Capturing Interviews in Studio and on Location, Plus Transcendent Rock and Roll

Housed in a pair of nondescript warehouse structures in Van Nuys, California, Sound City Studios hardly had the outward appearance of a rock and roll Mecca. Yet for 40 years, it served as the launching pad for some of the greatest rock albums of all time — everything from Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors to Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Sound City, which closed in 2010, is the subject of a new feature-length documentary of the same name from Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl in his directorial debut. Slated to debut today at the Sundance Film Festival, Sound City includes interviews with Young, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Lars Ulrich, Butch Vig and other legends whose work was captured on the studio’s fabled Neve 8028 recording console, as well as a series of electric recording sessions featuring Grohl and many of those same artists for the film’s soundtrack.

For Kenny Stoff, a director and cinematographer who served as Grohl’s DP on the film, the project was a dream come true. Stoff, who directs commercials and music videos through Los Angeles production company A Common Thread, has worked with a host of recording artists and other celebrities before, but Sound City was like venturing into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sprung to life. “I’m a huge music fan, and every day some legend would walk through the door,” he recalls. “It was a privilege just to be in the same room.”

Stoff worked on the project over a period of 13 months, shooting interviews and recording sessions as Grohl’s and his subjects’ schedules allowed. Many of the interviews were shot at Grohl’s personal recording studio, while others were shot at artists’ homes or on location. (Stoff shot Grohl’s interview with Mick Fleetwood in a room at Hollywood’s landmark Chateau Marmont.) Most of the interviews were recorded with a pair of Red Epic cameras. However, for the recording sessions, Stoff added a battery of remote-operated cameras in order to capture a fly-on-the-wall perspective. “We got some of the best stuff when we were out of the room and they forgot about the cameras,” he recalls.

Sound City was an important project for Grohl and as a result, Stoff says, he pushed his collaborators hard. “He had extremely high expectations and he expected everyone to deliver,” Stoff says. “But the great thing about that was he let you do it. He made everyone around him better.”

“This was an important project for Dave, and he knew what story he wanted to tell,” Stoff adds. “He wanted to make a statement about the state of music today.”

For Stoff, a highlight of the production was a trip the crew made to Hawaii to record an interview with Neil Young. Stoff selected a resort on Kona for the interview. “We found a spot that was perfect for Neil,” he recalls. “It was a place where they do luaus with volcanic rock, petrified trees and a wood box for him to sit on. And it was a perfect, blue-sky day. Then, just as Neil arrived, the skies turned grey. It was as though he brought his own weather system. The interview was magical. It was electric, amazing.”

Stoff also recalls a memorable recording session for a song called Mantra featuring Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Joshua Homme, and Trent Reznor. “Throughout the whole production, we talked about ‘capturing the magic in the bottle,’” he says, “and that night we did it. It was lit and shot beautifully. We were shooting b-camera through a Sterno cam, so there is heat distortion on everything. And the song itself was incredible. The hairs on the back of your neck stood up. I was so into the music, the camera seemed to be operating itself. It was the highlight of the movie, a transcendent moment.”

Stoff is currently working on a new project with Grohl, a music video for the band Soundgarden, and he is looking forward to resuming his commercial directing career via A Common Thread, where his recent credits include a public service campaign for the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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