Tom Shoval, The ‘best cinema school’

The ‘best cinema school’

June 2015 - Tom Shoval, 2014-2015 Film

Like his famous mentor Alejandro González Iñárritu, young film director Tom Shoval has a recent Academy Award nominee for a short film that he co-wrote, which suggests that Shoval too could be destined for cinematic greatness. Here he explains how he got involved in the project and describes his mentorship with Iñárritu in the Rolex Arts Initiative.

The Rolex Arts Initiative : What made you decide you wanted to become a film-maker?
Tom Shoval: From a very young age, I was enchanted by the possibilities of cinema. All my life, as long as I can remember, cinema played a crucial part. I devoured films, read everything I could about them, I wrote about them. At the age of 13, at my bar mitzvah, I received a gift from my parents — upon my request and pleading, of course — for a VHS camera and I started making little films with my neighbours and friends. I was actually a cliché of a cinema child. It was very clear to me even then that I wanted to express myself in cinema language and stay as close as I could to this medium.

Have you had any unofficial mentors in Israel who have helped you or taken you under their wing?
I studied at the Sam Spiegel Film School, where most of the teachers are film-makers in every respect. Orit Azulay, a major casting director and also a teacher, was a big influence on me while I was studying there. In her classes I understood deeply the meaning of uncovering and finding the soul of a character and exposing it through the camera lens. I was also very fortunate to have her as the casting director of my first feature,
Youth, and the voyage we experienced together casting this film is one of the profound journeys of my life.

You're now being mentored by Alejandro González Iñárritu. What was your first meeting with him like, when he was choosing his protégé? What connections did you feel or establish artistically, intellectually and/or emotionally?
I was kind of amazed how fluent our first meeting was. I met him on the sound stage, while he was doing the sound design for
Birdman, and I saw some images running on the big screen and was in shock from those few frames. Then we went to a restaurant and I was still under the influence of the flying Michael Keaton sequence I just saw, but the conversation just started and didn't end. We talked about cinema, about our own films and about life in general. Even though we are from different, faraway places I felt we have a lot in common — our love for cinema, passion for life and some autobiographical elements that connected us immediately.

As the mentoring year officially began, Iñárritu was editing Birdman and now he is shooting his new film, The Revenant, in Calgary, Canada. What has the mentoring process been like so far?
It has really been a ride for me, starting with being on the sound stage in the final editing and mixing of Birdman and actually witnessing a modern classic being born; going through my extended visits on the set of The Revenant, which has absolutely been the best cinema school one could ask for, seeing how Alejandro builds a shot, choreographs and moves all the elements and creates a complex and emotional peak in every frame. It's been a completely overwhelming experience for me. Alejandro, with his generosity and passion for cinema, allowed me to be present through the entire decision-making process -- which is not something you can take for granted. Also, our conversations about cinema were inspiring for me and a lot of our talks helped me with the work on my new film and in life in general. I am truly thankful for this outstanding opportunity.

How would you describe the similarities and differences between Alejandro's style and working methods and your own?
Alejandro is a total film-maker. He embraces the story, characters and style, and it seems like he is living every aspect of the film, as if the film were a part of his spirit. As I watched him direct, using all his charisma, I thought to myself that I wish that I had this quality, to become as one with the film. My approach is somewhat different in the sense that I am looking from the outside, constantly gazing at the world that we are creating in front of the camera lens. Maybe it is true to say that I am echoing my own film, I am like its shadow, or maybe the film is actually my own mirror reflection. Maybe the temperament is different between us, but the essence is the same and that is why we understand each other so well and get along, and why we also became good friends.

How would you describe Iñárritu as a director? What do you find special and most exciting about his working methods?
I think he understands something very profound about cinema — he really understands the metaphysical aspects of time and space and movement in this medium and how to make all of this dance together. He is like a choreographer and a musician and a painter combined, and refers to space and time as his stage. He is also a very physical and sensual director, and you can feel in every scene he creates a sense of life and the romantic side of it. I am very connected to his approach.

Do you already feel that, when you direct your next film, you will approach some things differently due to having watched Iñárritu work?
Sure, there is no doubt about that. I will try to practise some of his notions on space and mise-en-scene and try myself to choreograph it so that reality and cinema can inhabit the same place harmonically.

You co-wrote the script for Aya, a 39-minute film that has been nominated for the Academy Award for best live-action short. The other writers, Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnum, were also the directors. How did you become involved in this film, and did you have any idea that it might be nominated?
Mihal and Oded were working on a script for a feature when they unexpectedly received financing for a short film from the CNC fund [France’s Centre National du Cinéma], so they decided to put off the writing of the feature and focus on the short. They actually cut out a scene from their feature and approached me, asking if I could turn this scene into a short film. We've known each other for a long time and they like the way I write, so they thought that perhaps I could bring something of my approach and the tender irony I usually write with to make the main character in the scene believable, compelling and interesting. I was flattered, of course, and accepted immediately. I wrote a draft and then the three of us worked together on the final touches of the script.

Aya is about the encounter of two strangers and the possibilities that arise from their meeting. They meet unexpectedly at an airport. He mistakenly assumes her to be his assigned driver. She, enchanted by the random encounter, does not hurry to prove him wrong. The writing process was very interesting, as we tried to break this encounter into a series of human nuances and to actually create intimacy between two complete strangers.

Aya was kind of an unexpected success. It was actually the first short film that was commercially screened in cinemas in Israel, where it was a great success and won the Israeli Oscar, the Ophir, in the short film section. But I never even considered the possibility of a real Oscar nomination. It came as a wonderful surprise.

How many Israelis have ever been nominated for Oscars in any categories?
Israel is actually a champion in nominations for the foreign film section, with more than 10 films, but not even one win. There were also nominations for Israeli films in the documentary sections but, as far as I know, our film has the first nomination in the short live action section.

What are you doing right now and what are your upcoming plans?
Right now, I am working on my second feature film. I am just finishing the scriptwriting and we are aiming to shoot towards the end of the year or the beginning of 2016. The working title is Shake Your Cares Away. It's an Israeli, French and German co-production, a drama with dark and absurdist elements on the class gaps in Israeli society, echoing Viridiana, Luis Buñuel’s grand masterpiece. I'm also in pre-production for a new short film called Justification, which will start shooting in April.