featured interview

Florian Gaag Whole side of the tracks It was a process of blood, sweat and tears, but after years of heavy hustling and fighting against prejudices about the art, German movie director and former graff writer Florian Gaag got to release his nationwide critically acclaimed graffiti film 'Wholetrain' internationally. He wrote, directed and marketed the movie ?nd made the beats for its soundtrack, consisting of hip-hop heavyweights such as KRS-One, OC, and -of course- El Da Sensei and Tame One.


Who's Florian Gaag and what does graffiti mean to him?

I'm a screenplay writer, director, film- and music producer from Munich, Germany. I started writing graffiti back in 1984 and was active up until the early nineties. Graffiti culture was very influential on many aspects of my life. Plus I think it's one of the truest, stylistically divers, most dynamic and beautiful cultural movements of all time.

What are some of your earliest memories of the art?

Actually my first encounter with graffiti writing dates back from the late 1970s. Of course, back then there was no graffiti on the walls and trains in German cities - apart from funny scribbling or political statements. So one day my father, who is a musician, returned from a tour in the United States, set up a slide projector and showed us slides he took while on tour. He really liked the pieces he saw on the New York subway cars so he took many pictures. I was immediately hooked by these images and fascinated ever since. I was still young so it took a couple of years before I would actually start doing it myself.

You grew up in Munich. Is it what New York is to the United States as far as graffiti and hip-hop concerned?

Not exactly. Munich used to have the first and most important train writing scene in the early eighties. This was long before people started hitting trains in Berlin. But nowadays I would say the most active and biggest scene is in Berlin.

How did you become a film maker?

I was always interested in films and film making so it was kind of a natural choice. Film making allows me to bring together all the creative elements that I like: the writing, the visuals and the sound/music.

Compare shooting a film to spraying graffiti.

There are many similarities between filmmaking and writing graffiti, especially when making a film like 'Wholetrain'. Nobody from the official side wanted this film to be made: the film funders were scared to finance a film that might instigate young people to 'commit crimes'. The German railway company refused to collaborate and informed all other European railway companies so the project would be blocked. And when we finally had a finished film, most theatre owners were reluctant to show 'Wholetrain' because they didn't want to have 'this kind of an audience' and were scared that their theatres might get wrecked by graffiti-writers. So I always had to kind of sneak into official territory and find ways, to bypass the authorities. Very much like a train bombing mission...


It's a great movie. Finally there's a movie about graffiti again...what was the main motivation for you to make it?

Thank you! The main motivation was of course my personal past within this culture. And the perception that there hasn't been a fictional film dealing with graffiti writing since the classics in the 1980s, at least none I really liked. Apart from that I thought there were so many misconceptions about graffiti writing and writers being spread by the media every day that I decided to also concentrate on the human dimensions behind the pieces on the walls and subway cars.

As far as casting: what were some of your conditions/standards to select the actors? Did you want someone with a hip-hop, graffiti background and experience in acting combined?

In the beginning I thought it would be the best to find graffiti writers that have some acting experience or talent. I did street castings in all big German cities, saw about 3000 people, but soon found out that they couldn't provide the acting-skills I was looking for. So I chose to work with young people who had some acting experience but weren't professional actors. Since they (with the exception of Mike Adler who played David) didn't have any graffiti experience, we set up a graffiti writing-workshop and taught them how to sketch, tag, do pieces and even went to the yards with them so they would get a feeling for what it's like in real life. It was important for me though that all of them had some kind of relation to graffiti- or hip-hop culture or at least an affinity.

There's a lot of tempo and built-up tension in the movie, what movies/directors inspired you?

There wasn't really a film that I used as a stylistic model or anything like that. But 'Kids' by Larry Clark and the work of a French filmmaker called Siegfried was definitely a reference for me.

There's not a lot of dialogues, you let the images or music speak for itself...as a matter of fact wir verstehen Deutsch aber man braucht kein Deutsch zu kennen um alles zu verstehen.does a graffiti movie need more visuals than words?

Yes, I would say so. Or let's put it this way: right from the start I wanted to find a visual style that would in some way capture the energy and tension. And creating that feeling through the means of cinematography and editing was very important to me.

It's not really a documentary like the classic movies Wild Style or Style Wars or like most of today's graffiti movies, but the accent lays a lot on the story, a bit contradictory because you are mainly a documentary maker...did you want to escape from 'the documentary spirit'?

I'm still very much into making documentary films, but for some reason I?m a little more focused on fictional films at the moment and in trying to incorporate a documentary feel in my fictional work.

How hard was it to bring a story from the mind to the script?

Writing a screenplay is always quite a piece of work since you don't just write it and there it is. You do many drafts and constantly rewrite until you get to the final version of the story. A process that can take years.

You told us about the setbacks of releasing the movie.it also took you some time to release the movie on an international level. It was first shot in 2005 and released in 2006 and just now being re-released worldwide.what's the story behind that?

Well, I guess that's kind of hard to understand if you don't know about the sometimes absurd details of the commercial exploitation of a film. The production company had sold the international rights for 'Wholetrain' to a world distribution company. Since they have no idea about the global network of graffiti culture and wouldn't want to listen to me, they more or less shelved the film and it took me four years of heavy hustling and fighting to get them to agree to the international release and distribution. So, if you can, choose carefully who you work with when making a film...If it would've been my choice I would've released the film worldwide four years ago.

If you look at the movie website you see nuthin but awards...did you expect this amount of success?

No, of course not. I definitely wanted to make a film that tells a universal story that could be understood everywhere, but seeing how well it actually works all over the globe makes me very happy.

What do you expect from the international release...what are some of your wishes?

I don't have any particular wishes, I'm just glad that 'Wholetrain' is out there now, not being confined to be seen only by a German speaking audience any longer. And I hope people will enjoy it.

Whose compliments did you enjoy most? Charlie Ahearn's or KRS-One's?

Both mean a lot to me. It was great, because KRS-One invited me to come out to New York and present the film with him at the legendary club S.O.B.?s and Charlie Ahearn was in the audience. That was a special evening.

Do you miss spraying graffiti yourself?



The guest list is impressive. How did you get so many big names on one album?

The work on the soundtrack was almost like doing another film. Not only was it a lot of work contacting everybody and coordinating the recording sessions in New York, L.A., Philadelphia, Boston and Munich, but I had to produce all the beats on time since we were on a very tight schedule.

I chose to work with people like KRS-One, Planet Asia, Afu-Ra. Tame One etc., since they all have either been active as graffiti writers themselves or are closely linked to the culture. After I had initially reached out to them, I sent them the beat, the specific scene of the movie and some thoughts regarding what I wanted them to reflect on in their lyrics and I guess they all were just feeling vibe of the project after that.

So you're a producer too.is there any hip-hop element that you haven't done?

I never tried to be an MC. And I haven't done b-boying. Unfortunately! I really regret that because I respect that a lot.

How did you get into production?

I started producing a while ago, working with Cubase and an old Atari computer. I guess my appreciation for soul and funk tracks was really the reason for me to get into production. I have a collection of vinyl's and just started to play with it.


What are some of the latest rap releases you listened to?

It's crazy, I haven't listened to anything that came out in the last six months since I've been completely absorbed by classical movie soundtracks. Maybe I'll be experimenting with a classical score for my next film.

What are some of the latest movies you've liked?

I really liked 'Hunger' by Steve McQueen, a Swedish film called 'Let The Right One In' by Tomas Alfredson and - it?s a little older already ... 'Darjeeling Limited' by Wes Anderson.

Do you have a Keith Haring painting in your house?


Do you still have your black books?

Unfortunately most of my stuff got taken by the cops because one of my crew partners back then was a little too careless. So it's gone.

Which public transport do you prefer? Metro, trains, trams or busses?

Strictly trains. The Polish ones we had for 'Wholetrain' are pretty close to my personal ideal. Not only in terms of their shape, but you actually hear them moving - screeching, groaning, rattling - not like the modern plastic train-substitutes they now have in almost all West-European cities.

What's next for Florian Gaag?

I'll be making a very different film next year. In terms of the genre: it's a psychological thriller/drama with horror elements. And if I can come up with the right ideas, I'll also make the music for this film.

Good luck and thanks for the interview!


POSTED 11|01|2010
conducted by Cpf

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