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Oscar Q & A: Meet Tom Van Avermaet, Director of Darkly Glimmering Short 'Death of a Shadow' (TRAILER)

Thompson on Hollywood By Maggie Lange | Thompson on Hollywood February 18, 2013 at 2:56PM

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.
Death of a Shadow - Collector

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.

Death of a Shadow - Gallery

This article is related to: Shorts, Short Film, Academy Awards, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Shorts, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.