Death of a Shadow (2012) marks Tom Van Avermaet’s first professional short film (though he has made magnificent Droomtijd in 2006). This story of love and loss centers on a deceased World War I soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) who has to collect shadows to regain a second chance at life and love. Death of a Shadow was nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action Academy Award. In this short interview done days before Oscar ceremony, Van Avermaet talked about his film and cinema.
Where did the idea of “Death of a Shadow” come from?
I’ve always loved to work with metaphysical concepts and beings, I find the figurative depictions of human concepts both fascinating and extremely interesting. At the inception of this new project, I decided I wanted to give my own take on one of these symbolic figures, namely that of ‘Death’. But my interpretation would not be that of the hooded, scythed figure in which form he’s most know in Europe. My death would be a collector, but one where the pieces of art he collected would actually be moments of death, moments of men and women dying. And this figure would interpret these ‘deaths’ as like an art critic would do paintings, finding their intricate estethic value in the way they were conceived.
But as film is a visual medium I had to find a way to actually give these moments a visually aspect. Given the fact that I’ve always loved the play of shadow and light and seeing as our shadows are more or less our reflection on the ‘real world’ of the light touching us, I felt it a good idea that this strange collector would actually collect shadows of moments of death. I then started thinking a little bit further, how would this ‘man’ actually get the works into his gallery? This led me to the idea of having people who died, people who’s shadow is actually in the gallery, be part of this system and let them barter a second chance at life for the amount of shadows equal to the number of days they had lived. This led me to the story of Nathan Rijckx within this world and the total story of the movie as it is today.
In Dreamtime (Droomtijd) and Death of a Shadow you use brown color vastly, can you elaborate on this?
I guess this comes from my love of contrast and my love to make my films have a certain dark feel, a certain depth and thickness of the colors in the movie. If these movies were paintings, they would be made with thick oil paints, the colors have to be heavy and rich, they have to express a certain mood and atmosphere and I guess the brownish/blackish tints are colors that come more natural to me in the past movies that I made.
Many filmmakers, who started from short film, then went to make feature films based on their short films. Do you plan to make “Death of a Shadow” as a feature film?
Orginally I had not planned to do this, as I felt the story of Nathan has been told in this movie and also, because I spent the past five years of my life (and even 6 if you count all the festival promotion and distribution) I felt (and still feel) that I’m ready for another worlds and other stories. But seeing as there seems to be genuine interest of people in seeing more of the world, I at least have to consider diving back in and seeing if there’s a feature film hidden in gallery of shadows somewhere. The story as it is would not be sufficient for a feature film, but that doesn’t mean the world and the general concept couldn’t handle one. But at the moment this would be more a project that I would develop for a later time (if I feel that there’s a feature story there) than my first feature film. But I’m not saying it could never happen.
Who are your favorite filmmakers? Who inspired you mostly?
There are a lot of inspiring filmmakers in the world and history of cinema, from the great silent film makers like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodore Dreyer, to the inspiration to any visual filmmaker in the greatest director that probably ever lived in Stanley Kubrick. I have a great love for filmmakers who love the same visual style of fantastic tale-telling as me, be it people like Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Darren Aronofsky, Jean Pierre Jeunet,…. They use certain elements of storytelling that very much appeal to me as they use things I love as well, al though I of course have my own take on things that’s different from theirs.
How do you feel being nominated for Oscar? Have you seen any of the other nominated short films?
The films I make are quite surreal, but the fact that the film is now being nominated has really topped anything I could think of. Given the fact that the movie was so hard to even get made and took so long to get the proper funding, made the actual complement already a little victory. The fact that the film is now one of the five films in line for an oscar, is just amazing and something you can dream of, but never believe it will actually happen. This is one of those live changing moments for a filmmaker, win or lose, you’ll be forever be a little part of film history. I have only seen one of the other films but will discover them all very soon and from what I’ve heard and seen makes me very grateful to even be in the company of such strong works and artists. In my mind, even who wins the oscar in the end, we’re all a little bit winners already.
Your style reminds me of Jean-Pier Jounet, but your stories are more fantastical and somehow related to the German literature, Kafka and Goethe in your two shorts respectively, can you tell me more about your visual style and the influence of literature on your work?
I can understand the Jeunet reference as ,like stated previously, he has a great love of visual storytelling where art direction plays a great part in creating a world, a trait and love that I very much share. My tales are indeed a bit darker than his, more melancholic to some extent as well and the German expressionism both in art as in literature is a dark stream in which I like to wallow from time to time as well. Like both Kafka & Goethe, I very much like the metaphysical and surreal, the structures of a world and the sometimes bone crushing limits these worlds put my characters in. In Dreamtime the system of time dominates all, to an extent that emotions and dreaming have become a forbidden fruit ready to discover but dangerous in the eating, in Death of a shadow the main character uses the elements and confines of his “under’world to his own advantage, but discovers soon that perhaps even those powers have their dangers. And perhaps, sharing with those two writers is the longing for escape from the current situation the characters are trapped it, be it the dictatorship of the clock in ‘Dreamtime’ and the eternal longing towards life and love from the prison of death by the main character in ‘Death of a shadow’.
Can you talk about your next movie, you told me there are some ideas you like to work on for your next project?
I’m working on a couple of ideas, it’s hard to share them already as they’re very much in their early stages and they still need a lot of work, though I will share that memories and their bond to our lives will play a very important part in the idea in furthest one. I also hope to see if there are some of my favorite works in literature and other media available to adapt. I hope in other words to have a lot of irons in the fire so that I won’t have to wait five years again to do another project. But important with all of them will be that I can make the movies my own and that they can tell a story I want to tell, in a style I want to tell them.
How was working with a superstar like Mthias Schoenarts?
Working with an actor of such talent (and even working with my talented cast as whole) was a very fulfilling experience, as actors like Matthias, who have a great talent for understanding the physical nature of their craft and the effect a certain shot has on the way the actor has to perform, is a great bonus to any filmmaker. I could not have asked for a better front man, even though he’s playing a sort of character that might differ from his other power house performances, this only goes to show how multi-facetted he actually is. I feel he has a great future ahead and I hope I can only use his talents in coming projects as well, finding interesting challenges for him both as a person and the skilled actor that he is.
Each frame of your movie is like a painting, can we say Death of a Shadow is a painting about beauty of death?
As my stories are very visual and I’m a bit of the old school mentality that I want to tell the story as much with pictures as I can, I take great care in the style and composition of the shots, with the help of the very talented people at my disposal, like my director of photography Stijn Van Der Veken (and Nicolas Karakatsanis before him). Having people like that understand what you’re trying to achieve really helps you in making the movie you want, and as without those wonderful people your dreams and ideas stay just that in the end, they really are a great asset to me as a filmmaker.
The film itself can be looked at both a story on the beauty of death and the beauty of life and the combination of the two, where in dying a new beauty can be created in the lives of the living. There is great sadness in life and somewhat an escape from that if you don’t ‘have’ to live, but without that sadness (or the chance of it) real happiness would also be difficult to attain.
How much are you familiar with Iranian cinema? Is there any Iranian filmmaker or movie which you like?
I’m familiar with a couple of Iranian filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami the closest because I’ve seen most of his oeuvre, but ‘A separation’ by Asghar Farhadi, last year’s oscar winner also was a very powerful meditation on the structure of Iranian society and how certain little things can have big effects on people’s lives. What I’ve always loved about Iranian cinema is the poetic realism, the beauty in the small things that make the poetic truth of the stories really chine to a new level. There are some very talented filmmakers in Iran and I hope to discover more of them in the future.

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