Working with Julian Schnabel on "At Eternity’s Gate"

By Benoît Delhomme, AFC

par Benoît Delhomme

[ English ] [ français ]

I remember meeting Julian for the first time twelve years ago when I was shooting Al Pacino’s Salome. Al had invited Julian to watch him directing. Julian sat behind the video monitor for several hours without interfering. I remember feeling quite under pressure.

At the end of the day, he came to me and said : “I want to work with you one day”. So I thought I did not do too bad after all, but Julian added : “Can I give you one advice ? I noticed that every time the camera was unattended, un-operated or abandoned by the camera crew between takes : it could have been the best shot of the day”. Of course, it came as a punch into my ego but I still think that it is the most interesting and disturbing advice I got as a director of photography. Only a painter-director could say that. Since then, I am paying attention to these shots that nobody frames consciously. What about if I was trying too hard to make things too perfect ? What about if losing the control was a better way to achieve better things artistically ? Modern painters are definitely better at this strategy than film directors. A few months later, I got a call from Julian who was in Paris prepping The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. We met again. I loved the script but I was already engaged on another movie in London so Julian told me : “You only have one life”. But I was not brave enough to quit the film I was shooting and I felt very frustrated for many years to have missed that chance.

Benoît Delhomme
Benoît Delhomme

When I heard about Julian making a movie about Van Gogh, I immediately thought : “I want to shoot this”. For Julian, for Vincent Van Gogh, for Willem Dafoe (whom I had met on the shoot of The Most Wanted Man) and because I have been painting secretly for the last 20 years between film shoots. I thought I could combine everything I loved to do filming and painting. And more than everything, I wanted to be surprised, shocked and pushed to do images I had never done before.

To be chosen
What I called “The Montauk Summit”. Last August, Julian was still hesitating between two cinematographers and he invited me to spend three days in Montauk to “talk”. He read the script to me and I realised how much he was attached to the words. He asked me to read the dialogues in French. I was petrified but I did it and enjoyed saying the lines. Julian can give you a lot of strength. He could ask me to shoot on the edge of a cliff and I would do it forgetting I have vertigo. Toward the end of the second day, I was in my room and received a text from Julian on my phone : “Hi Ben, I am painting now”. I took my camera and ran to his open air studio. Julian, in white pajamas, was working on the six giants paintings for his San Francisco exhibition. He was using a 18ft long stick with a brush at the end of it. Without asking I immediately started to shoot. I was so worried to disturb his concentration so I tried to be invisible like when I shoot actors doing a monologue. I shot non-stop for one hour until it got so dark he could not paint anymore. I spent a part of the night editing in my bed and had a 30 minutes version ready to show at breakfast. Julian sat in front of my computer and watched my movie. Right after, I heard Julian calling the producer Jon Kilik and saying : “Benoît is the DP now”.

The script
I liked so much that the script was not trying to be a perfectly constructed Van Gogh’s biopic. I felt that a lot of the dialogues could be coming from Julian’s personal thoughts and his own experience as a painter. I liked the unexplained time gaps between scenes, and the voice over the black screen moments. I liked the strangeness of it .For me the scenes could be all seen as flash-backs in Vincent ’s brain as he walks on a road after having being shot in the stomach.

Julian thought we may need to have some shots of wheat fields for the end of the movie but that scene was nowhere in the script. I pushed our producer to set-up a preshoot but the harvest had been done everywhere in France. So we searched for wheat fields all over Europe that could look like Auvers-sur-Oise and found some incredible fields in Scotland. I went alone with one assistant but without Julian who was still in Montauk. A few days before, Julian called me : “Ben, can you ask the costume designer to give you one of Vincent’s pants and his pair of shoes ? I would like you to wear them and shoot yourself walking in the fields as if you were Van Gogh. Maybe you can also wear his straw hat and shoot your shadow ?”. So I spent three days from sunrise to sunset dressed as Van Gogh and shot more than ten hours of footage. I could not dream to find a better way to get into Vincent’s head. Also it became obvious that I needed to shoot the whole movie with a small camera I could hold in my hand, not on my shoulder. Like the Montauk home movie I had made that Julian liked so much. I needed to be able to walk with Willem, to run with him. I needed to put the camera on the ground and suddenly lift it to the sky. To be like a war photographer in the fields. My assistants built this rig for me and I called my camera “The Hasselblad”.

More than ever I was convinced that we could find the style of the images we wanted through more pre shooting days rather than doing storyboarding or production meetings. A simple idea : shooting to know how to shoot. Each time Julian was excited to see how much footage I could capture with a tiny crew. We certainly never talked about making a shot list but we could spend a full day shooting in a field of dead sun flowers trying to make them look like human beings. I often dressed again like Van Gogh and I shot my feet walking and running in so many different textures. Julian started to elaborate more unscripted scenes of Van Gogh walking and painting in the Nature through that process. He wanted to show how physical it was to be a painter.

Freedom of thinking was the key to be become the right DoP for Julian. I learnt to never say no. One day, Julian called me : he wanted to send me his bi-focal yellow tinted sunglasses. He said he loved the effect it has on his vision. He wanted me to put them in front of the lens as a test. The glasses arrived but they were too small to cover the diameter of the lens but I wore them and understood what he wanted. I liked how they divided the world in two spaces and the blurred line between these two worlds : could it be Vincent’s vision when he had a crisis ? So I made a selection of split diopters and yellow filters to put in front of my camera for these special moments. A DoP that Julian had met before choosing to work with me had sent him a ton of YouTube links to the most iconic scenes from Tarkovski’s movies. This is exactly the kind of things I would never do to get a job. Of course we all love Andrei Rublev, we all love The Mirror, we all love Nostalgia, we all love Stalker... Yes, but I also know that no film will get close to that level again. So I felt really happy and surprised when Julian told me that he was very interested in how Robert Bresson was shooting dialogues.

At the end, I realised I could find the best inspiration in Vincent’s letters to Theo. They became my visual bible. There is so much to find in them about making images. Van Gogh had so many personal theories. I kept a few phrases as mantras for my brain throughout the shoot : “Let your light shine before men is I believe the duty of ever painter (cinematographer ?)” and “Let our work be so savant that it seems naive and does not show our cleverness”. My goal was to make a film that looked very simply shot and to hide the technical skills I acquired over the years.

One day, toward the end of the preparation, Julian offered me a “Manifesto T-shirt” he designed which said : “I WORK WITHOUT A NET”.

My main obsession, when I shoot, is to make the movie the director wants to see. Throughout the shoot, I found Julian more brave than any other director I worked with before. His mantra was “first thought, best thought”. He was so confident that his choices were the right choices. The words coverage and continuity were never pronounced on set. How many times, in my DoP’s life, did I have to abandon what I thought was a great shot idea just because someone would say : “This is not going to match, this is not going to work within our story”. With Julian, there was no filmmaking rules applied, he is just the opposite kind of director. If you said to him : “This is not going to match”, he was answering immediately : “So this is exactly what I want, I am interested to see that”. Julian just wanted me to make exciting shots.

I think we never rehearsed a scene. The idea was always to make the scene in one shot, to work like if the editing did not exist.

Julian wanted me to explore the scene with my camera, to search the shot. He talked to me during the takes. So we were constantly connected. I improvised moves and he reacted immediately, directed me, asked me suddenly to “pan to that beautiful tree” when I was filming Willem in close-up delivering his lines. Sometime he talked in the walkie-talkie but the talkie was not switched on and I was miraculously doing what he wanted without hearing his comments. Sometime we were completely out of sync and he asked me to show Willem’s face when I was just moving to see his back and these hesitations and chaos gave incredible energy and soul to the shot. Willem started to call me “his dancing partner”.

Willem Dafoe dans "At Eternity's Gate"
Willem Dafoe dans "At Eternity’s Gate"

Every Saturday, we watched hours of dailies and Julian played from his iPhone the piano music he wanted to use and after every screening the crew started to ask me strange questions like : “Do you think this can become a movie ?”.

One day, I asked Julian if my camera style was not “too shaky” and he replied : “Life is shaky. Your operating will never be too shaky for me”. One day, the monitor of my camera went black, I wanted to cut but he asked me to keep shooting, to close my eyes and imagine the frame.

I started to think that shooting an actor talking right into the lens was the only true way of shooting an actor. I enjoyed more and more to film empty landscapes and when I was shooting Willem’s face in extreme close-up, I also felt like if I was filming a landscape.

Once in a while, Julian would ask Willem to take my camera and to shoot himself his point of view of the scene.

One day we were shooting Willem/Vincent resting on a cliff at sunset. As he lied down, I unconsciously framed the red sun getting into his open mouth and I could not stop myself to say aloud : “Vincent is eating the sun”.

A few days after sending the final video master to Los Angeles, I received a frightening e-mail from the post-producer : the master has been checked for approval and the lab report was mentioning “unacceptable peaks of saturation” throughout the movie. I looked at the report more precisely and I realised that the peaks happened each time that a Van Gogh’s painting appeared in the frame. The proof that Van Gogh’s paintings were still outside of the norm.