Interview with Florian Gaag, Director of Graffiti Feature Film Wholetrain

Posted by Billyjam, November 23, 2010 06:15am | Post a Comment

Today both the DVD and the soundtrack for the critically acclaimed, award-winning and Florian Gaag directed fictional graffiti-feature film WHOLETRAIN are being released via RykoDisc. The film was shot in Poland and is in German with subtitles in English and 13 other languages. The English language hip-hop soundtrack includes all original songs (over beats produced by the film's director) from all American artists including KRS-One, Freddie Foxxx, O.C., Planet Asia, Afu-Ra, Grand Agent, Akrobatik, Tame One, and El Da Sensei. Both the film and its soundtrack are highly recommended for anyone, not just graffiti fans.

The film's title, WHOLETRAIN, comes from the graffiti writers' goal of spraypainting every inch of an entire train. Although the film's young cast will be totally unknown to American audiences, it is dramatically gripping, with a solid story-line, plus a most impressive display of all new graffiti art. Colorfully shot on the trains and walls, throughout the film this graffiti was all tirelessly commissioned by the first time director himself, who is clearly a major graffiti fan. For these beautiful pieces he brought in such established graffiti artists as NEON, PURE, CIEL, WON, and CEMNOZ to do the art work.
Back in February, when the film screened in LA and San Francisco at the Goethe-Institut in each city, I reviewed it for the Amoeblog. I also interviewed the director at that time. He told me about the challenging process of making this film, including the overwhelming obstacles he faced due to making a film that includes an illegal art form, and how WHOLETRAIN turned into a six year project. That interview with director Florian Gaag follows below.
Florian Gaag

WHOLETRAIN is a great film and what's most impressive is that it is your first full-length film. So had you done short films or videos before this?

Florian Gaag: Yes, I´ve done a couple of short films, mostly short documentaries though, because that´s where I´m coming from.

Amoeblog: Obviously you are a fan of graffiti. But are you a graffiti artist yourself? How did you first get interested in graffiti?

Florian Gaag: I haven´t done a piece in a while, but I was active in Germany from 1984 up until the early / mid-nineties. I have to actually blame my father for infecting me with the writing-virus. He´s a musician and when he was touring the states in the mid-seventies he was so blown away by the pieces on the New York subways that he took many photos, and, back home, presented them in a slide show. I was immediately hooked, but of course too young to fully grasp the concept. It all came together when Subway Art and Style Wars hit Europe in the early eighties. Like many early European writers I was massively influenced by the book and the movie.

It looks like the late 80's or early 90's but the city it is in remains unclear. So what city does the film take place in and what year is the film set?

Florian Gaag: WHOLETRAIN is set in a fictional city and the year could be anytime.

Amoeblog: Were any of the actors also graffiti artists and how did you go about casting them?

Florian Gaag: The only guy who had any prior writing experience is Mike Adler, who plays David. But he was far from the level of stylistic sophistication I wanted to see in the movie, so we trained them. We set up a workshop lead by NEON and for one month straight, the actors were taught sketching, tagging, piecing, everything that goes along with the culture. We even went to the yards with them. Actually, the actors weren´t really actors also. Only one of them, Jacob Matschenz, playing Achim, had some prior experience. For everybody else it was their first full length feature film.

Amoeblog: I know that you had the artists NEON, WON, CEMNOZ, PURE and CIEL do the artwork.  How was the process of working with these graffiti artists? Did you give them total freedom and did it take longer to do than you imagined? And how did you arrange that with the railway transit company and owners of the graffiti bridge that you shot underneath?

Florian Gaag: I pretty much planned everything out beforehand with NEON. We decided on which writer will be doubling which actor, which crew will represent which style and the overall concept of the pieces, growing in complexity during the course of the movie. When it came to the actual pieces we discussed the general outlines, but I left it up to the writers to give the cars their final look. Since I've known most of them since my writing days and specifically picked them for the project I knew i could trust them.

The movie took a lot longer to make than I had imagined. Because of the controversial nature of the subject nobody wanted to collaborate with us. To get funding was almost impossible and took us over two years. Then we spent another two years to get shooting permission since the German transportation authorities refused to talk to us and threatened to inform all other transit companies in Europe about the project so it [couldn't] get made. It was a lucky coincidence that we were finally able to shoot the film in Warsaw, Poland. A friend of mine who I studied with at film school had just founded a production company out there. He had great links to the authorities and somehow managed to talk them into it. So WHOLETRAIN was blocked all along the way. It was six years from the first line of the screenplay to the finished film and to this day I still consider it a miracle that we could pull it off.

: I love your soundtrack that you also produced. The lyrics all sound like they were written especially for the film. So did each emcee see the film first before writing their parts? And was it a deliberate choice to have only American hip-hop artists?

Florian Gaag:
Yes, all the lyrics were written specifically for the movie. I hooked up with the MCs, sent them a couple of written pages explaining what I wanted them to address in their lyrics and the overall mood. Then I sent them the beats I had produced and the specific scene I had in mind for them and that´s how it was done. Logistically it was kind of a challenge though, almost like another movie. We were under extreme time pressure and had to coordinate the recording sessions in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, L.A. and Munich. But in the end it all worked out fine and all the artists have been very supportive. It wasn´t so much about them being American but about working with artists I always wanted to work with. And I chose most of them for their links with the culture.

Amoeblog: You have been very successful in film festivals with the movie, but knowing how fickle some viewers can be regarding subtitles outside of the festival circuit, have you gotten any negative feedback on the fact it is not in English and that it is subtitled?

Florian Gaag
: No, I never got that kind of feedback. I guess WHOLETRAIN tells quite a universal story that a lot of people down with the culture can relate to, no matter what language they speak or where they´re from. And the arthouse-crowd is used to seeing subtitled films anyway.

Thanks for taking time to talk to the Amoeblog. Last question: What will your next film project be?

Florian Gaag:
Very different from WHOLETRAIN. Genre-wise it´s gonna be a psychological thriller about a mobbing situation between two fourteen-year-old girls that totally gets out of hand.

WHOLETRAIN DVD and soundtrack are available at Amoeba Music

Relevant Tags

Krs-one (20), Art (93), Graffiti (52), Wholetrain (3), Subway Art (4), Florian Gaag (3), Film (145), Hip-hop (209)