An interview with Oscar-nominated short-film director Tom Van Avermaet
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Tom Van Avermaet directed the Oscar-nominated short Death of a Shadow and gracefully agreed to answer a bunch of nosy questions for the enlightenment of Gimme Some Film readers! Thanks to Tom for his time…and for making one incredible short film!
Where did the idea for Death of a Shadow come from? It was one of the most imaginative stories I’ve seen in years (short or feature).
Tom: Thank you very much, I’m glad you were able to enjoy it. As a writer and a filmmaker I’ve always loved mythological, metaphysical and symbolic figures that play an important part in our culture, figures that personify a certain fact of life. I then try to give those figures my own interpretation or place them in an universe that I myself create. For this film, I wanted to make an own interpretation of the figure of “Death” and I was looking for a way to do this that I thought would be original. So I began thinking and at a certain moment a thought struck me, why can’t “Death” be like a collector of art, where instead of paintings or sculptures, this strange art “critic” collects moments of death, with his own interpretation of what makes a good death and what not.
Because film for me is most of all a visual medium, I then had to find a way to make this collection of dying moments visual. As I’ve always loved to play with contrast and light, shadow and darkness, I felt the actual shadows of people an ideal ‘item’ for this figure to collect. Shadows bind us to the daylight world, they’re our reflection on the soil, ground, walls, our companion till the end so to say. So I felt that capturing the shadow of a dying person would make an excellent representation of collecting that person and their death.
But in this world and with this larger-than-life figure, I felt that he himself would not actually go out and collect these deaths and these shadows. No, for me he would need a helper, someone maybe that was already part of his collection, but wanted to “buy” his way out of it by supplying “the collector” with enough pieces—a morbid trade if you will. This led me to the figure of Nathan Rijckx [played by Matthias Schoenaerts], who uses the tools of the world of the collector to capture these shadows and deliver them back to his “master,” his ultimate drive returning to life and the woman he met before he died, a fleeting moment that becomes a huge element in the existence of this tragic figure lost between life and death.
What was the shoot like? Where did you film? For how long?
The shoot was quite short (five and a half days) and quite heavy because we were filming at multiple locations. All in all things went quite smoothly, largely due to the help of a wonderful cast and crew, who expertly accomplished the project that I wanted to in the finished film. To me as a filmmaker, the shoot is always quite hard because the world that you have in your head then has to be given a certain reality, and, like always, you have so little time to accomplish everything you want to accomplish. But gladly I didn’t have to sacrifice anything important. But even then, and especially after being three and a half years in pre-production (almost solely spent to gather enough financing for the film and trying multiple times to get it made with a budget that wasn’t sufficient), it’s quite depressing to have only those five and half days to get it done. But we did it, thanks to the help of those wonderful people around me. We shot the whole film in the Region Champagne-Ardennes in France, who also ended up giving us a grant to film in the region that finally helped us to be able to make it.
Did the story change at all from script to shoot to post?
Not really no, we fought hard to get the film made like we wanted it to get made. At a very early point in the process, there were also WWI trenches in the film, and I had to scrap that due to budgetary concerns. But I never wanted to compromise anything that would have ruined the essence of the movie and the story we wanted to tell. From the moment you start doing that, you’re doomed as a filmmaker, and you’re always going to regret making that certain decision. But luckily I didn’t have to do that, although it meant having to fight tooth and nail with the help of my production team to get the film made. But it’s a fight that hopefully paid off in the end.
How did you finance Death of a Shadow?
This was the most difficult process of getting the film made. I was lucky enough to win something called a VAF (translated: Flemish Audiovisual Fund) Wild Card with my thesis film Dreamtime, a prize given every year to two of the best student films in Flanders, Belgium. This meant an immediate grant for a next short film project; in the beginning I thought I was going to make this project very soon after graduation. Things turned out a bit differently. I first tried to make the project a couple times with the budget we had, but we always hit a brick wall right before shooting where we realized it just wasn’t going to be possible. As we didn’t want to compromise on the story we wanted to tell, me and my producer Ellen De Waele from Serendipity Films had to go out and look for more money. We tried different countries and different governmental institutions, but only after a couple of years of trying did we find a willing partner in the Region Champagne-Ardennes in France. This coupled with some tax shelter money from a company called Intraco Ltd., and we were able to finally finish the movie. A lot of people also co-produced the movie to some extent by taking less money or giving their time for free, so without the generous help of all our partners, cast, and crew, a project like this wouldn’t have been possible.
What was Oscar night like for you? Any favorite moments?
It was quite a special moment, especially after struggling for such a long time to get the film off the ground. My favorite moment was definitely the announcement of all the nominees and seeing our film up there, a small clip of it screened in front of millions of people. Just thinking about it again gives me goosebumps. As a filmmaker, at that moment, you really feel like you exist. The night itself was very surreal, standing on the red carpet between Jessica Chastain and Mads Mikkelsen, meeting Francis Ford Coppola and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all that combined talent in that theatre at that moment in time…it’s amazing to be part off. It definitely gives you hope for the future and gives you a great incentive to try and return there one day!
How has being nominated changed your film career?
It definitely opened some doors for me, at least a lot faster than they might have otherwise opened. I was able to sign with a top agency in CAA, with some great and motived agents who want to help me get feature projects off the ground. It meant me being able to very quickly meet some people I greatly admired, and it just helps the visibility of your film as now tons more people will be able to get a chance to see it compared to before. It’s been a great boost, and it’s also something you’ll never have to give up. For the rest of my life I’ll be an Oscar nominee, something I’ve never dreamed possible with just my first professional fiction project.
Who or what are your creative influences?
I’m inspired by a lot of things, by writers like Neil Gaiman; by painters like Magritte, Dali, and Goya; by mythology, fairy tales, just pure imagination of people given form in tales or visuals. My filmic influences are definitely the great fantastic storytellers and masters of the visual storytelling: people like Stanley Kubrick, Guillermo Del Toro, Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofksy. But also the great storytellers of the silent era, like Carl Theodore Dryer, Murnau and Fritz Lang. I’m someone with a great love for visual storytelling and feel close to people who create worlds with as much love as I try to do.
Do you have any favorite short films?
One of my favorite short films, one of the best ever made, is La Jetée [watch for free on Hulu] by Chris Marker, a real treasure. I also love animation short films, like the works of Aleksander Petrov, Raoul Servais or Jan Svankmeyer. There are so many treasures in the short film world still to be discovered though. It’s a shame that theatres don’t play them in front of features anymore, as it’s a genre that definitely deserves more attention.
What are some of your favorite feature films?
The list seems almost endless as I’m such a big lover of films, but to name a few: Pan’s Labyrinth, Memento, Requiem For A Dream, Barry Lyndon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys (feature version of La Jetée by Terry Gilliam btw), Inception, etc. So many great films, it’s almost a crime to just pick a few.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m trying to get my first feature project off the ground, but I hope to have multiple projects in the pipeline in the coming months. At least in the development stage, there’s a great number of material that I’m looking into adapting combined with some of my own ideas that I want to start working out as screenplays. Then there are also numerous scripts that I still have to read; perhaps one of those will also strike a note with me as a filmmaker. So, busy times ahead that will hopefully result in a first feature project (and hopefully not the last!).
What’s your dream film project?
There are a couple, but one would definitely be an adaption of The Sandman comics, the masterpiece created by Neil Gaiman.
Any advice for newbie short filmmakers?
Be ready to fight for your film as you’re going to be the only one that will be able to get that project made. If you really believe in a project, don’t give up when times get tough, but take every hurdle as a new challenge. If it’s really a good project, you will always find other people willing to help you out and help the film get made. Also, be thankful to your cast and crew; filmmaking is a team sport, and you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.