Director Profile – Thomas Nuijten
Using anything from magnifying glasses to mirrors to create his films, our young director doesn't play by the rules
Thomas Nuijten’s curiosity about the way people lead their lives is what sparked off his interest in becoming a filmmaker. His passion for art history is vivid throughout his work, which often features a combination of suggestive narratives and aesthetic references to artists who inspire him. Thomas’ non-conformist DIY filmmaking techniques all work together to achieve an ethereal, almost supernatural atmosphere in the majority of his films.
What sparked your interest in filmmaking?
I have a very creative family – my mother and sister are both artists. It’s funny because when I was younger my sister was always the creative one, whereas I was more academic. It wasn’t until I was 14 that something changed. I remember I would always cycle home from school and come across these high-rise apartment buildings. As I peered up at the windows I would wonder what was going on inside those apartments. I never thought this was out of the ordinary until I confessed this to a friend, who told me they never felt that same curiosity towards other people. That’s when I thought to myself “Jesus – I want to do something that can instil in others that same kind of interest”. And that’s where it all began…
So did you go ahead and buy a camera?
I bought myself a camera at the age of 16, but was a bit shy to begin with! I started off making my own music videos to songs I liked (which were really quite corny), and just generally experimenting in my own time.
You studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Ghent. Was there any reason you chose that particular film school?
I actually started studying Media and Culture in Amsterdam but I found it a bit too academic, too analytical. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to become a director! So I took a year off and looked at a lot of different film schools - here in the Netherlands and abroad - and I ended up choosing Ghent because it very much focused on art-house cinema.
In the Netherlands, you have to opt for direction in either fiction or documentary, whereas in Belgium they don’t make you choose between the two. You can learn the whole process from the perspective of every department.
So what made you come back?
I did my master’s in Belgium but I didn’t find Ghent very inspiring compared to Amsterdam, which is such a cultural city. On an artistic level, I actually prefer Belgium. The Flemish Film Fund seems to be much less bureaucratic than the Dutch Film Fund. In the Netherlands there is a whole process you have to go through to get your films funded, starting with making a short for TV and so on. I know quite a few people in Belgium who got the opportunity to do a feature film straight after completing their master’s. I can’t imagine that ever happening here.
In Canted Conscience, many parts are very still – like a series of photographs. When did you start to introduce those kinds of elements into your work?
I like my work to always have some movement in it, so I don’t photograph much. I compare how I see a shot with how I see a page from a book: it’s filled with references to things outside of that page, but you need some time to read and understand it fully. In all of my projects, I try to make sure every shot is very well composed and everything has a purpose. Every colour, every angle, everything.
How do you feel about the industry that you have become a part of?
It’s constantly changing. A lot of people tend to focus on making their work ‘hip and trendy,’ but I try to break away from that pattern. A month or a year later, what was once considered fashionable will have moved onto something else… I prefer to take things a bit more slowly. For example, I am currently writing four separate fiction films, and my aim is to complete just one in the next five years.
Your portfolio features a lot of fashion films –- was that something you picked up at film school, or was it something you have always had an interest in?
I have been interested in fashion since I was 16. Fiction has always held a special place in my heart, particularly when it is quite suggestive. I don’t like it when fiction films are super explicit and in-your-face. I prefer to give people the freedom to use their imagination. The film I did for my master’s, Monica’s End, is a good example of this more ambiguous style I tend to go for.
What is it about fashion films specifically that you find so intriguing?
Well, of course each fashion film is different. I think what brings them all together, though, is a combination of aesthetics, a strong concept, and the fact you are working with a designer rather than one artist who you need to ensure is constantly in shot. In fashion, you are working with someone who has specific ideas and it is your job to find a way to translate those ideas into a new medium – film.
That is something I love, two distinct artistic expressions coming together to create something beautiful. I also appreciate the fact that fashion films are a relatively new concept, meaning they don’t have a set template so you can try out a lot of new things.
Can you tell me about a fashion film that inspires you?
Funnily enough I don’t really draw inspiration from fashion films. Do you know the Serpentine Dance? It isn’t a fashion film at all. It is a clip of a woman dancing really fast and waving her long dress around, the colours constantly changing as she moves. It’s those kinds of old things that inspire me a lot. Otherwise I get most of my inspiration from fiction. I find it difficult to draw inspiration from commercials because they can be too fast and lack meaning, whereas in fiction you can really craft something special.
Could you describe your film style in 2 words?
Hmm. It depends on which project I am working on, but generally: suggestive and ethereal.
Is there a specific technique you use to create that ethereal effect?
Well the film I shot for Y/Project was a collaboration with a photographer whose work I love. She told me she wanted it to be very dreamy, and I thought to myself “yes, perfect”’ because I love that dreamy effect. So I took this piece of iridescent foil and I placed it in front of my lens and kept moving it, using it as a soft filter. The photographer loved the effect and ended up putting it in front of her lens too, so all the photographs match really well with the video.
Do you do a lot of this type of DIY experimenting in your films?
Yes I use a lot of different old-school filters, like star filters – super kitch, but I love them. I also tend to use a lot of magnifying glasses and mirrors. I have a real love for reflections and I’m not sure why. I think it maybe has something to do with the reflecting process you go through when you watch a video and project your own thoughts and interpretations onto it.
Are you interested in surrealism?
I like to take specific elements from it, but delving too deep into surrealism can be a bit much for me. I like my work to be rooted in reality while incorporating specific elements of surrealism.
What about art history, does that influence your work?
Yes very much so! Art history is one of the reasons I went to Ghent actually – because you don’t get that much theory at art school in Amsterdam, but I had 12 theoretical subjects in my first year studying in Ghent.
I love to refer to other films in my own work. Like in the music video for Wouter Hamel there is a shot where Wouter is in the garden, and all of a sudden the light changes and there is a reflection of two people. That is a reference to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. where there is a similar shot. I always like to acknowledge that my decisions are being influenced by the work of another artist. And even if you don’t know exactly who is influencing your artistic choices, you should always be aware that you are being inspired by someone.
How do you compare working on a large project where everyone has their specific roles, with working on a smaller project where you are doing both the shooting and the editing?
Both approaches have their pros and their cons. The good thing about working in a larger team is that you can exchange ideas – someone can come up with something that would never have occurred to you otherwise, which can be very fruitful. On the other hand, it can be difficult because you have to relinquish control and let someone else take the reins. But that is something you learn over time, and when you start a project of that size you know you will eventually have to let go of some control. So you factor it into your thought processes from the beginning and stick to your specific role.
It can also be really beneficial when someone else is editing because when I am doing everything myself, I can get very ‘stuck in’, working until 5am and then going to my other job at 10am. So different ways of working have their advantages and disadvantages. It all depends on how much artistic freedom you’re given. As long as I get enough, I’m happy! [Laughs].
What do you do in your daily life that - consciously or unconsciously - has an impact on your filmmaking?
I read a lot of different stuff, from the classics, to Bret Easton Ellis, to Alessandro Barrico. I also watch a lot of films, but never at the beginning of a project. If I already have something on paper, watching a film can make me think “oh shit, I should have made it more like this,” and it gets too confusing.
Generally it‘s when I’m cycling or walking around the city that my ideas come to me. All of my films usually start with one idea for a shot and then if I go for a walk, or lay down on my bed, that idea begins to develop and lots of different concepts start to seep in. Then I start researching and it just… grows.
Finally, what is your favourite film?
I couldn’t possibly name just one! One film I really love to watch over and over again, because every time I notice something different, is Persona. Other films I love are Chantal Akerma’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Antonioni’s ll deserto rosso and, without wanting to be too much of a cliché, À bout de souffle.
More recently, I loved Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski. It would be amazing to work with Ryszard Lenczewski one day, the director of photography.