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.”