Melbourne Documentary Film Festival: ‘The Rise Of the Synths’
The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival has a number of exciting films being featured this year, one of which is The Rise of the Synths. A documentary written and directed by Iván Castell. The Rise of the Synths is a blend of 80s nostalgia and electronic music whose composers account for millions of plays online.
The film takes on the story of the intriguing genre of music, “In the mid 2000’s, with the help of MySpace, several composers from different countries spontaneously started an underground music scene that the Internet would call, among other names, Synthwave.”
Iván Castell’s statement on the documentary says, “This film is not just about synthesizers or 80s inspired music. It explores, through a group of composers and their experiences, the process for today’s creative collaboration. These times when anyone can create art in their bedroom and share it with the world via the Internet.”
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Castell some questions on both his film The Rise of the Synths and about his career as a filmmaker in general. Here’s what he had to say.
On The Rise of the Synths
What inspired you to do a documentary on the origin of Synthwave?
A friend of mine sent me a couple of youtube links to some tracks he wanted me to put on a video of him I was working on. The first one I opened was “80s Stallone – Cobretti”, synced to old footage from “Cobra” (the movie). I didn’t understand what I was watching – if it was serious, or an old score.
But I eventually started to look at the related videos and discovered bands like Com Truise, Dance with the Dead, Droid Bishop, Betamaxx, etc. – and how huge this scene was, without anyone in the outside world paying attention to it, that I thought that someone will already be developing a film about this, but nobody was, and I jump on it.
The Rise of the Synth covers a lot of ground within the genre’s origins. What was the research for the documentary like?
Complicated and long. At the time there was literally nothing out there about Synthwave apart [from] two blogs. No Wikipedia, no pictures of the bands, no locations, sometimes not even an email to contact them, just 80s avatars. If you googled “synthwave” there was almost a blank page.
I had to talk to them a lot and try to get an idea of what they were, and where they were coming from. I didn’t want to do a super concrete film about synthwave, what are all the originators, the guys that invented the sound etc etc I wanted to look at their motivation to do it, to recreate the feeling of discovery and sense of awesomeness you feel when you discover this synthwave universe and you start to travel back I time, towards the 80s and the 70s, and the whole nostalgia behind it, real or not.
Are you a fan of synth music yourself?
Not at the beginning. I was a teenager in the 90s. I was into grunge, alternative rock, metal, all that stuff. Synths weren’t really on my radar, quite the opposite. It was the sound to vanish from the earth if you wanted to be cool back then.
But I’ve always been interested in films and of course scores were the way of getting into my brain without me noticing it. When I started to re-discover my forgotten love for synthesizers, it was instant love. I went from Tangerine Dream, Clint Mansel, Vangelis, etc., etc., to synthwave, and then the world opened to this amazing new world of sounds.
John Carpenter, famous for his synth soundtrack to Halloween, narrates the film. How did you get him involved on the project?
The long-short story is that we sent him an email through his Hollywood agent with the proposition and they replied 24 hours later. John was always interested in doing the narration, and basically, we needed to be able to really do the film in order to get him attached.
So it was really a long 4 years journey on making this really happen. But he was always up for it, and despite all the complications during the process of making this film, I’m grateful he stayed committed until the end with such a humble indie production.
During production on The Rise of the Synths, you wore a lot of hats. What was that experience like?
It was tiring, but I had an amazing team working with me. People need to realize that the film is a small production from two indie companies (Castell & Moreno and 9am Media Lab).
The producer’s work has been outstanding, they always understood what I wanted to do, and that the film needed it. There were moments where I thought that we were never gonna make it – we had to deal with music and film rights, get John Carpenter, shoot in so many countries all over the world with a non-standard documentary setup, shoot a fictional part with vfx, the editing process was also a nightmare.
Do you feel like The Rise of the Synths helped the conversation around the electronic genre of music?
I think the film is an entry point to electronic music for young people. A lot of them approach me at the end of screenings, they were interested by either one or two bands, or they were into Stranger Things or Drive, and somehow they discover the film and a lot of new artists and the old ones. I remember one really young guy who was into the whole Drive neon vibe, and thanks to the film had discovered Tangerine Dream and he was amazed!
On the other side, there’s a lot of older people who are discovering the music and the films behind the aesthetic, and that’s really a great feeling because that was the original intent behind the film.
What made you want to be a documentary filmmaker?
In fact, I didn’t plan to become a documentary filmmaker, it happened by accident. I’ve always been into fictional work and music videos. I started doing short-films and music video for local bands, and when I started to think about making a feature I was thinking “I will never raise the money I need”, so I started talking to some local bands I already knew and thought about shooting some footage in order to just shoot something, freely.
Eventually, that became my first documentary Trovadores. But it never was a career decision. But I love making them!
What film inspired you to become a filmmaker in the first place?
It’s gonna be a cliché, but the ability to tell stories is what caught my attention. I tried to make music before that and play some guitar, but I wasn’t really fit for the job, so when I discovered I could tell stories with a camera and that I was half-good at it, it was a revelation, [I] found my way of telling my inner world.
Why are documentaries important?
Often, documentaries are treated as the little brother of the fiction film, and somehow documentary filmmaking tends to be overlooked. I find documentaries fascinating because you’re telling stories with actors who are playing themselves. There’s a real aspects of life being unfolded in front of your eyes, and that’s valuable and important.
There’s also a real value in the way you can experiment now with documentaries. I find that filmmakers in the documentary world take many more risks than in features. There’s real freedom in the way you can construct narratives and tell things in the format.
Do you think documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to make films that change the conversation on their subject matter? Why?
Not really. I’m not a purist in that sense. I find the format fascinating and I work in documentaries in the same way I do in fiction. For me, they are films but with unprofessional actors who are playing themselves. It’s up to the filmmaker to think about what he wants to communicate with the film, but it’s undeniable that documentaries by their nature open up a conversation.
What would be your dream documentary subject?
The early years (1989-1990) before grunge exploded. The life of the young kids in the Seattle area that eventually turned into superstars. I know it has been explored in books and in several documentaries on specific bands but never has a whole.
Do you have any experience working with mentors? Would you recommend them for up and coming filmmakers?
This project was developed in the Documentary Campus Masterschool 2017 Masterschool and it was an amazing experience. I’ve always been reluctant about mentorships, but because I wasn’t very confident as a filmmaker. When you know what you want, you understand that mentorship and the fact that your ideas are gonna be challenged it’s gonna be really amazing for your project.
You’ll need to work harder, challenges are always good, take them the right way. So yes, I’ll recommend them, but with the right attitude. If you go into a mentorship program hoping just to be a launchpad for your career, you’ll probably be disappointed and you will not unleash your full potential.
What indie filmmakers should we have on our radar?
Panos Cosmatos, Carlos Vermut, Robert Eggers, Sean Baker.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I have a lot of projects, but I’m working on a feature film (fiction) as my next project.
If any director could direct the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
David Lynch. Because he is god.