Placing "Loving Vincent" on the Map in South Dakota
Some guests on In the Moment are quintessential South Dakotans. Others need a map to figure out where we are.
Filmmaker Hugh Welchman took the time to find South Dakota on the map and had the good humor to laugh about it. His latest film, "Loving Vincent," (created with Dorota Kobiela) feels timeless and inventive and inevitable and astonishing all at the same time.
We'll forgive him if he's never been to the state. His film is here, and that's what matters.
As a daily news and culture program, we're always asking ourselves how to move a conversation forward. But how do you move a conversation forward regarding the arts?
You find vibrant artists thrumming with something to say - artists deconstructing and reinventing the universe so we look at our place in it with freshly earned wonder. You find organizations like Cinema Falls and the Matthews Opera House who celebrate them.
Sometimes you find these artists down the highway or down the hall.
Sometimes you go halfway around the world to bring their voices to South Dakota.
We're grateful and energized to do both.
This conversation has been edited for web use. To listen to it in its entirety, click here.
Welcome back to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. It's a film being called a masterpiece as soon as it's released. Loving Vincent is the story of the death but, more importantly, the life of artist, Vincent van Gogh. It's the world's first oil-painted film. More than 125 professional oil painters created 65,000 individually painted frames for animation. Nothing you see in the film is computer-generated.
You can see it in South Dakota, Matthews Opera House in Spearfish, shows this weekend, November 17th through the 19th, and at the Washington Pavilion Belbas Theater on Sunday, December 3rd, Cinema Falls brings Loving Vincent to the state, as well. The movie is a mystery, and it's a revelation. Hugh Welchman is the co-writer, co-director, and producer of Loving Vincent. He joins us on the phone now from Manchester in the United Kingdom. Hugh, welcome.
Hi. Nice to be in South Dakota for the birth of your morning, yeah?
Welcome to South Dakota. Did you know where South Dakota was before the film came here?
No, I knew a general area, that it was in the middle, but I thought it was further south. I thought it was closer to Canada, so I was corrected when I looked at the map today, and I'm very happy that Loving Vincent has made it to South Dakota. It's very exciting for us.
As are we. The buzz around this movie is pretty exciting, so it's a thrill for us to get it here on both sides of our expansive state. This is a love story for you personally because this is how you met your wife. Tell me a little bit about your partner here in this film and how you sort of came upon this project.
I fell in love with Dorota Kobiela who came up with the idea. She was writing and directing a short film, Loving Vincent, and we fell in love. We got married and, by the time we got married, I'd also fallen in love with her film project because I thought what she was doing looked like nothing I'd seen before. Unlike Dorota because Dorota first read The Letters of Vincent van Gogh when she was 15, and she first visited the museum when she was 16. She started painting from when she was a teenager, so she was very familiar with the story of Vincent van Gogh, and it was natural for her to choose him as her subject matter.
I was 33, and I knew just the basics about him, that he cut off his ear, he'd gone mad, and that he did these amazing, colorful paintings. I could probably have named you a couple, like Starry Nights and the Sunflowers, and then I realized there's just so much more to his story. It's just a very inspiring story. Once I became involved and I persuaded her that we should do it as a feature film rather than a short film, which meant that it had the possibility of traveling around the world, though I have to say I didn't ever think it was going to travel all the way to South Dakota. It's gone far beyond what I expected of it.
There are moments when you watch this where you are deeply rewarded for any knowledge of his paintings that you already brought to the table, and then that knowledge is expanded. I remember sort of gasping at the moment where the crows fly out of the wheat field because you recognize that iconic painting of wheat field with crows. Tell me a little bit, though, about how you began with a painting such as that and then had to imagine, how does this scene fit into the story that we're trying to tell?
The story happened organically because the very first idea was to bring Vincent's paintings to life to tell his story, and the director always, from the short film I did, wanted to concentrate on his final ten weeks and all that. That means we were dealing with the portraits of the people that he painted in the final ten weeks of his life, like Doctor Gachet who was meant to be looking after him at the end of his life and Adeline Ravoux who was daughter of the innkeeper where he was staying and where he actually died.
Once we were looking into these historical people, because they're real people in history, and researching what they said about Vincent, there were contradictions between what they said, so what they said and what Vincent said in his letters was all contradicting each other, so we had to be kind of detectives from the beginning and try and work out who was telling the truth, who was lying, and who was maybe misremembering it or who was hiding some kind of dark secret.
We started looking into it, and this gave us quite quickly this conflictual story, so it's like a detective story of what really happened to Vincent and what was really going through his mind in the final weeks and what happened to him on his final day. We were looking at all the paintings, and we visited Auvers several times, and we went to where Wheatfield with Crows was painted. We went to Chaponval.
We went to all of these locations, and we started to get a sense of where Vincent was hanging out in his final weeks. Really, it was Vincent's own paintings, his own letters, which was telling his brother where he was painting and also what the people that he painted were saying about him, both during his final weeks and also after his death, sometimes many years after his death, the story came out of.
You create for yourself, or you set into motion, your own hero who comes from a portrait. We do not know much about him as a historical character, so you kind of give him a story of your own. Tell me about Armand.
The attractive thing about Armand was, one, he was attractive. It's just he's a very handsome young man, and it's one of Vincent's best portraits. It's a gorgeous portrait. The second thing was nothings written about him in history, and we had to be careful what we wrote about Vincent because there's a whole museum dedicated to him with academics and researchers working there, and we worked with the museum.
Doctor Gachet, there's quite a lot written about him in the historical record and Pere Tanguy and even Armand's father that Vincent writes about his personality, whereas Armand was like a blank sheet for us. We could write him in a way that suited our detective story, and what we knew that we needed was we needed an outsider to come in to all that because it's like a village where there are different alliances, and there's village gossip, and there's resentment between the people in the village. They're telling different stories about Vincent, and we needed an outsider to come in and try and work out what really happened.
All we know about Armand is that, as a teenager, he was a blacksmith and then, later in life, he was a policeman, so he seemed like a good character to be the investigator. Also, we did imbue him with his own story of maybe how he decides to do something more meaningful with his life and find some direction because he's a bit of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting young man when we meet him and definitely hasn't really found his place in the world.
As I'm watching this, I keep thinking this story could not be told any other way. I have a deep sense as a viewer, as a lover of art, a deep sense of gratitude. Did this, at some point, in spite of all the challenges and the epic amount of work that went into this, did it have a feeling of inevitability in the sense that you were doing something that really simply had to be done for you and Dorota?
Lori, I wish that all the people we had approached about financing over seven years thought the way you did because, quite often, we would go into meetings, and they would say, "Why don't you just do it in the computer?" We'd say, "Well, Vincent painted oil on canvas, and this is going to look like Vincent's paintings because we're going to oil paint and animate on canvas." Absolutely, that was just something we never compromised on. So many professionals in the industry said it was impossible or said to us, "It's going to take you ten years to do the painting." Even though we were working on it for a while, the painting process was the final two years of it.
Along the process was working out the story and also finding the painters, and most difficult was finding the money because people didn't really believe that this could be done. We were really saved by the public at large on three occasions in this film. I think the final stage of that is happening right now, which is that people are going to see in the cinemas. We don't really have an advertising budget, and it's a small film compared to the big American blockbusters that are out there, but people online are talking about it. It's the third instance that we were saved.
The second instance was, we nearly went down on this project three years ago, and we just couldn't find the financing for it. We actually had an advert on our website for painters, and we just didn't have enough painters applying, so we had this advert which had some footage from our film. One of the fans of one of the actors, actually, one of Douglas Booth's fans, the Armand Roulin actor, put it onto their Facebook and, within 24 hours, there was 2 million views and, within three months, there were 200 million views, and it was only because of that power of everyone around the world looking at it, by the way, half of those people were in America, that we eventually closed the financing on the film.
For us, it was always inevitable, but it seemed like the artists believed in it, the actors believed in it, and the public at large, through social media, was believing it and wanting it to happen, but it was a tough ride. We were pretty much on the edge of our seat for every month and for about four years.
I think it says something about what the world needs now, what people are yearning for, what we need now in the arts. It's hard to have something that pushes an art forward when so much has already been done, but this really does that. What are other animators saying about the film, now that it's been released? What are you hearing from those people?
In the animation festivals that we've been in, I think we've won eight audience awards out of nine that we've been up for. It's popular with audiences, festivals, and quite a few of those were animation festivals. We live in northern Poland, so we're not so connected really with, for example, the animation industry on the West Coast in the U.S. or even so much in other countries. I know that, for example, in the UK, Bristol and Dublin, which are two very big animation cities, have been our best cities. I don't know whether it's animation students or animation professionals, but I gave a lecture at my film school to animators yesterday, and they seemed to like the film.
I think that they're appreciative of work and, sometimes, a little bit in awe of the work, not in terms of how good the film is, but they know how much work must have gone into making this film. I think it boggles the mind of professional animators that we actually did it because it is the slowest form of filmmaking that's been invented so far. We thought it was worth it because, like you said, it just seems to fit with the subject matter, which is bringing Vincent's paintings to life, so it seemed worth all the effort.
Just a deeply human story, beyond all the work that goes into it, the story and the mystery of it that pulls you through and the performances by the actors, quite outstanding, as well. The entire thing is astonishingly beautiful, so thank you for bringing it to South Dakota. Thank you for being with us here today. In just about our last 30 seconds, I'm curious how you and Dorota sort of changed as artists after spending so much time working with the painters, working with the actors, all these different art forms, and working with the life of one of our great artists. How did it transform you?
I think, for me, it definitely gave me more confidence in what I do and also to think that what I do as a filmmaker actually matters, or can matter. I think growing up in Britain and the background I come from, I kind of always thought, "Well, films are really entertainment, and it's kind of a luxury for people" if you study Vincent's life and if you see just the profound effect that he has on people's lives. I know a lot of people who I've met during the first five years who were suffering from mental illness at some point in their life were suffering from depression, and connecting with Vincent's work and his letters really gave them hope and a new lease of life.
I think it really inspires artists.
We're going to run out of time, but thank you so much for being here. The film is called Loving Vincent. You can see it in Spearfish at the Matthews Opera House this weekend, November 17th. Hugh, thank you.