Interview With 'Stomp' Director Steve McNicholas
Date: October 2002
The co-creator of the wildly successful Off Broadway show 'Stomp' talks about PULSE: A STOMP ODYSSEY -- the new Big Movie based on the sounds and rhythms of the stage show.
Film Synopsis: 'Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey (main film page) takes audiences on a spectacular global journey, featuring the great percussion ensembles of the world. Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, creators of STOMP the stage show and directors of the film, see the movie as a way of paying tribute to the people and rhythms that have inspired their own show.
BMZ: For those who aren't familiar with STOMP, the stage show, can you provide a little background… including the idea for and inception of STOMP, a basic description and its evolution over the years?
Steve McNicholas: Stomp grew out of street performances Luke & I had created as part of a group which regularly toured Europe throughout the early eighties. We've worked together since 1981 making music, street performances and short films based on our musical ideas. Although we flirted with the recording industry, we never felt comfortable with it and were more inspired by groups like Kodo (from Japan) and Burundi from Central Africa. So we had experimented with music made from found objects for a long time, but always as part of a more traditional set up. It was the spring of 1990, when we'd been through a two year long legal battle with our record company, that we decided to create a show based completely upon these wackier concepts. So Stomp was born and it officially made its debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991.
Stomp is theatre made by musicians: it's an exploration of rhythm, created solely with familiar household and industrial objects... and we hope its done with a sense of humour.....
It began as a festival piece, but in 1994 we were invited to play Off Broadway: that's when everything changed for us... our success there (we're still playing there, in our ninth year) spread across the US and now we have 5 companies performing worldwide...
BMZ: How did the idea emerge to transfer the show to the GIANT screen? Did you know the Kempfs (co-founders of Giant Screen Films, the movie's producer and distributor)? Who approached who? Was this your first experience in directing a film?
SM: Right from the outset, we saw our ideas as film concepts: part of our reason for creating Stomp was to persuade other people to see them that way too. So we'd already made a series of short films for tv in the UK even before the show was born. We made a short film "Brooms" in 1996, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and we made a 45 minute special for HBO, which was nominated for 4 Emmys. But we actually honed our film making skills on commercials: a series of Target spots for the US, Toyota in Japan and Seat (another car company) in Europe.
We've also shot a feature (Vacuums) which stars Rose McGowan, Kip Pardue and Lee Evans, due to be released next year... While we were writing the script for Vacuums, we also nursed an idea for a global drum project, but never saw it as an Imax movie... It was a marvellous coincidence for us that two of the producers of Stomp in New York (Jim Stern and Harriet Leve) were involved with the Kempf brothers in looking for new Imax projects after the success of Michael Jordan to the Max. So they approached us with the idea of "Stomp to the Max"... we countered by pulling out our World Drum concept... I'd always been a fan of Imax ever since I saw Chronos at la Geode in Paris in the late seventies: and I was brought up close to Bradford in Yorkshire, where the first UK Imax theatre was built.
BMZ: What is the film's "story"/how does it proceed?
SM: Stomp, the stage show doesn't have a story, and it doesn't have any dialogue: but we've found over the years that it does have universal appeal and transcends cultural and language barriers... so we wanted to follow that template with Pulse. Stomp also has a journey: but it's a journey with a group of characters in one location, a journey through sound... with Pulse we wanted a Stomp character to take us on a journey around the world and to introduce us the sights and sounds we've been privileged to discover ... sights and sounds that couldn't be recreated on stage... so Keith Middleton ("Wildchild") is our tour guide... wherever we are, he's there to comment, participate and link us to the next stage in the journey... we started out making a movie about rhythm, but as we proceeded, the more we realised that the people making the rhythms are far more important... and as we edited, we felt that this whole process became a celebration of the interconnectedness of the people of the world...
BMZ: Concert films on the Giant Screen haven't done too well of late (e.g. All Access, Nsync). Is there something about PULSE: a STOMP Odyssey as an event performance, and the way you've done this film that makes it more likely to succeed?
SM: Well, for a start, it isn't a concert film: it's definitely about performance... it includes some of the most breathtaking visuals I've ever seen... but as I said before, this is a performance that couldn't be staged anywhere in the world... it can only exist on film. And on Imax, it has the immediacy of being there and experiencing these performances first hand in spectacular locations around the world... we have carnival in Salvador, we have an amazing elephant festival in Kerala... if movies are about showing the audience something they couldn't see any other way, then we definitely meet that criteria... but what's also different is that a lot of the performers in this film most audiences would never have heard of... so the film is an act of discovery in a way that a pop concert movie could never be...
BMZ: Have you seen 'Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man' in IMAX? In that case the IMAX-format filmmakers also took a stage show and transplanted it into the real world. How is stomp the same and different from cirque?
SM: Yes, I have seen the cirque movie: we saw it in Toronto when we were mixing the sound for our trailer at Masters studio. As far as I'm aware, that movie took pieces from the circus show and created a story to showcase them in different locations... In our movie there's only one piece that is related to anything in our stage show, and even then, it was totally re written for the film (it's the foot stomping, hand clapping sequence on the rooftop)... the other Stomp pieces were devised specifically for Pulse... the majority of the film, however, is not Stomp at all, but performances from some of the world greatest masters of rhythm. Some you may not have heard of, but all of whom have inspired us in what we do. We hope that we can open the audiences eyes to performances that they may not have considered before, to offer something fresh and new for the Imax format. To make a movie based entirely on our stage show had no interest to us whatsoever...
Cirque is 3D... our film is 2D... certainly Cirque leant itself more to 3D than our film, but I've always thought flat screen 2D Imax to be the strongest large format experience...
BMZ: What are some of the key places and cultures featured in the film, and why were these chosen? Was it a challenge to tie together very disparate musical acts from around the world?
SM: As soon as we knew we were making a movie about world rhythms, we knew we had to feature Kodo, since they were our primary inspiration for what we do... but anyone making a rhythmic film can't ignore Africa or Brazil either... I went to Brazil to research carnival and the massed drummers that perform there... I was very quickly drawn to Carlinhos Brown's Timbalada: they had a great feel for traditional Brazilian rhythms injected with a contemporary flavour and a decidedly outrageous visual flair... we caught the Percussions de Guinea at a concert in New York... some of our Stomp performers see these Djembe players as their heroes. The Djembe is considered to be the first drum and ancestor of the modern kit drum... again, we were fortunate that this group is so colourful, outgoing and photogenic... So some groups were obvious to us, others we found through research, like the Keralan drummers... I found them by reading a review of a cd recording of an elephant procession in Southern India... one look at these guys marching down the road followed by 16 elephants bedecked in gold caparisons and I knew we had an indian stop over for our movie.....
It's not hard binding these disparate cultures together, not really... because the humanity shines through in all of them... no matter how different the groups were, they were linked by their love of rhythm and their humanity... in practice, we had to work out visual links, or sound links between the performances, but that was made easier since the groups were so inspiring...
BMZ: The preview clips I've seen are at once powerful and very personal, human-focused, bringing you right up into the performers' faces and sucking you into their rhythms. For this to succeed the performers must be magnetic and mesmerizing. Who are some of the key personalities in PULSE?
SM: I don't think there's anyone in this movie that isn't magnetic and mesmerising...! Wildchild, our Stomp guide, performs in our show in New York... and he's one of the greatest performers I've ever worked with... he's extremely charismatic, very funny and incredibly athletic... he also appears in our feature... we're lucky to have him work with us.
If I had to choose one performer in the movie that I believe to be truly stunning, truly captivating, it has to be Eva Yerbabuena: she's a flamenco artist of amazing grace and power... originally from Granada, now based in Seville... her own stage performance is something I'd recommend to anyone and everyone... the purest combination of rhythm and movement I've ever seen.
BMZ: With the film focused on people and performance art, the visuals are a departure from your normal, sweeping IMAX vistas – what was your visual philosophy and how are the visuals working? What do you say to those who say human close ups don't work on a Big Movie screen?
SM: I love Imax movies: the first I ever saw was Chronos... then I saw Imax movies whenever I could... Blue Planet, the Dream is Alive, Serengeti, Antarctica... I've always been a big fan of the scope of the image and the breadth of sound in Imax theatres... but I always knew that if I could choose a subject for Imax, it would be people, not places. That's why the first thing we shot in Imax was carnival in Brazil... the human equivalent of the Grand Canyon.
My partner, Luke, felt the same way: he was more interested in humanity than vistas... of course we wanted our movie to have helicopter shots, underwater shots... because expansive images work so well in Imax... but we wanted to concentrate on the face... we heard all the warnings about close ups not working in Imax, but we thought that if our human close ups were like portraits against a black background, it would help shrink the image, focus the image a little, so that the expansive shots would explode onto the screen with more impact...
We thought this was such an original idea: but then we saw Tiger Child, the first ever Imax movie, made for the Osaka world fair in 1970... and it blew us away... it's full of human close ups, full of images that constrict the field of vision and then open it up again, so that the impact of every 70mm full screen shot is preserved... it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen in any format, and was truly humbling... I'm glad we didn't see it before we made Pulse, because we might have been nervous to try so many portraits...
Incidentally, the portrait sequence at the climax of the film has probably the highest number of cuts per minute in an Imax sequence... this really is thanks to the fact that the portraits are all in alignment and all have a black background... it's still Imax, but it only takes about a quarter of the screen real estate... so we can have a speedier cut...
BMZ: The sound systems are superior in the Big Movie format, just like the screens and resolution. Tell us a little about how your film takes such fantastic advantage of the sound delivery capabilities.
SM: Our first rule when making this film (in fact, all of our film work recently) was that we must shoot with sync sound. Once again, we were told that it couldn't be done... we couldn't shoot an entire movie in this format with sync sound... the cameras are just too unwieldy and too noisy... and not all Imax cameras run in perfect sync anyway... so it wasn't easy, but with a lot of determination, liberal use of blimps and sound blankets, and a lot of invention from our resident Stomp sound man, Mike Roberts... we did it... the film is almost completely live sound... with a little foley here and there... the big performances were recorded onto a bank of Tascam DA98's with up to 64 tracks of digital audio... the expression "wall of sound" springs to mind... we premixed all the performance soundtracks at De Lane Lea studios in London with Sven Taits, a talented sound mixer we had met several years ago working on our own album and also on a Bryan Ferry album Luke guested on. So we knew his capabilities when it came to percussive music... Then we completed final mix at the venerable Masters Studio in Toronto.
I think everyone who has worked on this movie has become excited by the soundtrack: even our DPs, James Neihouse and Christophe Lanzenberg, who ordinarily might see sync sound as the bane of their lives, were spotted tapping their feet...
This soundtrack tests the Imax system to the limit: it's about experiencing the raw power and the delicate nuance of performance as if you were there in the flesh... I think all the talented people involved in the creation of the soundtrack should be proud of their work...
BMZ: LF documentaries have traditionally included education through narration… did you try to shy away from that approach?
SM: Definitely: our stage show has no narration, no dialogue, and yet is celebrated by educators across the US... it's even used in Math text books as an explanation of how fractions work. The education packs associated with the show have been extremely popular. It demonstrated to us that educational value doesn't have to be falsely grafted onto a project in a narration. Surely educators want their students to ask questions? A narration in this movie would fill in the gaps, leave no questions to be asked. The answers to the questions raised by a movie like this lay in discussion, in the classroom, in atlases, in encyclopedias and hopefully on our web site and in our educational material. Our object in the movie is to inspire the audience to listen to the world differently, to open their eyes and ears to different cultures. You can't simultaneously ram your audience with factual information: that's for discussion and discovery after the film. Of course, if the film doesn't work on a direct emotional level with its audience... if the audience doesn't get involved, then they won't be asking the questions that will make that movie educational... it's a two way process that demands we do our job right in the first place...
Also one musn't underestimate the fact that narration has to be in a specific language: this movie can play to an audience of mixed races and cultures... it's a movie anyone can follow and understand...
BMZ: Cross promotion between the stage show and the film?
SM: It's early days yet... but the two projects exist independent of each other and so shouldn't actually damage each other's reception. I would hope that people who enjoy the stage show would want to see 'Pulse,' and vice versa, as they are totally different experiences.
BMZ: Future plans for more films – if so, IMAX?
SM: We've already started work on our next feature script. But our Imax experience has been so positive, and we firmly believe Imax to have so much more scope than is presently explored that we definitely want to make another large format movie...we have a few ideas.....
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