Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme discusses his work in this dramatic depiction of Vincent van Gogh’s lifetime of struggle.
Director of photography Benoît Delhomme's At Eternity's Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel, was the opening film at this year's Camerimage Film Festival. Willem Dafoe stars as Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, struggling through poverty and indifference to establish himself as an artist. Delhomme spoke with American Cinematographer about his career, the festival, and his unique collaboration on this project with Schnabel.
American Cinematographer: Do you remember your first Camerimage?
Benoît Delhomme: My first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya  was in selection at Camerimage 25 years ago, but I did not attend the festival. I think I was too shy to come and introduce the movie to an audience. But thanks to this film I got noticed by many people and it was the start of my international career. So this year is my first Camerimage, in fact.
You and director Trần Anh Hùng shot Green Papaya in France, then went to Vietnam for the follow-up, the feverish, hypnotic Cyclo.
I still love that film, I think it's my best film ever. I like the idea of progressing, to try to make things differently. But with Cyclo, I was so young, something like 32. It was magical being in Vietnam, the director was incredible. But I don't know how I made it.
I love the colors in this film so much, and I was doing it completely by instinct. I was using lights from Russia, old tubes that were so green. This was of course on film, and we couldn't get dailies in Vietnam because of censorship. I didn't see one daily for 14 weeks. I was taking a lot of risks in the way I was lighting, and I could never tell if the results were right. This may be why the film is good, I guess, because I couldn't criticize myself. Sometimes when you're making a film, and you see what you're doing every day, sometimes you get scared. Because what is good at the end of the film can seem a dangerous direction when you watch the dailies.
I couldn't see anything, so I didn't censor myself. I kept the same artistic concept throughout. We had only a very low-definition black-and-white video playback, which did not reassure me about my exposures. We had no digital cameras at that time; nothing to make tests. I think this is my best film in terms of style, and I'm still expecting to do another one like it one day.
Because of those two Vietnamese movies, I could have a career in Asia. I also did What Time Is It There? in Taiwan for the great director Tsai Ming-liang. I'm very proud of this film. For me, a French guy, born in the suburbs of Paris, to go to Asia to make films, it's an incredible change in culture.
I like traveling to shoot films, I like discovering and showing a country where I've never been. I think I react in a different way. When I did The Proposition, people said they've never seen Australia look like this. I didn't realize it at the time, it was something that happened because I had a fresh eye. I think traveling to a new country is a good way to renew your vision.
I like to take risks, even with directors. Some DPs work with the same directors, they know each other, they know what they can do, they know the boundaries, the limits. But when I make a film with a new director, it's a risk each time. I like that risk. You need to be fast, you have to get what this person wants fast. It's a beautiful thing when you can find it. People don't always know how to express what they want to see. You have to guess a lot.
How did you decide to work with Julian Schnabel for At Eternity's Gate?
When I met Julian, he already had another cinematographer in mind. He said, “I love talking with you Benoît, I love your ideas, but I met someone before you. Would you consider to work with someone else?” And because I knew that working with Julian would be something very special, I was ready for everything. I said to Julian, “Why not?” But inside, I was mortified. I thought I would never get out of this alive.
On this film I apply the rule: Shoot to know how to shoot. Rather than talking, you know, you come and you make a film. I knew no words would convince Julian that I should be the only DP, and why do you want to use words to explain anyway? Make an image, show the image, it will be the proof that you are the right person. I wanted to show that I had ideas on how to shoot a painter. I thought, Julian is a painter, maybe the best thing would be to film him painting. I knew I was taking a big risk.
I went to his place in Montauk [on Long Island in New York] for a kind of preparation talk with him. One night he asked, “Do you want to see me painting?” Julian had these six giant canvases, eight meters by meters, in a big, open-air studio. He had a brush at the end of a very long stick, and he was doing incredible things.
I had a small Sony camera. And for one hour non-stop, I shot Julian, sort of dancing around him. When I was doing it, I kind of knew I would get the job. Because I found a way to, I don't know, from nowhere I choreographed something around him. I was the right time on the brush, the right time on him, without being in the way.
That night I cut a 30-minute version of the movie. At breakfast I said to Julian do you want to see what I shot yesterday? Julian looked at it without saying a word. At the end he said to me, "I am moved to tears. You completely get it; you know how to shoot a painter." And he called John Kilik, the producer, and told him that I got the job.
You used a similarly free-flowing, almost improvisational style in At Eternity's Gate. How did you and Schnabel collaborate on that?
The fact is we choreographed the film with the camera, and the way I was walking. I had this camera so small I could basically go anywhere with it. I could go right up close to the actors, I could go around them.
This concept of how to shoot gave me incredible freedom. But I was building a very structured shot inside this freedom, and I was always in contact with Julian. He would talk to me. I would begin the take, start to improvise, and Julian would say, Benoît, why don’t you go to this beautiful tree on your left?” And then I would come back to Willem Dafoe. Then Julian would scream, “Look at the sky, Ben! Go to the sky!”
We were connected.
When Schnabel says, “Look at the tree,” who in the movie is looking at the tree?
I think we wanted the camera to be a character in the film. Many times, we wanted the camera to be Willem Dafoe, to be van Gogh. I've never been on a film where the camera stayed so much on the main character. At other times the camera may be what he is looking at, what he is seeing. But you can't always be ... You cannot make a film only with POV. It has to be balance between POV and what the man is seeing. I mean if you are only doing POV, then you don't have the actor in the film. It's kind of a complicated thing to judge.
I felt following Willem so much, being so much with him, in such an intimate way, it was a bit like being him sometimes. Not letting him go was a way to stay with him, to feel what he was feeling in his body, what he is seeing in his brain. I tried to show the world with his eyes. And I felt my operating was more like a gesture from a painter.
I don't think I've ever seen that kind of intimate choreography between camera and actor. It must have been a difficult juggling act.
I didn't really think about it. I think I'm at a stage of my life where I am above those kinds of problems. I realize I understand actors without having to talk to them. It's some kind of telepathy. I know some DPs would be terrified to work like this.
To give you an example, I did hire a Steadicam operator to do one shot. When Gauguin [played by Oscar Isaac] and van Gogh have the argument in the church, and after they go out into the cemetery in Arles, I knew it would involve a lot of running, a lot of ground to cover. I thought, okay I'm strong, but not strong enough to do ten takes. So I hired a Steadicam operator, a very good guy. After two takes, Julian said to him, “You are too conventional. You can't make my film.”
This guy was very good, the best Steadicam operator in France, but to get into this film you needed to put your brain into a different space. Forget everything. It's not about being strong, it’s about being there in the right moment. I think I developed a technique of breathing that helped. I never got stressed because I was ready to accept any comment from Julian.
Being that close to an actor can seem intrusive. How did you work that out with Dafoe?
I knew Willem Dafoe from a previous film, The Most Wanted Man, with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Willem had an important part in it. We got on quite well on this film. We were spending so much energy to make things right for Philip’s method that when we were working with Willem it always seemed easy to understand his process. I really liked his personality on set, I knew how humble and collaborative he was.
But I agree, here I was very close to him. I don't know how I'm doing it, but some actors tell me I can be very close to them and I'm kind of invisible, in a good way. I can be close, but the way I look at them, the way I move, my personality... I don't know. There is something. I don't judge, you know what I mean? I don't judge. I film. I become like a cameraman. I never felt so much a cameraman as on this film. Honestly.
In my first movies, I often felt like there was a glass between me and the actor. Like we did not belong to the same world. But now I know how to connect with actors. You learn that over the years. You cannot do it as a young DP, you need to have done 35 films. I stopped being scared of actors after I worked with Al Pacino. I though, who can be more intimidating than Al?
I did this film as if it were my first film. I know it seems like a cliché, but I wanted to refresh things. Over the years I have learned to make a film too well technically, so I wanted to flirt with the idea of being new. It's more difficult to do than it seems.
You're a painter yourself, did that help with this film?
I've been a painter for 20 years. Not a "Sunday" painter, but real work. I do both, cinematography and painting, I have parallel lives. I think what I learned being a painter is what it's like to go to your studio, alone, and face a blank canvas.
When you make a film, you are never facing a blank canvas. You have the actors, the set, the furniture, you're dealing with colors, with the production designer. You have the world in front of you. It's easy to make an image with that.
When you're a painter, you need to figure out what you want to say. Nobody is going to help you hold the brush. It's terrifying in a way, it's like your blank page when you're a writer.
Once a painter said to me: you need to be sure that the painting you are going to do will be better to look at than that blank canvas. That terrified me. Van Gogh said something similar in a letter to his brother Theo, "The only thing I know is that my paintings are worth more money than the blank canvas."
When you're a cinematographer, you never experience the blank page or the blank canvas. It isn't our problem. I think being a painter gives you a lot of strength, how to figure out the world, how you want to see it, what you want to show. What you want to paint about. It gives you time for reflection, you have time to think about composition, about lighting, many things. I learned a lot alone in my studio.
You build an image as a painter, but as a cinematographer you build by what you include or don't include.
Exactly. I think when you are a DP, you choose a frame inside a larger frame you can see. When I was operating with the camera in my hands on At Eternity's Gate, this is what I was doing. [He mimes looking around.] With my two eyes, I would scan around me constantly. And I was thinking, okay, where should I go? What is the most interesting thing I see?
When you are operating with the camera on your shoulder, through the eyepiece, you only see what the camera is seeing. Sometimes someone would tell you, Benoît, there's something right on the left. But you can't see it.
How I was working here, I could see my frame and the world around it. Even behind me. It gave me an incredible freedom. I could design shots. I could shoot very close to Willem without getting in his way because I could feel my distance through peripheral vision.
It's liberating, but isn't it also a bit scary? When you have infinite choices, when the whole world is available, how do you decide what to do?
Can I tell you a story about Julian Schnabel? The first time I met him was with Al Pacino in Los Angeles, shooting Salomé, a very experimental movie. Al invited Julian to see what we were doing. I was a young DP, I had to do almost everything because Al was directing and acting in the film. Many times I had to call the shots. Julian arrives, I was very impressed because of course I knew Julian's paintings, I knew his movies Basquiat and Before Night Falls.
It was very hard for me. Because when someone new arrives on a film set, I can lose confidence. Here's someone new, someone outside the family, you lose something. All afternoon I was struggling to do the best I could. At the end of the day Julian comes to me and says, “Benoît, one day we are going to work together.” I didn’t buy that, I thought he was being polite. Then he says, “Can I give you one piece of advice?” He says many times after a shot, the camera would be abandoned. Put on the floor by a grip or on a table by an assistant. He said to me, “You should have paid attention to what this camera was looking at. Because it could have been the best shot of the day.”
I always remember this. Sometimes too much control is killing you. Wanting the perfection is killing you. I've learned with Julian to kind of relax and improvise.
I want to talk about the mistakes you incorporated into the film. I shouldn't say mistakes.
No, I like “mistakes.” From the first day, I was flirting with mistakes on the film. I was flirting with technical mistakes.
Did you try to do everything in one or two takes?
No, no, many takes. They were never the same.
What would change? Was something wrong, or was just the desire to do it again?
Sometimes Julian was very happy with the first take. Sometimes for performance reasons he wanted another. Or also he wanted to explore the world around the actors. Julian has a kind of 360-degree vision on set. You cannot put equipment anywhere with Julian. It's not possible. The main problem of the shoot with Julian is, where do we put the crew? This was the biggest problem. If you ask what was scaring me, it was where do I put the crew? How can I answer the first AD about where to park the trucks?
But every take was different. We would start at different parts, I would have an idea, Julian would redirect me. So we try it. We don't have two takes in the same choreography.
Sometimes I was working alone, with Willem, and Julian was not there. We were doing these scenes in nature, of course the idea was show the world alone with Willem. So we would walk and find ideas and, at one point you realize you are a kilometer away from the crew. And Julian would be calling, "Where are you? Where are you?"
We actually didn't have many nature scenes. They were not in the script. In preproduction I went to Scotland alone for three days to shoot wheat fields that Julian wanted in the film. He said he wants to show the world around van Gogh. I could shoot forever. I shot so many hours of nature in preproduction.
Julian called before I went to Scotland. He said can you ask the costume designer to give you van Gogh's trousers and a pair of shoes, and also his hat, so you can go on your own dressed as van Gogh, and I would like you to shoot the feet walking in the field.
You can imagine, when you start shooting like this, you can imagine the liberation you get as a DP. You cannot just walk this when you move, you have to find some intention, some motivation to walk. I was in character, completely, you had to be. You could do some slow pace of a guy lost, a guy who wants to stop to look at the landscape , a guy who runs because he is scared. So I did all these variations. Ten hours of footage. Julian said, “If by any chance you get some sun, shoot your shadow.” He was right. I did it, it was beautiful. I shot for three days, half of my body was dressed as van Gogh, top of my body like Benoît Delhomme, DP.
Did that footage end up in the film?
I wanted to say when I was introducing the film the other day that when you see van Gogh's feet walking in the fields, in fact you are seeing me. But that felt pretentious so I didn't say it.
Getting back to "mistakes," can you talk about incorporating lens flare into your shooting?
I choose to work with these very old Kowa lenses. When you work with a very good camera nowadays, like the Red Helium that we had, the camera is so good, so sharp, that I have the idea to pair that very good brand with something in front that's a bit less good. I wanted these lenses to have some problems.
So I took these old Kowas because they had no anti-flare coating. Very dangerous because they are hyper-reactive. Any kind of ray of sun would make the shot completely white. You see in the film sometime I'm using the actors to block the sun, and when the actor steps off, it's completely white. And when I position the camera again, the image comes back. It was hyper-reactive, and I like that.
The flare could be very strong, very red. The shapes from the iris blades and the different lenses. But because I was doing a film about van Gogh, and the way van Gogh was painting, he was doing all these shapes around the sun, sort of half-circles. When he was painting stars, he had these circular strokes. I thought maybe for once, I can keep all these ghost images because it was a bit like what van Gogh was doing. So I did embrace the mistakes in a way. Now I feel it's so much part of the film I don't even see it.
They are choices, but they're also choices you can't control.
I like that, I think it was very risky. Because it was handheld I could control it quite well in fact. If there is a flare, you move half a step to your left, it disappears, you come back, it comes back. It was quite easy to control, to manipulate.
There's one shot in the film I've very proud of the flare. It's a silent scene, Vincent is walking back from painting a landscape, and at one point he rests on a rock. It's sunset, he puts his head down on the rock. I shot him in profile, with a very red sun low on the horizon, and I positioned the camera so the rays are coming out of his mouth. I don't know if we are recording sound or not, but I said to Julian, “Look, Vincent is eating the sun.” I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This guy talks about painting by sunlight, coincidentally I have a picture in front of me of van Gogh eating the sun. That's how I used the flare.
Maybe there are technical flaws for some people, but for a film about van Gogh, come on, they are not flaws, they become an artistic plus. With this movie, I was flirting with possible accidents.
Like van Gogh as a painter.
I hope so. I like when van Gogh says he was painting for people who were not born yet. This is the dream of any artist. You always think you are misunderstood. You always hope people are going to understand you better later. Sometimes people don't get the beauty of what you do and it is hard to accept.
I think this is why artists love van Gogh. It's difficult to judge what part is madness and what part is genius. What I like is the fact that he was searching so much. He was always saying, I am trying to make a better painting. I want a new light, a new way to show paintings. He was constantly on the search.
You show that search in the movie, you're also showing a search for a new visual style.
I feel that nowadays films look very much the same. When I look at movies, I think okay, people are very talented. Too talented. DPs have become so talented because the DI gives them the opportunity to manipulate the images to a high degree of perfection. You can correct yourself constantly, you can repair all your mistakes in post production.
People stabilize all their shots. There is an obsession about it these days, so I also thought I should try to stabilize my handheld shots. But when I said to Julian, do you think my operating is too shaky? He said, “Benoît, life is very shaky.”
As a test, I did try to stabilize a few shots, and it was completely killing the soul of the shot. Completely killing it. It was like I was losing the beating heart of the shot. I think DPs are too obsessed with retouching. Everything can be fixed but what do we gain? I've been like that myself, and maybe one day I will be like that again.
What made you decide to use a diopter?
Do you know how they used split diopters before? It was done to increase depth of field, but it was supposed to be hidden. You would put the dividing line against a black background, for example.
But for this film it was completely different. One day during prep Julian called to tell me he bought a pair of bifocal sunglasses in an antique shop, and that he loved the way he saw the world through them. He wants to send me the sunglasses to put in front of the lens, take some tests with them. I know that many DPs who have thought it was a joke but I was in such a state of mind on this film that I took him very seriously. I was ready to put myself in danger. Okay, send me the sunglasses.
Sunglasses arrive, kind of dark yellow, tinted, very strong bifocal line. I put them on and I see a very strong line across the center, I could see the world completely disconnected, top and bottom disconnected. So I told Julian, okay, they are too small but I know how to mimic this effect. We are going to use a split diopter which I'm going to hold in front of the lens. Sometimes it was screwed on, sometimes I was sliding it with my fingers during the take to move the soft zone across a face
We both thought about using them for a moment of crisis when van Gogh is in some kind of stress, or about to be stressed. The scene in the cemetery when Gauguin is leaving, I start with the diopter very high in the frame, then lower, then pulling it up again. I was playing with it in a very spontaneous way as the emotion of the scene developed, reacting with my own emotion. Someone told me he thought the soft zone was like tears in Van Gogh’s eyes. I like that interpretation.
But I don't know the effect meant exactly. It's Julian's vision, that's Julian saying I want the film to look like this. He would call the shots, "Benoît, I want you to do this take with the split diopter." People do these kind of things in post-production now, but we shot with it. When you do it during the shoot, you can't take it out after. It was a brave decision.
Some DPs are afraid to let any effect like a lens flare show.
I think the tendency is to make the film so perfect, because now you have the tools to do that. Of course it's very tempting.
There's a shot at the end of the film when [van Gogh’s brother] Theo arrives and Vincent is dead in his room. It was a very difficult position to hold the camera in. After two or three takes, my muscles were shaking. The next take, I filmed Theo arriving, and you don't really see his eyes, the camera is trembling because I was out of energy.
Okay, an accident, DP not strong enough. But in fact it was a real plus. The camera was trembling like a sad person who wants to cry. I'm happy to shake in that situation. Someone said should we stabilize that and Julian said, “Come on, no.”
There's a striking moment when you frame Vincent and Theo in bed together.
I did this scene on a small crane because I could not be handheld above the two guys. But I tried to shoot it like it was handheld. I said to my grip, who had mounted a Movi Freefly head on the crane, surprise me the way you move the crane. I don't want to know when and what movement you're going to do. I want to overreact in my operating so it looks a bit handheld. It's disturbing, this movement, because you don't know where the camera is going to go. It was a very, very small space to cover to catch these two faces side by side in close-up. But we're doing a lot of small moves with the crane to create something special and disturbing. I really felt that these two faces looked like two landscapes.
We shot one full day there. We had one window behind the bed facing south, and I shot with available light. I played with the iris, sometimes I had sun and sometimes I didn't. In a normal film, I would just build a black tent around the window, bounce a big light on a white bed sheet inside it, and say now we are set for the whole day. Instead, at one point we had a bar of light between the two, we had incredible sun coming, bouncing on Theo's cheek to Vincent's face. The light was constantly changing, giving a feeling of time passing during the take.
It's a wonderful moment to take advantage of.
I wanted to avoid this kind of museum painting effect. I wanted to avoid the varnished and framed painting feeling.
Especially when Vincent is creating, you can see his process. It's like each shot is an individual thought, something Terrence Malick has been doing.
I shot some film for The Tree of Life for Terrence Malick. It was on my own. He asked me to do a small scene in Versailles, with no actors. The process to get these shots for him was so interesting. I felt very privileged to be asked to do that. I've learned so much from Terrence, just talking on the phone with him.
He sent me a beautiful letter with a list of shots to do in the empty park of Versailles. It took me one month to communicate with him before I went to shoot. I wanted to give him all my time. I even asked not to be paid to get more shooting days. I knew this small shoot for him will stay with me all my life as a very important moment of my career.
Later, I met him as he was in Paris and he told me that he had to shorten the film and so my shots will not be in the released version. He seemed really sad to have to do that. It is one of the most interesting processes I've had with a director because Terrence is so special and passionate.
What was the process?
He sent me a shot list which was more like a poem really. He wanted lonely sculptures, lonely alleyways, empty staircases leading to the sky, open gates. Emptiness. A feeling of solitude, mourning.
So I went to Versailles and did a first scout. I took photos and sent them to Terrence. He called me back and talked about the photos one by one, very precisely. He could describe the problem in the compositions in a very accurate way. He said he wanted the shots to look like the photos that Atget took of Versailles when it was in a state of abandonment.
I understood he wanted Versailles to look like a lost paradise. "I know you're not going to have this budget to do that," he said. "I don't want you to try that. But I want you to approach this feeling in the Atget photos. Try to go back and take more photos."
He also said many times that it had to be the vision of Versailles that one character in his film has. But she had never been there. It was her idea of Versailles.
So I went back another time with all this in mind. This time I put a very wide-angle lens on my camera. I arrive in the morning, there is a dense fog covering the park. And for one hour I took photos in a state of trance. All the modern details disappear with the fog. The statues seem lost in the space.
I sent all the photos and he said, "This is it, it's exactly what I want. You got the fog on the photos but maybe you will never get it again." But I waited for the right weather forecast and got fog again on the shoot.
I loved the conversations with him. He was talking to me about the vanishing points in my photos. He was obsessed: every frame had to have a vanishing point, he said a photo without a vanishing point does not work for him. I love when directors have artistic obsessions. It was like talking to a painter. I loved learning from him. It was incredible, fantastic, even though it was only two days.