Julian Schnabel: At Eternity’s Gate
A DEEP TROUBLE INTERVIEW
with Dr Mark Halloran
Can a movie speak to the intense swirl of feeling and aliveness that goes into painting? It was the seeming impossibility of this task which beckoned to Julian Schnabel as he created At Eternity’s Gate. He wanted to capture some things that have often evaded movies about artists. Schnabel’s vision of Van Gogh’s final days is a view into the artist unlike any other. This is a story that pursues what the act of creation feels like from the inside, the strenuous physicality of painting and the devotional intensity of the artist’s life, especially the way painters see.
Mark Halloran: I read that you said that painting is a practice that in some ways addresses death. I was wondering what your feelings were, in relation to yourself and the film, about symbolic immortality?
Julian Schnabel: Making art is a way of transgressing death. There is a Krakovski quote where he says that ‘Life contains death and art is representation of life and by the nature of that it excludes death’ so all art is optimistic, even if the subject matter is tragic. You can never have pessimistic art, you can only have (the) talentless and mediocrity. So I think that in the process of creating something and making a thing out of nothing, it is a way of transgressing death. In Van Gogh’s case since he never really got a chance to share the pleasure of (his art) with his audience, other than through letters and a couple of friends, it’s a bit different to someone who has an opportunity to show his movie to a room full of people, or show their paintings in a museum. I think the impulse to do the thing is obviously the same – it’s just to make the thing. It’s about making the thing, not about other people’s response to it.
MH: In some ways Van Gogh was the quintessential artist, in terms of the idea of the convergence between madness and creativity, and the suffering he endured in his life. I was wondering if your feeling about making art, and with you yourself as a painter, whether you thought that suffering was really important to be able to perceive beauty?
JS: I don’t know. I think everybody suffers that lives, and everybody who loves suffers, so I don’t think it’s just particular to him. I actually think that when he was working he had extreme pleasure and I think, for example, when he walks through nature and Willem (in the film) dumps dirt on his face and he’s smiling I think he’s exactly in the right place at the right time, and he’s one with everything. Obviously when he has to translate whatever he is doing or feeling with other people he’s not as good at that. So that feeling of isolation or that disconnect, or the incongruity of life and art, is very palpable in his situation.
MH: I suppose to exist to some extent is to do so in suffering?
JS: To exist is to suffer and vice-a-versa. I don’t think anyone who is intelligent, or aware of life, has never suffered. But I don’t see him (Van Gogh) as a crazy person either. I think that he is quite lucid. He’s just good at some things and not so good at others things, like being around people.
MH: It’s interesting that the aliveness is to some extent related to what he goes through in his life. So those moments of aliveness seem to be connected to that, in terms of the art that he makes. Because you can feel it when you look at it.
JS: Exactly. I think what he did, when you look at his paintings, I think people feel that. When Van Gogh says in the movie ‘I think that my view of the world is more real’ and the doctor says ‘you think that people (just) think they’re alive’ and he (Van Gogh) says ‘yes’ (and the doctor says) ‘you think you can make them feel more alive through painting’ and he says ‘yes. Absolutely.’ I think he truly believed that, and I think it actually worked. I think that paintings, when they are really good, and they grab you, they make you feel more alive, and they bring their own presence.
MH: I also thought what was interesting was that it (the movie) was about his commune with nature and that was a way of him getting in touch with God, whereas religious experience up to that point was about separation from nature.
JS: Absolutely, that’s true. Religion is a man-made creation. I thought the conversation he has with Mads Mikkelson, I mean I like the dialogue quite a bit there. And I love that he (Van Gogh) tells the priest ‘nobody knew Christ for 30-40 years after he died’ and there’s not even a letter from a Roman Centurion to his wife about a guy name Yeshua who was crucified with some other criminals. Nothing. We had opportunity for him to talk about Christ, and talk about Shakespeare … And to see what he was seeing.
MH: It wasn’t a straight biopic, it was about using some imagination around what he may have experienced, and conversations he may have had?
JS: Exactly. It’s not a biography.
MH: You said that this is a very different film, it’s a painter making a film about a painter and so the film itself is like a painting. How do you feel that that expresses itself, or communicates itself, to audiences?
JS: I think you get it, from what you’re saying to me. There’s this quote of his where he said ‘how to achieve anomalies, inaccuracies and re-fashionings of reality to where what comes out are lies. Lies that are more truth than literal fact’. We kind of looked for another form to tell the story – an analogue in a sense – a parallel world where this could have taken place, and that’s what the movie is.
MH: It feels as though you can get more in touch with who he may have been than trying to just stick to historical accuracy.
JS: Yeah, I mean if you think of the movie Kasper Hauser (The Enigma of Kasper Hauser) where they decide to cut his brain out and look and see if there was a reason he behaved a certain way, and they say ‘his brain was this shape, y’know’, and obviously that’s absurd. The opposite of truth is reason, and once you start explaining things you’re already lying. I think we tried to do something, we did something, in the first person and we made eidetic images and I think that Willem’s performance also is, (as) Allen Ginsberg said ‘first thought, best thought’ I think what we did … we don’t rehearse, we understand who we are, supposedly, and then we get into the place and we react to what’s happening and that’s how the movie is made. And so it’s very spontaneous even though it’s very prepared, but we’re not illustrating something that we know already.
MH: So it’s about connecting to the unknown?
JS: Yeah, exactly. That’s what Willem did, that’s why I think his performance is the best performance not only of this year, but Christoph Waltz saw it in Venice and said: ‘that was the bar, he set the bar.’ I think that he is dealing with the unknown. I think we all are, but people don’t really want to confront it or they can’t so they kind of occupy safe territory and they think they are being bold but in fact they’re not. I think Willem was doing that, I think he was out there finding something inside of himself and responding in whatever way he’d try it out. Most of the movie is shot in the first take.
MH: My perception of the film and Van Gogh’s life is that it is not as though he is choosing to do this. It’s not as though he’s choosing to create art, it’s as though he is compelled to do it. And so all of these risks he’s seeming to take, it’s like he’s going through life without a safety net, but it feels like he didn’t have a choice.
JS: Right. I don’t think that any artist that’s really great has a choice. They can’t do anything else.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Oscar Isaac.
The film was released nationally on 14 February 2019 through Transmission Films – transmissionfilms.com.au