The two first met when Oyelowo was in Brussels shooting “Les Miserables” and needed a studio to record a voiceover narration for Penguin Books’ “Spot the Dog.” Oyelowo recorded at Baert’s studio. “Between takes, we talked about the film and his producing work,” Baert says. “I told him my big ambition was music and film music in particular, and we kept in touch,”
When they connected again soon after, Oyelowo mentioned he was eying “The Water Man,” a coming-of-age movie with throwbacks to ’80s family adventure films in which Gunner, a young boy, goes in search of the mythical “water man,” rumored to have healing powers.
As soon as Baert heard about it, he started putting ideas together and presented them to Oyelowo before he had even started shooting. “That partnership was born before the film was shot,” composer and artist Jessica Oyelowo says.
The story of a boy in search of eternal life struck Baert for personal reasons — he lost his mother in 2008 to pancreatic cancer. “That really resonated with me,” he says. “I asked him if I could pitch the script and he sent it to me. I took my time and I wrote music for it. I sent it to him and he told me he couldn’t stop listening to it.”
As pre-production rolled on, another composer was attached, but Oyelowo reached out asking to buy a song. Fast Forward to October 2019, “he called me and told me he was stuck and kept going back to my demo, and he said, ‘We put it against the film. We like it, are you ready for this?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’”
Once Baert was on board, he understood there needed to two elements to the score; one where it was adventurous to reflect Gunner’s adventure, and another aspect that needed to tap into the emotional aspect of the film.
The latter ties into Gunner’s quest to find a cure for his mother played by Rosario Dawson, who has leukemia. “This Is Us” actor Lonnie Chavis plays Gunner.
As Oyelowo tells it: “I wanted sounds that were evocative of my experience: African sounds. I didn’t want bongos like the classic ‘Lion King,’ African jungle type sound. I said to Peter, ‘Use instruments that are not all classical. My Nigerian heritage had to be in there. You see it in the costumes, the production design and it had to be in the music. I like to think that ‘The Water Manp has a homemade feel to it; it’s very evocative of my home and my experience.”
With that, Baert adds: “For the adventurous parts, I had this idea that the sound needed to be in Gunner’s imagination, so it could be bold and big. So I used an orchestra. I also used a lot of wood instruments. I used Japanese woodblocks and African marimba.”
Additionally, Baert collaborated with assistant editor Kevin R.W. Murray for scenes in which “the water man” appears. “I took those screams, shouts and whispers and made synths from that,” he says.
“The Water Man” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in Sept. 2020 and opens in theaters on May 7.