How Willem Dafoe Learned to Paint like Van Gogh
Midway through artist-director
At Eternity’s Gate envisions the final years of Van Gogh’s life, through a series of vignettes that straddle truth and fiction (much, though not all, is based on the trove of letters the artist left behind). We see his plight as an artist in Paris, his infatuation with the light and landscapes of Arles, and his declining mental health—including when he famously cut off his ear. But it’s not a straightforward account. “This isn’t a biopic, it doesn’t explain his life,” Dafoe recently explained at the New York Film Festival. “It’s really about painting.” Indeed, it is, first and foremost, the story of a painter as told by a painter: Schnabel, who is known for an idiosyncratic painting practice ranging from canvases covered in shattered plates to inkjet prints painted with purple-hued goats.
There are half a dozen or so scenes in the film where we see Dafoe painting—before windswept wheatfields and lush orchards, or in his cramped living quarters in Arles—and more where he ravenously fills sketchbooks with line drawings. And though Dafoe is a revered actor, he didn’t have a hidden art practice that made him a natural; he had to learn how to paint, draw, and move like a painter. He also needed to understand the art materials he used in the film, as well as learn how an artist sees. And who better to teach him than Schnabel?
It was crucial to the film, Schnabel affirmed, that Dafoe was believable as an artist. “If you’re going to make a movie about a painter, it’s a question of getting the actor to know how to use the materials,” Schnabel explained. “So he’s not acting like he’s painting.…Hopefully, there’s no acting going on, there’s just reacting, in the present.”
Once Dafoe had signed onto the film, someone on the production team asked if they should hire a “painting expert” to teach the actor. Schnabel said he would do it himself.
For his 1996 film Basquiat, Schnabel worked with actor Jeffrey Wright to embody the role of
Schnabel said that prep for the role dates back many years: He has known Dafoe for three decades, and has painted him on several occasions. “He’s seen what it looks like to be the model and to observe me painting and using materials, so that was the beginning,” he explained.
But it wasn’t until Dafoe arrived on location in France that the duo began a series of one-on-one painting sessions in between shots, for a couple of hours at a time. “We just painted together and looked at things together and got familiar with the materials,” Schnabel explained, noting that due to the time constraints, it was really a crash course.
In addition to painting landscapes together at the sites where Van Gogh once stood, Schnabel taught Dafoe about the oil paints they used, sourced from the historic Parisian shop Sennelier; how to mix paints; the right way to hold brushes; and even how to set up the kind of easel Van Gogh would’ve carried on his back as he ambled through the French countryside.
“We painted things from life—we painted shoes, we painted trees,” Schnabel explained. “I would kind of show him how I would do it, and he would do his version of it.” When he wasn’t painting with Schnabel, Dafoe practiced alone or with an artist on set, Edith Baudraud (who, along with Schnabel and Dafoe, worked with a team of artists to create the 130 Van Gogh–inspired canvases we see throughout the film). Schnabel looked over Dafoe’s work and showed him ways to improve his compositions, while also pointing out things he was doing well. “He was quite good and sensitive,” Schnabel said. “I think he can actually draw, but knowing what to draw is part of it also.”
It was important for Dafoe to understand how to observe things as a painter would. The actor explained during press conferences that he used to see things, like a tree, as a preconceived, finished image, but Schnabel helped him to break down an image into the myriad elements that make it up. “I pointed out to him that the light hits things in a particular way, and if you just paint the light in, the form will evolve out of that,” Schnabel explained.
He pointed to an early scene in the movie, where Dafoe is painting brown leather shoes and uses white paint to represent light hitting them. “You start to dissect things and see things in a pictorial way or a different way, and I think that that’s what he did,” Schnabel said.
Despite the short window of time, Schnabel saw the actor improve his painting skills. “The more familiar he got with the materials, the more natural it was for him, and, yeah, he made some things that are quite good,” Schnabel said. “But if you look at the movie, everything he’s doing is believable.” It is—from the way he tears through the rolling hills in search of a subject, to an impassioned outburst he has after Gauguin announces he’s leaving Arles.
“He understands making a physical activity believable, and I think he’s a very physical actor,” Schnabel said of Dafoe, “whether he’s running up a hill, or painting, or drawing.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.