Q & A: Speaking in Code


With her first film, director Amy Grill brings techno and heartbreak to the big screen.

When bi-coastal filmmaker Amy Grill set out four years ago to make a documentary about the untold successes and hardships of underground techno DJs, she never intended to add her own story to the mix. Juxtaposing sweaty warehouse scenes with quieter intimate moments, Speaking in Code explores the price of an obsession with music while challenging many stereotypes. Here, we talk to Grill about glimpsing into the lives of several contemporary techno DJs (Modeselektor, Wighnomy Brothers, Monolake, and XLR8R scribe Philip Sherburne), and how she unexpectedly documented the unraveling of her own marriage.

XLR8R: What inspired you to make this movie?

Amy Grill: I felt like there was a real need to humanize electronic music, especially in the States. There are just so many over-the-top, nauseating stereotypes. I wanted the film to be as accessible as possible, without betraying or boring the true techno fans. Not everybody in techno is making $20,000 a gig; they are doing it for the love. It is a community that’s only possible because people make sacrifices to follow their dreams, to make incredible music. That may sound very “Oprah Winfrey Book Club,” but it’s true. A lot of people have told me they think this is a “converter film,” and I don’t know that I’m as religious about it as that, but I’ll take it. I love electronic music myself and I wish more people would give it a chance.

At one point in the movie you refer to the idea that people “love to hate techno.” Why do you think that is?

I think that people love to hate what they think techno is. They love to hate the idea of a bunch of guidos and black people and homosexuals on the dancefloor; it has its roots in racism and homophobia. I think that it’s seen as un-American in a lot of ways because it’s not the traditional band, which is as American as apple pie for some reason. This idea of a rock band with a lead singer and a guitar and drums is something that people are familiar with. That image has been glorified for decades because of the baby boomers’ stranglehold on mass media. So I’m waiting for the old white guys to die, basically. I think that once most of them die that we’ll be in better shape. I’m totally not kidding about that.

How did you choose which DJs to include in the film? Did you know them before or did you contact them specifically for the film?

Some of the people I knew were going to be characters, like David Day, who is my ex-husband now, and Philip Sherburne, who I’ve known for awhile. They were key in getting access to the rest of our characters. I was pretty sure that as long as Modeselektor was receptive, which they were, I definitely wanted them to be in the movie because they’re just so hilarious and charming. The Wighnomy Brothers we met during a camera test and they were just irresistible.

Were there any other people that you wish you had included in the film?

Not really. We did one interview with Richie Hawtin and we tried forever to set up an interview with Luciano. But, frankly—and, no offense to them—they’re successful. What’s interesting about that? I was looking for people that had something big at stake, or who were after something and on some kind of trajectory. So making Richie Hawtin a character would have been very flat. It’s like, “Yup, things are still great!”

The movie appears to be part character study, part travel documentary, and, largely, home video. At one point you even ask David, “Are we going to have kids?” which seems pretty personal for something packaged more as an electronic music-focused movie. So why and when did you decide to include this more personal element?

Along the way I started to realize that David was becoming much more of a character in the film than I had anticipated. I envisioned him initially as a sort of a tour guide, somebody who would show us this world and introduce us to different people. Then I realized that he was actually a really compelling character because he was probably the most obsessed with techno out of all the characters. I always wanted the film to be self-reflexive in a way, to show the process of us making the film.

It seems like the movie was actually a primary factor in the deterioration of your relationship with your husband, but also your catharsis in the end. Would you say that’s true?

It might have taken us longer to break up—I don’t really know. But certainly the film brought us to a breaking point. I think that the film allowed me to see David more clearly. It made me realize that he made a better character in my documentary than he did a husband. The hardships that we went through to make the film were directly linked to what was happening in our relationship, but I wasn’t consciously creating that story line. It really took a lot of time and distance for me to be able to tell the story that I did. I think moving to San Francisco, being thousands and thousands of miles away from David, was a big part of that. Once I had enough distance from the whole thing, all the footage made sense suddenly. It became obvious only in hindsight that we had to include [our story] in the film. That was a really difficult decision for me to make, and I sort of made it kicking and screaming, but I felt like if I didn’t include it, I wouldn’t have been telling the truth.

Do you prefer David with a beard or without?
With, for sure!

Do you think you’ll make another film after this?

Absolutely. I’m already starting to work on research for my next film, but I really don’t want to start making [it] until my focus is completely finished with Speaking in Code. The next film is going to be the same kind of format, in terms of following a handful of really fascinating characters over a period of two to four years, but this time it’s going to be about people who are obsessed with religion. I’m thinking of asking my dad to be a character. But, we’ll see how that goes.