“It's been a long ride,” says Bert Hamelinck, satisfied yet relieved. “I'm happy it's ending here. But it's a beautiful ending.” He’s talking about Sound of Metal, the latest feature film he’s produced - directed and co-written by Darius Marder - which has been a labour of love since 2016. It’s not just the movie itself that’s beautiful, telling the gripping story of a drummer (played by Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing; it’s also the first movie of Bert’s to win an Oscar - two, in fact, for Best Sound and Best Film Editing.
Even beyond that, the 2021 Academy Awards were particularly validating for Bert this year, with Chloé Zhao taking home the Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director for Nomadland. While the film wasn’t produced by Bert or Caviar, the production company he’s co-founder and managing director of, he did produce The Rider, the director’s second feature, and she’s been a part of the Caviar family since.
Caviar is now able to boast having won top accolades in both the commercial and entertainment sides of the business, but the company has always seen the two - in fact, all filmmaking - as intertwined.
Rewinding to a 16-year-old Bert growing up in Belgium you might not have predicted he’d found a company this successful. “It was not going well for me at school. That's the least you could say,” he says. In fact, he actually dropped out of high school.
After a bit of loafing around, he got a job in a cinema. “It was a revelation to me,” he says. Mainly because he got to watch as many movies as he liked for free.
Bert kept seeing ‘director of photography’ listed in the credits on the free movies he’d devour. It jumped out to him as a cool-sounding job so he started to look into it. He went back to high school, studied sports science, and got himself to film school. After a year he managed to start working on sets.
After getting hands on as a filmmaker, Bert began thinking film school was a waste of time. He felt the course had a focus on writer-directors and at his age, “I felt I had nothing to say. I didn’t have a life story or a script ready.” So he dropped out and dedicated his time to his filmmaking career in earnest.
Bert worked on over 30 features in his 20s. He shot everywhere from Indonesia to Zimbabwe and the French Caribbean. Most of his experience came in the camera crew, but he claims “I did everything on set” from clapper loader to first AD, AC, best boy, gaffer, grip, dolly grip, and camera operator eventually.
One pivotal moment came from Bert’s wife at the time, who worked as an agency art director. The agency was always using the same production companies and asked if he and his friends would make a commercial. He gave it a go and soon he had some non-profit commercials under his belt. The ads even won some awards. The seeds for the hybrid production company that Caviar would become were sewn.
In 1996 came another fork in the road, when Bert was asked to become a camera operator on a big TV show - an important opportunity to advance his camera department career. “I started doubting,” he says. “I started to realise that most decisions are made before you came on set. I didn’t feel satisfied.”
Not wanting to become someone who always complains about the chances they missed, he turned down the TV job and suddenly became an executive producer, setting up Caviar to continue making commercials. He’d finally found his groove.
The agency Duval Guillaume soon became regular collaborators with the new company. “We grew with them,” remembers Bert. Pretty soon Caviar was the second biggest Flemish production company in advertising, bucking a long-standing trend for advertising in Belgium to be mostly in French.
By the mid ‘00s Caviar had enough of a track record to take Bert back to his roots in features. An important one was a TV series shot in Cuba, ‘King of the World’ - quite a unique experience considering how closed off the island nation was at the time.
Things were going well, but Bert admits it was “difficult for a company from a small country like Belgium to knock on the doors in London or Paris.” That changed when he ended up producing his first commercial in Pasadena, Los Angeles. There he met Michael Sagol, who would become a managing partner of Caviar LA.
“Why don’t you try to sell my Flemish directors in the US?” he asked Michael. “That’s how we started.”
Michael had his own bright idea too: to represent comedy people from TV. An early success in this regard was Jody Hill, who directed a brilliant series of K-Swiss sneaker ads starring Danny McBride. Soon several people who worked on Saturday Night Live started working in commercials with Michael. It was a good chance for them to make some extra cash.
One of these was Jorma Taccone, who is married to film director Marielle Heller. Jorma came to Caviar and told them Marielle didn’t want to have a baby before she makes her first film. “Can you guys look at it and see if you like it?” recalls Bert. “It was pretty dark,” but they liked the script. They worked on it with Marielle to brighten it up, and the result was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, starring Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård. Marielle was pregnant during the edit, so they just about met her deadline.
At the same time, Caviar was rolling along at pace. They produced Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and trained a Belgian producer who’d been working on reality TV and wanted to start writing. Malin-Sarah Gozin started writing scripts for Caviar. Now Bert calls her “one of the top TV writers in the world.” Check out her Netflix series Tabula Rasa to see what you think.
Bert identifies a “huge acceleration” in the company’s feature footprint around 2014-2017. Everything they worked on in that time seemingly clicked with audiences, won awards and festival circuit success. At the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards, The Diary of a Teenage Girl won Best First Feature and was nominated for Best First Screenplay and Bel Powley for Best Female Lead.
Then there was The Rider, directed by Chloé Zhao, which Bert produced. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 97%. Not bad… and, as Bert points out, the film led directly to Best Picture-winning Nomadland.
Sound of Metal was already in the works at that time. The script came to Caviar in 2016 and it was two years before they shot anything. “That was a very difficult project to get financed,” says Bert, checking off the usual reticence from financiers about a first-time director, not well-known enough talent and the classic “it’s a great script but is it commercial enough?”
Perseverance paid off. “The breakthrough always comes in never ever giving up. Making a movie is just overcoming a lot of no’s and turning him into one yes,” says Bert. “The people that make it have the strength to just go in again and forget everything and pitch as if it's your first pitch ever in your life. And with Sound of Metal, right before we had to shoot we found somebody that wanted to do it. There's always somebody there. You just have to find them.”
Development is central to who they are at Caviar, says Bert. Everyone on the team loves to read scripts themselves and then take them somewhere, he says.
While it’s easy to see production companies’ various silos and departments as different disciplines, Bert’s adamant that Caviar’s various shaped projects are all “one big flow”.
“Shooting music videos for super low budgets is crucial to learn craft, to know what money can and can't do. Then there's shorts which we do to help directors form their narrative career. And then there's commercials. Features are so long it takes forever. And on a commercial, it's so much fun to do something in a short period of time and see results.
“On the other hand, sometimes commercials are very stringent and clients and agencies often tell you what to do, so it's also fun to have some freedom, once in a while. Although freedom is relative and because there's always a buyer or a goal that you need to achieve. The worlds are much more similar than people think. All these things are influencing each other all the time.”
“I think our biggest advantage is that all of us come from real film crew experience. None of us have an agency or law or entertainment background. We really are shooting people. I could do any job on set. (OK, I would probably suck at sound recording but the rest I could handle.) All of us have done it so much, we really know what it is to shoot.”
That said, Bert’s learned enough of the business side to keep Caviar thriving all these years. “I always say there's two important moments. Can you pay all your bills today? And then the next question is, where do you want to be in 10 years from now? And that's really crucial. The rest in between is irrelevant, I think.”
So where does he want to be in 10 years?
“Well Sound of Metal was nominated for Best Film. I need to win it… But if Barbara Broccoli calls me to do the next James Bond I will say yes.”