The Voice – a short story from The Netherlands.

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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.

Production floor – Old Harbor Productions.

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 irritable as that famous Michael Parkinson interview suggested 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 aren’t you?” 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 for those early words of encouragement.

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Our lives in a van – about to leave Goirle for Amsterdam – 21st of August 2010.

Outside of work S and I had finally moved out of her parents place 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.

Waterlooplein – Amsterdam.

I’d always been petrified by 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. 

Herengracht – part of my daily commute to work.

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.

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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, 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 of 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 well-dressed, leggy 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?”

This short story was taken from my collection Notes From The Netherlands.

For more on my years in Amsterdam, check out my Top 5 photo articles on EYE Film Museum, The Heineken Experience, Queen’s Day and my choice spots from across the city.

Celebrations and Recriminations – a short story from The Netherlands.

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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… you are on de computer again, your eyes will become like squares!” said Papa S with a patronizing chuckle. Looking up briefly from my CV, I shot him a polite smile through gritted teeth and tried to keep my reply as cheerful as possible. “Yes, I’m looking for a job… remember?”

I knew life with Mama and Papa S was going to be challenging; I hadn’t been under any illusions. But with no jobs, no place to live and just a modest pot of joint savings to draw from, S and I had to bite the bullet and accept their kind offer of letting us stay until we got on our feet.  

Nevertheless, I’d spectacularly underestimated just how testing life at the S house would be. I found myself chastised on a daily basis for my many failings. Mama S was into etiquette, if that’s even a thing to be into, so I got pulled up at the dinner table for a misplaced elbow, or an offending knife that I’d set in the wrong position (knives have to face towards one’s plate apparently). One time I was told to remove a tissue that I’d rested by my soup bowl, while my shoes/sweater/teacup had invariably been put in the wrong place and needed an emergency relocation.

My crappy Dutch meanwhile was always an issue. With minimal English on offer (they could, but mostly wouldn’t), I either misinterpreted the general flow of the subject or made such a mess of my own contribution to the point of all-out confusion. Not that a sudden injection of linguistic ability would have made all the difference. More often than not I had no interest in what was going on with Auntie Boring, nor did I need any hot details on Uncle Inconsequential’s new leather sofa. Anything directed purely at me was mere small talk: the weather, my static job search, household practicalities like if I needed to use the bathroom I better do it now because… zzzzzz.

It’s not that they hadn’t been welcoming. Meal times were always a culinary treat and my hosts were forever asking me if I was ok and whether there was anything I needed. But somehow this just managed to make me more anxious. Especially as such questions were usually accompanied by a searching, narrow-eyed look from Mama S, who still didn’t know what to make of me five years after I’d started dating her daughter. 

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The sleepy town of Goirle – Brabant – The Netherlands.

S Headquarters was located in a quiet, Edward Scissorhands-esque suburban road in the sleepy town of Goirle, a fifteen-minute drive from the city of Tilburg in Holland’s Brabant region. With no friends in the area and little on offer in the way of entertainment, it took about a week for an acute sense of claustrophobia to set in.

It was a sunny June morning and I was on de computer again applying for jobs I didn’t give a shit about. Desperately trying to get something… anything that could move S and I out into a place of our own. “Leighton, can you stand up a moment please!” Papa S was hovering over me again and I could see he was in one of his restless moods. He’d been pacing up and down the living room looking for something to keep him occupied and now he’d finally found it.

Scooping my laptop up into my hands, I rose as per his request, looking on in quiet disbelief as he proceeded to pull the armchair I’d been sitting in an inch away from the wall. “You can sit back down” he said, adjusting his spectacles, “The chair should not be against the wall”.  

“Leighton, you have changed the settings on my computer!” he huffed some time later, his cheeks rapidly reddening. I groaned to myself, wishing I’d never gone up to his study, cursing my luck that I’d needed to use his scanner for one of my job applications. Of course I hadn’t done anything to his computer; the poor old guy just didn’t have a clue how to use it. He knew as much about IT as an eagle knows about macroeconomics, but my proclamations of innocence fell on deaf ears.

A few hours later tensions reached boiling point in the kitchen after lunch. It was my turn to do the washing up and Papa S had taken it upon himself to micromanage me. “The water is not hot enough,” he said, flicking the red tap as far to the right as it would go. “It’s fine,” I said, pushing it back a little, the temperature beginning to physically burn my hands. But he just swished it right again, telling me that if the water didn’t get hot enough the plates wouldn’t be clean. I was reaching the end of my tether and suddenly found myself walking out of the kitchen with a sardonic chuckle. And then Papa S was rushing after me. “Leighton, I don’t like it that you are laughing at me! This is very rude and…” Instinctively I quickened my pace and strode through the living room into the hallway. Grabbing my coat, I headed out the front door, ducked into the garage, grabbed one of the S family bicycles and pedaled off into the warm afternoon.

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I’d been cycling without purpose for about fifteen minutes when I stumbled upon an amazing little residential street decked out in orange flags, posters and streamers. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was well into its final stages and the Dutch national football team had reached the semi-finals. With all the drama of washing-up-gate still bubbling in my head I’d completely forgotten that the big match against Uruguay was taking place that night!  

Orange Street, Goirle.

Orange Street, Goirle.

Dismounting my bike, I walked down the road to take a closer look. The locals had really gone to town, with all the houses covered in Orange netting. “Hup hup Holland!” cried one massive banner, while another warned the South Africans to “Watch out, the Dutch Lions are coming!” Strolling down the street, I caught sight of a balding, middle-aged man watering his plants in the front garden. He was wearing a Dutch football shirt from the 70s with Cruyff emblazoned on the back in chunky black letters. Glancing up, he saw me passing and shot me an aggressive fist pump. He certainly wouldn’t be missing tonight’s game and I instantly decided that neither would I. In fact, a party atmosphere was just what the doctor ordered. All I had to do now was convince S to head into Tilburg to catch the game in Pub Street.

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S couldn’t have cared less about football, but she was passionately patriotic and therefore happy enough to head into the city to enjoy the festivities. With England long ago knocked out and having performed so miserably, I’d decided to throw all my support behind my adopted homeland and even bought myself a Dutch jersey.

An uncomfortable silence wedged itself between us on the bus into Tilburg. She’d heard her father’s skewed version of the day’s events and it seemed there wasn’t much I could say to shake off my appointment as the villain of the piece. “I hope tonight is gonna relax you” she said dully, gazing out the window.

Tilburg was an amazing sight that evening. Everyone was dressed in orange from head to toe, while you could hardly take a step without knocking into a bicycle. They were chained to fences and squashed up together against trees. Others were resting against the backs of the tables and chairs that lined the pavement, a few even strewn across the ground, seemingly abandoned by their drunken owners.

Pub Street in Tilburg during the build up to Holland vs Uruguay – July the 6th, 2010.

And then there was the game itself, an almighty glass-shattering roar penetrating the entire city as Arjen Robben’s bullet header gave the Oranje a 3-1 lead that would eventually be enough to secure a place in the World Cup final.

Everyone around me was so jubilant… so proud… so damn drunk. There was hugging, cheering, kissing, beer glasses smashing to the floor and loud guttural Dutch dialogue rattling through the airwaves from all directions. But as much as I was enjoying myself, this unified jubilation only served to remind me how anxious I was feeling about everything. Was I going to get a job soon? Would I be able to settle in this country? Were S and I really gonna live happily ever after? “Let’s head back,” she said, tugging on my arm. And so we left the delirious masses to their celebrations, setting off back to Goirle where recriminations lay in wait.

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The atmosphere over the next days was awful. Papa S wasn’t really talking to me, Mama S wasn’t talking to Papa S for some reason and I’d become so withdrawn I wasn’t talking to anybody. And then, to cap it all off, Mama slipped in the garden, cut her knee and called an emergency family meeting where I was pretty much hung out to dry. “This happened because of you!!” she spat, the beginning of a lengthy tirade that painted me as the houseguest from hell. I was so angry I made the mistake of shouting back at her. Poor old S, completely caught in the middle, began crying on the sofa. 

Hiding away in the tiny little upstairs bedroom we shared, I knew I’d fucked up by letting my frustration get the better of me. Now I was gonna have to repair this, for the sake of S if nothing else. At a complete loss as to what I should do, I began scouring the job sites for the umpteenth time that day. It had only been an hour since I’d last looked; I wasn’t expecting to see anything. And then it caught my eye… a position so ridiculously up my street I initially thought it might be a joke advert of some sort.

Writer/Editor/Voiceover needed for media production company in Amsterdam North. Applicant must speak excellent English and be passionate about movies/have strong knowledge of all things Hollywood.

Wow! I remember thinking. While on the face of it I seemed to tick all the boxes, surely this was a job I had no chance of getting. Right!? I sat there for a minute or two chewing it over. I mean, what exactly did I have to lose? Without even consciously making a decision I began tinkering with my CV, digging up an old movie review from my archives, constructing a lengthy cover letter. An hour or so later I was ready, my finger hovering nervously over the mouse. Checking everything one last time for good measure, I returned to my Hotmail screen, took a deep breath and pressed send.

This short story was taken from my collection Notes From The Netherlands.

For more on my years in Amsterdam, check out my Top 5 photo articles on EYE Film Museum, The Heineken Experience, Queen’s Day and my choice spots from across the city.

 

My Photographs: Top 5 Gorp en Roovert Forest, The Netherlands.

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Gorp En Roovert Forest, December 2010. It’s a tough gig celebrating Christmas in the south east of China. No mince pies for me this year, zero turkey, a complete absence of crackers and Quality Street. And so it’s easy to find myself reflecting on Christmases of the past, especially when deciding on this year’s Leighton Literature post. After a little deliberation I plumped for the beautiful Gorp en Roovert Forest in Brabant Province. 

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My Photographs: Top 5 Beekse Bergen Safari Park, The Netherlands.

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Beekse Bergen Safari Park, October 2012. Anyone looking for an African style safari park experience probably wouldn’t think of The Netherlands! And yet Beekse Bergen, located in the municipality of Hilvarenbeek in Brabant Province, offers just that with the simultaneously enticing/dubious tagline “Sleep among the animals!”

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My Photographs: Top 5 Queen’s Day, Amsterdam.

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Queen’s Day, April 2011. Some say you haven’t truly experienced Amsterdam until you’ve seen it in the incredible carnival mode of Queen’s/King’s Day. Right enough, the entire city is transformed beyond recognition every April as hordes of patriotic Nederlanders take to the streets, pubs and canals to celebrate the life and times of their glorious monarch.

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My Photographs: Top 5 The Heineken Experience, Amsterdam.

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The Heineken Experience, October 2010. You can’t miss the imposing form of the old Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. Plonked on a narrow stretch of pavement on Stadhouderskade at one of the city centre’s busiest crossroads; the building dates back to 1867 and functioned as the original brewery until 1988 when a larger more modern facility was constructed on the outskirts of the city.  

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My Photographs: Top 5 EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam Eye Film Institute, April 2012. The Amsterdam EYE Film Institute is a stunning building located on the north bank of The River IJ, just across the water from the city’s Central train station. Opened by Queen Beatrix on the 4th of April 2012, I was lucky enough to witness every stage of its construction as part of my daily commute. I was working as a writer, script editor, voice over and interviewer of Hollywood stars for the Dutch media production company FCCE. Every day I cycled through Amsterdam’s most picturesque canal streets before wheeling my bike onto the free ferry for the short chug over to Amsterdam North.

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