Finding Beauty In Imperfection, Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme Takes Painter’s Approach To ‘At Eternity’s Gate’

On Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme came to a powerful realization, that will forever impact the way he approaches his craft: “Sometimes, something you don’t control can be better.” Accustomed to a certain way of working—to the notion that cinema is ruled by laws, which shouldn’t be broken—Delhomme was asked to throw the rulebook out in his first collaboration with the director. Questioning everything about his own process, the DP put himself inside the interior world of an iconic artist, contemplating what art is, and how it should be created.

Starring Willem Dafoe—who this year won the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup, for Best Actor—At Eternity’s Gate is a radically unconventional look at the life of Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. Crafted as a first-person experience, the film is shot with a roaming, shaky camera, eschewing conventional coverage in favor of long takes, which pan back and forth between their subjects. To satisfy Schnabel, an artist ruled by no laws, Delhomme happily surrendered to the auteur’s vision of Van Gogh, even handing off the camera to Dafoe at certain moments, so the actor could film himself. “If you are a DP, it’s a big deal to do that. Many DPs would say, ‘No way.’ I was surprised, but I gave the camera to Willem and explained how to hold it, and Willem did an incredible shot,” Delhomme says. In ceding control, time and time again, the cinematographer was being pushed. The director was searching for his breaking point, the moment in which the DP would put his foot down, and say, “No.” But on At Eternity’s Gate, this moment never came. When Delhomme got his first taste of Schnabel’s working method, he found it so satisfying that there was no turning back.

“It was a challenge for me,” Delhomme admits, “a zen challenge.” Working with a notable painter-director—as a painter, himself—he understood the mindset that comes with painting, which is curious and experimental, free from the rigid thinking that abounds in film. The trick, on Schnabel’s latest, was to tap into this painterly mentality, and go where it led. “Painters are used to building worlds themselves; they are used to creating the colors, the universe, framing it themselves,” Delhomme notes. “So I said, “How can you please a painter-director? How can I make the images that Julian has in his mind?”

How did you come to collaborate with Schnabel on At Eternity’s Gate?

I met Julian the first time many years ago, on a film set with Al Pacino. I was doing a film with Al called Salomé, about Oscar Wilde, which Al was directing himself. One day, he invited Julian to come on set and visit us, and stay on set all day. I remember him carefully watching how I was shooting, what I was doing, and at the end of the day, he came to me and said, “We are going to work together one day.” But it took some time. When I heard about this film being in production, I said, “Okay, this is for me. A film about Van Gogh, directed by Julian Schnabel. I want to be on it.” I knew Jon Kilik, the producer, so that helped. I simply came to New York and met Julian, and he had forgotten me since this meeting with Al Pacino, I think. But he was very curious, I guess, of my enthusiasm. Maybe I said the right things; you never know when you meet a director.

With Julian, we didn’t really prep the film. Julian asked me to shoot things for him, and I think it was a way for him to test me. Rather than doing real prep, Julian told me months before [production], “Maybe I will need some images of wheat fields before the harvest.” Nothing about this was in the script, but he said, “What if you were to go somewhere in Europe, where you still have wheat fields?” I did my own research, and found that I could go to Scotland, and Julian said to me, “Go there, and ask the costume designer to give you Van Gogh’s shoes and pants and hat. Go alone with a camera and shoot yourself walking in the field.” He said to me, “You are Van Gogh.” Can you imagine? For me, it was the most extraordinary preparation.

Doing this pre-shoot, I found the style for the film. I used a very small camera I could carry in my hands, and carried my equipment like I was a war photographer, filming myself and shooting what was around me. I knew I could get very good intimacy with Willem if I was like him, carrying my equipment like he was carrying his easel and paint. I think he kind of forgot I was there; I was invisible and discreet, but I was always there.

Was there a sense of pressure in being given this creative opportunity where there were no rules, and the process was so organic?

For me, it was incredible. I think as a DP, you never have enough freedom. You always make films with people telling you, “In the laws of continuity, you cannot shoot like this. You cannot make this shot yellow.” With Julian, there are no laws. He’s happy to associate a yellow image with a blue one, or say, “I’m going to put a filter over the lens, so everything will be out of focus.” Julian has this freedom of thinking that I’ve been looking for a lot in my life as a DP. With Julian, I could go further. I could do things I never would be allowed to do on other film sets. I think freedom, for DP, is incredible if the director is behind you, and Julian was always behind me.

I was shooting very freely, handheld, but I always had an earpiece and he would talk to me during the take. He’d say, “Ben, look on your left. Look at the beautiful trees there.” Sometimes I was shooting Willem close up, and he’d say, “Leave him. Go to that tree. Take your time.” I was very free, and at the same time, Julian was with me all the time during takes. We were creating something together, but in a very loose, organic way. With Julian, matching means nothing. He doesn’t care about eyeline. With Julian, you can shoot the actor looking straight into the lens, and I think it’s incredible. Julian is looking for a special feeling. His only rule is to make something that pleases him in the moment.

Between film projects, you’ve also pursued painting over the course of many years. Did your own background and understanding of painting influence the final product?

When Julian met with me, I told him I was also a painter—much less famous, of course. But I think he respected the fact that, a bit like Van Gogh, I’d been painting for 20 years and almost never show my work. I’m kind of shy like Van Gogh about my painting. I know my value as a DP, but as a painter, I think Julian liked the idea that I was a bit like Van Gogh. I was painting a lot on my own, and experimenting with colors and images and shapes in my studio in Paris.

Of course, working as a painter maybe makes me more experimental sometimes, in the way I can work. I can try to find a different kind of texture. On this film, I tried this with colors—putting in some gray, and making it more organic, not being afraid to sometimes burn out the image. For sure, being a painter makes you sometimes think in a more poetic way. I’m completely liberated from technical stuff now when I shoot. With Julian, I never thought about technique. Never. It was very simple equipment, and I only thought about what was in front of me. I think if you are a painter, you try things sometimes, doing something in a random way. Freely. Julian pushed me to go where I was maybe scared to go as a DP. Not as a painter, but as a DP, he pushed me really to the limit of being close to making mistakes, and I think it’s very good to do that. I think I’m the right age where I can go closer to the mistakes, and see if it is not more beautiful.

As a multidisciplinary artist, how do your philosophical ideas about art, and the making of art, align with those of Van Gogh?

[In the film], everything he is saying is about what it is to make an image, the responsibility you have to the people who are going to see the image. I think [these ideas] are completely modern; this is our problem every day. I would say Van Gogh would have made an incredible cinematographer. This guy talks like a DP sometimes. Sometimes he’d say, “When I make a portrait, people don’t like it because they think they are ugly in my paintings.” I think it’s beautiful because people were not ready to see themselves like this. Nowadays, when you make a film, when you make an image, you always question yourself. How do I shoot these people? Do I make this actor look beautiful, or do I make them look very interesting, so the character will look stronger? Should I make this woman look very beautiful through my lighting? All of these are very interesting questions. I think what Van Gogh is saying is very much Julian talking. This film is Julian thinking about his responsibility toward the art world, toward his audience. But I would say I completely identify with what Van Gogh says in the film, as a DP and as a painter.

All of these questions, they talk to me, my unconscious. I like what he says: “Do people in my paintings belong to me?” I think it’s very interesting. If I film a tree, does that tree belong to me? It’s a very good question. I think also, when you make a film, you never know if you will succeed. Van Gogh said that to make an image, sometimes you go through terrible moments of anxiety, and you’re always close to failure; when you make a movie [that you hope] is something special, you’re never sure, and I think it’s really good. This feeling of being on the edge is very interesting. Since I worked with Julian, I think I’m going to be less afraid to go close to the edge, and to dig into this territory where normal technicians are afraid to go, because they’re afraid to fail as technicians. Maybe sometimes, you can fail as a technician and succeed as an artist.

Could you describe some of the other visual qualities that came to define this film? One interesting element is the split diopter, which creates two distinct depths of field within the image.

Julian called me a week before the pre-shoot and said, “Oh Benoît, I just bought a pair of sunglasses in an antique shop, and when I wear them it makes a very strange effect. I would like you try to put these sunglasses on your lens and see what it does.” Many DPs would be thinking, is this guy crazy? But this is exactly what I was expecting from Julian, surprises like this. So I said to Julian, “Sure. Send me your glasses and I’m going to analyze what it makes.” The glasses arrived in Paris, and they were a bit damaged. I realized they were bifocals, but very strongly bifocal, and I said, Okay, that’s the way Julian sees the world with the glasses. I should try to replicate this with different tools. So, I rented some speed diopters and did some tests. Because the glasses were a tobacco color, I said, Okay, maybe tobacco is not great, but let’s try to go more towards yellow. Because we talk a lot about yellow in the film, and Van Gogh loved yellow. I shot some images with a yellow monochromatic filter and the split diopter, and Julian said, “This is it. This is maybe something we can use for when Van Gogh has his crisis.” You don’t know what happened in his head, but you think, maybe this was the way he saw the world in this moment.

Were images with a yellow hue associated explicitly, in your mind, with Van Gogh’s descent into mental illness?

Julian never said this very clearly to me. He said, “Sometimes, let’s say this is his subjective vision.” You rarely see Willem when the shot’s yellow—once or twice, only. Generally, it’s how he sees the world. The diopter, I would say, [is used] to explain some moments where he has a crisis. It’s difficult to say. I like the fact that when there’s this diopter, he has his world divided in two parts. It’s not about the soft focus; it’s like you have two worlds trying to work together. I think it’s a clever way to say, “Okay, Van Gogh is not in this world completely. The way he sees this world doesn’t work with the real world.” I think it was a way to make a visual effect in camera to show his dissociation.

Of course, the other idea was to be very close to Van Gogh, with a handheld camera. I think it was a way to be extremely sensitive to people. I was shooting very close to the actors; I did many shots of Willem half a foot away from his face, or Oscar [Isaac]. There were very long shots in front of their faces, and they never said, “Benoît, you’re too close. You are intruding too much on my personal space.”

You also did away with conventional coverage, opting instead to pan back and forth between your actors, for as long as the scene would go on.

When Julian’s shooting, he’s forgetting that we’re going to cut the film, I think. He doesn’t want to think about editing. When we were shooting a scene, he wanted to see everything in the shot. I had this very mobile camera, so I could go behind Willem, in front of him, going to his shoes, to his back, to a painting. I think it was Julian’s goal to show the world around Willem in one take. It was an incredible way of working. I’d never done this before. I shot a film with two hands and my feet, and my feet were so important. I could walk anywhere, and see the space around me, and design the shot like I’d never been able to do with handheld or Steadicam.

What was your approach to lighting the film? Were you mostly drawing from natural light?

It was a difficult situation because it’s difficult to light, when you go everywhere. How can you light a scene if the camera goes everywhere, and goes so close to the face? I had to make it work in a way where the camera could see everywhere. I was really, really close to mistakes sometime, and I had to do crazy things, changing the iris myself all the time. I knew I couldn’t put one light in any of the rooms because the camera would see it, so I’d light the scene from all the windows, like it was real light. The good thing about doing that was that Julian forgot that I was lighting the film. I never put one lamp indoors, inside the set because I [thought] that Julian would say to me, “Are you sure you need this light? Why are you doing that?” Julian thought it was real light; he forgot I was lighting it, which gave me a lot of freedom. I wanted to take all the problems away and just focus on the scene, and the actors we had in front of us. I didn’t want any technical thing in the way, so I made the decision to get rid of nearly all the lighting, or hide it so he wouldn’t see it.

Generally speaking, there’s a stigma associated with shaky handheld work. On At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel made the decision to embrace this kind of aesthetic as an artistic choice with its own kind of beauty. But were you ever concerned that the imagery would be a little too shaky?

At the beginning of filming, I said to Julian, “Do you think my camera is sometimes too shaky?” And he said to me, “Benoît, life is very shaky. It’s never going to be too shaky for me.” I think it’s incredible because he kept all the moments where I was really out of breath, and I couldn’t even hold the camera because the takes were so long. I was starting to shake, myself, but I was thinking, maybe the way I shake is also Willem shaking inside of himself. Julian never asked me to stabilize any shot; I could have been stabilizing the shot. I thought maybe I could stabilize some shots, and I tried to do it, but the thing was losing some soul, and I realized that all those shakes were useful for the film, that they were giving it an incredible energy. It was the same with the lens flares. I said, “Okay, maybe there’s a beauty in this.”

I know some people will say to me, “Benoît, I don’t understand. You have so many mistakes in this film.” I think this is a very good thing to talk about, that a DP should question more often. Is the goal really to make a perfect film? Is perfection the right thing to do when you want to convey emotions? I think the camera can help the actors to convey something. It can add a layer to what the actors are doing. I believe in this. Not on every film, but the camera is another actor, and I think it’s good to use it that way.

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