Acclaimed British filmmaker Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga) returns to our screens with Berberian Sound Studio, which stars Toby Jones as a sound effects expert in the 1970s who is dispatched to an Italian film studio to work with a legendary horror director. It draws on Strickland’s love of cutting-edge music, as well as Giallo, the group of horror films that came out of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. Jason Wood caught up with the filmmaker for an in-depth discussion about the film.
Jason Wood: Could you begin by talking about how the idea for Berberian Sound Studio began to form? It is incredibly inventive.
Peter Strickland: It began as a joke when I made it as a one-minute film with The Bohman Brothers in 2005. Then it came to life again a few years later when I thought about the stories behind some of the Giallo soundtracks; they were very advanced for the time with their use of drone, musique concrète, free jazz and dissonance. The music of Bruno Maderna, Ennio Morricone and Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza existed in the same high art camp as Stockhausen, Cage or AMM, but then these guys were making money on the side composing soundtracks for B-grade horror films. Berberian Sound Studio came out of that strange, sonic no man’s land between academia and exploitation. What’s interesting about so many of those horror soundtracks, along with the sound design, is that people who turn their noses up at that genre would probably love the music and sound taken out of context. The same goes for people who don’t like ‘difficult’ music – in the context of horror, people get Penderecki. I think I remember Stereolab’s Tim Gane saying in an interview how the horror genre can warm people up to sonic ideas they wouldn’t find palatable in a recorded context. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a really good example of phenomenally crafted musique concrète that many people, sadly, wouldn’t accept out of its horror context.
The script just swam around that idea, but also incorporating foley and overdubs. I guess I was attracted by how something unspeakably horrific can be so ridiculous once you take it to a foley stage. As an audience, you’re caught between the sound of a woman being murdered and the sight of a man flapping cabbages. The two things are as far removed as you can get and I wanted to focus on an innocent man surrounded by colleagues who have been doing this for years and who are completely blasé about the horror they witness.
I also wanted to make something visually quite innocent, but aurally very unpleasant. Maybe subconsciously I was inspired by one or two videos I wasn’t allowed to see as a teenager. I could hear the screaming and sound effects from a video my older brother and his friends watched on one occasion. I was too young to watch it, so I just stood outside the door and listened. That probably has a lot to do with how I got to this film.
When you deal with the illusion of violence, you’re inevitably making a reflexive piece of work that questions both an audience’s consumption of it and how filmmakers represent it. The main challenge was whether filmmakers can responsibly portray violence without sensationalising it. It’s a very tough question: no matter how high-minded you are as a filmmaker in terms of seriously portraying violence, you can’t control the interpretation of your images once they reach an audience. In some ways, that’s why I respect some of the Giallo directors. There’s an honesty about exploitation. When some directors comment on how they wanted to show how terrible it is when someone is tortured or whatever, it either smacks of bullshit or folly. That kind of hypocritical attitude is shown in the film, but I hope I’m being more satirical than didactic.
As the script started to shape up, other things crept in. Nepotism, corruption and just general things I either saw or experienced over the years, but unless you’re going to devote a whole film to those subjects, it’s better not to emphasise it too much. But ultimately, the one thing that excited me the most was just messing around with sound. It doesn’t have much to do with effects, more to do with the power of sound to confound and deceive.
JW: Those that have seen the film are talking about Giallo as an influence. I did detect this but also in the film's interest in sound and psychology, I was reminded of both The Conversation and Blow Out. Without wishing to detract from the utter originality of the film, could you talk about some of your interests and inspirations?
PS: We took a few cues from some Giallo films, but the film within the film fed more off the Gothic horror of Bava’s Black Sunday or Argento’sSuspiria. Music played a big part in how I thought about the film. It goes without saying that Italian horror soundtracks were essential (Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani, Fabio Frizzi, Claudio Gizzi, Goblin), but there were so many ideas in records by Luc Ferrari, The Bohman Brothers, Cathy Berberian, Katalin Ladik, Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Luigi Nono, Jim O’Rourke, Nurse with Wound, Faust, Merzbow, Trevor Wishart, early Whitehouse, early Franco Battiato and Broadcast, of course. The influence of all that music is felt throughout the film. Even the studio photographs found in some of the Battiato or Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza albums gave clues to the atmosphere and look of the film.
In terms of film, the biggest influence was The Cremator by Juraj Herz. Superficially there is no resemblance, but the way Herz edited some of the scenes in that film was a template for us. I also got into Peter Tscherkassky in a big way. I thought avant-garde film had lost its way in the ‘90s, but Tscherkassky came along and completely split the atom. Both structurally and visually, we are paying tribute to those filmmakers or just plainly ripping them off depending on your point of view.
JW: The design elements of the film are impeccable. How did you achieve the look and feel of the film? I am thinking especially of the attention to detail of the tape titles and the general way in which design is used. Who were your collaborators?
PS: One of the reasons I wanted to write about analogue sound is because it was so incredibly visual both in terms of the machinery and the performance aspect of splicing tape and looping it. You look at those old control rooms and they do have a very powerful, otherworldly feel: the racks full of oscillators, filters and oscilloscopes; the tape boxes and dubbing charts. There’s a ritualistic and mysterious quality to it all and the film is meant to celebrate that. With digital, there’s nothing mysterious about watching someone clicking on their plug-ins.
The studio itself is a composite of different studios I visited in Hungary and the Studio di Fonologia in Milan where some of the most interesting music happened. Cathy Berberian, Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Marino Zuccheri and Luigi Nono all made incredible stuff there. We threw in a long Luigi Nono sample into the film to make the nod more explicit.
Jennifer Kernke, the production designer did a great job of assimilating all those influences and making something that took the best bits out of all the studios referenced. The only problem we had was sourcing the equipment. I wanted every piece of equipment in the mixing room to be the same as in the Fonologia studio, but it was a pointless exercise even if one travelled to Italy. We ended up with some Bruel & Kjaer 1011 oscillators that were faithful to the original rack list that an Italian acquaintance compiled, but stuff like 2-ring modulators and the General Radio 1398-A tone burst generator were bloody hard to find. Most of that equipment has disappeared. The curse of digital is that sound engineers now find it acceptable to throw an AEG Telefunken reel-to-reel into a skip.
When it came to the tape boxes and papers, we approached Julian House. I was familiar with his record designs for Broadcast and other bands, but his own Ghost Box record label had this very arcane sensibility, which was tapping into similar territory. He instantly knew what was needed for the film and often led the way, pushing the design aspect more in the direction it had to go in. He had the idea of coming up with a fake title sequence for the film within the film, which I thought was brilliant. We spoke about the title sequence to The Cremator as a loose influence for what he would do, but otherwise he went off and did everything himself. I supplied him with some photos of two Slovak girls screaming, which was a salute of sorts to Herz’s home country.
Julian designed the Berberian logo, the tape boxes and the dubbing charts amongst other things. We could have used existing boxes, but thought it better to make up our own brands from scratch both for Gilderoy’s home ‘Shears Magnetic’ tapes and the Italian studio ‘Ventri Fonologia’ tapes.
The dubbing charts are there for atmosphere and ‘look’ as much as information about the process of the film within the film. It took a lot of time to fill them in and it all had to be shot after the main shoot on a special ‘paperwork’ day several months later. It also took weeks to find the right paper to print Julian’s template on, but it paid off. Even though it doesn’t matter if one can’t follow the charts, it was important for every single number and word to make sense for anyone who would know how to read them. I probably made a mistake somewhere along the line with the numbering, but the intention was there.
There is one abstract score included by a guy called Krisztián Kristóf, which was inspired by the notational scores drawn by Iannis Xenakis and Trevor Wishart. It goes back to the ritualistic aspect of sound-making. You look at these scores and wonder if there is some hidden pagan message within them. You can see why Joe Meek and Graham Bond lost it with black magic.
JW: Sound and music has always been essential to you. Can you talk about your general approach to sound and also how Broadcast came to be involved in the soundtrack.
PS: The initial temptation with this film was to drench it in all manner of sonic effects and trickery. There would have been creative licence to do that since we’re making a film about sound, but it might have been self-defeating. It felt more appropriate to hold the scope of the sound back and focus more on detail and perspective. When you’re dealing with tape machines, headphones, loudspeakers and so on, there’s a lot of fun to be had in constantly shifting the sonic perspective whilst remaining completely naturalistic. On one or two occasions, we cheated, but as a general rule, all the sound in the film including music is diegetic. Everything you hear is physically present coming from a machine, instrument or whatever else is in the room. Since the narrative is a little askew, it’s quite important to at least anchor the film in a sonic reality. Nothing comes from a character’s head and certainly nothing is laid on the soundtrack by us – the sound team. There isn’t a soundtrack as such and the closest you get to being in Gilderoy’s head is when he has his headphones on and we just amplify what’s in there. But in general, we tried to be spare with the sound and not overuse effects. What took the most time was making the different sonic perspectives seem believable.
The screams took a lot of time as well, but most of that was done before the shoot. We tried to amass as many screams as we could from friends or some of the cast and then send it to various sound men I knew who could make everything more aggressive or abstract. Andrew Liles gave me two CDs filled with treated screams and after a while it started to mess with my head. I started to see how someone could go bananas listening to this stuff every day. Suzy Kendall from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Torso and Spasmo came in to scream for the film and told me some very funny stories about her Giallo days. She did all the screams for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, so it felt like a blessing to have her with us.
Broadcast were my only choice for this film. They used to talk about Basil Kirchin and Bruno Nicolai in interviews and just from those two names, all I had to do was join the dots. They knew all the influences inside out and had a way of summoning that sound from the past without falling into pastiche. Their former keyboardist, Roj did some sounds for Katalin Varga, so he put me in touch with Trish and James around September 2009, but it wasn’t until 2010 when we started to properly talk about the soundtrack and what should and shouldn’t be done. I started off by talking about the more obvious references, but they quickly got me on the right track by playing me very obscure, but beautiful records from that period. A few tracks were sent in advance of the shoot, but most of the music came in during the edit period and it was a back and forth process right up until the very last day of sound mixing, but everything mostly took shape during the edit with Chris Dickens.
Speaking purely as a fan of the band, Trish’s passing is a huge loss. It’s not an overstatement to say that she was one of the most remarkably gifted musicians of my generation.
JW: This is the first time you have worked with a 'star', in the form of Toby Jones. How was the experience, both for yourself and for Toby? He has an esoteric CV but nothing he has done before approaches this.
PS: Toby fully immersed himself in the character and got there pretty quickly in terms of the stillness within Gilderoy. It’s a very hard thing to carry a film yet remain believably nondescript, but he pulled it off very well. He’s not a broad stroke actor. He did small things that I barely noticed on set, but when you see it on the big screen, those little gestures reveal a whole inner life. He had already done a radio play that involved foley, so this wasn’t too unfamiliar for him.
As with anyone you work with, you have your good days and bad days, but that’s not a big deal. In hindsight, I probably should’ve spent more time talking to Toby and the other actors than constantly trying to get the correct wave pattern on the oscilloscope. It doesn’t matter now. On screen, Toby is more Gilderoy than the Gilderoy I initially had in my head, so I have nothing but praise for him.
JW: I was intrigued by the device of the letters from home. It hints at a world beyond what we see on screen and a strange relationship between the Toby Jones character and his mother.
PS: The letters are an extension of the film within the film idea in that once again you are denied the sight of that other world, but this time instead of extreme horror, it’s the tranquillity of Gilderoy’s back garden in Dorking, which you only see once in a photograph. The letters are there to set up Gilderoy’s world, but also to offer clues to later scenes. Both the letters and Gilderoy’s home recordings start to intersect with the horror film, but there’s a loneliness and silence there for me that puts the whole film within the right frame.
Gilderoy himself is a composite of a few people I know, but he also harks back to the days of the garden shed sound eccentric. I had this romantic idea of the artisan sound eccentric working away in the garden shed. Even if they didn’t work in sheds, you can imagine that could be the only place where Vernon Elliott or Desmond Leslie made their recordings.
I don’t know why I chose Dorking. I just imagined there’d be many garden sheds there. The more I visited the town, the more it became the only place where Gilderoy could’ve come from. There were a few very pleasant moments of ‘syncronicity’ there. The weirdest thing was when I went to photograph a garden shed. After making a few calls in Dorking, I found this man who agreed to have his shed photographed for the film and after telling him a little about the film, it turned out he was a fan of the Ghost Box label, which made me feel it was right to make the effort rather than sourcing a shed image online.
JW: What kind of reaction are you hoping for in regard to Berberian? I honestly thought it was the most thrilling and original cinema experience I have enjoyed in about a decade. Are you expecting adulation, confusion, trepidation or a combination of all of these?
PS: I have no idea what to expect. No idea whatsoever. The most important thing is the film was made the way it needed to be made without second-guessing what an audience would respond to. As long as one is true to that, something will work out OK even if it’s not in the short-term.
It’s not important to get all the references or understand everything. It’s a film that’s meant to be experienced much in the same manner as a piece of music. As long as an audience can go into this by losing themselves in another world, then the chances are they won’t ask for a refund.