‘At Eternity’s Gate’: Willem Dafoe, Julian Schnabel and more discuss the film’s ‘irresponsible’ production [WATCH]

“There was a structure, but then there was also this looseness at the same time … It didn’t feel like a traditional movie,” said Willem Dafoe after his film “At Eternity’s Gate” was screened for press and industry at the New York Film Festival on Friday, October 12. He was joined by co-stars Oscar Isaac and Rupert Friend, director Julian Schnabel, and co-writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg for a press conference to discuss the film, which was the fest’s closing night selection. Watch the actors above, and scroll down to hear from the filmmakers below.

“Eternity’s Gate” takes place late in the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh (played by Dafoe), when he was ravaged by mental illness but supported by his loving brother Theo (Friend) and his colleague Paul Gauguin (Isaac). He was largely a pariah, lonely and poor, but he couldn’t conceive of a life without painting, and the film was shot on location in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where he lived his final years and produced his last works.

“There were actually landscapes that were recognizable still to this day from his paintings,” Dafoe explained. “It was a very strong experience,” but there was also a fluidity to the production wherein some scenes could be shot very quickly, leaving the cast and crew with enough time to more deeply immerse themselves the world they were sharing with the famous painter. “It felt like we were getting together things we were interested in and making ourselves available to it. Then stuff would happen, which sounds kind of irresponsible, but interesting things were happening because we were shooting in places where he was.”

Schnabel originally “didn’t want to make a movie about Vincent Van Gogh” at all. “Everybody thinks they know everything about Vincent Van Gogh, so it seemed to be an impossibility.” That changed after he and Carriere visited a Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. Carriere said of that experience, “I never thought before in my life that I would ever feel such a totally new emotion in front of a painting. It was as if Van Gogh was alive and listening to us … I almost heard Van Gogh’s heart beating.”

It inspired Schnabel to structure the film like an art show where every painting is like a different vignette that leaves you with “a cumulative feeling about what just happened … The film is told in the first person, so instead of the movie being about Van Gogh, you feel like you are Van Gogh.”

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