Filmmaker Oliver Würffell (in glasses) with the Pumpkins
It takes less than a day to drive across Germany in any given direction. For 34-year-old filmmaker Oliver Würffell, the commute from his residence in Munich to Berlin was as easy as an hour-long plane ride. But this past September, he and his crew traveled far from home to China to film with the punk band Pumpkins. The band’s home turf of Xinxiang was unlike anything the crew had ever seen before. The massive population of China, the world’s largest at 1.4 billion people, is only matched by the vastness of its scenery. Würffell, standing at six-foot-tall, was continually amazed at the different sights and sounds China had to offer. From the bustling airports to the cities in the Henan province, he stood out like a sore thumb. The sheer size of the country and his understanding of its range were both overwhelming and beautiful.
Converse Rubber Tracks provided the Pumpkins with an opportunity to travel from their home all the way to the heart of Berlin to record at the world renowned Hansa Tonstudio. The facilities’ history traces back to 1960, and over the years the institution has moved, grown and churned out records by bands such as U2, Iggy Pop, REM, Snow Patrol, and more. In 1977, David Bowie recorded his famed record Heroes there. At the time, the studio was referred to as “Hansa by the Wall.” And nearly 30 years after the Berlin Wall was demolished, the symbolism of its removal holds true with the story of the Pumpkins. Upon entering the studio, the band was surprised by New York punk veteran Marky Ramone as a guest producer. Partially freaked out, but totally focused, the band pumped out a track that could easily be mistaken for early recordings by The Stooges.
But the cultural melting pot that makes up the story of Pumpkins’ journey, A Band of Five, doesn’t define its narrative. Underneath the surface bubblegum-fluff of an incredible chance to travel and make music, the Pumpkins are actually facing an existential identity crisis where mourning the death of their original lead singer is intersected by the sabotaged travel plans of their new one. Director Oliver Würffell speaks on the challenges of sharing a deep story despite language barriers, the underlying political implications of creating art in China, and the punk spirit of everyday people.
Noisey: What initially attracted you to this project?
Oliver Würffell: I was immediately interested in shooting it when I heard the idea. I’d been to China twice before. I was expecting a lot when I heard they were a Chinese punk band traveling outside the country to record at the legendary Hansa Tonstudio. From there we started working trying to find a topic that could be a nice theme besides being a punk in China. At first, we thought about bringing in politics, because punk and politics go together. But we couldn’t in the end, because [the band] was afraid of making it too political. We found out that Marky’s story and the stories of the Pumpkins are very much linked not only by punk rock, but also by the loss of somebody they truly love, a band member. That became the big topic, and we started from there.
Growing up in Germany, were you familiar with Hansa Tonstudio?
It’s a mecca in a way. I’d never been there before, but I knew it was an iconic studio. Bowie and Depeche Mode and all these people from back in the day when Germany was still divided, they recorded their stuff there and afterwards even more. It’s an atmosphere where you can really soak it in, that this place has a history to tell.
Was there an energy you were trying to capture around the experience in the studio?
Of course, and the Pumpkins were traveling abroad for the first time. They’d never left China, so it was pretty big for them to fly out of their country, and then to Europe, which is totally different. Then to a very well known artsy place like Berlin, a very vibrant city in Europe. They were overwhelmed at first by the city itself. I was really curious about they would feel when they finally got into Hansa. I was aiming to get most of the shots when they do their first steps inside the studio. You may not see the history, but you can feel it. There’s a lot of patina and old instruments. You can see the golden records hanging on the wall. The first hour they were just strolling around, then they started getting their instruments to work, it was fun watching them soak everything in.
This installment of the Converse Rubber Tracks series is probably the most powerful one. You clearly had much more to tell than some chronological story of a band recording some new songs. First the Pumpkins original singer passed away, then they had this weird situation where the new singer couldn’t get his travel visa. What was the core of this story?
They’re taking the death of their former lead singer very seriously. When we figured out that politics won’t work and we cannot tell that story, we needed another strong story. Usually if you tell the story of losing a friend it can get cheesy if it’s not true, or if it’s not truly felt by the ones who are left behind. When we met them, everybody felt how strong it was. Forget politics, everyone knows that punk rock is an attitude, but this “left-behind idea,” the story of the lost friend, that was the important story to be told.
There are two moments where you can tell that the band took this very seriously. One would be when they are recording there and honoring their lost friend by the pride and the fun they had at Hansa. Second would be when we ask the lead singer why he wasn’t able to make it to Europe, and he just said that the visa officer kind of “took his dream away.” You can feel that it was a pity to him; he’d just missed this chance. It was a big thing for him as well, and him not being there recording with his friends, they felt like they were missing something. Just like they were missing their former lead singer.
What was it like shooting when they went and paid respects to their friend’s grave in China?
I wanted them to tell me the story about their former lead singer but I didn’t want to fake a situation. They decided to take me to the grave. In China, it’s not like normal graves; they are different compared to our culture. It was a weird situation, we walked in and then we saw this big golden wall with all these little doors. Before we entered, they bought some sheets, paper stuff with different items printed on it like a washing machine, car, and cell phone. They told me that they were going to burn everything because these things are transferred into heaven where the singer is. These various items are to help him stay healthy and wealthy. Then they opened up this little box inside and took a picture out. Then they just went outside and burned all the stuff. They told me that it’s a special thing in China and in their religion; you don’t get buried until your parents get buried. So he will stay there until his parents pass away.
As a filmmaker, have you ever been a part of such an intimate scenario before?
It’s the same with you, when you do interviews, you talk to somebody and then you get very close and you ask questions and at some points you’ll get the sense that it is a very delicate moment. The director of photography and I were just standing there and observing the situation more than getting involved in it. We took a big step back. It was so personal. The shot where they’re leaving the whole facility and walking away from the building where their friend is resting currently, with that shot you can tell that they were really out of their comfort zone. That’s until they start lighting off firecrackers. It’s not a good luck thing, but you get rid of demons in a way. After that, they got into the car and we started talking again and they were relaxed.
After our interview, I asked them about it because I’d never heard from them personally what happened that day. You could tell that it was close to the point where they were thinking of stopping the interview. It’s really hard for them to talk about.
What do you know about his passing?
It was a traffic accident. I asked them what happened, but it’s really tricky with Mandarin and having a translator there with the language barrier. At some point, you just recognize that it’s getting serious and you don’t want to ask another question and put the whole interview at stake. All they mentioned was that it was an accident and they lost their friend forever.
You thought about going political but you decided you shouldn’t, but it’s still there in the undertones. Marky Ramone hints at it in his narration, then the guys are talking about seeing graffiti, which they could never get away with doing in China. I think those concepts are still shining through. War, art, and expression are all inherently affected by and results of politics.
Definitely. I think for me in the end it was the only chance to bring in a supple tone of politics was by having Marky talk about it. With the ironic imagery we chose, the archival footage. We’re taking politics very seriously, especially right now, Europe and the world is changing. There are a lot of things going on over in America, with somebody who has a big network and a strong connection to New York of course…[laughs]. It would have been a pity if we just missed it completely, so we found a way to get it into the film without bringing the guys into trouble. During the interview I asked political questions and they were refusing to answer those questions. They’re afraid. We decided to put it in with a little irony to it, which makes you laugh but at the same time makes you think.
What was it like shooting in that area of China? It almost had this parallel to New York, where there was this beauty but also eeriness to the nighttime in the city…
When we arrived, it was something I’d never seen before. We were the only four western white guys in the whole city. Cars were stopping and they were taking photographs. I’m six feet high and my director of photography has curly blonde hair. It was crazy, you’re in that kind of city and they described it literally as being cozy and very familiar, but it was ridiculous to see. Everything we saw was different from the western world, so we decided to make a point of highlighting that.
When you were there did you get any sort of vibe that it was the type of place that would stifle your creativity?
We were very careful about what we were shooting. We had interpreters and producers from China with us who would say, “OK, this is a government building you’re not allowed to shoot that.” Nevertheless, we never felt insecure. It’s such a big city: it’s so dirty and noisy and overwhelming. When you step out of the car for the first time you think, “This may have been a bad idea,” but after an hour, we felt comfy and just went for it. We know that there are big artists who are in custody; but we were never interfered by anybody. We just had fun shooting with the boys.
Was it important to show them doing their day jobs?
I wanted to show that they are ordinary people with ordinary jobs. They have their daily life, and then they have this punk rock life inside them. I felt it was something you should see and feel in a way. Playing a bass you are usually not working as a dentist. It’s strange seeing someone play guitar and then all of a sudden he’s working in the most ugly kitchen ever. This helps exaggerate the punk rock in a way. When you introduce someone like that, you don’t expect the person to be in a punk band.
How was the band’s interaction with Marky Ramones? Was there a language barrier?
Well, in the first place they were kind of really stepping back for the fact that he’s their idol, all of sudden they’re with Marky Ramone. They were overwhelmed being at Hansa to begin with. But they regained their composure pretty quickly and they were working really well together. Marky came up with good proposals and was giving really good advice. The language barrier did cause a lot of laughter and we captured some of that. It was a cool atmosphere.
Does the concept of transplanting an artist into another environment foster creativity?
That’s the beauty of a new experience. If you’re open-minded, you’re asking questions and soaking everything up like a sponge, like I think they did. They felt the atmosphere of Berlin and all its creativity and art everywhere we took them. They really got the message. We took them to iconic places like Checkpoint Charlie and explained to them what happened back then. I think they felt it. It added this special thing to their song, as well as the singer being left behind. I’m sure of that, you can feel it in the song.
Derek Scancarelli studied documentary filmmaking in New York. Nerd-out with him on Twitter.