At Eternity's Gate: the artist turned director behind the Van Gogh biopic

We talk to Julian Schnabel about tackling the myth and controversy of the artist in film

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 08: Willem Dafoe and Julian Schnabel  walk the red carpet ahead of the Award Ceremony during the 75th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on September 8, 2018 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
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It seems apt that it was at an exhibition that the first brushstrokes of an idea for Julian Schnabel's At ­Eternity's Gate were made. After all, the film is centred around the final years of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

Schnabel was walking around the Musee d'Orsay with his ­octogenarian screenwriter friend Jean-Claude ­Carriere, famed for his scripts for avant-garde surrealist Luis Bunuel, such as Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. They were at the exhibition, Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society (drawn from French playwright, poet and ­visionary Antonin Artaud's book of the same name). As the pair looked at the 40 ­paintings featured in the show, they began to ­discuss making a film about the Post-­Impressionist that would aesthetically and tonally reflect Van Gogh's art.

Then and there, they sat down and sketched out ideas that would form the basis of At Eternity's Gate. The title comes from a self-portrait oil-­painting, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate), which Van Gogh created in 1890 in Saint-Remy de Provence, where he was convalescing some two months beforehis death.

It is difficult to think of a ­director who is better qualified to make a film about Van Gogh than Schnabel. He came to prominence as a painter, with his first solo painting ­exhibition held at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City in 1979. ­Schnabel, who was working as a chef and a taxi driver, found himself ­suddenly at the heart of the ­burgeoning New York art scene, ­hobnobbing with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Last year, the New Yorker became the first artist to participate in the guest curator initiative at the Musee d'Orsay. 

In 1996, Schnabel moved into filmmaking. He found ­immediate success, ­writing and directing a feature film based on the life and ­premature death of fellow New York artist Basquiat. ­Schnabel's obsession with the lives of frustrated artists was again apparent in his second film, Before Night Falls – which is based on the life of the exiled Cuban novelist ­Reinaldo Arenas – and it emerged again in 2007, when Schnabel won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for his mesmerising third film, The Diving Bell and the ­Butterfly, about French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's AT ETERNITY'S GATE. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Schnabel ventured into the Arab world with his fourth film, Miral, ­which was ­released in 2010. The story was written by Rula Jebreal and was based on her own semi-­autobiographical novel about a Palestinian girl who grows up in the wake of the 1948 ­Arab-Israeli War. When the film, which starred ­Freida Pinto and Hiam Abbass, was screened at the United ­Nations, the Israeli government and the American-­Jewish committee claimed that it showed Israel in a "highly ­negative light".

Schnabel's film about Van Gogh features Willem Dafoe in the lead and the actor delivers a brilliant depiction of the ­artist. "I've known Willem for 30 years," says Schnabel, 67, when we meet in the gardens of La Mamounia hotel during the Marrakech Film Festival. "He has done avant-garde ­theatre, he's worked on big and small movies, and he's a yogi – he can tie himself into a pretzel and is one of the most generous people I've met."

"I can't imagine a performance by anyone else this year, or any other year, that is anywhere near what he is doing. [But] that doesn't mean he is going to get an award."

Dafoe has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal. "I can't imagine a performance by anyone else this year, or any other year, that is anywhere near what he is doing," says Schnabel. "[But] that doesn't mean he is going to get an award."

Dafoe plays Van Gogh at the time when the artist was living in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, the French towns where he ­created a completely new style of painting – layering paint on canvas so thickly that it almost resembles sculpture. It is a time when his talent is starting to be recognised by some of his peers, such as the far more celebrated artist Paul Gauguin (played by Oscar Isaac), ­although Van Gogh still relies on the goodwill of his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), to allow him to live as an artist.

It is a visually stunning film and is more an artist's ­impression of Van Gogh than a ­biography, drawing on letters, ­established facts and speculation to paint a picture of the artist. "I tell this story in the first person, so you feel like you are Van Gogh," says the director. "But it's not really about Van Gogh. It's about anybody that ever wanted to make anything."

A common feature in ­Schnabel's films is the battle between the purity of art and the need for commerce, so it is no surprise that he made a film about Van Gogh, whose ­artwork only began selling after he died. "Maybe that is a consistent problem that artists have," Schnabel says. "There is always a chasm between the artist and the art, there's an incongruity between your life and the life of the work that you make, and there is ­definitely a chasm between society and the artist."

Schnabel also wants to correct some myths about Van Gogh – some of which are ­attributable to ­Vincente ­Minnelli's Lust for Life, a 1956 film based on Irving Stone's 1934 novel about Van Gogh – and challenge some ­established beliefs.

Schnabel argues against the idea that Van Gogh was ­destitute. "He wasn't poor. He didn't have a lot of money but he had enough to buy paint and eat."

Most controversially, ­Schnabel questions ­whether the artist who cut off his own ear in 1888 did in fact ­commit suicide two years later. "He made 75 paintings in 80 days – that doesn't seem to me to be like a guy who wants to ­commit suicide," he says. "I think it was extremely ­convenient to sell this notion that he was a crazy artist who committed suicide."

The official version of Van Gogh's death was questioned in a 2011 biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, which claimed that 16-year-old Rene Secretan shot Van Gogh. It is a claim that has been largely brushed aside by leading art historians.

A self-portait of van Gogh. 

The other questionable claim made in At Eternity's Gate is that the so-called Arles Sketchbook, containing 65 ink drawings Van Gogh sketched during his time in Arles, is authentic. In 2016, Canadian scholar Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov published the sketchbook that was said to have belonged to Marie Ginoux, who ran the Cafe de la Gare, where Van Gogh lodged in Arles.

"The Van Gogh museum has not authenticated them, but I saw them and it looked pretty real to me," says Schnabel, who claims that, as people would often walk off with paintings that Van Gogh hung on the inn walls, it is understandable that Ginoux would have a sketchbook.

Whatever the truth is, At ­Eternity's Gate makes for a ­fascinating and timely cinematic ­reappraisal of the legend surrounding Van Gogh, helmed by one the greatest living visual artists.

At Eternity’s Gate is playing at Cinema Akil now