A genuine labour of love and years in the making, “Wholetrain”, the cinematic debut of German director Florian Gaag, finally saw a worldwide DVD release in late November. Telling the story of four graffiti writers attempting to balance the pressures of normal everyday life with their nocturnal spray-paint activitities, “Wholetrain” has not only won a number of awards at various film festivals across the globe, but has also received praise from many connected to the graffiti scene, such as KRS-One, “Subway Art” author / photographer Henry Chalfant and legendary NYC artist KET.
Here, Florian Gaag talks about the obstacles he encountered whilst attempting to make “Wholetrain”, competing with much-loved graf-flicks “Wild Style” and “Style Wars”, plus how he also managed to pull in a number of Hip-Hop legends for the film’s soundtrack.
Why was it important to you to actually make a film like “Wholetrain”?
“My personal history in graffiti culture, I started writing in Munich, Germany back in 1984, inspired me to come up with the idea for the project. I thought there was a fictional film missing portraying the culture in a decent way. The classic graffiti movies of the 1980s, “Style Wars” and “Wild Style”, weren’t fictional films, but a documentary and a docudrama. So with “Wholetrain” I wanted to bridge that gap. Also, I wanted to take a different approach, portraying the culture from a writers point of view, since in most TV shows and films graffiti-writing is nothing more than a hip, colourful background or, even worse, shown in a totally unrealistic, one-dimensional way.”
Was making the film a difficult process?
“It was hell. Producers and funders were very suspicious, they didn’t really want to invest in a project that deals with graffiti-writing. Once I had production partners and the funding together it was close to impossible to get shooting permission. The German railway company refused to collaborate and informed all other European railway companies about the project so the film would be blocked. It took us almost three years before we got the go in Warsaw, Poland. Then when we finally had finished the film, theatre owners refused to show it because they were scared writers might wreck their theatres.”
“Wholetrain” has been compared to classic graffiti themed films such as “Wild Style” and “Style Wars” – did you feel any pressure during the making of the film knowing such comparisons were going to be made?
“”Style Wars” and “Wild Style” are iconic films that I very much treasure, but I didn’t really feel any pressure. I was always aware of the fact though that there’s a thin line between a fictional film about graffiti culture working or not and it was difficult at times to balance it out.”
You worked with a number of well known graf artists on the project – were you quite specific about how you wanted the graffiti pieces in the film to look or did you let the artists just do their thing?
“I worked with NEON, WON ABC, CEMONOZ, PURE TFP, CIEL and MONS. I decided on the writing names, pre-planned the general look and talked about styles to represent the different crews with NEON, but I pretty much gave them complete freedom for the pieces.”
The soundtrack is obviously an important part of the film – how did you choose the artists you wanted to work with and was it stressful producing the soundtrack album as well as directing the film itself?
“I wanted to work with people who have love for graffiti culture or have been active as writers themselves, like for example Tame One of the Artifacts. Other artists I worked with were KRS-One, Planet Asia, Afu-Ra, O.C., Freddie Foxxx, Akrobatik, El Da Sensei, Grand Agent and Reef The Lost Cauze. I produced the beats, then sent the artists the files, the according scene from the film and some thoughts and ideas I wanted them to address in their lyrics. Then we organized the recording sessions which took place in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and Munich. It was almost like making another movie and was very time-consuming and demanding.”
What do you want people to take away from the film after they’ve seen it?
“I’d really like to leave that up to the audience. But it was definitely one of my intentions to show the human dimension of graffiti-writing, the people behind the pieces on the walls and trains, so I’m always glad if an audience who has never been in direct contact with graffiti-writing before sees the culture differently after watching “Wholetrain” and lets go of some preconceived notions.”
Do you have any other film projects coming up?
“I just started pre-production for my new film. It will be very different from “Wholetrain” though. In terms of the genre it’s a drama with thriller and horror elements.”