In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?
Leighton: Welcome to your weekly dose of Films & Stars!!! Coming up this week… Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis don’t exactly see eye to eye …
Robert Downey Jr: I despise who you are on a cellular level!!!
Leighton: Charlie Sheen definitely has no issues with acrophobia!…
Charlie Sheen: I just wanna get high!
Leighton: …and Daniel Radcliffe claims to have nothing in common with his character Harry Potter!
Daniel Radcliffe: I think I’m allergic to magic!
Leighton: But first… sit down, buckle up and hold on tight for this week’s movie news!
“Aaaaand cut!” said Ozzy, shooting me a punchy thumbs up from behind the glass. “Great Leighton, I think you’re starting to get the hang of this”.
It was only my third day of work at Old Harbour Productions and things were going pretty well. In fact, I was still pinching myself that I’d even managed to get the job! You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got the call to come in for a voice test. I was more than a little nervous when I met Ozzy, the towering, bald-headed sound engineer with the firm handshake and booming laugh. But he put me at ease immediately, showing me his fearsome motorcycle out in the parking lot and chatting to me about Amsterdam as we took the elevator up to the production floor.
From there it was a flurry of names and faces as we worked our way up towards the studio. Finally, right outside the recording booth, I was introduced to a chubby, middle-aged Englishman called Aston and his irritable sausage dog, Winnie. Aston was the opposite of Ozzy, unsettlingly aloof with a limp handshake and an almost bored look on his face that suggested he wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. He was the head of sales it turned out, so was presumably keen to have his say on my suitability as the company’s new voice over.
The test went well enough, Ozzy coaching me through a poorly written news piece about Reese Witherspoon’s wardrobe malfunction on an L.A. red carpet. “Can you do that again Leighton? This time I really want to hear you stamping out those final words ok? Be as sarcastic as you want!” Aston meanwhile sat with his legs crossed, an eyebrow arched, his head tilted up at the ceiling with an indecipherable stare.
A few days later I was called back for a second test, this time just with Ozzy, while back down on the production floor they asked me to edit a script for a children’s show called Kidz Flix. When I hadn’t heard anything three or four days after that I gave Old Harbour a call and got through to Annelies, the friendly but ditzy HR girl. “Oh we are still waiting!” she told me in her sexy Dutch accent. “Ozzy likes you very much but Aston is not sure”. “Oh, right” I replied, a little startled by her candidness. In the end I simply reiterated that I felt very enthusiastic about the job and was a hundred and ten percent available and ready to start work.
My career in broadcasting kicked off on the 1st of September 2010. I was stationed in what was called The News Feed among half a dozen Dutch editors responsible for providing daily movie-celebrity news to a number of international clients. In those early days I was simply cleaning up the scripts they wrote before heading up to the studio for the morning recording sessions. It was fun! I got to read, write and talk about the latest Hollywood releases and along the way discover my inner tabloid whore. Miley Cyrus says this… Lindsay Lohan did that… Justin Bieber is an almighty ass… it didn’t really feel like work at all.
In addition to the daily news I was also trained up as the host of four weekly movie magazine TV programs. There was Films & Stars, aimed at a family audience, while Hollywood Buzz was supposedly written for women, with a focus on thought-provoking dramas and romantic comedies.
Then came Action Zone for the Alpha males, a ridiculous romp of a show where I had to make endless references to “hot chicks”, “massive guns” and “kickass effects”. And it all had to be done in a rasping over-the-top voice resembling Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. It was a real workout smashing out that script and my voice was often shot to pieces by the time we were done.
Old Harbor Productions was owned by a Dutch film journalist called Remy. He was quite the celebrity in The Netherlands, often appearing on TV and radio. Remy wasn’t in the office much, he was too busy jetting around the world interviewing Hollywood’s finest, a job he’d been doing since the nineteen eighties. All his interviews were stored on the company server and through the process of script writing and editing I got to see virtually all of them. It was fascinating stuff, especially the exchanges before and after the camera started rolling. As the weeks went by I learned that Meg Ryan really was as awful as that famous Michael Parkinson interview suggests and that that Robin Williams’ zany, one hundred mile per hour in your face energy literally had no off button. Elsewhere James Franco came across as a major asshole, Al Pacino might just be the nicest guy on earth and to say Jean Claude van Damme wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box might just be the biggest understatement ever made.
I’d been working at Old harbour for a few months when I finally bumped into Remy in one of the corridors. “Ah, you’re the new voice over?” he said cheerfully, “I think you’re doing a great job, keep up the good work!” It was one of just a handful of exchanges we had in my five years at Old Harbour, but I’ll always be grateful to Remy for those early words of encouragement.
Outside of work S and I finally moved out of her parents place in Brabant and relocated to Amsterdam. My old buddy Kristof, AKA Projector Man, helped us get all our stuff over from Belgium. Filling every last inch of a rented minivan, he drove all the way from Leuven to Tilburg to pick us up (adding more boxes) and then onto Amsterdam to our new apartment on Sint Willibrordusstraat. It was a great location, right in the heart of town and just a ten-minute walk from the Albert Cuyp Market.
I’d always been petrified at the idea of settling down, but those first months in Amsterdam felt like just my latest voyage of discovery. The city was wonderful, a dizzying mix of glassy canals, tilted buildings, treasure-packed museums and leafy parks. We explored the gorgeous Vondelpark, checked out priceless art in the wondrous Rembrandt House and rummaged through the dusty antiques and black-and-white movie stills of Waterlooplein.
Like a real Amsterdammer I bought a bike and began cycling to work. It was and to this day remains the most beautiful daily commute I’ve ever had. I’d make my way through the deserted early morning canal streets over to Centraal Train Station. Cutting through the main hall, I’d come out the back exit and cycle right onto the free ferry for the five-minute journey across to Amsterdam North. More often than not I was treated to some amazing sunsets and, day by day, I witnessed the construction of The Amsterdam EYE Film Museum right on the riverbank.
It wasn’t long before my role at Old Harbour began to grow and become more interesting. Instead of editing the daily scripts, I was asked to write them from scratch and let the video editors concentrate on editing. It was great to have full control over content. I got to choose what we covered and write them in my own words, which also helped me become a better voiceover as it felt much more comfortable to be recording my own material.
I also took on the responsibility of revamping the company’s Star File series, a collection of outdated actor-director biographies that had been shoddily put together. We had over a hundred of them, from old school legends like De Niro and Hoffman to fresh-faced stars such as Robert Pattinson and Jessica Chastain. It’d take me a couple of days to knock out a Star File, from the remolding of the script, the insertion of interview quotes from the server and then of course the recording itself with either Eva, Kim or Remco, the editors who brought everything to life onscreen.
And it was the Star File project that finally got me into Aston’s good books. He’d remained indifferent towards me for months after my appointment, always coming up with little critiques and pernickety comments. I don’t recall there ever being a compliment, or indeed anything resembling words of encouragement. But when he saw how The Star Files were being brought back from the dead I think he realized that essentially there was a new product he could start selling again. Aston and I were never going to be buddies, but it was good to know I’d finally gotten him off my back.
I was alone in the office one morning whipping up the day’s movie news when the phone rang. “Hey Leighton it’s Han!” Han was one of the editors and it was a big surprise to hear from him, especially as he was supposed to be on vacation in Vietnam. “Just a quick call, I’m in an electrical store in Hanoi and they’ve got like a thousand TVs in here. And they’re all blasting out… YOU!!!” Extending the phone out to the nearest row of TVs, Han treated me to a ten-second storm of Action Zone, where I was waxing lyrical about some “AWESOME” scene from a crappy Jason Statham movie. And then the line suddenly went dead and all I could do was let out a bemused chuckle and shuffle off to the kitchen for a coffee.
“Are you enjoying everything?” asked Lianne, the newsfeed’s leggy, well-dressed manager. We were at lunch one afternoon eating Bitterballen in the little café across from the office. “I am!” I exclaimed, with a wide smile. And I really was! If someone had told me that one day I’d be writing and talking about movies for a living I would have laughed in their face. And the best thing about it was that I felt like there was so much more I could do for Old Harbour. I wanted to get in front of the camera and contribute to The Hotseat, an MTV show reviewing upcoming movies. And, more than anything else, I desperately wanted to get into the interviewing side of things. But of course Remy did most of that. And for the press junkets he couldn’t make it to there was Rudy, another established film journalist, not to mention Lisa, a tantrum-throwing self centered protectionist who guarded all the spare interview opportunities with her life. “Just keep working hard and maybe one day you’ll get the chance!” S told me. Yeah right, I remember thinking.
I’ve always been a bit guilty of adopting a half-glass-full way of thinking, so I didn’t see it coming when Remy wandered up to my desk one day. “Leighton, are you busy this weekend?” he asked casually. “Um… not really. Why, what’s up?” “Well…” he said, the first traces of a smile beginning to form at the corners of his mouth, “how would you like to go to New York and interview Jake Gyllenhaal?”
‘The Voice’ is the second installment of my short story collection Notes From The Netherlands.
For my travel reports on the Dutch capital, take a look at my articles on Amsterdam.