HollyShorts Alum

Filmmaker Spotlight: Ben Aston


By Chelsea Fung


London Film School student Ben Aston bares all with us about the making of ‘He Took His Skin Off For Me,’ a short about a relationship, answering the question: ‘What would you do for love?’

He Took His Skin Off For Me was harmoniously put together by a band of students along with guidance from SFX professionals, which took them to this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Aston tells us about the journey from page to crowdfunding to screen and how he went about making his short so bloody fantastic.

What drew you to tell the story of this couple?

When I first read Maria’s remarkable story I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist as a film. The imagery and the language were at once haunting, dark, tragic and beautiful. It feels so familiar yet it’s totally unique. I just simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, I was dreaming about it. I could see it. The worst thing about ideas like that is that you have to make them to get them out of your head. I guess I was drawn to it because I didn’t want to keep having dreams about skinless people.

How did you go about adapting the story into a script? What changed from the original story?

There was a very long writing process, but it was almost entirely structural. The content itself sticks very closely to the story. I pretty much trusted in that special thing she had channeled and tapped into, it felt like a precious commodity and worth preserving. Anything new (like him returning to the closet or her testing her own skin) were embellishments that naturally came out when trying to retell the story to someone else.

Tonally it was all there from the start, paradoxically mundane and horrifying. Obviously SEEING a skinless dude is a very different experience from imagining it, so we had to compensate somewhat. Just like with the robbery in Dinner and a Movie it felt important that we make it the friendliest version of this story possible, lest it becomes unbearable. I was scared that the skinless man would just look silly when speaking. The decision to keep the voice-over was long discussed throughout the adaptation process. I felt that it was essential as a way of communicating the tone of the story and effectively deflating the horror that only showing the imagery would result in. I loved the wordplay present in Maria’s prose, but we had to be able to let this film exist on its own. We decided that the voice-over should fill the holes that the audiences can’t directly see and should, where possible, work against what we are seeing to create a dynamic that reveals more about the character. However, given that the plot of the film is very unusual, it was important that the voice-over also explain what was happening on screen without falling into the trap of simply describing it. The best way we thought we could achieve this was by losing all dialog entirely. We felt it would secure the voice-over and prevent it from feeling invasive. Finally it also helped avoid an inevitable production problem, I was scared that the skinless man would just look silly when speaking.


Tell me about your process of bringing the story from page to screen:

We had to achieve a skinless man, but never really had any idea exactly how we were going to do it, we just sort-of knew we would. We were in the process of developing the screenplay adaptation and had taken a few meetings with both VFX and SFX houses across London but weren’t being quoted realistically achievable amounts. Turns out it’s super expensive to make something impossible.

It was by chance that I heard that Colin Arthur, who was the SFX supervisor for The Never Ending Story and countless other films, was holding a weekend workshop about prosthetics and practical effects. I attended the class and afterward had a long chat with Colin and his wife. After some pints and a few great war stories, they were in. His one condition being that we construct our team using people from the class. This was how I met the amazing Jen Cardno, who became our SFX supervisor. She had just dropped out of the Royal College of Art and was at the time a guardian at an abandoned old-folks home, which would become our ramshackle studio! Colin really wanted to give back and help. He was able to share his years of experience with our young and vibrant team of makeup artists and sculptors.

In the end, we had an FX crew of over 12 people constructing hundreds of individual muscle pieces in a wonderful abandoned west-London retirement home. It was amazing, especially considering that no one was paid anything more than the smallest possible amount (we could only Kickstart the basic costs of materials). It was a real passion project from all departments. This film is a testament to their incredible talent and dedication. What they were able to achieve is genuinely groundbreaking. It delights me to see their careers take off, off the back of this film. We never considered touching it up in the computer, they made something incredible, we only want to show it off. Everything on screen is practical.

Who was part of your writing team?

Maria Hummer, who wrote the original story, was my co-writer on the film. Or rather I was her co-writer… I was just in the room really. It’s her brain on screen; I just gave it a voice.

How did you go about assembling your crew?

Almost everyone was a friend. We’ve been making and working on shorts in London for the last 4 years, so our network was pretty large. Coming to the shoot was like a big reunion party. For those people, we didn’t know the greatest draw we had was the capital of the idea. Who wouldn’t want to work on a film like this?

Who else besides the VFX artists were students?

It was my graduation film from the London Film School. The vast majority of the crew, including myself, were students.

If you were to take your skin off for someone, who would it be?

Ha. Nobody, you really shouldn’t do it.

Who would you ask to bare it all and take their skin off? (physically or metaphorically)

This is a pretty hard question to answer. The film demands you make sense of it; in constructing an interpretation you necessarily draw on your own life experience and in a way, become a part of the story. It’s a fairy tale. And the wonderful thing about fairy tales is how they relate back to our real lives.

When people tell me what they think it means (ie. Is it about baring oneself?) they are often revealing part of themselves as well. The power of the allegory is how multifaceted it is. Every audience member has their own take; sympathies and meanings seem to go in almost all directions. For some, this is a story of nakedness, about the problems that arise from holding out when your partner has bared themselves for you. Others read it as a cautionary tale of trying to lie about your true sexual identity. Others see it as a parable on sacrifice, that a love that demands such one-way giving is fundamentally doomed. By this reading, the film urges us to see a toxic relationship for what it really is – horrifying. We, the audience, see this from the beginning, and the moment the narrator understands it for herself the story ends.

The one thing that’s pretty clear from Maria’s story is that it’s probably a really bad idea to take your skin off for anyone! Things just get messy.

How was your experience at Sundance?

Insane. So many wonderful people, too many really. The whole thing was a kaleidoscope. It was an honor to have our little film played against some truly amazing other shorts. Made far too many new friends.

Was it your first time attending?

Yeah, and I now really want to go back.


What are you working on next?

Right now, we’re developing a wonderfully mad feature called JOHN MOVES IN, which I can’t say too much about, other than it’s wacky. Basically John and his fiancee Rachel move in together, and then the next day John moves in again and again. Think Being John Malkovich meets Project Mayhem. Maybe? It’s a weird one.

If you could imagine a life outside of being an independent filmmaker, what would you be doing and why?

I’m not quite sure why, but I always thought I’d be a good counselor, I’ve never been to therapy, but from what I understand about the process it seems like a fulfilling and giving thing to do with one’s life. Also a dinosaur, I’d really like to be a dinosaur.

I’m noticing a theme with your storytelling, couple dynamics, what is the inspiration behind that? anyone, in particular?

Goodness, I’m not really sure. I guess they are all about love in some way. And any character-lead story is going to be somewhat relational. Filmmaking is therapy, you get stuff out and only in looking back do you recognise something authorial. Feel I need to make a few more before being able to properly answer the question.

Who is on your team for your feature?

It’s loosely based on a short story by Maria Hummer (HTH SOFM) and is co-written by Russian Roulette screenwriter Oli Fenton. We’re getting the band back together basically!


If you had the curse/ability to rewind as your characters do in your upcoming feature what would you do differently making your short or while attending film school?

Every film is always unfinished so I’d want to tweak a little bit of everyone. But the biggest thing I’d do differently is to have watched a lot more films, especially shorts, a lot earlier. I guess I was a little threatened or something, and in not exploring that as long as I did I perhaps postponed my development as an artist. It took going to film school to force me to expose myself to work outside my comfort zone, which was basically anything that didn’t have ninjas.

What advice do you have to student filmmakers?

Making things makes things happen. It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of re-writing, editing, funding, festival submissions etc and essentially standing still as a filmmaker. It’s a kiss of death. Keep making stuff all the time, at all budget levels, in all mediums and genres, just to make them. Take 48 hour challenges if you need a kick-start. Make as much as possible as often as possible. It only makes you a better artist, expose you to new people and will unblock any stagnation that larger projects might create.


HollyShorts Alumni Official Opening Feature Film DRONES

Filmmaker Spotlight: Tom Van Avermaet

Tom Van Avermaet

Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow Death of a Shadow

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.

Filmmaker Spotlight: Shalako Gordon

Shalako Gordon

By Chelsea Fung

Twitter: @CineChel

This past weekend families celebrated the father figures in their lives; giving gifts, writing sentimental cards, and gathering to honor the fathers who have embossed us with the morals and character that shape us today. Imagine a world where Fathers taught their descendent a set of non-traditional values–in Shalako Gordon’s short story series Father and Sons the father-son dynamic is deadly.

New York based director, gamer and “nerd” Gordon got his start in New York City at the NBC Page program and has gone on to create BlackFeet Films Inc, which hosts his two Award Winning shorts One Word and The Truth About Lies, and a new video game website Dustycartridges.com

Tell me a little about yourself:

My name is Shalako L. Gordon, I am originally from Baltimore, MD. I currently live in New York, I have two kids and I have been working in the entertainment industry for nearly sixteen years. I am a director, editor and producer. I am also the owner and director for the production company, BlackFeet Films Inc. and I run a video game website Dustycartridges.com.

What is an interesting characteristic about yourself:

Well I am a self described nerd…actually everyone thinks I’m a nerd and it’s fine by me! I’m a huge comic book fan, with a collection of nearly 4000 books. I also collect statues ,or what some people would call toys, and I’m a gamer, which lead me to create dustycartridges.com bringing together my two passions film and video games.

As for my characteristics, I have been described as passionate, hard working, focused and creative…at least those are my favorite descriptions of me.

Where did it all begin for you?

I started in the entertainment industry pretty much right out of college. My first job was as an NBC Page. The Page Program is a highly competitive program where you’re responsible for giving tours of the NBC studios, but you also receive assignments to work for various departments and shows throughout NBC. It’s through that program I was able to work for such prestigious shows like ’Saturday Night Live,’ ’Late Night with Conan O'Brien’ and ’Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.’ Although being a Page was great simply working in television was not my goal when I moved to New York. I wanted to become a director, I took steps toward that by studying and also learning how to edit. Because I believe editors make the best directors. As of today I have made four films, editing hundreds of programs, promos and news features and working on two web series.

Your short films The Truth About Lies, Father and Sons, A Good Day, aren’t particularly “nerdy” have you thought about making a short or a feature of one of your favorite comic books?

You’re right these films aren’t nerdy at all. As a filmmaker, I believe I can make any film, but I have always been drawn to thrillers, drama and films about intrigue. If I could make a comic book film, I have an X-Men film in mind that I would love to do, but since most of the big named comic book characters already have films, I would like to do a Dr. Strange movie starring Johnny Depp!

About The Truth About Lies, the story is romantic and tragic in the same sense that Romeo and Juliet is romantic and tragic, is your web series Fathers and Sons going to reflect similar themes throughout?

Fathers and Sons was written originally as a feature film. I decided to take an element from that film which was the tragic love story and turn that into a short film, The Truth About Lies. The Fathers and Sons web series will be more tragic, but still include elements of love and romance. ‘Fathers and Sons’ is the story of one man’s fight for freedom from a life of crime and servitude. The story unfolds through the eyes of Victor, an intense young man (20s) who struggles to live his own life, separate of that of his “brothers.” Compounding his problem, he begins to fall for a young girl, which is completely forbidden. He reluctantly leads a group of young men known as the “The Sons.” Orphaned or kidnapped at an early age, they were raised and trained for one purpose, to be obediently efficient assassins for their handlers, “The Fathers.” More than a thriller full of edgy excitement, intense drama, action and villains, 'Fathers and Sons’ explores the struggle to control ones own life and the dangers it brings to themselves and others.

I actually had the idea for this film in High School, I was inspired to write the story because I was fascinated with the idea of kid hit men and what that world would look like.

Sounds like you have a love for New York. Tell me about shooting in New York City:

I do have a lot of love for New York City. New York is filled with characters, people from every walk of life. The city itself is visually stimulating. It has so much character that the locations take on a life of their own. They began to feel like “characters” in your film. Also, in New York City, it doesn’t matter your budget or the size of your crew it’s very easy to film here. The city is very encouraging and accommodating for filmmakers. I did a film with a 10k budget, but since I had permits, I still had police protection and streets blocked off while I was filming! That’s awesome!

Have you thought about shooting elsewhere?

Yes, I have considered Baltimore, DC, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Does New York Film provide any subsidies for your shorts or films in the works?

To the best of my knowledge, they do not provide subsidies for short films. There are programs that can assist the filmmaker like the MADE IN NEW YORK program, which gives film and television productions tax breaks and discounts. They also sponsor the Production Assistant Training Program.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on several projects at the moment. I’m in pre-production on two short films, one is a remake of one of my early films A Good Day and the other a heavy themed thriller/drama.

I’m also running my media company, BlackFeet Films Inc. and a video game website Dustycartridges.com, where we just launched a weekly program, ’Gamer’s Life.’

And this summer we will shoot a scripted web series that will accompany this site. And finally, I’m working on a pitch package for 'Fathers and Sons.’

What films have you submitted to HollyShorts Film Festival?

I have submitted The Truth About Lies starring Ser'Darius Blain and Lamorne Morris, we won the Audience Choice at the Monthly Screening Series earning a spot in the festival where we had a successful screening. I also screened the teaser film for 'Fathers and Sons.’ Going forward I will submit every short or web series I do to the HollyShorts Film Festival!

Advice for filmmakers in New York? Filmmakers in general?

The only advice I can offer any filmmaker is to keep creating and keep believing. Also, keep studying, watch EVERY genre of film from every era not just what’s “popular.” Lastly, get yourself a DSLR, some lens with a cheaper editing software and go and write, write, write! Don’t be afraid to fail, stay focused and you’ll be fine!

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks Ark and Arcs in 'Noah'

Each March, the South by Southwest Festival descends on and overtakes the city of Austin for nine days of screenings, concerts, installations and parties. For its lucky attendees, the festival is something of a paradox - a relaxing yet exhausting mix of laidback BBQs, packed concerts with up and coming buzzworthy bands, and high-profile film premieres. To salute the 25th year of SXSW, we are offering a collection of our favorite films from festivals past. So if you couldn’t make it out this year, sit back and soak up a bit of the SXSW atmosphere at your computer. Enjoy!

Each March, the South by Southwest Festival descends on and overtakes the city of Austin for nine days of screenings, concerts, installations and parties. For its lucky attendees, the festival is something of a paradox - a relaxing yet exhausting mix of laidback BBQs, packed concerts with up and coming buzzworthy bands, and high-profile film premieres. To salute the 25th year of SXSW, we are offering a collection of our favorite films from festivals past. So if you couldn’t make it out this year, sit back and soak up a bit of the SXSW atmosphere at your computer. Enjoy!