Hugh Welchman, an Oxford University graduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economy, has always had his eyes on film-making. Subsequently, he worked hard by doing almost everything, from teaching history to selling fish, just to support himself while working on film corporates in London. After a few calamitous encounters, Hugh came to a decision that training at the prestigious National Film and Television School would be a wise idea. He later set up Break Thru Films and produced various interesting projects, including Peter and the Wolf which received an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2008. The animation picked a few others awards, including the Golden Rose for Performing Arts at the 2007 Rose d’Or Festival. With all these successes under his belt, Hugh recently co-directed with Dorota Kobiela a fully-animated feature Loving Vincent, a film about the life and death of one of the most prominent Dutch painters, Vincent van Gogh. We caught up with Hugh Welchman during the 61st BFI London Film Festival and talked about the creative process behind his and Dorota’s pièce de résistance.
Hugh Welchman & Dorota Kobiela
You have been producing films for a while now. Loving Vincent is your first production that you have co-directed with Dorota Kobiela. How did the project come to life and what was your collaboration with Dorota like?
Yes, I started with producing; afterwards I received a writing scholarship to go to Berlin Film School. I began my studies there and then I got offered the chance to produce short films for Monty Python, as a result, I left my writing course. Nevertheless, it was always my intention to go back to writing at some point, writing is something I have been doing anyway, whenever I have spare time.
How did the idea for the film come around? Well, Dorota always loved painting, she is a painter herself. She had that idea of making a film about Vincent van Gogh; I listen to her concept and I loved it, obviously, I wanted to produce it. I started to read about the artist a lot – I am a bit of a book worm (laughs). There were all those publications about Vincent van Gogh lying around, I just decided to read them all – I think I read over 30 books about him. Dorota and I started to talk about the script and – as we live together – it was natural for us to do it together. We talk a lot about risks and work that might be involved in the process, but we were determined to do it. After writing the script we started merging everything together, and agreed that we would jointly direct the film.
When we started the production we had to choose the right painting animation, I let Dorota deal with it as she is a highly trained oil painter, art is her realm. I then moved to line production and I went to London and Warsaw to take care of the sound and music, but we did the live action, editing and other things together.
In terms of music, how did you manage to get Clint Mansell involved?
We were listening to many of Mansell’s scores – The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, Noah, and Pi – the whole time we were writing the script. We always wanted him to do it, but he was busy. I then said to Dorota that perhaps we should search for a different composer, but she refused to hear about it; she only wanted Clint to write the music for Loving Vincent. Nevertheless, after a while he agreed to meet us – even though he wasn’t in a place to commit to the project as he was working on other stuff. Luckily, after getting familiar with the script, he said yes. Clint Mansell did such a beautiful job, I cannot imagine this film to not feature his music.
The film was made up of 65,000 hand-printed frames, it must have been a mammoth task to paint all those paintings. How did you pick artists to combat this job? Did Dorota supervise the work of the artists?
We had 5,000 applications from around the world, all were professional oil painters. One of our assistants went through all of their portfolios and rated them from 1 to 5. Anyone who got three or over would pass the first stage and Dorota and the assistant would go through their work again. We then invited 500 people to audition, it took us three days to pick the best ones. After a while, we picked 125 painters, who later were trained for 6 weeks in Vincent van Gogh’s style (around 100 hours of training in the painter’s method and 100 hours in animation). It was a huge and unique undertaking but the painters were faithful to Vincent’s brush strokes and colours.
Loving Vincent depicts the story of Vincent van Gogh’s life and death through the eyes of people that knew him. That said, it is not a typical biographical film about the artist, it is also a story of investigating the death of Van Gogh. Was that the intention from the beginning?
That was our aim in the end. The idea for the film came from Dorota; she has been interested in van Gogh since she was 15 years of age. She went to one of the most prestigious art schools in Poland and developed her extraordinary talents throughout her youth. She came up with making a film by bringing paintings to live. We researched a lot and while searching for more information about Vincent van Gogh, we came across statements from people that knew the artist; a few of them contradicted each other so we started to think “who is telling the truth, who is lying?”. We started our own little investigation to try to figure out what happened to van Gogh, did he kill himself or not?
We actually thought of making a documentary first, but after longer reflection we decided to make a film that would let the audience experience something different than a documentary. We have that cameo character of Armand in the film, who investigates van Gogh’s death. What is interesting is that there is not much information on that persona in any books, we only know that he worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice. This allowed us to have more freedom when it came to this character, more artistic freedom – everything came together and that’s how the film saw the light of day.
How did you combine the painting with acting?
It was exactly like a live action film, there was a film set with the actors performing their roles, everything else was done throughout the film and in post-production. The only difference was, that we shot the film very fast. We had only 2 weeks to film our main characters, which was done in the UK and other times we shot in Wroclaw in Poland. But, you know, we knew it would be hard to make this film, but it is all done now.
Black and white shots show events during the life of the painter leading up to his death and these scenes weren’t painted in the same style as van Gogh’s. Why did you decide to do this?
There were three reasons why we did that. We didn’t want any paintings in the film that weren’t van Gogh’s (we used 94 of his paintings). The second thing is that we wanted to make a clear distinction between the present where the audience sees people that van Gogh met and the past, where the viewer could witness the artist’s turbulent life. The third reason is that we thought that the audience wouldn’t probably cope with 95 minutes of painting swirling in Vincent’s bright colours. The black and white was done for people to be able to rest their eyes on something different, I think it worked very well.
Your cast is full of great actors, like Douglas Booth, Josh Burdett, Chris O’Dowd, Eleanor Tomlison, Saoirse Ronan and Robert Gulaczyk. What was the casting process like?
We were absolutely thrilled that we found all those amazing actors. With a limited time and budget we achieved a lot. When it comes to Robert – who portrays Vincent van Gogh in the film – we wanted a Polish actor to play it. We were looking around with our casting director for someone who looks like Vincent, along the way we met a local agent from Wroclaw who said: “I know someone who looks like him”. She phoned Robert up and told him to drive to Wroclaw and have an audition in English. It must have been stressful for him as he hasn’t spoken English since he left school, but there he was. He came to the audition, we put him in front of the blue screen and in a costume and the magic happened. After that he learned English again and he went on a voyage to learn more about Vincent van Gogh etc. He is such a wonderful guy, I’m glad we have him in this film as he brought something special into the project as well.
We wish Hugh and Dorota all the best with Loving Vincent. We would like to thank Altitude Film Distribution for arranging the interview.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Transcription by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Roxy Simons
Feature photo © BFI London Film Festival
Loving Vincent photos © Loving Vincent
All other photos © Courtesy of the photographer