The Limelight Index: Tom Van Avermaet – Writer/Director

Tom Van Avermaet

I recently met up with Tom Van Avermaet, Belgian film director, who has been over in the UK with his new Oscar nominated short film, Death of a Shadow (Dood van een schaduw). He is an incredibly passionate filmmaker who has put life and soul into this film, it was an absolute pleasure to hear what he had to say.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

Even from an early age, I’ve always been fascinated by film. I used to be a regular at the local video rental place (when these still existed) and devoured as many films as my pocket money would allow. This passion for film always remained and I always felt that I needed to be involved with cinema in one capacity or another. As I also had this great love for storytelling, I felt that either being a screenwriter or a director would be the best fit and I enrolled in film school on the directing side (as in the end this is still the function most prevalent in the making/shaping of a film). I ended my film school with a thesis film called Dreamtime, which then went on to do numerous festivals and gained awards worldwide. One of these awards helped me finance the next short film, which ended up being Death of a Shadow, my first professional short film.

Who are the filmmakers you look up to?

It’s always hard to pick one or two, as there are so many filmmakers I love. Even if I don’t enjoy their whole oeuvre, I at least am passionate, I at least enjoy, a few films of theirs. Stanley Kubrick, like with any visual director, has always been a great inspiration, but I particularly am drawn towards the great imaginative surrealists of world cinema, people like Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry and Darren Arronofsky. Darren Aronosky’s second film (Requiem for a Dream), which I watched in the theatre the first time I saw it, impressed me so much that it really solidified my desire to wanting to be a director (as it really inspired me to see how big an impact a 90 min film could make on an audience emotionally).

I’m also drawn to filmmakers from the early stages of cinema, people like Fritz Lang, Murnau, Carl Theodore Dreyer, people who really made their film with the essence of visual storytelling.

Dood van een schaduw - (01)

How did the idea for Death of a Shadow come about?

As a writer and director I’ve always been fascinated by metaphysical and symbolic figures and with Death of a shadow I wanted to give my own interpretation of ‘Death’. It was important for me to find a way to make this an interpretation that I felt would be original. So I thought, why can’t Death be like an art collector, but instead of gathering paintings or sculptures, this figure collects moments of death, with his own esthetic view of what is a good death and what is a bad death, what is an ugly and what is a beautiful death.

Because I’ve always loved to work with light and shadow I’m am a big fan of expressionistic lighting, I felt that a shadow would be an ideal element to portray this visual and thus had the collector amass shadows of people at the moment that they died, pinning them down like butterflies. A shadow also felt like the right element to use, as in many stories and myths it’s been seen as something connected to the soul. A shadow is something that’s always with us, a reflection of ourselves. Separating body from shadow seemed like a very drastic thing to do.

In this world of the collector, I didn’t feel like he himself would actually go out and gather these deaths and shadows, I felt like he would use someone already in the collection and offer him/her a second chance at life, if they give him one life for every day that they would have lived. That’s how the vast story of Nathan Rijckx, the deceased WWI soldier, came into being.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. How did the festival journey begin?

We were lucky enough to begin our festival journey by immediately winning our Oscar Qualifier, a prize entitling you to be considered for Oscar nomination. We won this prize at a festival in Los Angeles called LA Shortfest. This came very early in our festival run, which is quite unusual and after that we were fortunate enough to get on the shortlist and finally be part of the nomination for the 2012/2013 edition of the Academy Awards. We were also very fortunate to have won a European Film Award nomination the month after in Valladolid, Spain, making us the only film up for both prestigious awards in 2013 (the latter will be announced the 7th of December). And now we’re very glad to be part of the Mélies D’Or nominations as well by winning the Silver Mélies, something very special for me as this is a prize specifically for fantastic shorts and I really consider the people supporting the fantastic genre as my core audience.

Dood van een schaduw - (07)

The set design is exquisite, who designed this and how did you find the locations?

The design process was collaborative between me and the French art director ‘Erwan Le Flo’ch’. The locations and setting are very important to me as a filmmaker, I almost try to make them another character in my film, so a lot of research and thought was given to them. The locations were all found in the French region ‘Champagne-Ardennes’, who were also supporting the film financially. However, the process of finding the right ones wasn’t easy; I went down with the location scouts to explore the region myself, but in the end we managed to find everything we needed for the film. As a short film maker you don’t have a lot of money to really build stuff, so you have to really work at finding the right locations and props and depend on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

The machine in the entry hall in the film for instance, was designed by a Dutch artist named Jos De Vink, who designs steam powered works of art and who had made a steampunk time machine, an element just like the one we were looking for. Sometimes you have to be lucky in making a film.

Your film has done incredibly well here at Leeds. What has been your favourite short film in the programme?

I think the level of the short film programming was very high. I was fortunate to be both part of one competition and judging four others. I have really enjoyed watching all the incredible works. To pick a favorite would be difficult (we picked our winners as a jury, so these films are definitely my favorites too), but the selection was so diverse and interesting that it would be unfair of me to name one or another.

Dood van een schaduw - (03)

What advice would you give to likeminded people starting out?

Don’t give up. Our film took quite a long time to make, five years in total, and at certain points it really felt as if the film was never going to happen. At those times it’s very easy to just say, enough is enough and give up. I think a lot of great films don’t get made because people abandon them when things get tough. What separates people from making films and talking about making them is definitely that drive and passion you have to have for a project. If you want to be a filmmaker you have to be prepared to fight tooth and nail, to suffer blood sweat and tears for your film, because in the end it’s only you who really cares if the film gets made or not (you might have partners who support you equally in this of course, but it’s still most important to you). So I would definitely tell them not to give up and if you have something you believe in and you have an objective view of its potential, then do everything to get it made, even if it takes a long time.

For you, what makes a great short film?

It’s hard to define this as there are so many different styles and genres, but I always look for something that grabs me, something that touches me, something that I’ll remember, be the film 5 minutes or 30. This can be the performance of the actors, the interesting story, the visual aesthetic, or a combination of all those things. I personally veer most towards the narrative films, but I do think that films in any genre can really be great as long as they move or intrigue an audience.

Watch the trailer:

Watch Tom talk about his short film here:

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