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Julian Schnabel • Director

“I never wanted to get on the van Gogh boat”


- Cineuropa talked to artist-director Julian Schnabel, the man behind At Eternity’s Gate, his latest film that centres on the twilight years of Vincent van Gogh

Julian Schnabel  • Director
(© Zurich Film Festival)

Devoted to the last years in the life of Vincent van Gogh, played by Willem Dafoe, already awarded for his role at the Venice Film Festival, At Eternity’s Gate [+see also:
film review
interview: Julian Schnabel
film profile
is acclaimed artist Julian Schnabel’s fifth feature, after BasquiatBefore Night Falls, devoted to Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [+see also:
film review
film profile
 and Miral [+see also:
film profile
. It is now screening at the Zurich Film Festival

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Cineuropa: With van Gogh, everyone is always interested in the crazy stuff: the myths, the cut-off ear. Except for you. 
Julian Schnabel:
 Some say the reason why he had these breakdowns was because he was putting his brush in his mouth. I don’t believe that. After seeing The Wedding at Cana by Veronese, he said: “The colours in my paintings don’t come from reality – they come from my palette.” I think these were the conscious decisions that this person made. It had nothing to do with eating paint or being crazy – that’s too easy. But I think there is definitely something that’s giving him anxiety. There are moments when he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and he is scared of it. Have you ever taken LSD? 

Well, no.
Very good – it’s a dangerous thing. I have, back when I was younger. What happens is that as you get more stoned, you get anxious, and then it goes away. And then it comes back. There’s this Jacob’s Ladder effect, when things just get exacerbated. When asked why he paints, he says: “To stop thinking.” My film is called At Eternity’s Gate because he is going to die soon, and he is making his peace with this moment. There is a painting of the same name, yes, but it has nothing to do with that. 

There was this line in Basquiat: “Everybody wants to get on the van Gogh boat.” Did you?
“Everybody wants to get on the van Gogh boat. There’s no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. The idea of the unrecognised genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending this myth into orbit. I mean, how many pictures did he sell, one? He couldn’t give them away. He has to be the most modern artist, but everybody hated him. He was so ashamed of his life that the rest of our history will be a contribution to van Gogh’s neglect.” Rene Ricard wrote that. When Jean-Michel Basquiat died, a guy came to ask me questions about him, and I realised he was just a tourist. So I bought back the rights, wrote the script and made it myself. I never thought I was going to be a movie director, and I never wanted to get on the van Gogh boat. I don’t feel guilty for his neglect either. He just deserved another chance to speak, in a way that wasn’t a cliché. I like Kirk Douglas, and Spartacus is one of my favourite movies. But people trust their authors, and they don’t necessarily know their topic – Lust for Life is a bunch of crap! I wanted to show that if you get close to these paintings, there are all these marks that are quite abstract, and as you move further, it becomes, say, a face. Each mark had its own autonomy. Picasso learnt it from him. 

There is this feeling of physically coming into your film.
Most of it is done in the first person, so you actually feel like you are there. When the screen goes black, you are in the dark, looking through his eyes. There is no rush. You are in the room with him. When his doctor says: “You are confusing people with your paintings,” he replies: “I am my paintings.” Reinaldo Arenas was his writings, and ultimately, I am probably this film. There is always this blending of the author and the subject matter. It’s hard to surgically remove the two. Even though it’s about van Gogh, it might be a way for me as a painter to use it as a vehicle to say things that maybe he would have liked to say, or things I would like him to say.

For years, you refused to make a movie about van Gogh. What changed your mind?
I thought it was impossible to do. But then I was looking at this exhibition, Van Gogh/Artaud. The Man Suicided by Society at the Musée d’Orsay and explaining these paintings to [the film’s screenwriter] Jean-Claude Carrière. Later, he said to me: “I thought that at my age, I was never going to have that kind of experience. I felt like van Gogh was with us, talking.” In this film, we finally get to ask all of these questions that people would like to ask about van Gogh, and we get to answer them, too. That opportunity made me feel like we could do something new. Chris Walken once said to me: “If you can’t surprise yourself, how do you expect to surprise anybody else?”

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