How 'Beautiful Camera Mistakes' Brought van Gogh to the Screen Courtesy of DP Benoît Delhomme
'At Eternity's Gate,' Julian Schnabel's portrait of Van Gogh, starring Willem Dafoe, features impressionistic cinematography that evokes the luminous artist.
Julian Schnabel is no stranger to depicting creative geniuses. His 1996 film Basquiat brought the graffiti-turned-gallery-artist to life; in 2000, he evoked the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls; and, of course, his 2007 masterpiece, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, entered the soul of French editor and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a car accident.
Now Schnabel, a painter himself, has summoned the frenetic intensity of Vincent van Gogh to the screen. This being Schnabel, we know not to expect a boilerplate biopic. But At Eternity's Gate is so far from that that at times, it feels like an exalted documentary. We're with the painter, embodied by a fiercely committed Willem Dafoe, as he traipses through the countryside near the small town of Arles in the south of France. Here, van Gogh spent the last prolific years of his life, completing 75 paintings as he struggled, on and off, with mental illness. When making art, van Gogh is transcendent and communes with nature; when living, he is a frightened man who is unable to connect with other mortals despite the fact that he desperately needs them.
"I could have thought, 'This is crazy. This director wants my camera to wear sunglasses.'"
Together with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Schnabel conjures the essence of van Gogh through the film's unbridled, impressionistic cinematography. They lean into the handheld aesthetic; no matter how shaky or uncontrollable the image becomes, Delhomme remains committed to long takes, following Dafoe through hills and fields of high grass. The palette is imbued with van Gogh's signature yellows.
"I think I managed, for the first time in my life, to work as a DP as I work as a painter," Delhomme told No Film School. "I didn't care about beauty. I didn't care if the frame was perfect. I cared about the soul of the shot—and Van Gogh's soul."
No Film School caught up with Delhomme after the 2018 New York Film Festival to discuss how Schnabel encouraged him to capture the camera's "beautiful mistakes," and how, ultimately, he became a "different kind of DP" after working with Schnabel.
No Film School: How did you first meet Julian and decide to work together on this film?
Benoît Delhomme: I met Julian before The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I met him on the film set of Salome, which I shot. Al Pacino directed the film, but you know, he's not used to doing that, so I think he really wanted to have some people come to set to see if he was doing the right things. One day, he asked Julian to come watch. Julian spent the whole day looking at the monitors at what I was shooting. I didn't know him personally—I knew he was a great painter, and I knew, of course, he did Basquiat, so I was kind of intimidated to have him watching me working on set.
At the end of the day, Julian came up to me and hugged me and said, "Incredible. But I have to give you one very interesting tip. Sometimes, when the camera was abandoned during the day by the camera assistant or the grip, it could have been shooting something incredibly beautiful that you even didn't notice. This shot nobody was trying to frame could have been the best shot of the day. Sometimes, when you don't control anything, it is the best art."
I think only a painter can think like that. If you're a director, you think you have to control [everything] because you have to build a story. You think you have to know what you are shooting.
When I saw The Diving Bell, I said, "My god, I want to work with Julian one day." He was using the camera as a texture. He was not respecting any rules of normal storytelling.
"I felt we were doing kind of a dance. He was painting, and I was filming around him."
Then one year, at Cannes, I heard about the project for the Van Gogh movie. I am a DP, but I'm also a painter. I've been painting for 20 years. I'm a bit like a Van Gogh myself—I never really show my work as a painter. So, when I heard about this project, I thought, "This is the time to reconnect with Julian." I said to my agent, "Let's try to organize a meeting." The meeting happened in New York and was incredible, but it took time for him to decide [to choose] me.
At one point, he said to me, "Can you come to see me in Montauk?" This is where he paints every summer. He has this big, open-air studio. At this time, he was deciding between two DPs. I was one of them. So I came to Montauk for three days to read the script in his house. Well, he started to read the script to me. It was wonderful. I had never had a director read a script to me. I could already feel the tone of the film. I could feel what he liked in the film, what was moving in the film. He loved the dialogue, and he was reading it with a lot of soul. He even asked me to read the dialogue in French.
Then one evening, he says to me, "I'm going to paint tonight. Do you want to come to see me painting?" I had a small camera with me. I shot him painting for an hour. It was at the end of the day, and he painted until it was dark. It was an incredible moment. I felt we were doing kind of a dance. He was painting, and I was [filming] around him.
I cut this kind of small documentary I just made about Julian Schnabel in my room on my computer, and in the morning, I [showed it to him]. He said, "I'm very moved by what you've done with what you shot of me painting." He called his producer and said, "Benoît is going to make the film now."
NFS: What an incredible origin story.
Delhomme: Yes. I've never had anything like that on a film. Generally, when you meet directors, it's all business and agents. You don't get to do something so personal with the director. You get half an hour in a room in a producer's office in LA. Because people talk to make films. They don't make images.
So when I had the chance to shoot Julian, it was incredible. Julian gave me the chance to make images—to show him what I could do. I'd never done that before. With Julian, this is how things work. He's not a normal director, in a good way. He doesn't respect the normal Hollywood rules.
NFS: Can you describe how you shot that initial short film of Julian? What technique were you trying to demonstrate that you could do for At Eternity's Gate?
Delhomme: I had a very small camera. I was mobile. I could walk around him. I could follow my instinct. I was kind of dancing around him, in a way, and trying to capture the movement... trying to capture what he was creating. When you want to show someone painting, it is as much about the painting itself as the painter. It's kind of beautiful to see something like this happening in front of your eyes. I just covered the rhythm.
I think Julian really liked this freedom. I think he saw in my short film some inspiration for how we could do this thing together. Very quickly he said to me, "Can we make a film like this?"
"[Julian Schnabel] is not a normal director, in a good way. He doesn't respect the normal Hollywood rules."
I said, "Well, certainly we make the film like this with a very small camera I can hold in my hands. But I would need a camera assistant or two and a grip."
He said, "This is what I want to do."
I think this Montauk film was very, very important. Important because I got the job, but also because we got an idea how we could make the film, both physically and artistically.
NFS: How did you decide on the rig you were going to use to enable this mobile cinematography?
Delhomme: Well, Julian said, "I want you to be able to walk with Willem." He never really interfered in my choice of camera. I selected the RED camera because I thought it would give me interesting colors for this film. I wanted to shoot in digital 'cause I wanted that freedom.
I didn't know the RED very well, so I was surprised by the texture it was giving me. I thought this film needed a special texture. This is Van Gogh! My images needed to have some texture.
NFS: How did you get that texture?
Delhomme: I have no idea. [Laughs] I wanted this film to be shot with nearly no light—the minimum artificial lighting. I wanted things to be close to real life. So, when you do that, the camera sometimes doesn't know to record the image—it says you don't have enough light, or you need to open the iris too much. You make some mistakes, in a way, for the camera. These mistakes can make beautiful images.
Julian had a very important idea before the shoot. He said to me one day, "Benoît, I just bought a pair of bifocal sunglasses, and when I wear them, I see the world in a very interesting way. I'm going to send you these glasses, and I would like you to do a camera test. Put these glasses in front of the lens. See what it does. I have a feeling it could be something for us."
I could have thought, "Okay, this is crazy. This director wants my camera to wear sunglasses." I remember when I told my agent. She laughed. She said, "Is he serious?" I said, "Yeah. I take it seriously. I think it's just fantastic. I love this idea."
"I said to my assistant, 'I feel like a war photographer on this film.' I'm there in the film, and I have to capture it—whatever happens."
I received the sunglasses a few days later. I realized they had a kind of brown, tobacco tint, and they had a bifocal effect. At the top of the glass, you can see quite far. The bottom is kind of blurred. It gave a very interesting depth to your view. But the glasses were too small to put in front of the camera.
So I said to Julian, "I get what you want. I see the effect. I'm going to work on this to give you this effect, but not with your glasses. I'm going to use split diopters for the bottom of the lens, and I'm going to use a monochromatic filter." This is how I ended up finding a yellow filter. [The script] talks about yellow a lot. Van Gogh loved yellow. The split diopter gave the frame a sort of dreamy effect, and Julian loved it.
NFS: A lot of the film also looked like it might have been shot with a wide-angle lens.
Delhomme: Yes. I realized that Julian wanted to shoot to see the world with the camera. He wanted me to capture as much as I could with my camera in one shot. I started to use quite wide angles. He wanted his landscape to enter the camera.
With a wide lens, scenes were very interesting to shoot with faces, too, because I could go very close to a face and get this kind of strange distortion. It wasn't ugly, but it was an interesting way to shoot people. So I also used a wide lens for close-ups to capture the emotion in the actors.
Mainly, I used a 20mm, 25mm. I barely used long lenses. Sometimes a 32.
We tried to create very long takes so that we could show the world around Willem without cutting. The idea was not to do many shots, but to get the scene in one shot.
\NFS: I was really struck by the beauty of these long shots—especially the ones where Willem Dafoe is walking through fields of grass. Can you talk a little bit about the thought behind those sequences?
Delhomme: These scenes where Willem is walking in the landscape and the fields to go painting weren't in the original script at all. It was completely invented with Julian. When Julian realized I could shoot so freely alone, with only one assistant, he started to say, "Oh, we should shoot unscripted scenes." He wanted wheat fields. The end of the film is supposed to take place in the summer in wheat fields, where Van Gogh was painting at the end of his life.
Julian said, "I would like you to go alone to shoot some wheat fields, and shoot what you feel." He said, "Why don't you ask the costume designer to give you some Van Gogh pants and shoes, and you wear them yourself, and you shoot your legs and feet walking in the wheat fields?"
"I became a different kind of DP working with [Julian]. Nothing scared me."
Can you imagine the director saying to me, "You go alone, and get dressed as Van Gogh"? It's what I did! To make this film, half of my body was Van Gogh: the upper half of myself was the cameraman. I was shooting myself walking as Van Gogh. It was incredibly crazy. But my attitude was, whatever Julian's going to ask me—even if it seems crazy—I'm going to do it.
When Julian saw the images, he said, "We're going to do a lot of this." We have nearly 20 minutes of scenes of Willem walking and painting. We walked for kilometers with Willem. I would follow him with improvised shots, and I was doing a dance around him. I would go really close to his face with the camera. He would never complain. I managed to capture incredible moments with him.
This was Van Gogh's life when he's in Arles. He has to walk around. He has to carry his equipment. He's a painter, but to be a painter at this time, you have no car, no nothing. You go with your easel, your painting, and you walk to the spot you want to paint. It's very physical. Julian wanted to show how physical it was to be a painter at this time. Van Gogh had no painting studio. He had no place to paint. He paints in the landscape.
One day, Julian said to me, "I love the way you work because you never said no to me." One time he even asked me to shoot myself walking on the edge of a cliff. I was wearing Van Gogh's really, really terrible shoes. I was on the edge of the cliff, then he said, "Shoot." In very, very difficult. I was shooting myself walking on the edge of the cliff. I could have been falling from that cliff.
One day, my camera had a problem with the monitor. I could not see what I was filming, because the splitter went black. Julian said, "Keep shooting. Close your eyes and imagine the frame." This is the kind of director he is. I became a different kind of DP working with him. Nothing scared me. I thought, "What? A guy is telling you frame with your eyes closed, and maybe we'll get something incredible." But he was right. He was right.
NFS: The way this film was shot was so inventive. It's not surprising to hear that you experimented a lot. I did feel like I was seeing things that I hadn't seen before. Was there any technique that you developed on this film that you think you're going to bring with you to other shoots in the future?
Delhomme: For sure. My operating on this film went to another level. I had never developed this kind of handheld technique. I never had the chance to go so far. On other films, in general, I was carrying the camera on my shoulder. This time, I was carrying the camera in my hands. People normally use a Steadicam to do that. And I'm not an athlete. I'm a normal guy. Many times, I said to my assistant, "I feel like a war photographer on this film." I'm there in the film, and I have to capture it—whatever happens.
Delhomme: I didn't care about beauty. I didn't care if the frame was perfect. I cared about the soul of the shot—about capturing the soul of the shot and Van Gogh's soul. I didn't care about small, technical problems. If you start to think, "I don't care about small, technical mistakes, because these mistakes can be beautiful," you can go to another level. I think this is very important.
If you're scared to make mistakes and you try to make things perfect, you limit yourself artistically. This is what painters know. When painting, mistakes are welcome. They are beautiful. I think I managed, for the first time in my life, to work as a DP as I work as a painter. I was surprised about what was in front of me, and used it in a nonconventional way. Those would be mistakes for some people.
"I didn't care about beauty. I didn't care if the frame was perfect. I cared about the soul of the shot."
What I've learned is mainly to give myself more freedom as a DP. People want to control things. This art du sophistiqué...on every movie I see, they want to show how clever they are. They want to show how they control the technique. They lose so much soul doing this. Everything is so clean and varnished. People make films like Photoshop now, because they can fix everything. I said, "My god, I am making a film about Van Gogh. I cannot do that."
One critic wrote: "This is a raw, unvarnished film." I'm so happy about this phrase. I like the fact that I made a film about painting that was completely unvarnished. It's free.
Remember the period of the Dogme 95? I didn't want to use all the toys—everything you can get with the camera. All the control you can get. I wanted to keep things more real. I didn't want to fix problems in the frame. Some people would have applied some kind of Steadicam application to make this softer after shooting it. I didn't do that. I decided to keep the unsteadiness—the shakiness of the film. Julian said to me, "Benoît, the camera can never be too shaky, because life is shaky, and I want to show that. Van Gogh's life is shaky."
There's a phrase that Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother. He wrote, "I want my work to be very observant—very clever—but I want people to think my work is naïve, in a way. I want to hide my technique so well that my images may seem naïve, but in fact, there is a lot of cleverness behind it." That's what I wanted to do in this film.