting a tree, and I was in such a hurry to make a good representation of it, but he’d be very good at breaking it down and saying, “No, look. What do you see? You see that dark area there? Paint in all the dark areas.” He started to make me see, by making a series of marks, they begin to have a relationship to each other. They almost vibrate in relation to each other, and you create something that speaks to what the tree is much more than a representation. That’s very close to the heart of some of the things van Gogh talked about in his letters. He’d go out into nature, and he didn’t invent these paintings. The painting was already there, he just had to free it. His approach, to me, was very inspirational, not just from a painting standpoint, but in the way of looking at life and looking at nature.
If someone wants to learn to paint in the style of van Gogh, could you walk me through the basic steps of accomplishing that, as you would have done?
[Julian and I would] go out in the backyard. He’d have all the materials there. He’d have me look at something. We’d kind of tag-team. He’d paint a little and then he’d say, “Now you get in there. What do you see? Work this area. What do you see here?” It’d just be a call and response, and you’d make these marks. When I say marks, I’m talking about touching the canvas, putting color next to color. You don’t just try to reproduce the tree. You’re looking at it in a much more fundamental way, and he started training me to do that. To take my time and really see what I see.
If I’m looking at you in a certain kind of light, I’m less interested in drawing your nose, because drawing isn’t painting. I’m more interested in that streak of white that’s on the side or the bridge of your nose in relationship to that red mark that’s near your nostril. You start to play with those things. For a long time, it looks very abstract, but with time, it starts to move and find its own rhythm and find its own relationship and it vibrates. When I look at a van Gogh, that kind of vibration, that kind of new way of seeing, was something that I found very inspirational…That kind of seeing wakes us up and makes us open our eyes to the beauty of nature and the force that is behind nature, that, for lack of a better word, is clearly a spiritual force.
Was that new way of seeing what unlocked not only the painting but the character for you as you were going through this process?
I think so. A combination of that, linked with very personal, very sincere, and very truthful, comments he made in his letters. He was a prolific letter writer, and he wrote to his brother all the time…In combination with practicing painting and arriving at challenges and problems and questions that you have when you’re painting, you hear the dialogue he was having with himself about finding his way to make his work. It was fascinating. That really became resonant for me, and that became my dialogue within myself. That’s the way you can inhabit this character because you’re having, if not the same, a parallel, dialogue to what he has. When you’re engaged that way, then you’re not illustrating who you think van Gogh is, you’re really kind of communing [with] his memory and what he’s left behind.
Throughout the film, he’s talking about his life, and his work, and what it evokes in others and himself, and he has all these great lines about his work making people feel what it’s like to be alive. Are those sentiments there in the letters and did they ring true in becoming a painter yourself?
Yes, I mean, it all applies, not just to being a painter, but to being a human being. [Laughs]
Were you already a big fan of his as an artist?
I’ve always liked seeing art, but I wasn’t particularly trained or sophisticated in my way of looking at art. I was in Amsterdam a lot when I was very young — 18, 19, 20 years old, so van Gogh was one of the first artists that I knew quite well because the van Gogh museum is there, and I saw a lot of his work. I do remember that, but as far as having a special understanding, I’m not sure I had a special understanding until I really engaged and met him through Julian.
What other aspects of production helped you in this process?
One thing that can never be underestimated is we were shooting in so many of the actual places. We were shooting in Arles, we were shooting in Paris, we were shooting in Auvers-Sur-Oise and Saint Remy. All the places he was. When you’re in those places, sometimes particularly in the countryside, you’re looking at landscapes that are recognizable to this day from the paintings he painted. That sense of being there and that sense of seeing with his eyes is very actual, and it becomes a very strong feeling as you’re making the film.
Is there a work you’re most proud of having created during filming?
Proud is a funny word. But the biggest challenge was when I paint the shoes. I’d practiced painting those shoes. Like van Gogh, he often painted the same thing many times, including many self-portraits, but I practiced painting them…When we were shooting, I basically painted them in real time. I think it works well in the scene because, for a very long time, they look terrible. The colors are all wrong; it doesn’t look like shoes. You think this is not coming together, but then as it progresses, it’s not necessarily a good representation of the shoes, but it captures the spirit of the shoes. Seeing that process and being involved in that process and having it be successful was a real challenge…To see it all come together in a matter of five, six finishing touches of paint is a magical thing to see. Because it all comes together in a swirl — a swirl of color, a swirl of light. It’s not drawing. It’s not naturalistic representation. But it captures the spirit, which is very close to the spirit of what van Gogh talked about. Art is the essence of life…He thought art was a language; art was a way of seeing; art was a way of waking us up.