It was a crash course in storytelling. There is the tenet of there are three times you make a film. When it’s written when it’s shot, and when it’s edited.’ Well, being responsible for all three of those things, it was a great relief to be able to think like an editor while being in the first two phases.

John Painz

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.


'The Earth, the way I left it' is NOW on Vimeo! by #HSFFAlum @JeffPinilla

#HSFFAlum Jeff Pinilla’s short ‘The Earth the Way I Left It’ is now available on Vimeo!

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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.

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Filmmaker Spotlight: Carey Williams


Short films are often a first acquaintance to a feature film that a filmmaker may have in mind. For award winning filmmaker Carey Williams his short, Cherry Waves, will be developed from first acquaintance to a full feature.

Carey also talks to us about his eventful year directing an episode of Banshee Origins, his HBO and NBC wins, upcoming projects, and staying humble.

What has this past year been like for you?

This past year has been a fantastic ride creatively. I had the great fortune of shadowing Emmy-winning director Greg Yaitanes on the television show Banshee. I learned the in’s and out’s of television production, discovering that mostly the difference is the pace and how to direct the actors. I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to direct an episode of their web series Banshee Origins, while there.

I also had the feature version of my short film Cherry Waves optioned by an independent company out of Austin, Texas and have been in development on that for the past few months.

Lastly, I signed with Lindsay Framson at United Talent Agency, which I’m very excited about. She’s great and they really cater to developing talent.

Tell me about your awards:

My short film Cherry Waves received the Best short in the 2012 HBO short film showcase as well as Best Short in the 2012 NBC Shortscuts. I didn’t anticipate the wins. I felt strongly that I had a solid piece, but I was in very strong company of filmmakers in both competitions.

That’s exciting to hear that your short will become a feature. Tell me about Cherry Waves and how you are going to develop it into a feature

The short of Cherry Waves had quite a bit of story crammed into 14 minutes. There was more story to tell, but I had no idea if people would respond to what was there. You never know and that’s the exciting, scary and wonderful thing about art. Once I saw that it started to resonate with folks, I expanded the story and explored the relationships of the characters. I began writing the feature version along with the producer of the short Brad Clements and another writer Rickie Castaneda.

What are your other two new feature projects called? Are you doing any crowd funding for those films?

One project is a psychological thriller in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby meets The Conjuring, that I’m writing with Brad Clements. Here are a couple of visual mood teasers for them.

I’ve found that when I set out to make a new film, I’m anxious to shoot something. I’m a very visual person so I try to shoot something that represents the tone of what I’m thinking and it keeps a fire lit to fully realize the project.

The other project is a drama that I’m writing with Rickie Castaneda. It’s at the stage that I don’t want to say too much it, yet.

Who are you making this film for?

Honestly, I’ve found that I will forever make films for me first and foremost. It goes back to what I stated earlier about never knowing if people will respond to your art or not. All you can do is make something that comes from your true self and your heart, and that you are proud of and that’s it. If people love it, that’s wonderful. If people don’t respond to it, its still okay because you made something that you are happy with.

What films have been an inspiration for you?

The films that have inspired me are varied. I can watch Jaws over, and over again. The way Spielberg directed that film is incredible. Another favorite is Rosemary’s Baby. The subtleness and restraint of that film really resonate with me. It manages to be so creepy without trying too hard. There will be Blood is also a favorite. Recently, Blue is the Warmest Color, blew me away for its rawness. I also thought Spring Breakers was mesmerizing in its filmmaking. Many people want to write that film off, but I felt Harmony Korine nailed it visually with cinematographer Benoît Debie and Harmony put some subversive commentary in there.

Who/what has been your inspiration to your style of filmmaking?

My inspirations for my style of filmmaking has always been music first and foremost. Music is my first love which led me to music videos. In the world of music videos, I was always drawn to the work of strong visualists, such as Chris Cunningham, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Hype Williams, Francis Lawrence, Paul Hunter, and Jonathan Glazer. I developed my craft in the world of music videos, trying different things, sometimes succeeding, oftentimes failing, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with the music as my guide and backbone. I not only grew as a filmmaker, but as a person, losing the fear of failure and as well as the fear of judgement on the art.

My filmmaking progressed to narrative storytelling and in that realm I was drawn to the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, David Fincher, Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. These directors are not only great visualists, using their camera with a specific point of view, but they also elicit excellent performances from their actors. That inspires me.

What advice do you have for starting filmmakers or current filmmakers?

I’m still learning and I hope to always be learning on my journey as a filmmaker, but I do have some words of advice that I remind myself and would share with others:

-Stay humble. Bottom line, no matter where you are in your career, remain humble because it’s a blessing to be able to do it.

- Don’t take it personally. As artists, it can sting when someone trashes your work, something you put your heart and many hours into. Don’t let it discourage you, you will never please everyone. My short film won some wonderful awards, but was also not accepted into many festivals and was even booed at a festival. Art is subjective, don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t like it. As long as you like it, thats what matters. Which leads me to the next—

- Make the piece that you want to make, Go with your damn gut. I had numerous people tell me to change aspects of my short film in order to make it more accessible. Accessible to whom? All I knew is that I had made the story I wanted to tell and if I changed it to make it more “accessible,” I wouldn’t want to stand in front of a theatre of people and represent a film that wasn’t from my true self. Any time you have the chance to make exactly the film that you want to make, take it and don’t listen to anyone telling you what you should do. You are the artist, make your art. Be selfish about it. People are committed to helping you make your art because they believe in you, honor that and make exactly what you are intending to make.

- Its alright to not know the answers. I went through a period of extreme anxiety over not knowing every answer immediately on set. As a director you are asked questions constantly, almost every decision is run through you and I’m telling you, there will be times that you honestly just don’t have the answer at the ready. Red scarf or Blue scarf? Is this enough bruising on her eye? We’re losing light, is this shot really important or should we cut it and move on to the other shots before sundown? Prep can mitigate a lot of those game time decisions, but never all of them so I’m telling you, Its okay to not know the answer. Ask the costume designer, makeup artist, director of photography, etc, what they think if you don’t know. They are your collaborators and will often know what they want already. Allow them to express their creative thoughts and you have the right to agree or disagree based on your vision. You will feel less anxiety and you will also strengthen that bond of trust with your collaborator.

-Have fun dammit. If it’s not, then why do it?

Find out more about Carey Williams-

Carey Williams website:

Twitter: @cdubfilmmaker

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