At Eternity’s Gate: Julian Schnabel Explains His Vincent Van Gogh Movie Starring Willem Dafoe as the Artist

The artist and director Julian Schnabel takes us inside his latest film, an ode to Vincent Van Gogh.

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“You confront At Eternity’s Gate like you would confront a painting: something not explained, but deeply felt,” says Julian Schnabel. His latest movie (opening on November 16), about the last few years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, is an evocative and melancholy tribute to the artistic process, as well as a visual reverie on the tension between passion and madness. Shot on location in Provence, France, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who won the award for best actor at the Venice ­International Film Festival for his disturbing performance as van Gogh. “Madness is an interior thing,” Schnabel said, speaking of the painter. “When I was 15, I took LSD. You’re high for a while, and then you think it’s over, but, no, this thing comes back at you. Madness is like that. Time collapses, and you think you’ve triumphed, but the unsettling feelings return. Van Gogh struggled with that: His demons were always there.”

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“My arm is in the right sleeve of that shirt, and I’m showing Willem how to hold a brush. It’s like holding a sword. Willem did his own painting in the film: He learned how to attack the canvas.”

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“Paul Gauguin [played by Oscar Isaac, far left] and van Gogh had a kind of platonic love affair. For van Gogh, there was always a thin line between madness and happiness. It was too much for Gauguin, and he fled.”

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“Willem was the only person who could play van Gogh. People have said he’s too old for the part, that van Gogh died when he was 37 and Dafoe was 61 when I cast him for the role. But van Gogh lived hard—his life should be measured in dog years. By the time he was 37, he was really 259.”

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“Everybody thinks they know everything about van Gogh already, so why make a film about him? It’s impossible. Which is why I did it.”

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“Van Gogh’s work was never recognized during his lifetime, but that didn’t stop him from doing what he felt compelled to do. In this wheat field, he felt he was a man in the right place at the right time.”

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“The movie is dedicated to Azzedine Alaïa. I was with him one week before he died. He was a great artist in fashion—I did three paintings of Azzedine over the years.”

Lily Gavin/Courtesy of CBS Films.

“The film’s cowriter and co-editor Louise Kugelberg [above, at left] brought her love of nature to the screenplay and production. During filming, we stayed in Arles, in a house that’s near the Alyscamps, where van Gogh often painted. At night, we could open the doors and walk straight into his world.”

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“I don’t believe van Gogh killed himself. He had ordered art supplies the day before and felt quite buoyant at that time in his life. He had made 75 paintings in 80 days! Why would he end his life then?”