With “At Eternity’s Gate,” painter/director Julian Schnabel uses Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) as a vessel to explore the process of painting as a snapshot in time, shared with the viewer. It’s not about Van Gogh, but how he viewed the world through his hyper-real, sculptural art.
“We never wanted it to look like a Van Gogh painting,” said cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who’s also a painter. Schnabel told him, “‘Van Gogh lives in the normal world…we just see his style when he’s painting something.’ But, slowly, when we were shooting, I think, Van Gogh’s colors came back to us in an unconscious way, the strong blues and strong yellows.”
At the director’s request, Delhomme even attached Schnabel’s antique yellow-tinted bifocals to the camera lens, a concept that became useful when Van Gogh rushes to paint a beautiful young woman on the road and his POV becomes yellow. “This is his way of seeing the world when he’s afraid,” said Delhomme. “But getting close to the faces using a wide angle lens, sometimes you get distortion. Julian wanted these kinds of things.”
It was this kind of free-wheeling experimentation that defined the production, with the cinematographer mostly shooting handheld in natural light to capture Van Gogh’s frenzied or frightened state of mind, sometimes splitting the camera image with a diopter. For the first time, Delhomme used the lightweight RED Heloum 8K, encircling Dafoe 360 degrees to study his face, or the landscape, or the act of painting (Schnabel, Dafoe, and a team of artists painted more than 130 Van Gogh masterworks).
They crucially shot in some of the actual locations frequented by Van Gogh, including Arles, Auvers-Sur-Oise, and the monastery-turned asylum at Saint-Paul de Mausole. Additionally, Schnabel asked Delhomme to shoot his own feet running through the wheat fields in Scotland, which necessitated the cinematographer making a special waist harness for the camera. These subjective shots of his feet became Van Gogh’s.
Speaking of Arles, when Van Gogh arrived in the South of France for what would become his most productive period before suffering a mental breakdown, he initially encountered freezing weather marked by dead sunflowers. But in his quest for beauty, he ventures inside and paints his shoes. “And it’s a great scene, I think, it’s so simple, because the idea of painting the two shoes that he can see, you get into his mind,” Delhomme said. “And Julian was doing the painting himself, and you have Van Gogh and Julian painting together.”
To capture the different artistic approaches between Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and Van Gogh, sketching and painting the same woman simultaneously, Delhomme casts them in separate shades of light. And he does a similar thing in a more existential moment, in which Van Gogh tries to convince a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) to release him from the asylum.
They discuss art and religion, and Van Gogh casts himself as a messiah of painting, whose work was intended for the future. “This scene is all about the faces, and even though it becomes quite static, the faces become a landscape,” said Delhomme. “We go from the real landscape, where I was shooting handheld, to Van Gogh talking to the priest. I was trying to find incredible things.
“Very clearly, the way they are sitting, Mad’s lighting is coming on the side of his face, and part of it is in darkness as he says terrible things [about Van Gogh’s painting]. And Willem is against the wall with very soft light, like Jesus. For me, this is one of the most touching scenes.”
Summing up this unique collaboration with Schnabel, Delhomme said, “To be a DP on this you didn’t know when your work was starting and stopping because it was all mixed together. We improvised the film completely. With Julian, you go to work every day and you don’t have a storyboard and you don’t have a shot list. We were all painters trying to make images.”