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‘At Eternity’s Gate’ DP Benoit Delhomme on Working With Julian Schnabel

DP who’s also a painter shot a film about van Gogh for painter who’s also a director

People who follow movies know that “At Eternity’s Gate,” which opened the Camerimage film festival and traces the tragic final two years in the life of Vincent van Gogh, is a film about a painter directed by another painter: Julian Schnabel, a successful New York artist who has also now helmed five features. Less well known is the fact that Schnabel’s cinematographer on his latest picture is also a painter: Benoit Delhomme, a French DP probably best known for “The Theory of Everything,” who paints whenever he’s not shooting.

How did you and Julian originally connect?

A few years ago I was shooting “Salomé,” an experimental film that Al Pacino was directing. Julian was a friend of Pacino and came to the set. I loved Julian as a painter and I loved his film “Basquiat,” which was about a painter. At the end of the day he said to me, “Benoit, we are going to work together one day.”

A very positive start.

But then he said, “can I give you some advice? I noticed one of the cameras was abandoned by the crew on the floor. Nobody was operating it, but it was shooting the best shot of the day.” I looked at him. Was he saying that a ghost camera is better than my operating? We try so hard but what if by accident some grip puts a camera somewhere and it turns out to be a beautiful shot? Only a painter-director would say something like that. It was disturbing but beautiful advice. Maybe I was trying to control too much.

And the next encounter?

I was in Paris and he called me to ask if was available. I was not. He was prepping “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” I was not brave enough to quit my other project. Some time later I shot “The Theory of Everything” partly because I missed the chance to do “Diving Bell.” It’s the same subject matter, a man locked inside his own body.

And the next?

When I learned Julian was doing a movie on van Gogh, I thought, “that’s the film for me.” I’m a painter myself, I love Julian’s work, and I knew Willem Dafoe [who plays van Gogh] from working with him on “A Man Most Wanted.”

So this time you reached out to him?

Yes, and I never do that. Normally I wait for people to call me. My agent suggested I contact the producer, Jon Kilik, whom I knew. I ended up meeting with Julian at his home in Montauk, N.Y., where he paints in the summer. I stayed at his house for three days and filmed him painting, doing a kind of dance around him. Then I edited the footage on my computer and showed him my half-hour film. He said, “I’m moved to tears. You completely get what it is to be a painter.” Then he called the producer and said, “Benoit is our DP.”

Where did you shoot the film?

In France at the real places where the story takes place.

So much of the film is shot handheld.

Yes, we used a Red Helium 8K camera. I asked my assistant to strip it down and make it as small as possible so I could easily hold it. I didn’t want it on my shoulder. I wanted a really small crew and to be able to dance around the actor on any kind of terrain, to be very intimate with him, to go into his head. I wanted people to feel what it’s like to be van Gogh.

Did Julian give you advice?

He was talking to me in my earpiece and as I was improvising moves he would react. He would say, “Go to the sky. Go to that tree.” That way we found beautiful shots together.

You came very close to Dafoe’s face in many shots.

Yes, his face became a sort of landscape. The camera had no matte box, nothing, just the lens. I could get very close without casting a shadow. No zooming. I shot this film with my hands and my feet. Was like an athlete. I was obsessed.

Talk about the lighting.

Like van Gogh, we used available light as much as possible. We used yellow coming from the wall, green coming from the grass.

Any zooms?

No.

Tripods and dollies.

No, none of that. We did include two crane shots.

In some scenes there was a horizontal line across the screen with different focuses above and below.

It was a split diopter. It was suggested by Julian after he bought some yellow-tinted antique bifocals and said he liked how the world looked through those glasses. When the frame is divided that way it suggests two disconnected worlds, one above the other.

Was it an indicator of the degree of van Gogh’s madness?

Yes, that’s exactly what we wanted to do. And we didn’t want to do it in post. It’s baked into the film.

Do you prefer painting or shooting films?

I like to paint but I like to make films because that way more people have access to my images. I need to do both. When I’m not filming I go back to painting.

So you went back to painting when you wrapped “At Eternity’s Gate?”

After I finished a film about van Gogh made by one of the greatest painters alive, I went home and got a bit stuck. When you make a film you never face a blank canvas, you work with others. A blank canvas is terrifying. You have to figure out what to put on it. I didn’t know what to do. It’s intimidating, but I know it will pass. And I became a better DP with this film. In one scene someone asks van Gogh, “What are you painting?” Van Gogh says, “I paint sunlight.” That’s what we do as DPs.

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