Filmmaker Spotlight: Tom Van Avermaet

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 eminent ‘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 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 WWI 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 to 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 crowd funding 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 to 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.

Filmmaker Spotlight: Shalako Gordon

Filmmaker Spotlight: Shalako Gordon

Shalako Gordon

This past weekend families celebrated the father figures in their lives; giving gifts, writing sentimental cards, and gathering to honor the fathers who have embossed us with the morals and character that shape us today. Imagine a world where Fathers taught their descendent a set of non-traditional values–in Shalako Gordon’s short story series Father and Sons the father-son dynamic is deadly.

New York based director, gamer and “nerd” Gordon got his start in New York City at the NBC Page program and has gone on to create BlackFeet Films Inc, which hosts his two Award Winning shorts One Word and The Truth About Lies, and a new video game website


Tell me a little about yourself:

My name is Shalako L. Gordon, I am originally from Baltimore, MD. I currently live in New York, I have two kids and I have been working in the entertainment industry for nearly sixteen years. I am a director, editor and producer. I am also the owner and director for the production company, BlackFeet Films Inc. and I run a video game website


What is an interesting characteristic about yourself:

Well I am a self described nerd…actually everyone thinks I’m a nerd and it’s fine by me! I’m a huge comic book fan, with a collection of nearly 4000 books. I also collect statues ,or what some people would call toys, and I’m a gamer, which lead me to create bringing together my two passions film and video games.

As for my characteristics, I have been described as passionate, hard working, focused and creative…at least those are my favorite descriptions of me.


Where did it all begin for you?

I started in the entertainment industry pretty much right out of college. My first job was as an NBC Page. The Page Program is a highly competitive program where you’re responsible for giving tours of the NBC studios, but you also receive assignments to work for various departments and shows throughout NBC. It’s through that program I was able to work for such prestigious shows like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien‘ and ‘Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.’ Although being a Page was great simply working in television was not my goal when I moved to New York. I wanted to become a director, I took steps toward that by studying and also learning how to edit. Because I believe editors make the best directors. As of today I have made four films, editing hundreds of programs, promos and news features and working on two web series.


Your short films The Truth About Lies, Father and Sons, A Good Day, aren’t particularly “nerdy” have you thought about making a short or a feature of one of your favorite comic books?

You’re right these films aren’t nerdy at all. As a filmmaker, I believe I can make any film, but I have always been drawn to thrillers, drama and films about intrigue. If I could make a comic book film, I have an X-Men film in mind that I would love to do, but since most of the big named comic book characters already have films, I would like to do a Dr. Strange movie starring Johnny Depp!


About The Truth About Lies, the story is romantic and tragic in the same sense that Romeo and Juliet is romantic and tragic, is your web series Fathers and Sons going to reflect similar themes throughout?

Fathers and Sons was written originally as a feature film. I decided to take an element from that film which was the tragic love story and turn that into a short film, The Truth About Lies. The Fathers and Sons web series will be more tragic, but still include elements of love and romance. ‘Fathers and Sons’ is the story of one man’s fight for freedom from a life of crime and servitude. The story unfolds through the eyes of Victor, an intense young man (20s) who struggles to live his own life, separate of that of his “brothers.” Compounding his problem, he begins to fall for a young girl, which is completely forbidden. He reluctantly leads a group of young men known as the “The Sons.” Orphaned or kidnapped at an early age, they were raised and trained for one purpose, to be obediently efficient assassins for their handlers, “The Fathers.” More than a thriller full of edgy excitement, intense drama, action and villains, ‘Fathers and Sons’ explores the struggle to control ones own life and the dangers it brings to themselves and others.

I actually had the idea for this film in High School, I was inspired to write the story because I was fascinated with the idea of kid hit men and what that world would look like.


Sounds like you have a love for New York. Tell me about shooting in New York City:

I do have a lot of love for New York City. New York is filled with characters, people from every walk of life. The city itself is visually stimulating. It has so much character that the locations take on a life of their own. They began to feel like “characters” in your film. Also, in New York City, it doesn’t matter your budget or the size of your crew it’s very easy to film here. The city is very encouraging and accommodating for filmmakers. I did a film with a 10k budget, but since I had permits, I still had police protection and streets blocked off while I was filming! That’s awesome!


Have you thought about shooting elsewhere?

Yes, I have considered Baltimore, DC, Atlanta and Los Angeles.


Does New York Film provide any subsidies for your shorts or films in the works?

To the best of my knowledge, they do not provide subsidies for short films. There are programs that can assist the filmmaker like the MADE IN NEW YORK program, which gives film and television productions tax breaks and discounts. They also sponsor the Production Assistant Training Program.


What are you working on now?

I’m working on several projects at the moment. I’m in pre-production on two short films, one is a remake of one of my early films A Good Day and the other a heavy themed thriller/drama.

I’m also running my media company, Black Feet Films Inc. and a video game website, where we just launched a weekly program, ‘Gamer’s Life.’

And this summer we will shoot a scripted web series that will accompany this site. And finally, I’m working on a pitch package for ‘Fathers and Sons.’


What films have you submitted to HollyShorts Film Festival?

I have submitted The Truth About Lies starring Ser’Darius Blain and Lamorne Morris, we won the Audience Choice at the Monthly Screening Series earning a spot in the festival where we had a successful screening. I also screened the teaser film for ‘Fathers and Sons.’ Going forward I will submit every short or web series I do to the HollyShorts Film Festival!


Advice for filmmakers in New York? Filmmakers in general?

The only advice I can offer any filmmaker is to keep creating and keep believing. Also, keep studying, watch EVERY genre of film from every era not just what’s “popular.” Lastly, get yourself a DSLR, some lens with a cheaper editing software and go and write, write, write! Don’t be afraid to fail, stay focused and you’ll be fine!

Filmmaker Spotlight: John Matysiak

Filmmaker Spotlight: John Matysiak

John Matysiak
John Matysiak

Texan born filmmaker John Matysiak has a  range of reel under his belt from features,commercials, to shorts that have premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Recently John has taken on all roles from behind the camera to acting along with his wife, Michelle Fine, to create  ‘At Altitude.’ The power couple rope together to complete the short film to bring the story of a couple that treks up Mount Rainier and faces the challenges not only the climb but the struggles within the relationship. Two filmmakers, ten days, one mountain, and one amazing dynamic duo.

John also shares with us his beginning as a filmmaker, upcoming features, the reward in storytelling and advice for freelance filmmakers.


Tell me about your background:

I am originally from Sugar Land, TX, small suburb of Houston. I got started like many people, making videos with my friends growing up. One day my history teacher, Coach Madden, gave our class the option to create a video presentation instead of writing a research paper, I think from then on, I knew I wanted to make films for the rest of my life. It just wasn’t until applying for college several years later that I realized you could actually go to school and get a degree and do it for a living. I think both my parents thought I was a little crazy and out of my mind.


How did you get your start in the film industry?

My summer of my senior year in high school, I got a job as an intern for a large studio in Houston, and that’s really where I learned the basics of the workings of the set. What the different departments are, what the hierarchy is on a film production, particularly commercial production. By the end of the summer I knew all of the grip and electrical gear and had worked my way up from unpaid intern to actually being hired out on commercials as a grip. This more than anything else gave me an advantage upon arriving at film school.

After I left film school, the main reason I went freelance was that no one would hire me full-time at a production company. I tried for months, countless interviews and countless resumes later I still was unemployed when a good friend of mine called me and asked if I wanted to work as a best boy on a feature, I’ve been freelancing to this day.


Have you thought about starting your own production company?

I haven’t given it any real thought, in terms of starting my own production company. At the moment I find myself busy working on other people’s movies and enjoy the freedom being able to work for a wide range of companies. As the industry changes, I may change my mind but who knows.


What comes easiest to you as a filmmaker?

As a filmmaker and cinematographer, I believe composition may come the easiest. It’s always been instinctual, it seems like, my parents bought me a still camera at an early age, perhaps I got all of my bad pictures out-of-the-way when I was younger. But as I continually push myself on each job and project I do find myself trying to question my compositions, is this really the best, is there a better angle or lens choice for this particular shot. The key is, even if it comes easy or natural you do have to continue to push yourself to grow with each time you’re behind the camera.


Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration. Inspiration is an interesting one. The stories inspire me, people inspire me. The whole notion of a team of people creating a world from scratch inspires me. When I read a script, I immediately begin to see the film in my head, like most people. I suppose that more than anything inspires me, reading something from a page and being able to visualize it, then months later being able to be on set and bring that story to life, with a team of craftsmen and artisans , it’s a pretty special experience. But other than that I’d say that daily life inspires me. I’m constantly looking at how light reacts to the world and different locations. Whether it’s an unusual way the sun is reflecting off of a surface or how practical lighting is used.


Tell me about your short film making history and your short that went to HollyShorts:

Like many filmmakers, I started making shorts earlier on,what began as video projects with friends in high school turned into short films all through film school and even into the professional world.  As you build your reel as a cinematographer you’re constantly trying to find scripts and projects that will push yourself and help you develop your techniques and visual style. I’d say ever since I was able to actually call myself a cinematographer, I’d usually work on one or two shorts a year. I’ve been fortunate to work on some shorts that have done really well and played festivals all over the world. CERTIFIED, which played at HollyShorts actually premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, which was an incredible experience, you never know what can come out of a one day shoot sometimes. I recently finished up a short film that I shot with my wife called ‘At Altitude in which we were the only crew, doing everything from sound to acting. We shot for 6 days on the side of Mount Rainer while climbing to the summit.


Any features in the works?

I’m in the beginning stages of prep on several features that start shooting before the end of the year. Lately I’ve been shooting more commercials than anything else, which has been great in terms of expanding my horizon. I come from a feature world, having shot over a dozen features in the last three years, so its been a nice change of pace to focus on an extreme short form of story telling.


What is your favorite thing about being a filmmaker?

Being able to visual a story, collaborate with others and then bring that story to life and share it with an audience is a huge reward. Traveling and experiencing different cultures has been a close second.  It’s been life enriching beyond belief, and has ultimately changed the way I live my life and how I see and look at the world.


What advice do you have to filmmakers starting out? In the freelancing world?

Shoot. Shoot as often as you can. Shoot as much as you can. Try to surround yourself with people who will help build you up and help push and inspire you. One of the greatest things about an institution like a film school is the competitive nature of the environment. Trying to force yourself to acknowledge your peer’s work as well as really bring the best work out of yourself. The industry has changed so much since I starting working freelance. The technology has changed, the landscape has changed, even visual aesthetics have changed. It is important to keep up with current trends, not in a sense of copying or imitating but just in terms of being knowledgeable of our industry.