interview Bart Westerlaken

Bart Westerlaken is a talented Dutch composer known for films such as Stella's Oorlog and Taped. In recent days, the final season of the tv series Penoza aired on the Dutch public broadcasting channel. He also has completed his work on another series called Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen.

MT: I would like to start with the time you graduated in cinematography at the Dutch Film Academy. At a point, you made the choice to seriously continue as composer for series and films. What triggered that decision?

It actually happened while I was at the Film Academy, where I took on composing film music as sort of a hobby. In my graduation year (2001) I did the cinematography for three graduate films. A couple of films needed music and I asked if I could score them. After that, I did just about anything you could do on a film set, filling all the assistants and camera tasks, while also continuing with music. It wasn't until 2005 that I realised I had to choose and focus on something. By that time, I had often worked with Diederik van Rooijen, who was in my class at the Academy, and he became a director, and I scored his short films. That was how I started, leaving behind all the other things I did, and chose to continue as a full time composer.

MT: Before that decision, what kind of tools did you use in comparison to the period when you became a professional film composer?

That really developed. I played the piano at my parents' place, recorded things there and played around with samples. The whole technology as it exists today, with beautiful instruments that are created by computer, wasn't so good back then. You had to fool around with a sound blaster card and a microphone, start programming and record sounds. I like doing that. When I think about all these peculiar sounds I created, it does have some charm. The technology that I still use, has become much better and I think that's the real difference. I don't really have a musical background, apart from a year of piano lessons at the age of 11. So I had to figure it out on my own, which kind of works sometimes, other times I need more time to work it out. It's like my daily routine of getting to know a lot of new instruments, techniques and recording methods. I still think that's fun.

MT: I think your first big assignment was the tv series called Parels & Zwijnen?

Yes, that was in 2005. Director Diederik van Rooijen pointed me in the right direction and he asked, 'Are you really a cameraman, or are you really a composer?'. That's when I truly chose to become a composer. He said, 'Good, because I have a big project'; this turned out to be Parels & Zwijnen which he was directing, my first big assignment as a composer. I wrote music to all 12 episodes.

MT: I think that almost all Dutch (film) composers come from somewhere else, or from another kind or music, or another kind of discipline. It almost seems like a Dutch tradition...

Yes, but it’s kind of the same internationally, for example when you look at Hollywood: Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard were both in a pop band, Howard Shore was the lead writer on Saturday Night Live... Some didn't study film composing and they all came from different places. In the Netherlands, it's more or less the same. Now the Conservatory offers a film composers study, of course not back in those days. So I'm not sure it's a Dutch tradition. However, as a director you can choose from odd styles from different composers. If they all came from the same background it would be a bit boring to my taste.

MT: That kind of reminds me of the time you worked on Koning van Katoren (To Be King). It was kind of a mishmash, but overall really beautiful, of different styles and composers, including yourself.

The project for me spanned more than a decade. It all started during my time at the Film Academy when Sander Burger and I wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Back then we considered it a fun and nice practice, but were given the opportunity to realise the film about 10 years later. In post production unfortunately things kind went messy. Initially, I wanted to score the film from day one, but it turned out differently. At one point two Italian composers (Francesco De Luca and Alessandro Forti) appeared to have written written music for the film, several others where considered by the producer but near the end of production time was running out. That's when I stepped in and wrote a part of the score together with Konrad Koselleck, a genius composer and arranger. I wanted a Big Band sound and we eventually recorded a part of the score with his own Big Band. In the end, the score became a potpourri of different styles, which didn't really help the film much. So I just thought ''no guts no glory’' and we tried to make this incoherency a style on its own. It was a beautiful experience and I have fond memories of my collaboration with Konrad and his big band.

MT: Then, some small details. I noticed on your résumé you played the mandolin on Code Blue...

IMDB, right? It was a minor role. The film needed the theme from Doctor Zhivago (by Jarre). It's a well-known track performed by mandolin. They couldn't use the original and so I remade the track by playing seven to nine mandolins. I think on IMDB I am credited as an extra on Koning van Katoren. Before you know it, they're asking you in an interview about your career as an actor.

MT: I think you were playing on the background in a bar...

Correct, I was plucking strings in that bar, and sat behind an organ in a church. I was on the set, I had made the music, so I get could just as easily be an extra. That was kind of funny.

MT: Another small detail is the uncredited task of composing the music for the official website of the film The Devil's Double...

Is that right?

MT: It says so.

I didn't know that.

MT: The website is offline, so I can't verify it.

Well, I can verify I had nothing to do with the Hollywood film. One of the film's producers Michael Fedun (of Corrino) attended Film Academy at the same time as me and started writing the story to that film. He wanted to sell the story to Hollywood financiers and wanted to make a teaser trailer. I composed and produced music for this teaser, which they then brought to Hollywood to show to the financiers and producers. By that time, I had nothing to do with it anymore. So they might have used that music for the website as well.

MT: It also says 'composer of stock music', but that's probably what you did for the teaser.

That's possible, let me check IMDB. Yes, it all looks more interesting than it was, it was a fun cue to make though.

MT: These sorts of details can are nice, but irrelevant.

Absolutely. This all originated from my time at the Film Academy and you could say it marked the beginning of my career. When I started out I just wanted to gain experience and agreed to do anything someone asked of me. So it's not entirely unimportant, but if it deserves mention on Imdb, that's a completely different story.

MT: I want to move on to the film Stella's Oorlog. One thing I really loved was the clearly defined theme for Stella. Later in the film there's this repetitive motif, with atmospheric layers, organ and percussion, that kind of functions as a 'revelation' theme and is heard on several occasions...

It's been quite a long time ago, but that was indeed a very repetitive pattern. The film was sort of a psychological drama, but also a whodunnit and whathappened. That recurring, repetitive theme served as providing you with another piece of puzzle, each time the main character discovers something new.

MT: I remember that this repetitive piece wasn't introduced when she discovers something while watching the revealing tape of the attack, but is actually introduced some time later. How did you decide when to introduce that piece?

Let me think about the structure of the film, since it has been such a long a time ago. I think I should give you a general answer. I do know the director and I were searching for the answer to the question what kind of film it was? Is it a thriller, a personal drama? There was the issue with post traumatic stress disorder and tense flashbacks. It's like leaping back and forth between genres, but you don't want to be too quick by only telling it in one genre. I think that was of influence of how subtly we went from drama to thriller music. Tense music often tells the audience what kind of film they are watching and push you into the direction of a genre. That was similar in the case of the next film Taped. Is it an action, nightmare or romantic film? I find it exciting to figure this out with the director.

MT: Films such as Stella's Oorlog and Taped share a similar intensity and rawness, as does your score, with the world you created in the series Penoza. Do you agree?

That's right. Penoza had a more thematic core, unlike Stella's Oorlog and Taped. It included a heroic and family theme, several leitmotifs and heavy melodies. Taped more or less became a nightmare story with a very bleak under layer. It's also due to the fact that they're all directed by Diederik van Rooijen and we are both attracted to dark themes. All three projects contain all kinds of misery and people dying. Because of that attraction we know where we want to take it and so it's possible that the music is - although different - also related.

MT: The score to the Penoza series includes very recognizable, loving themes in the family tradition, but also very dark leitmotifs. It most likely is a natural process, but how do you treat thematic material throughout the series?

In the beginning we didn't have any idea just how successful it would become and that we would be making five seasons. We started by listening to existing music of other composers, or music I did for another project. Then, the director and I discussed it, and the writer and producers of Penoza gave their input in what kind of music they preferred. The director was in favour of not just focusing on the misery, but also on the family and motherhood. So Carmen becomes a mobster's wife, but also has to be a mother. All these ideas came together and I tried to create themes from behind my piano.

The main theme of Penoza, for piano, came to me rather quickly and much was based upon it. A simple theme worked best. I started giving it treatments with a lot of notes, sometimes present in a layer of strings and other times by just playing three piano notes of the theme. Throughout the five seasons, the simplicity of the theme allowed me to re-use it in different pitch, tempos and instruments. I must have made around 700 cues for the entire series and once in a while I could just use a thematic cue I had already created, or I would extend it or cut it in half. In order to give you a feeling of recognition, the Penoza feeling, you must have recognisable themes or instruments.

MT: I understand that the editing process, as well they way the series is shot, was very dynamic . At one given moment something could change, and five minutes later another scenes could be cut. How do you anticipate that as a composer?

Yes. In principle I didn't have to. It is true that it was a dynamic project and I often visited the editing room, but that was really a game between the director and editors. I got an episode when they locked it. Very rarely did they change something to a locked episode, but when they did, I eventually received a new locked version. Some seasons needed to be done quickly and after receiving the locked version I had about 7-10 days to write. However, the director and I are pretty lined up, especially as the different seasons of the series went by.

MT: Were there times when you have had the musical discussion, wrote something and the director wanted something else. Or is there so much trust in your collaboration that that doesn't happen often?

Sure, not all things in the series have been my first version. We have done so much together that our method of communicating became much faster. When he says, 'Í want a little saw there'', or typical little words he uses, I know exactly what he wants and just start writing. But sometimes I make my own variation and I tell him, 'I know what you want, but listen to this, I think this is also very cool'. Occasionally I write music to a scene, he comes to listen and says to me, That doesn't work, this isn't what I want meant with the scene'. It's not uncommon, especially not on a series such as Penoza. He is pretty clear in what he wants, 'These eight are good and these two need to change''. Of course, I am not the director, who thinks less in terms of notes, and it's also difficult to describe music. It's more created through conversation and once the director has heard the music, he can tell me what he thinks of it. Sometimes though, in your search you can be a bit off by a little flavour, a color or an instrument. It's like the cameraman who creates a shot, and Diederik says, 'Oh no, I expected a wider shot'. You have to talk about disagreements and then choose the best solution.

MT: The tone of each season of Penoza has grown heavier and darker. You have a certain pallet to choose from in composing the music. For example, near the end of season 5 there is a moment where I felt the entire family was so horrifically threatened by a new opponent of Carmen. You used such unsurpassable, dissonant tones...

That were unsurpassable?

MT: Well, there have often been tense situations, but this threat was the ultimate... Do you understand where I'm going with this?

Yes, I understand that a little. It was all allowed since this truly was the final season. The thing is that with television series you have to build up the tension further and further. It begins with a mother who has no idea what her husband does, and when her husband is liquidated, she discovers that he was into the weed business. Suddenly it becomes coke, more coke, a Mexican cartel arrives and the Belgians... The whole point was that she had done all possible sturdy drug transitions. The last season starts with the ending, her floating under water, marking this might be the end. You have to let the audience consider this might even be the best ending. This season is entirely about the concerns for her family, as they begin to doubt her, and how she is going to resolve it. That's reflected in the music. With each season I tried to give the music a new flavour. I think each new bad guy or gal received a theme or sound; the Russians the cimbalom, the Mexicans a pipe organ. The last season needed the ''there's no way out'' feeling, and based on this assumption, indicated by the director, we emerge into the finale.

MT: In that finale we get to hear a choir, something I think I never heard in any of the seasons.

Yes, the finale scene on the drill platform at a port area. It was a long sequence. I took it one step further and created a grand sound with many strings and percussion. On top of that, I didn't feel I had to be subtle, and so I tried to use a choir, which the director agreed to. By the way, that wasn't Diederik van Rooijen, but Willem Gerritsen, who together with Michiel van Jaarsveld and Max Porcelijn directed the last season. Three new directors and three new experiences. Willem had a kind of 'nice, bring on the choir' attitude towards it and it worked out wonderfully. This was indeed the first time I used a couple of sopranos to sing along and it communicated the sense of 'this end, and go out with bang'.

MT: Well, the end... Rumour has it there is the possibility of a motion picture...

Right, I also read that.

MT: Should the opportunity arise, would you like to use a full orchestra?

I would like to have the luxury and time to transcribe the music and record it with an orchestra, although I think the hybrid approach worked for the series. I played some of the live instruments myself, some were played by others and I have played around with existing and home made samples. It would be fantastic to transform the music from the series into an orchestral form. But first things first, it has to be explored first, and then I sit down with the director and search for the best solution. For now I know as much as you do.

MT: I don't know if you're aware of the film music concerts being held in the Netherlands and other countries. But do you like the idea of a performance of a Penoza suite?

Yes, nice. It only involves a lot things and need time and money to organise it, but it would be interesting to transcribe the music for performance. You're talking about a concert, right? If people are interested, why not? Once Penoza was finished other projects emerged and I kind of needed to give the mobster in me a rest after five seasons. Me and everyone else involved are very proud of it. It wasn't a rush job, and we were all trying to perfect things and give it everything we got. I will keep that in mind and perhaps one day I will write a suite.

MT: In 2015 a digital score release of Penoza, including 60 minutes of music, appeared on iTunes. You made a selection and I gather that was though.

It was a days work, yes. I believe it features about 20 tracks, chosen from first three seasons. Each episode features around 14 cues, each season counts 10 episodes, so that would be around 140-150 cues per season. There obviously were cues that bared resemblances. I had to look for cues that had to be on it, such as the theme that everyone wants to hear. Well, everyone... The soundtrack is not a best-seller. But if you are interested in the music of Penoza, you really expect the theme and the opening stinger, the 'Penoza sound', to be part of that selection. I do like the fact that my work is on iTunes.

MT: Yes, there also is an iTunes release of Love Eternal and...

Daglicht (Daylight). I don't have much control over what is released and what not, especially not on iTunes. You have to invest time in them and that was a really nice thing do. Love Eternal was a Dutch-Irish co-production directed by Irishman Brendan Muldowney. The publisher kind of made the decision, the mentions of the music in various reviews helped I guess.

MT: You just said that you don't have much control over that. When you look at the international remakes of Penoza, two of them, the Polish and Swedish, used your music. They bought the music and were allowed to do with it whatever they wanted. Was that the general idea?

It was the first time that happened for me, I don't know exactly how that works from a producer's point of view, but I think they sold the complete concept to the Polish makers.

The Polish remake, Krew z krwi, is almost an exact replica, albeit a bit more Polish, whole scenes are copied and the actors even look like their Dutch counterparts. I will spare you the details, of some of which I’m not even aware, but creatively it was out of my hands. They took the music from the first season and copy pasted it for their series. Some time later I found out they did the same for the Swedish series called Gåsmamman.

MT: The reviews in Sweden compare it to Bron (The Bridge) in terms of quality. By now, they have three seasons, just like in Poland. I think it works for them.

Yes, usually a follow up season is explained by the success of a show. I really didn't know. It's nice to see my name credit appearing abroad.

MT: When I approached you for this interview you said you were busy with 'Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen'. By now some episodes have aired on television. Do you work on one episode each week?

I just finished the 12th episode mix with the sound designer and director Tim Oliehoek. Relatively i work much longer on the first episodes then the final ones. With that this was my first collaboration with the director and we needed to discuss a lot, develop themes and took our time in the beginning.

MT: Soaps are shot five days a week and each episode needs music the same day.

No, it's not like that.

MT: But some episodes already aired, so I was wondering about your time schedule.

We eventually ended up in a schedule of one week, one episode including final mix. We tried to maintain the "every episode a new start" approach even then, the series deserved more then a copy-paste- o-rama.

MT: Before I had seen and heard the music of the first episode, I already imagined what it would be like. Likewise, knowing the book and/or script is also thought-provoking...

Tim wanted to work with me and approached me. I had heard of the book, but hadn't read it. I visited him as he already was shooting, showed me a few scenes and talked about the story of elderly in Amsterdam Noord, the mood of the series and what kind of type the main character Hendrik Groen was. I got an impression of the kind of acting and cinematography on set. On the basis of those few scenes and our conversations, I made some sketches, which is always hard since you're missing the complete picture. It always starts for me when I see the images and those few available scenes proved useful. The leader was written rather quickly, so they could use it for promoting the series. I made a few versions until Tim was satisfied. It created a kind of flavour and palette for the rest of the music; a bit jazzy, funny, easygoing, happy, jazz-like percussion, a clarinet and the sense of coziness.

MT: I am looking forward to the rest of the episodes.

Yes, I really like the result. It's not just that I am happy with the music, it's also a series I would watch. The funny thing is, Omroep Max is airing it (a broadcasting association for the elderly). While the story is about elderly people, you'd expect it to be only targeted at that same group, but it's beautifully made by Tim. I believe the audience ratings are also very good.

MT: I thought 1,8 million viewers for the first episode.

I don't know exactly how they come by that figure, because nowadays you have a 100 different ways to view an episode. But I think it literally means all the people who sat in front of their tv. Awesome.

Penoza Penoza Penoza Penoza


Joep de Bruijn (17 November 2017)


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