By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Director Dorota Kobiela on “Loving Vincent”

Loving Vincent is one of the most extraordinary animated features you are likely ever to see. A British-Polish-U. S. coproduction, it’s a celebration of Vincent van Gogh’s luminous paintings, and also an inquiry into the mysterious circumstances of his death by gunshot in 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Long part of van Gogh’s legend, the verdict for decades was that the tortured Dutch artist, who had a history of mental illness and poverty, committed suicide. It was certainly the view that earlier films about Vincent have shared, including Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas.

But the writing-directing team of Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and British producer husband Hugh Welchman adopt a different take in Loving Vincent. Their film draws on the controversial theory of art historians Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who, in their book
Van Gogh: The Life,” maintain that the facts point instead to a tragic accident. Kobiela and Welchman turn the final weeks of van Gogh’s life into a whodunit, as a skeptical young man, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) sets out after the artist’s death to find Vincent’s brother Theo, in order to deliver a letter he’s entrusted with by his postman father Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Along the way Armand talks to several key acquaintances of the dead man–Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan); Pere Tanguy (John Sessions); and a neighborhood snoop, Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory)—and becomes determined to uncover the truth about Vincent’s demise.

All these characters sat for van Gogh, who memorialized them in portraits that are renowned worldwide today. The genius of the makers of Loving Vincent is that they took live-action footage of the actors, shot in front of a green screen, and then used 65,000 individual high resolution photographs of oil paintings by 125 artists to fill in the frames with images largely copied from van Gogh’s works, making this the first fully painted feature film in animation history. The film received a ten-minute standing ovation in June at France’s Annecy Festival. Annecy is to animation what the Telluride and Toronto film festivals are to narrative features: a launchpad for awards season contenders. Kobiela, an alumnus of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, as well as The Warsaw Film School, Direction Faculty, was in Los Angeles recently to talk about the art of her film.

As a trained painter, what do you love about the medium of oils?
I started painting at 15, and found oil to be perfect to extract different colors from the palette and to manipulate impasto [the thick application of pigment]. The medium allows so many different approaches to painting. I worked in that mode for ten years.

It’s unusual for an animated film to embrace the mystery genre. What inspired your particular narrative approach?
From the very beginning of the writing process, the concept was always inspired by the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death, and how we wanted to tell his story through his paintings, and to do it as much as possible in the spirit of his work. We asked ourselves, why did his death happen this way, if it was suicide [as reported]? Suicide didn’t make sense. [After long, hard struggles] everything seemed to be going well in his life, and he was hopeful. He had two successful exhibitions, and positive critical reviews–some acclaimed him as a genius. This disparity so fascinated us, it inspired our approach. There were so many contradictions reported; throughout our extensive research we read lots of witness statements that conflicted with each other.

How did you and your husband divide the work of co-directing the film?
I started making the film as a short, and then I met Hugh [on another project]. He had a general knowledge of Vincent as a mad genius. When I first told him about my project, he showed only polite interest. But then London’s Royal Academy of Arts mounted an exhibition of Vincent’s letters [combining his correspondence with his art], and it drew huge crowds. So, that engaged Hugh’s imagination, and he started reading and developed an appreciation for Vincent’s bravery and hard work. Hugh was doing the historical research while I was focusing on the paintings and how to tell the story. Then Hugh got the idea to make the short a feature instead, that we would script together.

After a film Hugh had produced in 2008, Peter and the Wolf, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, the Polish Ministry of Culture approached him about a film on Chopin. I was hired to direct the animated short Chopin’s Drawings [which became part of a feature film, The Flying Machine (2011)]. We worked closely together on that short, filling time while waiting for production of Loving Vincent to begin.

Viewing a painting by van Gogh is almost a psychedelic experience: although we’re looking at paint fixed on canvas, the colors seem to vibrate, partly because of their alignment and juxtaposition, and partly because of his brush strokes. In your film, the images do indeed vibrate. How did you achieve that effect?
That was our aim, of course, an insane undertaking, looking back. We wanted to use his techniques, but using canvas boards. The key is that he painted extremely fast, taking half a day, or just one day, to finish a work. So did we, not just because of the sheer volume of paintings that were required to copy, but first to understand the period of the painting, and analyze the order in which he painted, and get the colors right—but not overthink it.

The whole film was shot based on the performances of actors, but a lot of the material flowed from the imaginations of our artists; that’s what you see in the backgrounds surrounding the actors. That vibration, or shimmering, is what comes of animating Vincent’s brush strokes in our copies and interpretations of his paintings.

Were different teams of artists assigned to different characters?
Yes. I assessed each artist’s specific abilities, which was very important for filming, to know who could paint what under our deadlines. But you also have to understand the human aspect involved in this kind of performance: someone could get sick of painting only Dr. Gachet, for instance. And an animator could easily take six months to complete one shot [depending on its duration], so you want to avoid burnout.

What were the differences between creating the black-and-white flashbacks and the color sequences that are set in “the present” time frame of the story?
Major differences on many levels. During Armand’s journey, we aimed to capture Vincent’s style as seen in the portraits of the witnesses, or the scenes set in his landscapes [the town of Auvers and its nearby environs]. And we wanted to be very precise in terms of backgrounds, costumes, characters’ faces, etc.; there’s a historical record for reference. We wanted it to feel as if we were inside his paintings come to life. We approached the black-and-white sequences as a more classic type of narrative filmmaking, imagining his past without having to reconstruct it in his own visual terms. In that sense, it’s freer.

Those flashback sequences revolve around the charismatic actor who plays Vincent, Robert Gulaczyk. He is wonderful—where did you find him?
We knew we were going to shoot most of our actors in a studio in London. But we also wanted to shoot as much as possible in our Polish studio, so we decided to ask for a Polish actor. The right actor was so hard to find that we almost gave up. Then one day I was looking again through our casting director’s file and I came across Robert’s photo and asked, “Who’s this? Why didn’t I see his picture before?” And the casting director said, “Oh, no, he’s not what you need—he doesn’t speak English.” And I said, “But he can learn!”

So Robert came to the set the same day we called him and he auditioned. We knew right then that he was the one. The most iconic image of Vincent in the film, where he turns to face the camera over his shoulder [in three-quarter profile], that’s from the first minute of Robert’s audition. He just understood.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin