The CBS Films presentation at Deadline’s The Contenders was the most intimate of the day — and perhaps the most enlightening. The allotted time for CBS was devoted to a single film, At Eternity’s Gate, and the list of panel guests limited to one name: Willem Dafoe, the three-time Academy Award nominee who looks to be back in the trophy hunt with his screen portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.
At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) off a screenplay written by Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, tries to connect with the spirit, art and persona of Van Gogh and it was filmed in Bouches-du-Rhône, Auvers-sur-Oise and other areas of France where the Dutch painter spent the final seasons of his life.
Interviewed by Deadline’s Pete Hammond, Dafoe spoke about the filming experience in tones of inspired wonder. The actor cited the vivid scenery of the locale, the enduring power of Van Gogh’s talent and Schnabel’s art expertise (as a painter of international renown) put a brush in his hand and new ideas in his mind.
“It was a real interesting process. Nature led the way…they were all places where he was. There are landscapes that we were in that are recognizable in some of his paintings. It’s a very powerful feeling. There’s one shot I’m in where you see me kind of smiling, it was an improvisation where I’m just kind of being in the field. And I had a very strong feeling that day. When we finished someone said, ‘The was the field where he painted one of his last paintings.’ I found out later that he was buried about 300 yards from where I was at. So, obviously, that helps. We couldn’t have filmed it in Burbank!”
Schnabel was a guide to Dafoe during their quest to find the essence of Van Gogh in the film and on the canvas. The student did well: Dafoe has already won the Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Film Festival for At Eternity’s Gate, which opens domestically on Nov. 16.
“Julian taught me how to paint. He, of course, had a stake — It would drive him crazy if I held the brush wrong from the beginning. So he taught me how to do things. But most importantly he taught me how to ‘look’ and how to ‘see’ and how to paint light. It was kind of a new concept for me…you start thinking in a new way. And that doesn’t just become about painting. It becomes how you see the world. It kind of becomes about the rise and fall of everything…things that make you feel excited. It’s about painting. But it’s beyond that.”