Most filmmakers would be insulted to have their work likened to an oil painting, the implication being that the movie is static and unmoving. But “oil painting” was exactly what directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman were going for with Loving Vincent, the first fully painted feature film, and a portrayal of van Gogh like no other.
What Kobiela intended as a short a decade ago expanded into a feature-length enterprise drawing (so to speak) on the expertise of 125 professional oil painters, replicating the Post-Impressionist style of the Dutch master to conjure the 65,000 frames of the film in studios in Greece and Kobiela’s native Poland. Each one is an oil painting, meticulously hand-painted over live footage of the actors enlisted to explore the mysteries of the artist, in a script the co-directors (who fell in love amidst the shoot) co-wrote with Jacek Denhel.
“I thought my passion for van Gogh would result in a film about van Gogh of this type, as the genesis was that I wanted to make a short film combining my passion for painting, for film and for Vincent,” Kobiela, a graduate of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, recalled. “I trained as a painter, but after I graduated I worked in various roles on films, mainly animated films. I was looking around for a project that would allow me to combine film and painting, and when I was re-reading Vincent’s letters, one book among many that I was reading in search of inspiration, it hit me that Vincent’s story was the perfect story for a painted film, and from the outset I had a clear idea about the visual technique I wanted to use. But to paint an entire feature film by hand in oil paints would have sounded like a crazy idea to me back in 2007—it would have sounded crazy to anyone with experience in animation.”
Loving Vincent, which opens on September 22, is the very definition of a labor of love. Personally, in that Kobiela and Welchman, who won an Oscar for his animated short Peter and the Wolf in 2008, became romantically involved as the project evolved. But also cosmically, as the spell van Gogh cast over them was universal. “In the course of the development as we came to appreciate the staggering number of people who are passionate about, and influenced by, the paintings and letters of Vincent,” Kobiela said. “Making it into a feature film would give it the opportunity to be experienced by a bigger audience. There were many discussions back and forth between myself and Hugh as to whether it was possible, but I think the point where we made the leap was after Hugh had to queue up for three and a half hours to get into an exhibition about Vincent’s letters in London. That seemed to vindicate the level of passionate interest that existed. A crucial follow up step was the first visual concept trailer in the style I imagined. People responded so positively to this test that it gave us the confidence to take the leap and make Loving Vincent a feature film.”
Executed academically, Loving Vincent might be as interesting as watching paint dry. But the filmmakers have concocted a lively fact-based story to accompany staggering recreations of “The Starry Night” (the opening sequence, comprised of 600 paintings that took three painters 14 months to create) and “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which pulse with life. Played by Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones’ Bronn), Dr. Gachet is just one of numerous figures from the van Gogh “universe” encountered, as the irresponsible Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to hand-deliver a letter to Theo van Gogh, following his brother’s suicide in an insane asylum. But the grief-stricken Theo has also died, and Armand finds new purpose trying to pinpoint why Vincent killed himself on the cusp of possible success. Notables “breaking the frame” of their now world-famous canvasses to talk to the inquisitive Armand include the Boatman (Aidan Turner) and Gachet’s daughter Marguerite, an enigmatic portrayal by two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan.
The skills of the actors and artists are fully complementary. “Fundamental to this film is the collaborative performance between the actor and the painter,” Welchman said. “The emotion and the subtleties of the actor’s performance have to come through, or even be enhanced, by the painting process. If the painting process distanced us from the actor’s performance then the film wouldn’t work.”
Polish theater actor Robert Gulaczyk, a dead ringer for the artist, plays Vincent in black-and-white flashbacks, which have their own allure. “We wanted to dramatize times and situations from Vincent’s story for which there were no painting references, like when he was a kid, or his funeral,” Kobiela said. “We didn’t want to make up Vincent-style paintings without basing them in his real paintings. And we wanted to differentiate the ‘present’ in the film, and the flashbacks—the present day is in Vincent’s painting style, and the flashbacks are in black and white. We were also very worried that 94 minutes of intense Vincent style would be too much visually for an audience, and the interspersing of the black and white sequences would give people a break, and allow them to more fully appreciate Vincent’s work. We experimented with a few approaches, but the black-and-white oil paintings based on photographs from the era, and also on early cinema, was visually what excited me.”
Further texture comes from a “melancholic, but also uplifting and powerful” score by Clint Mansell, best known for his music for films directed by Darren Aronofsky, including Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. “Music for me was the emotional heart of this film. I started writing the script to his music, and we continued writing the various drafts to his soundtracks. It was a very memorable day in my life when Clint agreed to be the composer.”
Behind Loving Vincent is extensive research, enabling a different perspective on the artist than previously attempted. “Our major source was Vincent’s letters and paintings, but there were other books that were important,” Welchman said. “I read around 30 books on Vincent, ranging from biographies, academic journals, and exhibition books to other people’s fictional accounts. I think Julius Meier-Graefe’s biography, the first best-selling biography on Vincent, written in 1920, struck a chord. The Met’s publication, Vincent: A Retrospective, was the best collection of primary sources. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life is fantastically comprehensive and was a good reference source. The film Lust for Life (1956) is brilliant in many ways, but it was also a reference of what we didn’t want to do. We wanted to get away from portraying ‘crazy’ Vincent and more try to bring out the Vincent as he expressed himself in his letters and his paintings.”
Thirty years ago, one of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” fetched a record-breaking $39.9 million at auction. The artist sold just one painting in his lifetime. Loving Vincent reaffirms our bond with this troubled, magisterially gifted soul. “Lots of different types of people relate to him,” Kobiela said. “People ranging from conservative Christians to anarchists to people struggling every day to make ends meet all claim him as an artist who connects to them and their struggles and their values. It’s incredible, and also sad, that this man who never really managed to find a loving relationship, except with his brother through letters, after his death has such a profound connection to so many people.”