HALAL is a Dutch production company that prides itself on supporting homegrown directorial talent – their roster includes everyone from local industry stalwart Johan Kramer (co-founder of agency KesselsKramer) to the red-hot rising star Emma Westenberg (who shot Janelle Monae’s vulvalicious Pynk video as well as the eerie ASMR-inspired Super Bowl spot for Michelob).
And thanks to this belief in local directors, HALAL has become part of something broader - a wave of Amsterdam-based directors working in markets around the world. HALAL’s executive producer Gijs Determeijer is seeing Amsterdam-based directing talent being exported like he’s never known, earning representation in the world’s biggest markets and winning Super Bowl scripts.
In Cannes last month the company reached a new peak, earning recognition from the production community as it cleaned up at the Young Director Award, collecting four gongs including the Producers Award and Special Jury Prize.
LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with Gijs to find out how he explains this phenomenon and what Dutch production needs to do to ensure local talent continues to flourish internationally.
LBB> We’re seeing more Netherlands-based directors making an international impact recently – what are your observations on that?
Gijs> Yes. I think it’s quite amazing. When we started HALAL nine years ago there were a couple of directors doing quite well in comedy commercials like Matthijs van Heijningen and Bart Timmer, but I think it’s quite cool at the moment that there’s a new wave of Amsterdam directors.
I have the feeling that a distinct visual style has been coming out of Amsterdam in the last seven or eight years. I think it started with directors like Paul Geusebroek, Sam de Jong and Mees Peijnenburg. What was amazing to us at that time was that international production companies like Iconoclast began turning the Eye of Sauron towards the hobbits in the Netherlands. To be recognised by the cool kids in Paris or London - that’s something we didn’t have before.
There’s not really a Dutch international film scene. Of course we have documentaries and photography, but there are hardly any Dutch feature films that have done anything on the international level. So when we started that was quite a struggle. I also think international agencies, at that point, that were based in Amsterdam, really didn’t look at Dutch production companies or directing talent. That changed.
LBB> Probably a big question, but why?
Gijs> The directors are not all the same, but I do think there is a distinct visual style. We don’t have huge budgets to make films so it might very often have a documentary feel to it but then maybe have a bit of heightened reality to it.
Amsterdam directors take their craft seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. So there’s always a tongue in cheek or a humbleness. Not as serious and tough as maybe some of the cool kids in Germany...
LBB> Who from HALAL is doing that really well? Obviously you love all your directors, but who is setting a particularly good example of making this international impact?
Gijs> It always sucks to name a couple and pass on the others. All the directors on our roster could be there, but specifically those who are breaking through internationally, our most experienced directors, are Johan Kramer
and Paul Geusebroek. They were definitely already making international campaigns before anyone else.
Johan Kramer is an example of a more established HALAL director who inspired a lot of our younger talent with his mentality of always doing stuff, creating new stuff, making short films in his own backyard, interviewing creative directors for a short series called IDEAS to connect with the people he wants to work with. We rep him as a director, photographer and make documentaries with him.
Also someone like Noël Loozen
is really a quintessential HALAL director. He started as a photographer and then we did a couple of short films, music videos, commercials and now we’re working on his first feature film. I think his style is so distinctive but the topics he picks are so uncool - typical Dutch country life. I think that’s something people love. He’s also recently been signed by one of my international competitors [Stink].
Then there’s someone like Emma Westenberg
. She started as an intern from art school doing really weird art films and small fashion shoots. Suddenly Janelle Monáe’s team saw her work and asked her to do the Pynk video. The same year she did her first Super Bowl commercial with Zoë Kravitz [for Michelob]. And we just finished a global Swatch campaign. That would have been unheard of ten years ago.
I also want to mention Caroline Koning
, who recently directed a global Wrangler campaign, a film with i-D and Loewe and is the ambassador for Free the Bid in the Netherlands. Then there’s Thessa Meijer,
who just won a Gold and the Special Jury Award at the Young Director Award in Cannes. She’s an example of how we give new talent the opportunities to get in front of potential new clients to venture into commercial directing.
LBB> And how about other directors who you admire that are doing this?
Gijs> There are definitely some Dutch directors that I really love. One is at Czar and just got signed by Superprime [in the US]. His name is Giancarlo Sánchez. That’s also a nice example. Amsterdam is not that big so he’s doing his commercial work at Czar and then we’re developing a comedy TV show with him.
is another great director doing commercials through Czar. We’re developing her reel. Bear Damen
is a young guy who’s at Czar, so I guess all my good competition is at Czar! I think they’re great, though. I think our roster reflects a large part of the major international players here in Amsterdam.
LBB> So if you were working with a director in Amsterdam now who’s just starting out, what are the biggest challenges for them?
Gijs> I think one of the really big challenges is that there are so many young directors. It’s become quite simple and cheap to make something, and there’s a lot of demand for content and cheaply made stuff. In that way there’s a big gaping divide.
But on the other hand I also feel that a lot of the young directors are comparing themselves to each other and are afraid to make something uncool. Which sucks, because when you’re starting as a director, you go to film school, you get to play around for four years. But some of these self-taught young directors don’t have this luxury, so they need to experiment on the job. And comparing yourself to your peers, going faster or more hip or whatever, is a temptation. It’s hard to stay original and not be afraid to make mistakes.
What I love about Sam de Jong, for instance, is he really calls himself a ‘hit-or-miss’ director. He just does it. Sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it’s shit. But it doesn’t mean for him that he’s failed. He might not put it on his reel but… he won’t worry about it too much.
Sometimes someone is a great documentary or music video director and then suddenly they’re dealing with an agency or client for the first time - people telling you what to do and you’re learning the rules. That’s where it becomes difficult.
So much is based on luck, good craftsmanship but also networking - keeping in touch with the people you like to work with. Everybody loves to work with friends. You’ve got to get out there.
LBB> How is HALAL helping directors to overcome these difficulties?
Gijs> The most important thing is that we help them to find their own voice. It sounds a little bit corny but we also develop fiction projects, music videos, documentaries or longer form work. We try to steer in those directions to show what they are really about. You so often get asked for something you already did in advertising. If you don’t want to stay as the lens-flare director or the flimsy fashion film director then you’ve got to show that you’re a great storyteller in another format. If someone is super funny but they’ve never made a funny commercial, then maybe they can make a funny music video or short film to show that to the world.
We help people to get the work out there. We help them find their way to festivals, to digital platforms, making sure it gets published. Creatives love that feeling that they discovered someone instead of having a producer put a reel under their nose. We try to give people the platform.
I think another really important part is when you’re a young director and you have two or three paying jobs in the beginning, it’s a struggle. You’re an artist. We really try to help them pay their bills, finding them sometimes some other jobs that they can make some money from, even if it won’t be on their reel, or push them in a different direction. To make them able to live off their craft.
LBB> What do you look for in directing talent you might want to work with in the future? Is it just really loving their work or more than that?
Gijs> It starts there. If I immediately get grabbed by a film that someone sends or that I stumble on browsing film school graduation films, then that helps.
And secondly they can’t be assholes. I don’t really want to work with asshole directors. There’s a personal click and then we’ll try something. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
We’ve had some people that we realised would be better off at another production company that fits their DNA better. In that case we sometimes help them along.
I guess 75% of our roster is homegrown. We develop most of our talent from the ground up in Amsterdam. But there’s so much demand now with our Berlin office and international agencies. There’s more work than directors so we’re signing international directors now. In that case, we look at someone and see if they fit our DNA and have something to contribute that we don’t have already. Ryan Staake, for instance, we signed last year. He’s super innovative and working in AR and VR - that really brings an extra dimension to our roster.
LBB> What do you expect in return from directors, in order for them to realise their potential, to meet you halfway and make the best of opportunities?
Gijs> Don’t be afraid to make something uncool.
Put in the time. You’ve got to work hard to get there.
Networking is insanely important. Especially now. There are directors who don’t have Instagram accounts. If you’re super great and elusive and made three feature films you don’t need to. But you generally need to be an agent for your own work. Send people you admire messages - DPs or creatives - and just get to know them.
Also, be loyal. At this time there are so many opportunistic people. What I love about a director Madja Amin, who just won Silver at this year's YDA, basically every film he shot was with the same DP. I’m not saying everybody should do that but Paul Geusebroek did the same. He shot everything with Menno Mans. You make each other great. The same can work with a production company. A production company is as good as the talent it reps. So if everybody leaves a production company at a time when they can fly, you can’t make the production company fly.
I think that’s been the problem for Dutch production companies for a really long time. You might have one really strong talent and then they’re off working internationally and you never get to work with them anymore.
With the new directors, we’re also making international steps. We just opened in Berlin last year and we’re getting jobs from the States, from France, the UK, Scandinavia. I love the directors that want to do that with us.