"Speaking in Code" The Movie behind the scenes

Words by: Stephen Flynn
Posted: 16/12/10 12:18

David Day and Amy Grill's Speaking in Code From the simply immature Kevin and Perry go Large to the slightly more credible It's all gone Pete Tong to the sporadically brilliant Human Traffic, electronic music's relationship with the big screen has always been fraught with complexities. Which incidentally, is one of many reasons why David Day and Amy Grill's Speaking in Code makes for such a captivating, intriguing and refreshing watch. While more of a documentary than a movie per se, there's an obvious personal touch to the project that lends it credibility. For a start, it features cameos and interviews from some of the scenes biggest draws (Michael Mayer, Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers all make apperances) while esteemed electronic music journalist Philip Sherburne plays a focal role throughout. Lending the documentary more than simply artistic merit, Sherburne for instance, documents in poignant detail how his late father influenced his love affair with music - though his own story is just one of the many which abound throughout. The soundtrack features a multitude of well-known tracks - yet don't be fooled - Speaking in Code is as more a film about the effect of music on people's lives as it is the music itself.

With loose parallels to German documentaries such as Feiern and We Call it Techno, the movie documents the story of how - and why - Boston house music obsessive Day and his then-wife (Grill) embark on a worldwide trip that brings them as far afield as Canada, Spain and Germany. Their mission on this proverbial 'voyage of sound' not only dissects clubbing culture outside of the U.S, but also prompts as many questions about the States musical health as it does American culture in general. The annual Sonar festival for instance, is seen as David's techno Mecca, and the image of the camera crew arriving at an empty Barcelona club at 11pm is one of the films many hilariously symbolic examples of the stark contrast between American and European clubbing culture.

While a techno enthusiast will deem the film essential watching (it explains in emphatic detail the often-obsessive appeal of the genre), any music (or indeed film) aficionado will admire the peerless dedication that makes the film what it is. Occasionally heartbreaking, often heartwarming, and always intriguing, Speaking in Code is an apt reminder of what it is that we love about electronic music - and indeed - music in general. I Voice caught up with David and Amy to discuss the movie and North American clubbing culture, with P. Diddy, Soul Clap and the demise of the Wighnomy Brothers also on the agenda....

David Day and Amy GrillObvious question first, do you regret making the film? Was it worth it?
DD:  Despite still being in considerable debt, I don't regret making the film. It's a great movie. Amy made an amazing film.As for being worth it, it will be someday. It's been a lot more work than I ever expected, from distribution to digital and more, but once it's easily available to everyone, we should finally see some of the benefits we hoped would come with making a movie.

How did you first become involved in electronic music yourself?
DD:  Once I moved to New York, I made friends with the RPM editor of CMJ, and we went to Twilo and so on. When I started working at Other Music (a NYC record store) with a guy named Tim Haslett, he taught me that electronic dance music can be a serious enterprise. It wasn't all drugs and clubbing.

How did the hook up come with all the Djs/producers in the film?
DD: For about five years, I worked at Forced Exposure in Boston, and was working for some of the best electronic labels in the world. Once indie culture began to pick up on minimal techno, and labels like Kompakt and BPitch Control, I noticed first-hand how the music was being appreciated in a new way, much in the way I came myself to appreciate it.

So going to Koln and Barcelona was also a function of work. Though I wasn't paid to do it, I had become close with BPitch and Kompakt and I wanted to go and meet them, because I rarely had the chance to do so in the States.

Were any of them reluctant to be involved in the project?
DD:  Amy would be able to answer this the best, but I do know we interviewed a lot of people, and a lot of people were interested in the movie. Those who ended up on screen were exactly the ones who were not reluctant. I'm sure there were times we followed along too closely, but that was Amy's point from the very beginning: to make a different kind of electronic music documentary and she did just that.

We did several camera tests looking for characters that were not only compelling and relevant but also interested in collaborating on the project - and that's exactly what it was - a collaboration. They opened up their lives to us - but I always did my best to respect any personal boundaries that didn't need to be crossed.

How did Philip Sherburne's involvement help?I could go on for hours, but America is rock & roll, the blues and musicals. America is not a big fan of techno music, even though it was partly created here. America didn't like Rhythm & Blues, it didn't like Disco & it doesn't like techno....
DD:  Philip was a friend of ours and there is no doubt his name lent some credibility to our mission. I knew quite a few characters within the scene but Philip knew them all. He has earned their respect to become the premiere electronic music journalist in the world. And I mean earned. I know he works very hard. 

Do you feel you succeeded in setting out what you wanted to? What constitutes a success for the film? 
DD: The main reason I spent so much time and energy and money getting the film made was not to help promote electronic music. The main reason was that I knew Amy Grill was a visionary filmmaker. I knew, with her eye and talent and will to succeed, that the movie would turn out great. I obviously have seen the movie many times, but every time I truly do see something new. The layers that she weaved together are multi-faceted and fascinating. I am very excited to see her next movie.

Do you feel in any way responsible for the demise of the Wighnomy brothers?
DD:  That's an interesting question. I've never been asked that before! The film was definitely a part of the hot spotlight that turned to the WB and Jena. There was a lot of pressure on them to become stars and I suppose that, yes, we were part of that pressure. But I also know Amy became good friends with the F-A-T collective and they came to welcome her when she arrived and open their doors to her. They saw her as an outlet to tell their story, and she did that very well.

Speaking in CodeWhy do you feel electronic music hasn't - for the most part - captivated North America in the way that it has Europe?
DD:  I could go on for hours, but America is rock and roll, the blues and musicals. America is not a big fan of techno music, even though it was partly created here. America didn't like Rhythm and Blues, it didn't like Disco and it doesn't like techno. But as more African-Americans embrace the art form, like the Black Eyed Peas or P. Diddy, and as it filters down to shows like Jersey Shore, people are starting to understand that dance music is a release, a release of tension, a celebration of community and truly hard to create, that is changing. The Black Eyed Peas will have a lot of people dancing at the halftime of the Super Bowl this year, and that is pretty remarkable.

Are Europeans more open minded musically?
DD:  This is a complicated question to be sure. I do think the history of music in Europe lends itself to the embrace of new innovations in music, from the Renaissance to opera to dance music, but I also know there is some pretty bad music in Europe too.

You went to Awakenings, Sonar and visited Berlin. Musically, what was your most inspiring experience?
DD:  Amy went to those places and can answer that, but I definitely really enjoyed Koln. I am a huge fan of Kolsch beer!
AG:  Berlin on the whole was definitely the most inspiring city to me musically, because of its historical connection to techno and the reunification of Germany and also the current scene. It was also architecturally fascinating because of its war torn history and I fell in love with the general aesthetic and art everywhere.

One thing I didn't quite understand - if you love techno so much, why don't you just pack up and move to Europe? Or even to Miami or New York?
DD:  Well, I like to visit New York or Miami, but I don't know that I'd want to live there. I love the city of Boston, its history and its people. I'd love to live in Europe, of course, but it's not as simple as packing up and moving.Electronic music moves so fast, if you make a movie over the course of five years, you're going to need some special magic to have it be about what's cool, once it is done...

I read that P.Diddy inspired the project in a way. How exactly?
DD:  Ha, yeah, that's true. P. Diddy was into the music, and still is. We saw him at clubs when we were thinking of making the movie, and thought: well, here is an interesting development, the biggest pop star in America is interested in what we are doing down here. This has to mean something.

Has Soul Clap's popularity put Boston on the map in some way? Are they popular at home?
For sure. I know the Soul Clap guys and have for a while, and they deserve all their success. They worked very hard for it. Their sound is unique and definitely has ties to Boston, whether it's the synthetic R&B sound that came from here, with the Jonzun Crew and New Edition, say, or Donna Summer, who is from here. Soul Clap's sound is an extension of that in some ways, and they do represent it well.

They are as popular here, I imagine, as Detroit techno artists were in the '80s. They might not have the respect of the entire city, but amongst those that know, they are heroes. We're always happy when they come back for a while. I hope the crowds are bigger and bigger every time they do. 

IModeselektorn the three years it took you to film it, did Boston change at all or is it quite stagnant music wise? Did you notice musical trends come and go i.e. minimal techno?
DD: Boston changed a lot, just like America changed. The electrohouse sound for example, has created a new wave of appreciation for electronic music. Some of the biggest parties in the city now feature EDM, even if it's not especially tailored to be cool, it sure is fun. My party, Make It New, is six years old and definitely saw an upshot in attendance in that time.

For sure minimal has taken a back seat these days, but we still have house heads like DJ Bruno and DJ KC Hallett who have been doing their thing for a long time. For the movie, we weren't focused on the trends of the music, but on the personalities who make it.

Watching the film I heard tracks such as Oxia "Domino", Modeselektor's "Happy Birthday" and Ellen Allien's "Way Out". The film is what, 2-3 years old? While decent, the soundtrack already sounds somewhat dated. Was choosing the tracks for the soundtrack a difficult task?
DD: The tracks, like the characters, chose themselves in a way. "Domino" is what Miss Kittin was playing at the time we shot - and of course Modeselektor was going to be on the soundtrack.

The music was always going to feel dated. Electronic music moves so fast, if you make a movie over the course of five years, you're going to need some special magic to have it be about what's cool, once it is done. That said, the talents of artists like Modeselektor, Robag and Monolake will never get old. Like they all say in the movie, they will be making music for the rest of their lives. They're not going anywhere.

What did your non-techno liking friends make of your project?
DD:  Ha, another good question. When people asked me about the documentary, I would always say it was about "music producers" or "the people behind the scenes in music," but rarely did I say "techno" or "Modeselektor." It made it difficult to find investors or produces outside of close friends or family as a result. My dad, for example, would always say how this movie "seems like it would be more popular in Europe" and, in the end, he is probably right.Speaking in Code is the techno movie....that is not about techno...

Is there anything you'd change about the film? Any Djs/producers you wished you could have drafted in but you couldn't?
DD:  As I said earlier, Amy is a documentary filmmaker with a unique voice and perspective. I wouldn't change anything about the movie. I love it. I think it's a great movie. As a part-time film critic myself, I think it should win some awards. It's that good.

Speaking in Code is the techno movie....that is not about technoI personally feel that fans of electronic music are more passionate, even obsessive about the scene and their music than fans of other genres. Do you think this is true?
DD:  Totally true. There are parallels to other types of music, like punk rock in America, for example, but because the music is featured in what Patti Schmidt likes to call "sacred spaces," people feel the need to protect it. That the public at large does not understand it also lends it to people taking it more personally. And they should. Music is the most important expression of humanity. It is crucial to always make it new.

The only thing I've ever watched that structurally (and topically) comes close to the movie is the Electronic Beats series. While I find them slightly pretentious, I find there's an accessibility to Speaking in Code that'd make it an enjoyable watch to fans of all kinds of music. Was this your intention?
DD:  Absolutely. Amy was always careful to make the focus of the movie on the people, the humans behind the music. We find that critics who don't know anything about electronic music love the movie. In some cases - even more than movie critics who do know or love electronic music. This is entirely to Amy's credit. Her direction made this happen. As we liked to say when we were developing the direction of the movie: "Speaking in Code is the techno movie....that is not about techno."

Was there ever a stage were you felt like giving up on the movie? Maybe as a result of financial or marital stress?
DD:  Oh boy, I'll definitely let Amy handle this question. I do know that I would have done anything to make sure Amy had the resources and time to finish the making of the film. Because I knew it would be a great movie. And it is.

AG: Yes, there were definitely times when I felt like giving up especially when David and I were breaking up - it was just too hard to watch the footage or make sense of it all. It took a little distance and moving to the west coast (thousands of miles from David and our shared memories) and suddenly the film made sense and took shape. From that point forward I was thrilled to work on the film again and put everything I had into finishing it - by that time the budget was coming out of my paycheck since we didn't have much if any credit left on our credit cards - we were maxed out (I had a job at the time at a documentary TV network.)

Have you plans to make more documentaries? What are you focusing on right now?
DD:  I truly hope Amy makes another movie, and I know she's thought about it. I can't wait to see it. People do ask me if I'd be interested in making, or funding or helping make another movie, and to that I always say: there is no chance I am ever going to make another movie.

AG: Right now I am working at a University in Los Angeles full time teaching students television production. I do plan on making another character driven documentary soon - but first I need to raise the money - I won't be doing another movie on credit cards ever again!

For more information:
www.speakingincode.com | www.squar3.com | www.facebook.com | www.myspace.com  |  twitter.com


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