[Fabien Delage, the voice of Rue Morgue France, was mightily impressed with Death of a Shadow, a short film about a man who collects the shadows of the dying. Fabien checks in with a Sinister Seven with the film’s director, Tom Van Avermaet, whose short has been stirring up considerable buzz on the festival circuit.]
Death of a Shadow is fantastic – the framing and cinematography are amazing. What are your main influences? Are there any directors that inspire you?
Thank you very much for your kind words! I’m honored and humbled that people enjoy the film. Making a movie is always a little bit like being a parent; your project is your baby and you’re always people like it and that it has an effect on them. I also was very lucky to work with a very talented technical crew, like my director of photography Stijn Van der Veken, which helps make my mission to bring the story to life a lot easier.
[Some of my major influences] are in the realm of comic books. I’ve always loved the stylized framing of that medium, with amazing writers like Neil Gaiman lending their talents to create surreal visual worlds. In the audiovisual spectrum I’m a big admirer of the great surrealists of the international cinema world, the people who have the talent and insight to make the fantastic and strange come to life in a natural way. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is one of my heroes on that front, as are people like Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Raoul Servais (a famous Belgian animator who coached me for this project and whose work in the short film realm is legendary), Michel Gondry and Tim Burton. Stanley Kubrick is also one of my biggest role models in the world of cinema, but I guess he’s an icon for most people who try their hand at directing visual films.
You directed the movie but you also wrote the script, about a strange collector who imprisons shadows, which is a really cool plot for a short. How did you come up with this idea? Can you tell us more about the storyline?
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the plot! I’ll give you a quick recap of the storyline: Stuck in a limbo between life and death, Nathan Rijckx, a deceased World War I soldier has to collect shadows to regain a second chance at life and love. With two shadows left to collect, he discovers something that shakes his world completely.
As to where the idea came from, I’ve always been fascinated with the metaphysical figure of Death and how he’s portrayed in literature and comic books. I wanted to give my own interpretation to this figure and while looking for an original way to do this, I thought, why not make Death like an art collector, someone who appreciates moments of death like pieces of art? As film is very much an audiovisual medium, I tried to find a way to make this idea more visual and seeing as I’ve always loved to play with light and shadows, I decided to make him collect moments of death in the form of shadows. Shadows are also an integral part of us as human beings, they are our link between a little bit with the world, so that’s why I thought it might be a good idea to have the people working for this collector to actually go and find the shadows, have their own shadow as sort of a special part of the collection, thus leaving them a bit stuck between being alive and being really dead and part of this infinite collection of shadows.
Death of a Shadow has earned a number of awards at film festivals all over the world. What is the next step for the movie?
Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to win some major awards, as the film has now been part of the Oscar long list for best live action short by winning at LA Shorts Fest and also earned a nomination for the European Oscars, as well as being fortunate enough to be appreciated by what I still consider my core audience, the lovers of fantastic film both in Nice and in Paris.
I’m very glad the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival gave me a chance to open the festival, it’s a great honor, especially considering how large and appreciative the group of spectators was.
Right now, I’m off to St. Louis for the international film festival there. After that I will be in France again, this time for the “festival du film court du Villeurbanne.” After that I’m going home to Belgium to screen at the biggest short film festival in Flanders, where I’m fortunate enough to have the film screen no less than ten times (I still can’t believe it).
After that I hope the film can still do a lot of festivals (we started our festival life in June, so we should still have a couple of years available to tour the world). I hope it can reach audiences everywhere and that as many people as possible get a chance to see it. I also really hope that I can be part of a lot of fantastic film festivals as well, as they always will hold a special place in my heart with their fan base devoted to the fantastic.
The script is very rich, as is the universe you’re developing in the movie. Did you ever think about making a full-length with the same storyline?
People are very interested in the storyline, so I might revisit it in the future, but as I’ve spent multiple years trying to get the film made, I now feel that I have to tell a different story (for me this story has been told at the moment, although the future might bring back an appetite to revisit it, of course.
But I hope my new ideas can be as successful and I hope I can continue to create and bring life to new and strange universes.
Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Bullhead, Black Book), who plays Nathan Rijckx, the shadow catcher, has become very popular. Was it difficult to cast him in your movie? How was your collaboration?
I actually asked Matthias to be part of my thesis film, Droomtijd, way back in 2005, but unfortunately due to circumstances he was unable to participate in the project. After the film got made (with another excellent actor, Maarten Claeyssens, playing the main character) Matthias saw it and continued his support for me as a filmmaker and really wanted to have another opportunity to work with me (as I with him). I asked him to do Death of a Shadow and he instantly accepted. Even though we had quite a difficult pre-production concerning getting the funding for this film, he stood by the project and always supported me.
Our collaboration was great, he’s truly one of the most talented actors currently working worldwide and I’m extremely happy that his career has skyrocketed. On set he was the perfect partner, as he always had a good idea and was very aware of the audiovisual medium in which he was performing. He really is a one-in-a-generation kind of talent and I hope in the future I can be fortunate enough to work with him again.
In Death of a Shadow, there is a strong color contrast between interior and exterior sequences. The scenes shot on the outside are very cold and bluish compared to those shot inside the collector’s manor. The interior shots are very warm, almost baroque; and the equipment Nathan Rijckx uses to find and capture the collector’s trophies looks very retro-futuristic. Do you like steampunk? Did this artistic style inspire the props and some set elements for the movie?
Yes, color and the contrast between locations is very important to me. The palette we used is a bit opposite to what you would think to link with the desires of the main character – he’s yearning for a cold reality, whereas the surreal limbo of the collector, in which he is [trapped], is very warm and welcoming in tone.
As you might see from the movie, I love the retro-sci-fi elements of steampunk. I’ve always been fascinated by machines from the Victorian age, these intricate clock-like structure that exude so much personality and craftsmanship and make for beautiful set-pieces. I think there’s a very rich culture in the steampunk world that’s still very much being underused/developed in film, so if I can use certain elements in my worlds, I’m more that happy to do this.
So yes, [steampunk] has definitely inspired me. There’s even an artist, Jos De Vink, who’s known worldwide for his hot air steampunk sculptures who helped me with one of the props of the film. I think it’s wonderful that people still love the details and intricacy of the constructions of Victorian-like machines and I hope I can keep using machines like this in future works as well.
What is your next project? Are you working on another short? Do you plan to shoot a feature?
I don’t think I’ll be making any more short films after this one. Sometimes the amount of effort needed to create a short film as compared to a feature is almost equal and I feel that I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to make that step into the full-length film world. I’m currently bouncing a couple of ideas around for future scripts, although hopefully I can develop a couple of project at the same time. I’ll have to chain myself to a desk one of these days and start writing them all down, but I hope that at least by this time next year, I’ll have my first feature into development.