Julian Schnabel: Catching the Breath and the Light

February 7, 2019
Artist, art world mover and shaker, storyteller, Julian Schnabel is all of that and more, which he put into his latest film, At Eternity’s Gate.

The painter Julian Schnabel – friend and collaborator with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed – has been in the public eye, and at the forefront of American art, for over five decades, so you can forgive him for being just a tad tired of trying to explain what he does. One thing he does not want to buy into is the old debate of whether he is now more of a filmmaker.

“I am a painter. I am a painter who has made some films. I have made 6 films and over 4,000 paintings. Everything I do is part of my practice. It so happens that there is a part of my brain that is a story teller. I don’t look at being an artist as part of a ‘career’, I just make things. I am my paintings as I am my films…”

Of course, Schnabel has made serval films about painters. Perhaps unwisely the interview pursues the idea that being a painter helped Schnabel the filmmaker in this sense. His film At Eternity’s Gate about Van Gogh requires lots of Van Gogh paintings to be done ‘live’ on screen. Schnabel did much of these and he also taught lead actor Willem Dafoe to paint so he could be part of that process. Was it fun as an artist to recreate Van Gogh? Once again there is a tendency to set things straight or to be irritated by one word or idea in a question.

“I don’t think I recreated anything. We did some works. I showed Willem how to hold a brush and how to look at things. So, he could have something to do and so he could be believable.”

We wonder if Schnabel has a particular theory about how Van Gogh worked or how he evolved as a painter. Yes, he is interested in talking about how artists think about their art, and he tells us that he got a lot of different ideas or quotes about this from different sources.

In relation specifically to Van Gogh, he does want to argue that his film takes a unique approach. This is perhaps important in two ways. Firstly, Van Gogh has been covered in film a great deal already, and quite recently in the very visually experimental Loving Vincent  (where the whole film was like a Van Gogh painting animated). Secondly, Van Gogh is now so famous, such a public property in a sense, that everyone feels they already ‘know’ him.

Schnabel tried to do something different, to do with his personal response to the work. The film is not a biopic. We can agree that artistic truth and historical truth are not the same thing, they have a helical relation; they spiral around each other in this film.

“I had a different approach to the subject, as well as the paintings. It is always about making something rather than just interpreting his letters or by using what people have written about him. We [the director and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere] made a lot of things up of course. But they were things that we believed to be true, if you know what I mean. We are making a fiction. For example, I like paintings that were painted fast, so I included a scene where Vincent looks at Velasquez and Goya, but he wouldn’t have seen those live as they weren’t in Dutch or French museums at that time. But I felt comfortable with that because I believe they have something to do with Van Gogh’s paintings.”

The other thing that ‘everyone knows’ about Van Gogh is that he was troubled; he self-harmed (in today’s parlance) and spent time in a mental hospital. We wonder if Schnabel thought that was important to depict or that, in the larger sense, there is something to the idea that suffering is the grit in the oyster of creativity. Do we need to see Vincent as a suffering artist? Once again, Schnabel resists the idea that this should be allowed to take over our view of things.

“Maybe some people might take that [suffering] and make art out of it, or they might respond by making art. But it is hard to comprehend what life is. I guess you could say my movie is about whether they comprehend art, be it [art] is about making something, anything. We can talk endlessly about what an artist did or, more interestingly perhaps, what they didn’t do…”

Although At Eternity’s Gate has an excellent cast of support players (Oscar Isaac, Mathieu Almaric, Mads Mikkelsen among them), the film very much centres around Willem Dafoe’s performance. Schnabel is very happy with the supporting players but also with what the lead has achieved.

“You know Guillermo Del Toro told me that Willem’s performance was the most pure, the most effortless that he has seen. He’s vulnerable, he conveys conviction, he is heartbroken. It all rings true. An actor has a chance to be different with all the different people he interacts with. It’s not monotone. And we all relate differently with different people and circumstances, and that’s what Willem does so well here. It is something characteristic of how we did it, you don’t always see that in other films about Van Gogh.”

Dafoe was clearly in touch with what the director wanted, and Schnabel talks too about how the whole approach to the film was an ensemble of elements.

“Willem doesn’t act, he inhabits the role. We were not trying to illustrate something. You know it is all just going on out there. We want that sense of being vivid, of being awake and that’s why we told it in the first person [the film often adopts point of view shots from Van Gogh’s perspective] and then, when we come out of it, we have something recorded. Everyone involved was part of that too; the director of photography [Benoit Delhomme], the editor [Louise Kugelberg], we were all working together. We were like leaves blowing in the wind and we catch the breath or the light and that’s what’s up there.”

At Eternity’s Gate is in cinemas February 14, 2019

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