By MICHAEL ANDERSON December, 2018
Michael Anderson: How did you prepare mentally to play Van Gogh?
Willem Dafoe: I read his letters to his brother Theo and some biographical information. I walked in the landscapes that he walked in. I painted.
Anderson: Do you watch your own films? How about the other earlier films about Van Gogh? What did you think and how did they weigh into your portrait of the painter?
Dafoe: I always see films I’ve done at least once just to see how the final movie compares to the shooting experience and so I can talk about it in promotion- but after that I don’t return to watch them. I had seen a couple of Van Gogh films- LUST FOR LIFE when I was young and I remember Kirk Douglas being kind of an energetic Vincent and VINCENT AND THEO when it opened some years ago because I was an Altman fan and always like Tim Roth. Those films neither hindered or helped me. I basically didn’t think about them. Those films weren’t about painting.
Anderson: Did you learn how to paint for the movie or had you ever painted before? How did Julian Schnabel direct you in the painting sequences?
Dafoe: I learned to paint and Julian was a generous teacher. I also got help from a French artist, Edith Baudrand - particularly on the drawings. It was necessary since I was painting a lot in the scenes. In the case of the scene painting the shoes I basically painted in real time. I was practiced at that particular subject and had lots of coaching before and during the shooting. But often Julian let me go - instructing me to paint and area or a range of colors that he advised me on. Besides teaching me how to hold a brush, touch the canvas, be decisive in my marks, paint the light - he changed how I see. That of course, became essential not only to painting but for me created a personal connection and understanding to what Van Gogh wrote in his letters. I painted a little to prepare for TO LIVE AN DIE IN LA- because my character was an artist - but more to the point he was a counterfeiter and a killer. My painting experience in that film was much less profound or transforming- and wasn’t as deeply absorbed.
Anderson: Where did the supposition that Van Gogh was murdered by hooligans come from? I always thought that he had committed suicide?
Dafoe: Most people just accept that Van Gogh suicided but there is evidence that contradicts that. This film wasn’t made to correct that assumption but to explore other possible scenarios. There was a deathbed confession of someone who might have been involved, also in the Naifeh/Smith White biography they outline much evidence to contradict Van Gogh’s suicide.
Anderson: How much of the dialogue was developed from Van Gogh’s correspondence? Did you have much improvisation in the filming or was it entirely scripted? Did you rehearse much?
Dafoe: The text did draw from some of the correspondence but a lot was invented by Jean Claude, Julian and Louise. We did not rehearse but when we started a scene the sense of place and the action was very clear- even when there was no dialogue.
Anderson: You’ve worked with most major directors, what do you find to be the most interesting part about working with Julian Schnabel? Is he much different from other traditional directors? Do you see a pictorial difference because he was originally a painter?
Dafoe: Julian is a painter making a film about a painter. I’ve known him for many years, been in his studio when he’s working, he’s done portraits of me. He makes movies like he paints. He has a vision but also deals with what is there, what’s in the landscape, what he sees in the present. Very organic, fluid, very hands on. He invites you to be a collaborator and infects you with his point of view. A lot of directors delegate- Julian puts his hands on all- fixing your hair, reading your text to you, readjusting the set, the props - certainly the frame- he puts his stamp on everything. We, Julian, Louise, Benoit (the director of photography) became the same person when we were making this film. WM