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Julian Schnabel Spent His Whole Life Preparing to Make His Most Personal Movie

As Schnabel shows off his West Village home, he explains the intimate roots of his Vincent Van Gogh biopic, “At Eternity’s Gate.”

Julian Schnabel

Eric Kohn

Julian Schnabel emerged from a giant elevator in the lobby of his West Village home, and gestured to a large black frame adorning the wall above his doorman. Jagged white lines stretched across the dark canvas. Schnabel created the cryptic work “Tower of Babel,” in 1978, a year before his first solo show and his arrival as a major New York artist. “I’ve always been interested in painting things,” he said, almost too matter-of-fact for his own good.

Schnabel lives surrounded by his work, in the sprawling, pink-encrusted condominium he’s labeled “Palazzo Chupi.” Hiding behind dark glasses and an unkempt beard as he wanders his home in an oversized sweatshirt, the frazzled 67-year-old looks as though he’s receded into his creativity in other ways. It’s no wonder that “At Eternity’s Gate,” the new movie he’s directed starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, comes across as Schnabel’s most personal project: It works overtime to put viewers inside the tortured artist’s mind, commune with his creativity, and emerge enlightened by it. As a painter who became a filmmaker but still mostly paints, he has spent his whole life preparing for this.

“It’s almost like making a movie about everything,” he said. Schnabel’s impressionistic approach foregrounds Dafoe’s face as Van Gogh wanders the French countryside with an easel, finding catharsis to his alienation and despair in the opportunity to capture nature — and himself — from new angles. The usual dark turns arrive, from the off-screen ear splicing to the painter’s enigmatic suicide, but they’re paired with a broader window into the artistic process. Much like Schnabel’s profound “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which depicted the experiences of a man with locked-in syndrome, “At Eternity’s Gate” transforms the outline for a standard-issue biopic into an immersive exploration of subjectivity.

The movie could deter audiences in search of a conventional payoff, but it represents a welcome bounceback following Schnabel’s poorly received 2010 Palestinian drama “Miral,” and it’s especially impressive given the wealth of movies and books on Van Gogh stretching back through the previous century. “People might think they know how to do it better,” Schnabel said. “Well, this is my version of what a movie could be.”

Above all else, “At Eternity’s Gate” fixates on the fragility of a restless creative mind, and Schnabel lives in the confines of that struggle in rather hyperbolic terms. His private kingdom two blocks from the Hudson is filled with room after room with high ceilings to accommodate the many vast works of art arranged across the walls. He collects art, but much of the work on display is his own output. “If I don’t sell them, I can keep looking at them, and maybe learn something from them,” he said.

Schnabel’s paintings are often large-scale works with jagged, messy patterns strewn across more familiar patterns. He looks like a creature made up of the same elements that comprise his work — somehow larger than life and intimate at the same time, affable and guarded, full of himself but worried he might give away too much. “Whatever you’re gonna make, you gotta make it for yourself,” he said. “The elements or the use of the material has to speak to you. I’m always surprised when people make paintings that are so predictable.”

“At Eternity’s Gate”

Back in the elevator, he checked himself in a giant full-length mirror. The doors opened to a dramatic floor with four rooms splintering off in different directions. He pointed to a massive floor-to-ceiling tapestry from the late 17th century (“Nobody gets near it, really”), which sat on a wall opposite a rectangular pink canvas — one of his own works from a few months back. “I’ve been painting on these materials that I found that were covering a fruit market in the jungle in Mexico,” he said. “The sun burnt it.” He ran his hands across the jagged exterior of the piece. “I see the surface like skin,” he said.

He passed a blurry Jeff Elrod painting and entered another expansive room, where he stood next to a giant wax sculpture of himself. “It’s me sitting on an empty box,” he said, looking up at the eerie greyish figure, which had started to melt. Essentially a giant candle, it was a gift to Schnabel by fellow artist Urs Fischer, and Schnabel was encouraged to light up a wick inside the head whenever he felt inspired. (A similar work was on display at the Whitney Museum earlier this year.) Asked if he could pose for a picture next to the work, Schnabel nearly darted behind it. “Oh, you wanna post this?” he said. “I don’t know, I’m not really…it’s such a weird thing, because I want people to go see the movie and you want me to talk about that, but I have no Instagram, no social media.” And then: “Take a picture if you want.” He drifted back towards the elevator, pointing out at a 1985 Warhol on his way out.

Julian Schnabel shows off Urs Fischer’s wax sculpture

Back in the elevator, Schnabel began to ruminate on his artistic ambition through the years. “I think most young artists should never listen to anybody else,” he said. “You know better than anyone what you need to do. You might think an older artist knows better than you, and is smarter, and they may be, but nobody knows better than you do what you need to do for your own picture.” The elevator doors opened to another entrance, and he paused. “Most older artists are gonna try to get you to conform to the standards that you set out to destroy in the first place,” he said. He opened the doors to a largely vacant space.

On the far wall was a giant plate painting, similar to many Schnabel has made over the decades, with cracked materials forming the base of the work, over which he had painted a convincing portrait of Dafoe as he appears as Van Gogh in the movie. Two other smaller versions of the same painting appeared on adjacent walls. “Van Gogh used to make paintings of his paintings,” Schnabel said. “There’s more than one painting of 15 sunflowers because he’s painting the exact sunflowers in another painting, except they’re another color. He did that a lot. So I did it for the movie.” So what now? “I’m gonna make another one off that painting,” he said.

A red curtain blocked the view of the next room. He stood at the entrance and peeked in. “I can’t see what the fuck is going on in there,” he said. “I hate when there’s surprises around here…” He trailed off. “No. No. No,” he said. “There’s a painting on the floor. Why don’t you give me a hand for a moment?” We grabbed two sides of a curved wooden canvas and hauled it into the room, where painting materials were strewn around a messy desk on top of a poster for “At Eternity’s Gate.” Finally, Schnabel sat down on a couch at the center of the room.

“I think everybody that’s from the Western world is probably bottle-fed some concept of Van Gogh as a painter,” he said. “And probably Picasso. You don’t know what they do, but you know you’ve heard the names. …I’m from Brooklyn. I had no art education. Probably the first impression of a painting that I remember was the painting of ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ by Rembrandt. So you have impressions when you’re a child, and then you become a painter. Then you engage in the materiality of it and the way things are put together. You break everything down to all of the elements. And the more I do it, the more surprised I am at how difficult it is to watch anything.”

“At Eternity’s Gate”

CBS Films

Looking at Van Gogh’s paintings, Schnabel recognized the technique, and grew frustrated with the artist’s reputation as a mad man. “I thought he was quite sane when he was painting,” Schnabel said. “Those paintings are not paintings of madness. They’re paintings of sanity.” At one point during the production, he shot 19 minutes of footage featuring Dafoe wandering the wilderness with an easel, but he pulled back from making the experience too off-putting. “I like to push the boundaries about as far as I can,” he said, “but at a certain moment, you don’t want people to say, ‘Well, I’m not in the movie anymore.’”

With his paintings, Schnabel resists interpretations; as a filmmaker, he’s keen on inviting people in. He made his 1996 debut “Basquiat” as a tribute to his late friend, but the acclaimed work proved to be a seamless transition. “As a painter, I’d been looking at a rectangle for a long time,” he said. “It’s my ecstasy and my pleasure to be involved in that practice, and it is outside a community of people that are going to give you an award for it or not.”

The Musée d’Orsay recently organized a showcase of Schnabel’s work, marking his first Paris exhibition in 30 years. The new show allowed him to pair some of his favorite creations alongside older work from the museum’s collection. He whipped out his iPhone to share some pictures. “So Van Gogh’s self-portrait is hanging next to my painting of Tina Chow,” he said. After flipping through a few more highlights, he got around to the point. “If you look at his painting, it’s the mirror of you,” he said. “The movie, in a sense, is a mirror of you, as well. I’m trying to reboot people’s perceptions.”

He was nonplussed by earlier interpretations of Van Gogh’s work onscreen, from last year’s animated “Loving Vincent” to Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo,” in large part because they hewed to conventional approaches. For “At Eternity’s Gate,” Schnabel wanted to deconstruct Van Gogh while introducing viewers to his work from a fresh perspective. “If you want to make a painting, paint something because it didn’t exist before,” Schnabel said.

But he conceded that moviegoers needed more context. “They can’t just sit here and go, ‘What’s that?’” he said. He looked across the room. “Sit over here,” he said. Schnabel looked at a recent painting of his on the opposing wall, a broad swath of pink with a blues shape stretched across it, and a smaller yellow rectangle hovering at the top.

“You know, what is that?” he said. “I’m fine with that. People can look at it and they don’t need an explanation. But when you go to the movies, usually you want to know what happened by the end.” He shrugged. “I guess the movie is kind of more radical than other movies that are out at the moment,” he said.

The door buzzed. “What time is it? I need to go,” he said. A few moments later, fellow painter Dan Colen walked in. A contemporary of Dash Snow, Colen often paints large-scale works that bring to mind some aspects of Schnabel’s style. He admired the movie. “Most of my painting is about hovering between abstraction and figuration,” Colen said in a phone conversation later. “This movie allows us to consider abstraction at the same time as narrative, creating a more open-ended experience. …This is what I relate to. He constructs that ambiguity between narrative and pure visual splendor on the framework of Van Gogh’s mental erosion. It’s very cool that Julian takes that on.”

Colen noticed a through-line in Schnabel’s film work. “It’s not that different from Basquiat,” Colen said. “These are people who were so important. The biographies often can help generate excitement around an artist’s work and help a wider audience relate to it, but that same kind of energy can backfire. My biggest struggle as an artist is trying to communicate the experience of the process to my audience, which is impossible to do in a literal way. A lot of the movie is about Julian’s intimate relationship of putting paint onto a canvas.”

Schnabel himself wrestled with how much of his own experiences come through in his work. “I mean, why does anybody make a movie? Or why does anybody make a painting?” he said. “Why does anybody make anything? One is to make it for yourself. The other is to share it with other people. If you’re going to show it to somebody else, then a whole other set of variables comes in.”

Eager to move on to his appointment with Colen, Schnabel opened the door and pressed the down button on the elevator. “The impulse of why to do this work engenders many different kinds of personalities, ambitions, and reasons,” he said. “Jean Renoir said the problem with the world is that everybody’s got their reasons. Anyway.” He paused as the elevator doors opened, and his reflection stared back from within. Finally, he said, “I think that this film is probably the closest to where form and content have converged for me.”

CBS Films is now playing “At Eternity’s Gate” in select theaters nationwide.

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