Bas Berkhout, the visionary behind the renowned short documentary series Like Knows Like, has made his living as a storyteller. In each video, he delves into the personal history of an artist, exposing the lives behind the work and highlighting what makes each individual tick. Recently, Berkhout gave Bright Side the chance to flip the script and, for a change, tell his story.
“I lived with my family in a small village in the Netherlands until I was 16. I moved out pretty early—just before I turned 17. I was a terrible teenager and there was some friction going on. I just wanted that independence. To be on my own feet. It was a bit scary, but eventually it all worked out.”
Shortly after striking out on his own, Berkhout enrolled in a college to study advertising. Though he hadn’t quite settled on his trajectory at the time, Berkhout maintains that it was always clear to him that he had no other choice but to pursue a line of work that tapped into his creativity.
“My mom had recognized me as sort of the ‘creative child.’ She always encouraged me to do something related to creativity or art—from dance classes to drawing classes, she was always suggesting it.”
In his first two years in school Berkhout still felt that his calling remained elusive, that is until he took up an internship with a TV network. Being in the broadcast environment brought back old memories.
“I had sort of forgotten about it, but when I was 11 years old I hosted this kid’s television show: Villa Achterwerk, which means something like ‘Villa Your Butt.’ It was a sort of rebellious children’s program. Anyway, being back in that atmosphere reminded me of it and it felt very natural.”
With a new sense of purpose, Berkhout began applying to a host of film schools in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, after receiving a rejection letter from every single one, it appeared that his dream of working in film was destined to be short-lived, until a family member intervened.
“My uncle had a travel company and he heard I was trying to work in film, so he wanted to see what I was capable of. I was 21 years old, and I traveled to 25 faraway locations and filmed 30 minute documentaries for the company. I ended up doing that for around 6 years.”
Photo Credit: Stijn Ghijsen
As the fatigue of wandering the world started to take its toll, Berkhout took some time to focus on a local project within the Netherlands: a short documentary film about a Dutch aspiring singer-songwriter. After its release, the film received high praise from critics and won a number of awards, bolstering Berkhout’s confidence in his own abilities.
“Winning those awards was what helped me to finally overcome that trauma of not being accepted to film school. It was the first time I felt like I could still work in the industry without the art school.”
Berkhout began establishing himself as an adept filmmaker, working for advertising agencies and corporate clients. But even though he was appreciative of the lucrative nature of the work, Berkhout still felt his talents were suited for more creative endeavors. It was that thought that led him to what is now one of his most recognized projects: Like Knows Like.
“I was dating Marije at the time, an aspiring photographer now incredibly successful, and we decided to collaborate on a project together. That ended up being Like Knows Like. It was never meant to inspire anyone—it was just meant for ourselves—but it got a great response so we decided to keep doing it.”
The series began with simple cold emails sent to prominent artists asking if they would be willing to do a video that dug into their personal lives. Much to Berkhout’s surprise, quite a few well-known artists were more than willing to do just that.
“We felt that the personal stories of these artists weren’t shining through on social media, so with Like Knows Like we wanted to figure out who these people really are.”
In an effort to make the project appeal to an international demographic, Berkhout and his partner settled on interviewing mostly American artists, believing that having the videos in the English language would make them more accessible to that wider audience. They began with a simple one-month vacation in California, then 3 months later 2 weeks in NYC, and from there they began wracking up a list of subjects to interview across the country. Soon, Like Knows Like was flourishing, and it wasn’t long before people started to take notice.
“Because of that U.S. connection a few opportunities came up. We were Vimeo staff-picked and we documented Tina Roth Eisenberg, who eventually invited me to rent out a desk at her co-working space in New York.”
For Berkhout, who had already returned to the Netherlands for the editing process of the videos, this offer came during a time of great transition. His relationship with the co-creator of Like Knows Like had ended and he had begun seeing Hanne, the woman who would go on to become his wife. But after their very first date, Berkhout received an unexpected phone call informing him that his father had died. Rather than demobilize him, Berkhout found that the tumultuous period in his life spurred him into action.
“Coming from my dad dying, my old relationship ending, and burning out on the corporate work, I felt like I wanted to try out living in New York. It was a childhood dream of mine to see if I could make it here. I had been building my life in the Netherlands for 14 years, but I was ready for a challenge.”
Though he and Hanne, had only been seeing each other for two months at the time, he told her of the offer from Eisenberg to move to New York for a few months and asked if she would be interested in joining him. She agreed, saying it would be an incredible adventure to have together, and in September of 2013 the two took a plane to JFK.
“It was really scary at first. You don’t know the terminology as well as you think—you learn that when you start speaking to the lawyer about your visa. When you’re new, a stranger, you have to trust people and you have no idea who you’re dealing with. You have to figure out a lot of things by yourself.”
The two hit the ground running, searching for American clients to work with. Though Berkhout had spent years building up a litany of clients back in the Netherlands, they all began dropping off as he was no longer in the country. Fortunately, Berkhout’s Vimeo Staff Pick video opened up doors to big clients.
“I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with Vimeo early on. They had a brand studio that connected clients with staff-picked artists to make videos. I was allowed to create content with lots of creative and artistic freedom which helped me to build a rich portfolio.”
Before long, Berkhout had built up a new portfolio and was an established visual storyteller, a career transition he claimed could’ve never taken place had he stayed working in the corporate world of the Netherlands.
“People sometimes disagree when I say this, but I really feel like this is a place where you can start a new career overnight. You can go from being a lawyer to a farmer or a copywriter to a carpenter if you want, and that’s not something I think you can do anywhere else.”
In addition to offering a new lease on his professional life, America has imbued Berkhout with a new perspective on personal matters as well. Most notably, since their marriage in 2014, Berkhout and Hanne, have had two children that they are now raising together in Brooklyn and Catskills.
“I had always been randomly scared of starting a family back in the Netherlands, but being in a new country gave me that confidence in starting a family. It was also Hanne’s character that made me more confident about making that step.”
The decision to move to the United States wasn’t an easy one, but looking back Berkhout is certain it was the right call. Like so many before him, he notes that there is an industrious nature to American life that has allowed him to become the man he is today.
“Moving here allowed me to finally develop my artistic voice. Storytelling through these documentaries is both my craft and calling, and moving here allowed me to pursue it. There’s so much optimism here. There’s so much opportunity, and you have to grab that as it comes.”