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‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Opened by Handheld Camera

During pre-production on “At Eternity’s Gate,” director Julian Schnabel gave Benoit Delhomme an unusual directive that inadvertently transformed the film’s aesthetic. He told the DP to put on a pair of shoes and pants to be worn by Willem Dafoe as painter Vincent Van Gogh and film his own feet walking through a field of wheat reminiscent of the artist’s series of paintings.

“We needed the shot before the harvest,” says Delhomme, who found a suitable wheat field in Scotland. “I thought, ‘What should I use for that?’ I needed a very small camera I could hold in my hand … just a bare box with a lens.”

Delhomme’s choice: the lightweight and compact Red Helium 8K digital camera.

“When I shot my feet I thought, ‘What a freedom I have. I could make a film like this, because I can go everywhere I want with this box in my hand,’” he says. “I said to Julian, ‘I found a way to make a film with a small camera. Maybe it’s not perfect technically, but I can give you a lot of emotion with it.’ When he realized what I could do, he said, ‘We make the film like this. There’s no other way.’”

Schnabel rose to fame as painter in the ’80s before launching a film career with 1996’s “Basquiat,” and Delhomme has painted in his free time for the past two decades. For them, the unsteady handheld camera not only reflects the fragile mindset of Van Gogh, who committed suicide in 1890, it’s also evocative of the painting process.

“The way modern painter works, there are no mistakes,” Delhomme says. “You can have dripping on the canvas and something organic and incredible arrives that you didn’t plan.”

Eschewing dollies, cranes and Steadicams and using just two vintage Kowa lenses, Delhomme operated the camera himself, closely following Dafoe. His shots often covered all 360 degrees of the set, which made traditional lighting schemes impractical. Consequently, he estimates, 90% of the movie was shot with available light.

“I was dancing around [Dafoe], and he would play with me. If you’re using a big crew and tracks and dollies, you cannot improvise these kinds of things. I’ve never made a film where I was so close to an actor in many aspects.”

The dynamism of Delhomme’s approach is epitomized by a scene in which the camera chases an emotionally devastated Van Gogh as he runs from a chapel into the cemetery.

“I felt like I was in a war zone,” says Delhomme, who’s using a similarly small Sony Venice camera on his next project “Minamata,” starring Johnny Depp as legendary Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith. “Some people can say the camera is too unsteady, uncontrolled. But the energy of the camera is giving something more to the scene. It’s adding to the actor’s performance.”

Nonetheless, Delhomme felt compelled to ask Schnabel if he was being a bit too shaky.

“He said, ‘Benoit, life is shaky. You will never be too shaky for me,’” Delhomme says.

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