The Oscar nomination for Death of a Shadow is opening doors for producer Ellen De Waele, attracting new talent and bringing offers for international co-productions. Meanwhile her company, Serendipity Films, is about to release its first fiction feature, 82 Days in April. ‘It’s a very exciting time,’ she says. ‘We hope to start developing more projects, to grow and also be more active on the international level. It’s something I’m really looking forward to.’

Text Ian Mundell | Portrait Bart Dewaele

ellenDe Waele studied journalism and anthropology, but found neither entirely satisfying. Journalism was too shallow and the immersion required for field anthropology was too intense. So she set out to explore the possibilities of using visual means to popularise anthropology. 'I started falling in love with stories and especially the view on reality you get from documentary,' she recalls. 'That was really what I wanted to do.'

After an initiation into film production in South Africa, she returned to Belgium and in 1999 found work producing commercials with Roses Are Blue (a company which evolved into Caviar). From there she moved to Czar, again working on commercials, before helping set up its documentary and fiction label CCCP. Here she worked on the early shorts of Michaël R. Roskam (Carlo, The one Thing To Do), Blush by choreographer Wim Vandekeybus and Ex Drummer by Koen Mortier. But she wanted more scope to choose projects that appealed to her on a personal level, and so in 2006 she set up on her own as Serendipity Films.

'As an independent producer suddenly I had this liberty to make my own choices, 'she says'. I could put a lot more of who I was into my projects.' These first productions reflected her interest in Africa. One was the award-winning Grande Hotel by Lotte Stoops, a portrait of the people living in the shell of a once luxurious hotel in Mozambique. Then there was Boyamba Belgique, by Dries Engels and Bart van Peel, which attempted to track down the Congolese man who had stolen the King of Belgium's sword on the eve of the country's independence in 1960. Closer to home she produced the acclaimed Epilogue by Manno Lanssens, an intimate film where he follows a 50-year-old terminally ill woman through the last year of her life when she sets about making funeral arrangements and ushering her husband and three children through the grieving process. It was only afterwards that she wondered about the attraction these stories held for her.

'It's not the misery of Africa, it's not the suffering of a woman in the last stages of her life, it's more about people's strength,' she says. 'For me, that's the thread that connects them: we are all human, at certain moments we suffer, but our inner strength allows us to overcome.' The fact that these were all first-time directors was a coincidence. 'They just came with good stories and good ideas,' she says. But it meant that more was required of her as a producer, particularly since their proposals were ideas rather than fully formed film projects. 'It takes time and coaching, but at the same time you are more involved in developing these good ideas into captivating films.’

Challenging project

82From the outset De Waele had planned to produce fiction films as well as documentaries, beginning with a feature by Bart Van den Bempt. They had worked together on advertising projects and De Waele was production manager of his short film 15' Metromania. 'When he talked about this film he wanted to make about a couple travelling to Istanbul to reconstruct their son's last journey after his death I thought: "Oh, yes!" It was a great idea and a film that I really wanted to see made.' She knew that funding the project would be challenging. 'Bart has a lot of audiovisual experience and you see that immediately, but it remains a first film.' Then the global economic crisis broke. 'We started 82 Days in April before the crisis and had a lot of interest, which then disappeared.' It has taken much longer than planned, but their tenacity has paid off and the film is in the final stages of post-production.' Editing is one of the most exciting moments, but also the most scary,' she says. 'You see the strengths and the weaknesses, and then it's a matter of making the right decisions.' In the case of 82 Days in April that has been relatively easy. 'We were basically on the same wavelength, and then seeing the impact of our decisions on the edit showed us we were on the right track.'

Oscar exposure

tomMeanwhile a chance appeared for Serendipity to make a rather different kind of fiction debut. Tom Van Avermaet had won a VAF Wildcard for his student short Dreamtime and embarked on the follow-up with a Dutch producer. De Waele was to co-produce, but when funding fell through in The Netherlands she made the project her own. The story concerns a soldier killed in the First World War who has made a bargain with a mysterious collector of souls. If the soldier gathers 10,000 deaths, capturing their shadows using a special camera, he will get a second chance of life and a way back to the girl he loves. De Waele was attracted by the magic realism of the story and Van Avermaet's vision. 'He had prepared the universe that he wanted to create for his film very well. When you read the script, you could already see the movie,' she says. 'I also liked the fact that it was really a story and not 20 minutes out of what could be his first feature film.' The rest is history. With Matthias Schoenaerts in the lead role, Death of a Shadow was nominated for the 2013 Oscars in the live-action short film category.

This has opened lots of doors for Van Avermaet. Tom is very much in demand at the moment in the States, and people are proposing scripts to him,' De Waele says. 'I think that, for the genre of films he wants to make, it's the best market to be in.' In the short term she hopes Serendipity will be involved as a co-producer, but initiating a new project with him may take longer. 'He has concentrated all his time on Death of a Shadow so he doesn't have a script in the draw at the moment, although he does have a lot of ideas.' For De Waele, the Oscar exposure has increased the number of people who want to work with Serendipity. 'I'm getting quite a lot of propositions at the moment, including from more experienced directors,' she says. 'It's always thrilling to discover new talent, but for the future I'd like to get more of a balance between first-time and experienced directors.' She also hopes the Oscar will open the door to more co-productions. 'Within Europe we can’t do without co-productions, but now there is a very keen interest out of the States in co-producing with Europe. Flanders has a perfect climate for that at the moment, so let them come!' However, it will be a little while before she can announce anything concrete. 'We have a few projects in the pipeline, but nothing advanced enough to talk about. But it looks really thrilling.

Published on Wednesday 5 June 2013

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