Of all the Oscar-nominated shorts, Tom Van Avermaet's gorgeous "Death of a Shadow" occupies the most complex and entrancing alternative reality. Matthias Schoenaerts ("Rust and Bone") plays Nathan Rijckx, a deceased WWI soldier stuck in a limbo where an intricate steam-punk machine selects each person's moment of death. He has a second chance at life if he agrees to work for a Grim Reaper figure who collects shadow images of the moment that people die. Rijckx agrees to shoot 10,000 shadows in order to return to life and find the woman he fell in love with at the moment he died.
Flemish director Van Avermaet's 20-minute short won the Best of the Fest Award at LA Shorts Fest 2012 and landed him an agent at CAA, (which also reps Schoenaerts); we will see more of him. In the interview below, Van Avermaet discusses sci fi and film noir, steam-punk, and creating the surreal on film.
Maggie Lange: What is the connection to the controlling clock beat in your 2008 short "Dreamtime," and this machine controlling life and death at the center of "Death of a Shadow."
Tom Van Avermaet: They are similar. The particular element I really loved is to work with machines and the mechanics of a world. In "Dreamtime," the world is dominated by a clock. In "Death Of a Shadow" the machine is to pick out right moment of death of a certain person and to capture a shadow of a person when they die. Of course, I have my own style as a filmmaker and great attention to detail. There are elements I come back to, like the element of someone looking for an unreachable love. Both shorts have those elements. There is a different setting in "Dreamtime," it's more someone dreaming and loving for the first time. In "Dreamtime," it's an ideal woman, in "Death Of a Shadow" it's a real person, a person he met before. It became an obsession for him and she doesn't know that she's loved by him.
ML: What was it about this character Nathan Rijckx that interested you?
TVA: I'm always interested in characters that are obsessive about something and I wanted to him to be obsessive about some moment for him that was huge, but to the other person that was not that huge. This is something that happens with love. I thought it would be interesting if you died at the moment you fell in love, what would you do if you could revisit that moment? What would happen when he discovers that he's not the person she loves, because she loves someone else?
ML: How did you get Matthias Schoenaerts to do this role?
TVA: I've always liked the work that he has done, even before he got a little famous. I asked him to be the main character for "Dreamtime" when I was a student, and we were going to work together when something happened and he couldn't. He said "the next time you do a project, I will be in it," and he kept his word. His acting perfectly fits with the type of cinema I want to do and the type of acting I love. He conveys a real emotion while doing very little. It is unique to cinema; theater is different, but with cinema he can really play on those details. He really knows and really fits with what I want to do. He's the kind of actor I really love to work with.
ML: The world in this film has different notions about life and death. How does fate play into Rijckx's life?
TVA: Well to some extent, [Rijckx] has a certain control over the fate of people when he choses a name in his machine, he can control their fate. It's not a linear world, where things go forward. He is out of time where he can have different options for the person, like alternative worlds. A certain moments this person could have died this way or at a certain time died this way. And life is like that, there are certain moments where you could have died. Sometimes to please the collector he has a certain death, but you see in the film, you see he chooses not to please him. He is in control about what he does. And he has a power and at some point in the movie he might abuse that.
ML: This world is so complex and unique. Do you have thoughts about expanding "Death of a Shadow" into a full feature? What's next for you?
TVA: I don't think this is going to be my next project, but maybe in the future. I spent five years making this films and with all the festivals, I'm still spending time in that world. I'm ready to work in another world first. I want to see if this world [of "Death of a Shadow"], if it has another story to tell, but it wouldn't be logical to extend that story like it is because it's told in twenty minutes. So not maybe as my next project. For the future, I hope to have different projects going on. I just signed with a big agency in the US (CAA) with some great agents. They're working very hard to do the stuff I like. I will hopefully do my first feature, maybe not in five years, but a little sooner. We will see what's possible. I hope to make many more stories, that's the most important thing in my life to tell more stories to people.
ML: Tell me more about the machines in "Death of a Shadow." How did you envision and realize them?
TVA: There are a couple of different machines and a different story behind them. The machine in the empty hall in the world of collections of shadows – that's from the research I did. When I prepare for a movie, I do a lot of research for stuff I like. A retired programmer, who now does nothing but make great these machines that work on hot air; I got the contact of him and asked if could use that particular machine for my film. The camera we created ourselves. I gave a prop person a whole list of elements I wanted to have on the camera, and she reduced a simulation of those elements. And then we had the big machine, it was found [on location]. We shot in the North of France and we found that machine was still working, which is very rare.
ML: The term "steam-punk" is used a lot to describe your work, both for 2008's "Dreamtime" and for "Death of a Shadow." What do you think of that classification?
TVA: Steam-punk is like a general term for science fiction in the Victorian Age, with machines. I do work with elements of steam-punk and sci-fi with machines, but my stories aren't centered around steam-punk. I try to use certain elements to fit my story which are actually more fantastic and use magic realism. I do use elements of steam-punk but it's not the only part of this. I mix different sensibilities.
ML: What is it about the role of the collection, that obsession, that interests you?
TVA: I wanted to show something about the mythical figure of death. I was looking for an original approach to death, a kind of symbolic figure. I wanted to blend that iconic figure into my own reality. I thought, "Why can't he be a collector, like an art collection, but he collects death?" Because the film was in an usual world, and I like to work with light and shadow, the lighting was important. The film noir lightning is a very specific lightning; I love this element. In some countries, it's assigned to the shadow that it is a part of the soul. Why not collect shadows of people that actually die? So the last moments of life are captured as part of this collection. The main character needs to get his shadow back so he can be fully alive again. I guess I was a collector of comics in the early days. For me, it was more to have this original approach to death.
ML: Your shadow paintings remind me of Rorschach tests… something about the dark ink and the movement.
TVA: That wasn't the inspiration, but that is a good connection to hear about. Because it's a psychological element. Because, I guess it captures this little moment of time. They can experience those moments again, that's part of the process. It gets a certain aesthetic feeling about it.
ML: Have you always had a fascination with the history of WWI or the stories around the war?
TVA: I always like the mystery surrounding that period. We know about lot about World War II, sometimes, I think we know too much, because we are bombarded by documentaries and history. Everyone knows that period very well. But the first World War is not that well known. There was not so much material available to record stuff. It's still a mystery what happened. I felt that was ideal for a soldier. When I was thinking about those wars, and there is a certain aesthetic to the costumes, the soldiers' costumes, and the German ones with the spikes, it just fit the aesthetic world I wanted to create more than any other way. There are not a lot of films done about WWI, but that might change because the 100 years is coming up. But I felt this time was the right period for the character.