Filmmaker Spotlight: Tom Van Avermaet

Tom Van Avermaet

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Oscar nominated filmmaker Tom Van Avermaet’s dreams became reality when he transformed his quixotic thesis, ‘Dreamtime’ into a reality which brought his short ‘Death of a Shadow’ to life, and death, and to the attention of ’The Academy.’

Avermaet shares with us the inception to his dreamy films, spreading the verve to conserve, getting past the imminent ‘writer’s block’, and advice for fellow filmmakers.

Tell me about your Oscar nominated short ’Death of a Shadow’

Death of a Shadow is my first professional short film, I did a thesis film before at the Belgian film school ‘Rits’ called ‘Dreamtime’. The film tells the story of a deceased soldier, Nathan Rijckx, who’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death. In this world of darkness and shades, he has to collect shadows of people at the moment that they die, this for a strange collector of said shadows. He does this because he himself is already part of the collection and he’s been promised a deal, if he can get one shadow for each day that he lived, he will get a second chance at life. Nathan wants to use this second chance to revisit a girl he fell in love with the moment before he died, a girl’s whose small act of kindness became a big and life changing moment for him. But then he discovers something that shakes his world completely.

The film was a co-production between Belgium and France, starring a rising European and Belgian acting star called Matthias Schoenaerts, also the male lead in Bullhead and ‘Rust & Bone’.

Any more dreams coming true/ or to film? What’s next?

I working on a couple of feature film projects, two are originated from own ideas and I’m writing on those myself and will probably pair up with some writers. Others are more adaptations of existing things. At the moment I can’t be a lot more concrete, but hopefully in the coming months things will get into the next gear. Ideally, I hope to be shooting my first feature next year, but it depends on a lot of factors.

How did you get your start in the film industry?

I went to the RITS film school in Belgium, where I completed my Masters in Audio-Visual Arts and ended up directing my thesis film ‘Dreamtime’, which toured festivals around the world and helped me get some of the financing for ‘Death of a shadow’. Film has always been a big passion of mine and it’s always been a dream to be part of the audiovisual cinema world as a storyteller.


How did the theme and idea of Death of a Shadow come to you? Any specific experiences that ignited the creation?

The idea of ‘Death of a Shadow’ got started with me wanting to give my own interpretation of the metaphysical figure of death. I wanted to do this in a way that I felt was original and after much thinking this led to me making death like an art collector, where instead of paintings and sculptures this figure collects moments of death. As I always loved to work with light and shadow in an expressionistic way and because I was looking for a very visual way to represent these deaths, I thought, why not have him collect the shadows of people at the moment that they die. The shadow also seemed an ideal link to something like the soul.

I then felt that this figure, this collector, wouldn’t go out and collect the ‘pieces’ to his gallery himself and I considered what alternatives there could be. The one that felt right was where he would grant a second chance to someone in exchange for one work or one shadow for each day that that person would have lived. That led to the figure of Nathan, the main character of the story.

When transferring your writing from page to screen how much change do you allow? How much do you compromise?

You always have to make some compromises, especially on the level of budget. In an earlier version of the story, there was actually a big scene in the trenches of world war 1. This would have meant constructing a whole WW1 location and that unfortunately wasn’t possible, so I had to adapt this scene to fit in with the locations we did have. I sometimes scratched some dialogue, mostly in editing though. I think you always have to be open to let your script go if the changes are for the better, but you have to defend with tooth and nail to prevent changes that will make the story or the film less.

What are your tips and tools to getting through the tough spots with writing?

I don’t think anyone can really cure writer’s block, I think you always have to go back to the essentials, try and think what it is you want to tell, show or portray and if you have a hard time finding it, also don’t be afraid to shelve a project for a while and try to work on something else. Also getting personal stuff, how painful it might be, into your screenplay in some form or another might actually help you find new ideas, but it’s a hard process as writing always is.

What fuels your writing? Is there a specific process to your writing?

I think it’s a mix of my personal thoughts on the world, a certain concept or idea I love to work with, a world I want to create. With the characters, I always try to put something of myself in them, how small or how big, as this helps me to relate to them even at a small level. If I’m creating a world, I always like to explore the logic behind that world, what makes that world tick. Writing is very hard sometimes, especially because you can’t really keep a distance sometimes and you pour yourself into something, making it a very confronting process. But for me most of all, I need to fall in love with the story I’m creating, with the characters, with the worlds, no matter how grim or hard these might be and try to create something that makes people feel something, experience something, when it would actually be made into a film.

Who do you share your writing with first?

I have a couple of friends who are screenwriters and producers, whose honest feedback I trust, they usually are the first to see stuff appear, although I don’t always share a lot till I’m myself somewhat pleased with the material I have.

Have you filmed anywhere besides France or Belgium?

I’ve only filmed fiction in Belgium and France, commercials I shot in Bulgaria and Ukraine as well. For Belgium and France, especially for short film, there’s a big support and opportunities to get some state funding for your projects. There are also tax rebates in place in Belgium that can also be applied to short film. The level of quality of the technical crew is high as well, but I think you can find talented people everywhere.  The advantage of shooting in Europe is also the great wealth of rich historical settings and exciting architectural marvels that can be used in films. All of Death of a Shadow was shot on location, if we had to build all those sets, the film would have been impossible to get funded, so it’s definitely an asset to be able to go scout and find good locations that actually exist already.

What do you consider the most important break or opportunity in your career that has allowed you to achieve your level of success in your field?

I think the biggest opportunity for me to build my career on was my thesis film at film school. I invested quite a lot of my own money in that, which I earned by working student jobs and with the help of the school and some experienced professionals willing to work for nothing, I was able to make the thesis film ’Dreamtime’, which led to selections and awards on the festival circuit, one of which allowed me to build towards my second short film, Death of a Shadow. I think you have to be lucky with the right people most of all and not wait for your ‘break’ to come, because no-one’s really just waiting with a big check for you to come along. You always have to fight and be ready to fight for your projects and I think that in the end, if it’s the right projects of course, will lead to success.

Will you be using crowdfunding resources for your next films?

It’s definitely an interesting way of getting funding together, perhaps at some points when people can actually be real investors in the film it will even be a better option. Maybe a combination with regular funding would be an option, you have to keep all possibilities open.

Do you have any advice for fellow filmmakers out there?

Spread your energy on different projects, sometimes it won’t be the right time for one film when it’s an excellent time for another, it also helps you spread the risk as have multiple irons in the fire also means you’ll have more chance of one of the films actually being made. And if you really believe in something and you know something will make a good movie, try and fight for it and don’t give up. I’m not saying being foolish about it and you have to be very self-critical, but if you think you have something special, it’s up to you to get it made.