The Back Page: The Importance of Casting Vincent – In the name of authenticity (and a modest budget), an acclaimed documentarian recalls the lengths he went to while in search of Van Gogh

We were in the town of Arles in the south of France to shoot scenes for a documentary about Vincent Van Gogh. As our series had a modest budget, our habit was to use local people for our re-enactments; and, as...
January 1, 1998

We were in the town of Arles in the south of France to shoot scenes for a documentary about Vincent Van Gogh. As our series had a modest budget, our habit was to use local people for our re-enactments; and, as they were not required to speak lines, it was not necessary to use professional actors. We searched for character look-alikes and interesting faces. Unfortunately, in Arles we had not been able to come up with a satisfactory Van Gogh; none of the faces offered had the right combination of strength and vulnerability, the intensity, or the pain.

I had often been lucky before, but it looked as though, this most important time, I was going to fail. Then lightning struck. A miracle happened. Early on the morning before we were to start filming, I was sitting at a sidewalk-cafe table. On impulse, I looked up from my coffee, and saw a perfect Vincent Van Gogh ride by on an orange motor-scooter.

In a few seconds he was gone, speeding down the street, concentrating intensely on the mad, morning traffic, his red hair and beard flying in the wind. Having just found him, it was unthinkable that I was about to lose my perfect Vincent. I threw a few coins on the table and raced down the street after him. Dodging in and out of the traffic, I could just see his red hair about a hundred yards ahead, as he turned and sped up a side street. When I reached the corner, I too turned, but alas, he had disappeared into a square at the end of it. Out of breath, but determined, I entered the square only to be confonted by at least thirty parked scooters, several of them orange – but no Van Gogh.

A large church opened into the square. Perhaps this Van Gogh was religious. I walked up and down the quiet aisles. In the dim light I saw a few kneeling figures, who glanced at me curiously, but still no Van Gogh.

In the square again I had the choice of four streets leading away. Which one had my Vincent taken? Then, one of those little moments of luck occurred – again. I happened to look up the street on my right; and, a block away, I saw him for the barest of moments, scoot across the street and disappear.

Immediately I was off and running again. My luck held; as I reached the corner and looked eagerly in the direction he had gone, I saw him locking his scooter to a post and entering an office building. By the time I had run to the door and entered, he had reached the top step of a stairway. With my last breath, I called out, ‘Wait Monsieur!’ He heard and paused on the top step. Somehow in my broken French I let him know the situation. After he was convinced that I was reasonably sane, he stroked his beard, and yes, he could see there was a resemblance to the famous painter; and yes he was interested.

However, there were complications. He was an official with the southern section of the French railways, in charge of repairs, and he worked every day until four o’clock. Also, his family happened to be away on holiday, but would be back in a few days, at which time he would not be available. Our time with him would be limited, but he was so perfect for the part, that I knew we could surmount any problems.

As for the late afternoons, that was ideal. It was midsummer, and my favorite hours for exterior shooting are early or late in the day, when the sun is slanting and the colors are warm, conditions especially right for filming a story about Van Gogh. We struck a bargain. We would pay him the equivalent of fifty dollars for each half-day he worked for us. We were both happy.

And that’s how I found Vincent Van Gogh, riding an orange motor-scooter down a street in France.

Excerpted from How to sleep on a Camel: Adventures of a Documentary Film Director ©1997 Nicholas Webster by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina

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