Vincent Van Gogh died at 37; Willem Dafoe is 61. Despite that age gap, Dafoe portrays the seminal artist with a physical and spiritual power not unlike his transcendent portrayal of Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” It marks a career best, and could land him his second acting Oscar nomination in a row, after last year’s “The Florida Project.” (He was also nominated for supporting roles in “Platoon” and “Shadow of the Vampire.”)
“At Eternity’s Gate” director Julian Schnabel, who has been Dafoe’s friend for 30 years, dismissed the idea that the actor was too old for the role: He said Dafoe was in better shape now than Van Gogh was at his death.
“What he did is something I could not imagine,” Schnabel said at an intimate CBS Films awards brunch November 4, with a Q&A moderated by Guillermo Del Toro. “I didn’t want to make a movie about Vincent Van Gogh.” Addressing Dafoe, he added: “I wanted to make a movie where you were Vincent Van Gogh.”
“I found profoundly moving how Van Gogh surrenders himself to nature, nature is god,” said Del Toro. “Not in a Judeo-Christian way, it’s awe. The way you surrender to it, portray it and take it in with the camera, is part of that. The immediacy of you smelling, or having to pee in the middle of a painting day.”
The script’s development began after Schnabel and four-time Oscar screenwriting nominee Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) attended a Van Gogh exhibition; they also collaborated with Schnabel’s girlfriend, Swedish designer Louise Kugelberg. At the New York Film Festival closing night party, Carrière told me that Dafoe boasts a rare combination for an actor: “innocence and intelligence.” I sat down with Dafoe the next day.
He said Schnabel began by asking him to read and make notes on Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 biography “Van Gogh: The Life.” Later, as the director prepared to raise funding for the film at Cannes 2017, he invited Dafoe to his West Village home to play with a fake beard and a look for the ginger painter. (A year later, CBS Films’ Terry Press acquired the project at Cannes from a promo reel.)
Dafoe said he was gobsmacked when he and Schnabel visited a Paris collection of Van Gogh’s pen and ink drawings: “We enter the room, and this elegant man takes this thing out of a velvet sack. We put on gloves, everybody is being very careful, looking at it, admiring a relic. Julian put my hand on the thing, forcing transmission. It moved me, on the corners I saw these little holes. ‘What’s that?’ ‘He was outside, it was windy, they are pin holes, pinning it down.’ It had such a sense of evidence: to recognize that, where it comes from, connects you in a weird way. You are with him outside, and I was with him outside.”
Dafoe wanted to be as close to the painter as he could; his way was to become a painter himself. He communed with nature in the same Arles landscapes Van Gogh painted, tracked closely by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and a handheld camera. Schnabel taught Dafoe how to paint the light, how to hold the brush and make marks and organize his materials.
“This is not a traditional biopic,” Dafoe said. “We had a little factory of painters making Van Goghs for set dressing. I practiced painting. Julian taught me how to see a different way, he kept saying ‘paint the light.’ I had a shift of understanding of what you see with a trained eye, putting marks next to each other to see how they vibrate with each other. He introduced me to how to get into what’s behind the surface, talking about a spiritual impulse.”
Dafoe had to build up his confidence for a scene in the film where the camera shows him at the canvas, painting shoes. “We did it in real time,” he said. “It looked quite bad for a long time. Julian is coaching me. There’s a moment where it starts to come together, it doesn’t look like the shoes, but it deeply captures the soul of those shoes, you experience it.”
Finally, Dafoe got lost in the action: running through fields with a heavy wooden easel on his back, having an inner dialogue based on things Van Gogh wrote in his letters. “Everything else sweeps over you,” he said. “It was a fun movie to do. It was a beautiful place to be as an actor where you don’t have to produce or explain or show something. You are committed. The quality of being there is right, your hands are full, you are engaged. You’re not thinking about Van Gogh.”
For a scene in which Van Gogh prepares to paint in the fields, he looks, runs, lies down to look at the sky, tastes the dirt. “I had a real connection to that improvisation,” Dafoe said. “It was moving to me, and then when we finished I found out that was the field where he painted one of his last paintings… The truth is, I was seeing a lot of landscapes he was seeing.”
Ultimately, Dafoe said “At Eternity’s Gate” demanded transmogrification as much as filmmaking. “We’re put in situation where you forget yourself and enter this other territory guided by what you know and imagine,” he said. “The movie is an expression, an ordered record of that experience. When you’re doing it with someone like Julian, who had a connection to Van Gogh and painting all his life, it’s an intense experience. The stakes are very high. You become involved in a deep, transformative way. Not all roles are like that, not all movies are like that. This one had that power, which is why it was a pleasure to do and why it’s a strong movie.”
For a scene in which Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) and Van Gogh argue at Chapel of St. Honoree, the actors speak directly to the camera. And for many scenes shot from the point of view of the painter, Dafoe strapped on the camera rig. One shot from Dafoe’s POV shows reaction shots of locals standing outside a bar staring at the wounded painter as he limps home. “Benoît was my biggest acting partner,” said Dafoe. “It was just me and his fluid camera. He’s right there, he’s framing you, you are feeling him, he’s an extension of you and you are an extension of him. We don’t rehearse a lot; we do. We say what has to be accomplished and Julian lets us do it.”
At one point, Schnabel asked Delhomme to split the camera image with a diopter to show a distorted point of view that would express Van Gogh’s increasing anxiety. “At a certain moment, Willem and the DP were wearing each other’s clothes,” Schnabel said, “with Willem walking with the split diopter, filming the guys watching him as he’s walking to where he dies. He’s kind of going like Buster Keaton.”
Dafoe feels a connection between his portrayals of Van Gogh and of Jesus Christ. He said both men “are trying to reconcile the ecstasy they’ve experienced and figure out how to fold that into their worldly responsibilities,” adding that Van Gogh’s “day-to-day life of isolation with this joy and ecstasy was hard to reconcile with the prosaic aspects of life… Van Gogh had an impulse to serve, and felt he had strong spiritual impulse. He wanted to find that union and he found it through painting. And when he finished, he was reconciled to his death. In one of the written proofs that he didn’t commit suicide, he wrote: ‘I do not wish for my death but if it does come I welcome it.'”
Van Gogh also wrote about why he cut off his ear, Dafoe said, “but it’s sketchy. It’s a combination of fact and conjecture, like the way he died. We don’t know. It’s not what the movie’s about. The thing is he died.”
The film presents a well-researched version of the death of Van Gogh that does not jive with the historical record, which holds that he committed suicide. Schnabel goes with the theory that the painter was shot in the stomach by one of a group of boys who used to harass him. Transcripts as the painter was dying have him saying not to blame anyone else for his death. Because Van Gogh’s death was deemed a suicide, the town laid the coffin out in the cafe for the public to view, surrounded by his paintings: They were party favors.