Artist-director Julian Schnabel defends his fresh portrait of Vincent van Gogh

by Helen Barlow / 21 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Julian Schnabel At eternity's gate

Julian Schnabel. Photo/Getty Images

Julian Schnabel explains the ideas behind his revisionist take on the life and death of van Gogh.

Julian Schnabel’s sixth movie, At Eternity’s Gate, might be yet another film about Vincent van Gogh but it’s as much about the American painter turned director himself. When Willem Dafoe’s van Gogh was filmed creating his masterpieces, it was often Schnabel playing artistic stunt double.

“When he’s looking at the rocks and he’s drawing, my hand is in his shirt and we’re wearing the same shirt,” Schnabel says at the Marrakech International Film Festival.

The 67 year-old says he tried to marry art with cinema more than he had done in any of his previous movies which began with 1996 biopic Basquiat and have included 2007’s acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

“I was talking to Guillermo del Toro,” Schnabel says of the Shape of Water Oscar winner “and we agreed we only make one film in our lives, just different panels. With my first film Basquiat I didn't try to invent the wheel. I knew Jean-Michel and tried to tell the story as I was a witness to a lot of those events. After making The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I realised I like to tell a story in the first person.”

In order to play Van Gogh Schnabel taught Dafoe, his friend of 30 years, how to paint. Dafoe is now a strong contender for the acting Oscar —even if at 63 he is much older than the painter ever was.

“People say, ‘Oh Van Gogh was 37 when he died’, but he looked pretty f***ing tired. Willem’s in good shape. He’s a yogi and can tie himself into a pretzel.

“There’s this otherworldly thing about him. We took a picture before we started with the beard and all this other stuff so we could show he could be the right guy. But that picture isn’t anywhere near how he is in the movie. He became this person; he transformed. I thought if as a friend I didn't ask him to play this role I would be robbing him of having something he needed in his life and I would be robbing myself of the privilege of having him do something so extraordinary.”

Making At Eternity’s Gate has brought Schnabel back to attention in the art world. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where he studied Van Gogh’s works in preparation for the film, asked him to mount an exhibition, pairing his own paintings with those of European impressionists.

“There are ten paintings of mine from 1978 to last year and they’re paired with paintings including van Gogh’s last self portrait, two Cezanne paintings that he made in his late 20s and early 30s, Toulouse-Lautrec’s two largest paintings, a beautiful Manet painting, a lesser known Monet and a Gauguin. I guess they thought that if I talked about the paintings or wrote something about them, people could look at them in another way.”

Likewise Schnabel was aiming to offer a very different take on van Gogh in his film. Schnabel maintains he was not a tortured artist and that he was murdered rather than taking his own life.

“Van Gogh had enough money from his brother Theo [Rupert Friend] to buy paint and to eat. I think he did exactly what he wanted to do. He made 75 paintings in 80 days in Auvers-sur-Oise [where he died] and it doesn't seem that a guy who wanted to kill himself would do that. I think it was convenient to sell this notion that he’s the crazy artist who commits suicide … the mythology around him is a cliché.”

Much of the film’s content comes from van Gogh’s letters, notes the film’s co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who also researched his death. “Van Gogh came back to the auberge wounded. He had a bullet in his stomach and nobody ever found the gun. There is no proof that he killed himself.”

At Eternity’s Gate is in cinemas now.


PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more
Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco
103798 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Profiles

Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath o…

by Joanna Wane

As the face of anti-smoking lobby group ASH, Deirdre Kent played a vital role in the smokefree New Zealand movement.

Read more
Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ
103766 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Currently

Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ…

by Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Māori leaders are calling on New Zealanders to reject the notion that 'this is not us' in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Read more
Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot
103723 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Music

Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The sci-fi sound of the ondes martenot is playing a key part in the upcoming performance of an epic symphony.

Read more
Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white supremacists last year
103662 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white su…

by RNZ

A Canterbury gunsmith living and working says he told police less than six months ago they needed to look at the rise of white supremacists with guns.

Read more
12 moments that show how New Zealanders have united in the face of terror
103665 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

12 moments that show how New Zealanders have unite…

by Vomle Springford

In the following days after the Christchurch terror attacks, New Zealand has come together to support the victims of the shootings.

Read more
How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's Abstractions
103649 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Music

How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's…

by The Listener

The works of the English contemporary composer feature in the NZSO’s forthcoming The Planets series.

Read more