Interview: Peter Strickland
Berberian Sound Studio, subject of Chris Darke's feature in the May/June issue, tracks the breakdown of a British sound engineer working on an Italian horror film. FILM COMMENT spoke with the director, Peter Strickland, at last year’s New York Film Festival about his film’s rich reference points in movies and music, the science of recording screams, and working with the Quay Brothers’ cameraman.
It's been a busy year for you: a new film, Berberian Sound Studio, and a new album, A Gourmet's Slumber, with The Sonic Catering Band. Can you talk about how Berberian started? It evolved from a short film—what was that short like versus what this is like now?
When I made Competition, I didn’t think it would be anything more than a short film. I sort of made it as a joke, just to create this invisible narrative through 10 foley sessions. It had more of a Vincent Price, Ed Wood B-movie type of feel to it, and I made it with these friends of mine, the Berman brothers. Then I just put it aside, until I was doing the postproduction on my first film, Katalin Varga. I had a lot of spare time, and it just came back to me. It’s not as if I was desperate for something—there were other scripts I was writing—but it popped up, and I realized there was another way you could look at it. I’ve been into jazz soundtracks and Italian gothic horror soundtracks for quite a while now, and reading about some of the characters—Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza (or il Gruppo), Bruno Maderna—these avant-garde musicians who were making horror soundtracks on the side. I grew up in that no-man’s-land between academia and exploitation with the Scala Cinema in London, which would show Dario Argento, Russ Meyer, and John Waters films alongside Tarkovsky and Fassbinder.
But what fascinated me, in the process of postproduction, is how matter-of-fact everything is, when for a man such as Gilderoy it is so shocking. It’s such an incongruous image: the idea of him smashing vegetables, which is kind of ridiculous in itself, and at the same time you have this extreme horror, where there’s something incredibly unpleasant going on. I think I got fed up with the idea of violence by proxy, the idea of how we as filmmakers represent violence or appropriate violence, and how as an audience we consume it. And I was fascinated with that, and with trying to put all that mess into a film somehow.
It’s ripe for humor, and also this sort of academic approach, seeing the process of how people create. Sometimes that’s completely absurd and disconnected from what the end product is.
Well, it’s almost the opposite on all films, isn’t it? Most films hide the mechanics, whereas with this one you don’t see the film at all, and all we see are the mechanics. I never saw Berberian as a horror film. I see it more as an observational drama at work, office politics and all the crap that goes with that.
Can you talk about working with Broadcast?
Obviously it was a very difficult time, because of what happened to Trish [Keenan, of Broadcast, who died in 2011 of H1N1 (swine) flu]. Prior to working with them, I had been a fan. I used to collect these Stereolab Duophonic side records that they did—Labradford, Tortoise, Broadcast. Those bands really fed into that whole dynamic which people call hauntology now, whatever that means. It was all there in the Nineties, that obsession with horror soundtracks, which Broadcast talked quite openly about. And they also talked about the British side of things: Basil Kirchin, the Jonny Trunk label, which put out stuff like Vernon Elliott with The Clangers soundtrack, Desmond Leslie. This very, very, very particular British garden-shed eccentric music. When I would speak to Julian House, the designer for Stereolab’s and Broadcast’s albums, we’d talk about how a lot of those analog logos and those blank, black reels kind of look like sigils or pagan symbols. You can see why quite a few of those guys lost it, looping tape all night alone. If you think of Joe Meek or Graham Bond, they really turned to the occult. And it’s a very dark history of a lot of those sound eccentrics. The alcoholism and stuff, you know Delia Derbyshire—
The obvious one is Phil Spector.
I guess he’s the big one. John Baker as well, from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. So Broadcast really understood all of that. And I think they were the only band, to me, that could take that sound and not do a pastiche. They could just make it their own somehow. Because I think it’s important that when you make a film, you don’t try to re-create what happened, but to instead re-create the spirit. So we shot digital, because those guys would have shot digital. Actually, Argento just shot Dracula with digital. It’s all about using the new technology, what is around, and not trying to be too purist about it.
I knew Roj Stevens, Broadcast’s keyboardist, because he did some stuff on Katalin Varga. So we talked to Trish and James [Cargill, of Broadcast] about the project. And what was great about them was they always had something better than anyone else. What they played was blowing my mind, and it kept changing the references. I know you shouldn’t do this as a filmmaker, but I kept saying: “Well, what about this? Can you do a little bit of this? Actually, what about this?” So Trish did some vocal demos. 2011 was a really difficult year for James, to put it mildly. So he did the best he could to struggle through. I did tell him: “I totally understand if you want to pull out,” but I think he wanted to keep busy. Obviously all of us were really grateful.
When he did put together the soundtrack, it was a lot of back and forth, mainly during the edit. There were scenes where some of the characters would have been miming to music, but they just pretended, and James scored the music afterward to that. And then there was a back-and-forth when Chris Dickens and I were editing, and that would dictate the images somehow, or the length of the scene. This back and forth went on until the very last day of sound mixing.
What were some of the soundtracks that you talked about during that initial phase?
Loads of Ennio Morricone: The Devil Is a Woman, which is really fantastic, Who Saw Her Die?, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Footprints on the Moon by Nicola Piovani is really beautiful too. We spoke a lot about more common stuff, such as Cannibal Holocaust by Riz Ortolani. Bruno Nikolai’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, also really great. Goblin, of course; Fabio Frizzi, not so much. What we found so fascinating with all of these soundtracks was how beautiful they were, and how incongruous they were with the films.
They’re so fully fleshed out, and it’s incredible to think that Ennio Morricone has done over 500 of them. Each soundtrack is unique and so detailed. Anthology Film Archives did a giallo retrospective recently.
Oh I heard they were going to do something like that.
Yes, it was amazing. It’s interesting that their idiosyncratic quality is the element that you really embraced and tried to focus on.
In a way I feel we only scratched the surface. I think with any good film you always feel, okay, you’ve punctured something, but you hope someone else will come along and delve further into it. It’s a whole world, and you can’t do it justice with just one film. Just think of all the techniques that they used. Take the Crystal Plumage soundtrack as an example—it’s got free jazz, dissonance, atonal music, musique concrete. There are these incredibly luscious melodies, all in one. And it doesn’t feel like it’s dabbling; it’s all completely cohesive. He’s using incredibly advanced avant-garde techniques, and making them so atmospheric. It just makes this whole world out of it. What I found really interesting is prior to that, you had Penderecki’s music, which Kubrick used in The Shining. But it is the context that made it acceptable. If you heard it on its own—I’m a fan of that stuff, I like it, but I know there’s a lot of people who just can’t enter that music unless it’s paired up with these images. But Ennio Morricone was the first soundtrack composer who actually could create that imageless sound on its own. It just works somehow.
I think that entire period in Italy was just astonishing. We took a lot, not just from the soundtracks, but from the titles, the photographs, the albums. You can’t help reading the reviews, but you know the Mulholland Drive thing always comes up, but it wasn’t from that. It was from Morricone, who kind of had a habit of using “silencio” in his titles. But those photographs as well. One of the Gruppo albums had a photo of this fantastic studio, and it’s all these balding middle-aged guys in polo necks with gongs, scraping stuff in front of microphones, and there’s this orange telephone in the foreground of a chessboard. So you just imagine what happened during a lunch break.
The concentrated creativity. It’s surprising it hasn’t been explored more, because it’s a very rich time period. They would sneak in weird things that you couldn’t do anywhere else.
It’s weird, isn’t it? Look at soundtracks now, so bloody tame.
Yes, the idea of the redundant soundtrack that fills in the emotion for you.
Oh, God. I guess it’s all down to personal tastes, but my taste says “bullshit” to that. Either have nothing, no music whatsoever, or go with something that’s incredibly thought out, like they did back then in Italy. I do find that we just whitewash our films with music now, and it’s not even good music. “Would I want to play this soundtrack? No.”
What was your role in the sound design? Obviously, there were sound cues in the script, but as you were writing, did you have a clear idea of how things would sound in a very concrete way, or was there room for improvisation?
It was fairly complete when I wrote it. There wasn’t much room for improvisation, but that sort of thing does happen during shooting. It never quite turns out how you plan it to, so you change accordingly. I think the most emphatic thing was perspective: how a voice sounds in one shot, and how the same sentence will travel to headphones or tannoy. Just keeping the sound consistent throughout. We wanted to be real. When we do a diegetic soundtrack, we want everything to be completely realistic, physically present. Nothing in the film placed by us is non-diegetic. We took some dramatic liberties: we amplified it when Gilderoy turns the headphones on, since hearing the album is from his perspective. The headphone music is at full volume, but when other characters put on headphones, it’s tinny. But there’s a lot of sound in the film, a lot of references to certain pieces of music that the sound designers kind of got at. I worked with people who had the same taste in music as me.
Had you worked with them before?
No. I used to live with a wife who was a supervising sound editor, so my experience with one was having to wait for them in the shower in the mornings. But with this group, I knew we had the same taste in music. I did a lot of sound with Chris Dickens in the edit, which is unusual. In my experience, editors will only do a certain amount, but he goes to great pains to wrap things as much as possible, so by the time we got to the sound mix, we were fairly prepared. When you’ve got a few months in the sound studio, you need time to experiment and try out with EQ. We couldn’t do some of the effects, but what did happen was a lot of stuff came in advance. So a lot of those eerie scream sounds, which are kind of abstract, came in prior to the shoot.
Mainly Andrew Liles, but also Steven Stapleton and Tim Kirby. We recorded a lot of people screaming. Some of the actresses who were in the film were friends of ours. Susan Cappellaro, who played Veronica, was also in Sergio Martino’s Torso, and it was quite important to have that connection. It’s kind of weird when you record people screaming: it never feels hard enough, like in De Palma’s Blow Out. It just feels cheesy. But then you send it away and you give it a bit of reverb, and then you go: “Oh my God, this is really disturbing.” I have stacks of CDs full of screams. I get a lot of things sent to me from various people and you just arrange them somehow. That’s how I work.
Did you actually do any foley stuff?
No, that’s my biggest regret. It’s the one thing I wasn’t there for. I had personal reasons for that, like Santini [the director of the film within Berberian]. We outsourced it to a place in Finland, so I had no idea what they got up to. I think what he did was mainly footsteps, as far as I remember. There wasn’t too much foley.
For chopping the fruit, what was that?
No, we definitely had to beef that up in post. On its own it didn’t quite get the effect we wanted. We joked about having human flesh hacked up to achieve that.
What was your favorite sound out of the ones you created?
From the film’s sound, my two favorite sequences are the scene after the devil-mark stabbing when they zoom in on the vegetables, and there’s this kind of atmospheric scream treatment that isn’t really disturbing, just atmospheric. I really love that. I also like the sequence at the table with the prayers and all the voices. I’m planning to do a little seven to 10-inch single with those two pieces, because I felt that they could have gone further. Like an ambient piece.
Like deleted audio scenes.
Yeah, a little side dish. Because the soundtrack is the music only, but I thought it could turn into a beautiful ambient piece on its own.
When you initially conceived the break in the film, was it happening in the same place, and did it change as you were constructing it?
It was always the idea that the movie needed to eat its own tail somehow. Again, moving toward the idea of building a loop and watching these things going back on themselves. I think I wrote it similar to a lot of music I was listening to, so you have these repetitions, like how the whole second bit is repeated again and again. And each time it’s dynamic— first becomes the last.
But also the absurdist incongruence—if you know that language, you kind of expect halfway through the film to have cows in the middle of a field. Also part of it was the idea that Gilderoy never left his garden shed: he speaks about having slept on the flight, and then they say: “You never flew.” That’s the sort of absurd thing people try on you to not pay you, so is it a satire, or did he actually stay in his garden shed?
I’m fascinated by scenes of things that would normally get cut out of a film. It’s like now when we’re talking—most directors would cut this part out, and they’d just show us leaving the building. There was a missing bit between this and this, so what if that missing bit was everything up until the very end? There’s not one interpretation as such. For me it’s almost like an atmospheric film, like Kenneth Anger, that spell-like quality. And talking about the sequence of Berberian with all the dubbing charts—they took like a week to do, every single number, everything makes sense, like a Vertov version of Pro Tools, but you don’t have to get it—it’s just there as atmosphere, texture. I went to the Quay Brothers exhibit today at MoMA, and it’s a world you enter, it’s a climate, it’s not about narrative. It’s about existing in a world and just living in that world.
And the Quays designed the space themselves, so you’re in their heads, or somewhere in Philadelphia.
It’s really weird, it’s like a Philadelphia sensibility’s filtered through Eastern Europe, which is really fascinating. We shared the same producer, Keith Griffiths, and the same cameraman, Nick Knowland. I did ask Nick, because he shot the Quays’ feature films, and I’m a massive, massive Quays fan.
What was it like working with him?
Oh, I loved working with him. He’s such a sweet guy. I was a bit scared at first because I thought—maybe I’m breaking the myth a bit—but I thought he’d be this very serious guy, and I had a lot of fun with him. You need that on set. You need something to lighten the mood. He lightens everything, literally. He’s just a genius with lighting. He’ll take his time, he won’t compromise on that. You will wait until he gets it right, but it is worth the wait.
How did you achieve the film’s look digitally? It is similar to things you’d see in the Seventies, the color palette, etc. How did you participate in creating that?
It was more Gothic Italian Horror than giallo. Giallo was the starting point. The main visual reference we looked at was Juraj Herz’s Morgiana, in terms of these saturations he was using, where he would put the reds and so on. And I would have done it anyway, even if it wasn’t a film set in the Seventies. It was a reaction against of lot of recent stuff where they just bleed all the colors.
The standard horror movie filter where everything’s a little green.
Yeah, we just thought, let’s just bring some richness back, and agreed to saturate it as much as possible. For me, that was the only way. Nick did all the talking, he was great. I can’t talk about percentages and all that. That was my favorite part, because I’d just sit back and drink ale and watch them work. I knew we had the same way of looking at it so it didn’t matter. The hardest bit for us was the darks. Especially now with mobile phones and everything, you just can’t control the amount of dark. Back in the Seventies, you could say I’m gonna push it to the very, very edge. But watching films in trailers now, you’ve got to take into account, so there’s that scene where it’s just on the border, but not total darkness.
Do you have any future projects planned?
I do, but I’m kind of tied up with this one for now. Some directors can just go to a hotel and write, and I can’t. I need to zone in.
You need to rest, lie down.
The actual physical writing, the biggest percentage of the process for me is eliminating all my everyday thoughts and entering the world I need to enter. As soon as you get there then it can just write itself. You know it can take four hours to just sit there, just squeezing out all the bullshit that goes through your head, being able to live with these characters. When you get there, it’s just really beautiful, but there are some days where you just fail. You just can’t enter that world. There’s some stuff I’ve been planning, but I think I want to concentrate on all the extras and the variables so we can get that right. I just don’t like it when I buy DVDs and two years later it comes out with all these extras, so we’re trying to get it all done in one go.