Schnabel Brings van Gogh to Life, Fever and All

By Regina Weinreich
Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate.” Lily Gavin Photos

"Here is Vincent van Gogh playing Willem Dafoe," is how Julian Schnabel introduced the subject and star of his new film, "At Eternity's Gate," on the closing night of the New York Film Festival in October. This was no mere quip: "The actor was being, not acting," Mr. Schnabel said at a question-and-answer session at Lincoln Center the following day. 

Mr. Dafoe spoke then of his transformation into the Dutch painter. In last year's "Florida Project," the actor prepared to play a motel manager by being a motel manager, and so to be van Gogh meant he had to paint. 

"People don't know what it means to be an artist in society," Mr. Schnabel said of his unorthodox, uncompromised moviemaking when interviewed at his rose-colored West Village loft building. "So many people know van Gogh as the lunatic who chopped off his ear. He did make some paintings."

"Our process is not to illustrate what we already know. We find out in the process, and that's a good reason to make the film. That's the difference between this film and some literary idea of a painter: to make van Gogh, you have to walk where he walked" -- in the countryside in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise.

Grounding his movie portrait in the process of painting, Mr. Schnabel found that "van Gogh was very good at painting, at connecting with nature, not so good with people. I do not think he was mad." And yet, sensitive to van Gogh's "fever," he created a key scene. In despair, the artist paints a canvas of his boots. The actor is painting, taught by the director. Mr. Dafoe does not fake it. The scene looks good, with the authentic artful application of line and color. No dialogue, the only sound a howling wind. Painting gives him new energy. The bleak room becomes golden and full of life. 

Mr. Schnabel said his favorite moments were the discussions between van Gogh and Gauguin (played by Oscar Isaac). Better suited to city life, Gauguin leaves van Gogh in the countryside, a breaking point for van Gogh. 

He liked to paint fast, with rough surfaces -- just like Mr. Schnabel. When asked why he paints, van Gogh replies, to stop thinking. "That's a good explanation of what happens when you make art," Mr. Schnabel said. "Sometimes I'm speaking through his voice." 

Many actors have noted that as a director Mr. Schnabel gives them freedom to collaborate, for their performances and otherwise. Mr. Dafoe shot some of the movie, for example; the director of photography, Benoit Delhomme, became "his dance partner," as Mr. Dafoe described it. 

Working with Mr. Schnabel on "Basquiat," the late Dennis Hopper once said, "To be able to dance and let actors do their dance -- that's a real director." 

And actors contribute details: In "At Eternity's Gate," Niels Arestrup plays a man in a nuthouse bath, seen from the neck up, his face hideously tattooed. "The tattoos were Niels's idea," Mr. Schnabel said, "so we researched tattoos of the time." 

In previous films, his directing has led to award attention for his actors: Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat in Mr. Schnabel's directorial debut, Javier Bardem as the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," and Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of French Elle, in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The cast of the new film brings back Amalric and also features the talents of Emmanuelle Seigner, Mads Mikkelsen, Rupert Friend, and the director's daughter Stella Schnabel -- a who's who of international actors, each one the first person Mr. Schnabel asked to be cast in their respective roles.

Mr. Dafoe, the winner of the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival, is likely to earn an Oscar nod. 

For one of the screenwriters, Jean-Claude Carriere, speaking at the film society Q&A, the project started with seeing three shades of blue in van Gogh's 1889 "Portrait de l'Artiste." The painting is featured alongside Mr. Schnabel's plate portrait of the late model Tina Chow in a show at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, "Orsay Through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel," which opened between the movie's premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its closing of the New York Film Festival. Mr. Carriere and Mr. Schnabel had visited the painting when it was part of a 2014 d'Orsay show pairing van Gogh paintings with drawings by the poet Antonin Artaud, another "mad" artist-poet. 

Mr. Carriere's script asserts that van Gogh's death was not a suicide, a controversial position for many. The film takes a stand, showing two young men shoot him; they bury his paints and easel before throwing the gun into a lake.

After Mr. Schnabel, the third screenwriting credit goes to Louise Kugelberg, a Swedish interior designer and Mr. Schnabel's partner. She worked closely with him to realize his vision in film and for a recent show in San Francisco and a current one in Denmark. Her input is reflected in the day-to-day set changes and in the editing. 

"Louise restructured everything once we were out in the fields, as van Gogh walks to the far side of society," Mr. Schnabel said.

They filmed Mr. Dafoe wearing a straitjacket at the actual asylum where van Gogh was held. Mr. Schnabel said they had to rethink the original script, as it was peculiar to think a priest would let him out into the world like that. So if you have the priest remove the straitjacket first, his freedom seems unthreatening. 

The two sit opposite each other at a table. Ms. Kugelberg suggested they be seated on a bench. "It is more interesting," she said, "and it elevates van Gogh -- who, after all, was the son of a clergyman and knew his Gospels -- to see them as equals."

"We made changes to the set every day, rearranging van Gogh's paintings at the Auberge Ravoux," Mr. Schnabel said of a final scene in which his coffin lies open with mourners snatching up what they can. 

Ms. Kugelberg never intended to edit the film, but once she got the Avid software on her computer, she and Mr. Schnabel could work anywhere, and did, traveling to Mexico and Costa Rica. "We were one person with four pairs of eyes," Mr. Schnabel said of the collaboration and spontaneous spirit at work in the filmmaking. "Benoit, Willem, Louise, and I." 

Hanging at his villa-style home in Manhattan are giant-size Schnabels, a Picasso by Mr. Schnabel, and several van Gogh portraits substituting the face of Willem Dafoe with a red beard and a bandage around his head. One is a huge signature-plate painting with a jagged surface. "Van Gogh often did paintings of his paintings," Mr. Schnabel pointed out.

While they were making the movie, he was painting outdoors in Montauk whenever he could, in the three-sided roofless "studio" the size of a squash court at his 1882 Stanford White-designed house. 

Painting outside, as van Gogh did, Mr. Schnabel observed, "You are waiting for the light to change. You can see better." 

"Vincent got home early when he was shot," he said of filming van Gogh's last day. "The light was incredible. We grabbed his painting materials and easel, and started walking in a vegetable field, looking at light and how light was hitting something. We would do that on the spot, unscripted. The spontaneous happens when you are open to it." 


Regina Weinreich co-produced and co-directed the documentary “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.” She lives in Manhattan and Montauk.

Playing Vincent van Gogh for Willem Dafoe meant he had to learn to paint as well, including outside in Arles and Auvers.
Julian Schnabel, at right, on the set conferring with Willem Dafoe. Louise Kugelberg is at left.