Heartfelt Music for a Heartfelt Story: Talking with Composer Peter Baert About ‘The Water Man’ (2021)

Just recently I had the opportunity to talk with composer Peter Baert about his work on the upcoming film The Water Man, which is directed by David Oyelowo. In the film, a young boy named Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Rosario Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who possesses the secret to immortality, the Water Man. This score marks Peter Baert’s major Hollywood feature debut and will release in theaters on May 7, 2021.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Peter Baert about The Water Man.

How did you get started as a film composer?
I grew up in a musical family , a kind of Belgian sea-side Von Trapp setting. My Dad was a principal at a music school, and also an organist. He definitely nudged us towards classical music careers. However, I diverted slightly from that path and went into sound design and avant-garde electronic music. When my mother died of pancreatic cancer I reconnected with my classical upbringing and started to study classical music and film scoring. That was in 2008.


How did you get involved with The Water Man?
My wife and I own and run a commercial sound studio together in Brussels. One day we were booked for a Penguin audiobooks recording with David Oyelowo. That day, one of our engineers called in sick so I had to jump in to engineer. During the breaks, David and I talked about his work, and about my ambition to compose film music. We stayed in touch afterwards and at some point I asked him if I could pitch on this project that he was producing. He sent me the script and I made 8 cues based on a number of scenes.Long afterwards, David called me to say that they kept coming back to my demo, so I flew out to LA to sit with David and editor Blu Murray in the edit room and eventually I got hired.


Where did you start with putting the score together?
This heartfelt story of The Water Man took me back to two periods in my life. The first reminded me of being in my early teens, always playing in the neighborhood with my friends and going on adventures in a nearby forest. The second transported me back to a day in 2008 when my mom and I found out the diagnosis of her pancreatic cancer. She would be gone in 6 months. At some moment during the composing process the music found me and it glued to the screen. So, it started there, with that feeling and with the script that I’d received to base my demo on. The themes that I wrote for the demo pretty much evolved into the final score.

How much collaboration was there, if any, with director David Oyelowo?
I have a feeling that David kindly guided me through this process. He is an amazing man, very kind and generous. He even invited me into his home when I first came to LA. The Brussels – LA time difference worked well for us, I miss waking up with David’s notes on a cue. Later, when he was shooting in London for the Netflix film The Midnight Sky, he sent me notes from his trailer on set.


What type of music would you classify this score as? Is it adventure film music, YA drama music, or (and I ask this after watching the trailer) a bit of horror music? Or a combination of all of the above?

It’s a bit all of the above, without being a multi-headed animal. I consciously worked with a definite set of sounds throughout the movie. That’s why I used a lot of wooden percussion, some African Marimba in addition to a Concert Marimba, prepared piano..There is an emotional part of the score that blends well with the more adventurous parts.


Are there musical themes for specific characters? I have to imagine there’s some kind of motif for The Water Man himself.

When I read the Water Man Rhyme in the script, I instantly wrote a melody fitting the lines. I recorded that in my demo and later, in the movie that piece was interpreted by Amiah Miller who plays Jo. That rhyme became the Water Man theme and is used throughout the film in different forms.When Gunner is in a happy place we’ll hear Gunner’s Theme, a simple piano melody line based on a simple scale. There is a theme for Mary, that I blended with Gunner’s theme in the final score cue “Prayer.” The relationship between Gunner and Jo has a more playful theme. Amos, the father in the movie played by David, has a more texture approach, like Col Legno cello and electric distorted cello lines.

Were there any types of specific instruments that you focused on in the overall mix? Or specific instruments/sounds for specific characters or ideas?
One of the first things I did when I first saw the film, was ask the assistant editor Kevin Murray for all the non-dialogue takes of the actor who played the Water Man. So, back in Belgium, we’ve manipulated all these cries, and whispers, sighs,… through tape delays, modular synths and so on, to create a Water Man Synth. Later on in the proces, when David proposed to have some Motherly presence in the Forest scene, we also created a Mother Synth.I recorded long notes, and a number of little vocalizations with vocalist Judith Okon… and processed this as well.So in the film I could always use either some Water Man energy or Mother energy.


How much time did you have to score the film?
About 4 months. David called me near the end of October 2019 and we were planning to record in Budapest in March of 2020. However the global pandemic complicated everything and we ended up recording at Galaxy Studios in Belgium in a Covid safe setup with 9 players around mid May 2020. Cues got revised until the very end, as the edit was adapted during lockdown.


Are there any musical details you hope stand out to the audience?
There’s a Swirly Tube somewhere in the score and I played the recorder in the more funny parts between Jo and Gunner. ;-)I hope people will enjoy my style, which is a unique blend of classical and electronics.


Do you have a favorite part of the score?
I like the opening cue “Gunner’s Theme” because it has been with me since the demo. My daughters aged 5 & 7 sang it at home while I was working on it. And when Gunner finds the Water Man’s Hut and draws his Samurai sword, that’s also one of my favourite cues.

I’d like to say thank you to Peter Baert for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Water Man.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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