If anyone can show us something we haven’t seen before about Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, it’s Oscar-nominated painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who announced at Cannes that he will direct “At Eternity’s Gate” starring Willem Dafoe (who also stars in Director’s Fortnight entry “The Florida Project”) as the world’s most acclaimed Post-Impressionist painter, who died at age 37 before he was recognized for his gifts.
“I’ve been working on it for a couple of years,” said Schnabel on the phone from Montauk. “It has to do with trying to make a work of art. By making a film about him, I might shed a little light on what it is to be doing what he’s doing, who he really was, and what his issues were, what somebody needed to do to do what he did, and what he’s not going to do.”
Produced by Schnabel’s long-time producer Jon Kilik (“The Hunger Games” franchise, “Babel”), CAA is selling U.S. rights and Rocket Science is handling international. Schnabel developed and wrote the screenplay with famed French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”).
Schnabel said he was struck by the the painter’s “commitment to something that did not have an audience, or an audience that he was probably never going to meet. That incongruity between life and art is so well-described in the disjunctive relationship he had with society. When Van Gogh looked at the beauty of nature through painting, it brought him further away from everybody and made it impossible for him to have a real life. The film will shed light on that.”
The film will adopt a first-person point of view, as the isolated Van Gogh wanders the countryside, wishing a few people would commune with him like a normal person. Schnabel wanted to shoot the movie in Arles, France, for Dafoe to walk with a camera in his hands and see his feet walking through the landscape. They will shoot on location in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived and painted at the end of his too-short life.
Schnabel wants the movie to “exist outside of time,” he said. “There are moments in the script and film where he understands that nobody is going to understand him. He doesn’t care if people understand him. He just wants to be able to paint. For the longest time he was trying to help people and show people something they couldn’t see. That’s a tall order. He also realized he was going to leave something here.”
Having known Dafoe for decades, Schnabel said he couldn’t imagine anyone but him in the role. “Willem has the depth of character, he’s physical,” he said. “He is that person. He’s got the depth of character and the compassion and empathy.”
Schnabel took a photo of Dafoe as Van Gogh after an hour messing around with hair and makeup. The resemblance is uncanny. Casting the rest of the ensemble is under way.
Van Gogh is not a fresh film subject. No less than 36 films have addressed artist and his life, from Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winner “Lust for Life” starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, to Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo” starring Tim Roth and Paul Rhys. Schnabel doesn’t like any of them.
“I don’t think they get it,” he said. “Maybe I have to be a painter to be able to do this film, that’s probably why I’m doing it. I see it the way I make a painting or a work of art.”
The filmmaker wants “At Eternity’s Gate” to make the moviegoer “feel not like you are watching Vincent Van Gogh, but you are living his life,” he said. “We’re not trying to address his whole life story. It’s really about understanding what painting is, what the different language is that is not the same. It’s a painted world, a different way of communicating.”
At 65, Schnabel has been enjoying the art-world limelight of late, with a retrospective at the Aspen Art Museum and a solo show in February at the Pace Gallery in New York. However, the greatest attention he’s received in the last three decades stems from his work as a director of films like “Basquiat,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and “Before Night Falls,” all of which received critical acclaim if not awards. He received best director for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and the film won a Best Director Golden Globe in 2008.
“Film is an excellent medium for describing time and the incongruity of one’s life,” said Schnabel. “We occupy it and don’t own it.”