Garnering five star reviews and hyperbolic praise across the press, Peter Strickland‘s Berberian Sound Studio continues to be one of the most talked about films of the year. The Wee Review was able to get in early and secure an interview with the director during his visit to the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. We talked Giallo, sound effects, the pressures of success and the joys of analogue.
You have a background in electronic acoustic music, is that correct?
Well I’ve been involved, but technically I’m pretty incompetent really. I’m always involved with someone. Just leave me in a room on my own and I’m useless. I have a very basic grasp of it. But yeah I guess a lot of it comes from being a fan of that kind of music.
I think a lot of it came from a visual obsession with analogue, this sort of middle-aged geek thing I have, but it has this incredible power to it. You look at these oscillators and these reel-to-reels and it feels like there’s some kind of devil in the machine. You just don’t get that when you do sound design on laptops. Just seeing these racks of oscilloscopes and filters and tone generators was just visually very exciting for me – maybe not for everybody. To see grown men standing up on boxes and grabbing things and putting tape loops around the room – that’s how things were done. There was this very physical side to it, because sound is such an abstract thing. It’s the same thing with the Foley, it’s very physical and messy and ridiculous as well. It’s just that contrast between extreme horror and grown men splatting vegetables.
In this film you’re obsessed with analogue sound and your first film was made on 16mm. Are you just a fan of all things analogue?
Well we made this film on digital. Originally I thought “this can’t be right,” but I eventually warmed to the idea, it seemed almost perverse, completely wrong, but in a good way, to celebrate analogue by digital means. I can’t speak to this music because I wasn’t there when James (Cargill of the band Broadcast) created it, but I think a lot of the music and a lot of the sound was done digitally as well. I think had the Alexa not been so capable of reproducing that look then I might have been more hesitant. We did some tests with various digital cameras and I think the Alexa was the first that was capable of faithfully reproducing the skin tones. A lot of cameras were really good, but the skin tones always let them down, everything seem really synthetic and bleached.
Obviously there were financial reasons for it – or maybe not, because people are desperate to have their 16mm stock used. So now I think it is actually cheaper to film on 16mm.
Was that true of Katalin Varga? People always talk about how inexpensive it was to make.
We used 54 rolls for Katalin Varga. It wasn’t too expensive, but digital just wasn’t good enough back then. Had we shot that indoors then I might have gone with digital, but with filming outside in Transylvania we needed the clarity that film gives you.
if you read the Sun they always sensationalise violence – putting words like ‘STABBED’ in bold lettering and I’ve always found that so unhealthy
Was the setting driven entirely by your love of Italian horror or were you looking for a genre that would be the polar opposite of Toby Jones’ introverted Gilderoy character?
It is the opposite of the character definitely. But it was a genre that I had a love for. What I was criticising wasn’t the genre, but directors who try to make a moral point, but really they’re just using exploitation. I think if you’re doing exploitation cinema you’ve got to be up front and not hide a message within it. For instance I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because it is what it is. I think if you work within that then it’s fine.
So a lot of Berberian was a satire of certain directors. But it’s not even about directors. If you read the Sun they always sensationalise violence – putting words like ‘STABBED’ in bold lettering and I’ve always found that so unhealthy so I guess it’s a comment on that. But also I have this love for films like Suspira. That film is just dynamite, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t see it as horror, it’s just bombastic, and when you watch it loud with headphones on it’s like nothing else. I think stylistically those films have so much to offer; the look, the set design, the costumes, it’s like a spell. The music was so evocative and beautiful and usually horror soundtracks are so ugly. I remember playing the Cannibal Holocaust soundtrack to someone and they were like “oh what’s this, this is beautiful” and it’s the soundtrack to something they wouldn’t want to see.
Despite your love for the genre, you’ve specifically chosen not to show any of the film within the film.
That was very important. Without wanting to be po-faced about it you are trying to explore the idea of violence and our relationship with it as filmmakers, technicians and as an audience, how complicit we are in it. I think the weird thing is no matter how high minded you are as a filmmaker you can’t control how an audience interprets your images. So the only way to comment on the seriousness of that subject is by not showing it. Of course, it’s also just fun to put the pieces together and I think it’s more powerful having the sound only and letting your brain work overtime.
it’s not about being scary it’s just about working in the dynamic of horror in terms of the pitch and the tone
With both this film and your first feature, people seem to have trouble summing them up in one sentence, or even a paragraph. Do you enjoy the bafflement they seem to cause?
Yeah I love it. Sometimes it comes back to bite me because I get annoyed when people are just angered and they start insulting me. That’s the danger when you try to baffle people and they baffle you back. But you set yourself rules; I did that both with Katalin Varga and with Berberian. I said OK we’re going to start with horror as a springboard, but we won’t have any murders or a drop of blood, but still work within that dynamic. I really don’t know if it’s scary. If it is then great and if it’s not then it’s not a big deal.
It’s not about being scary it’s just about working in the dynamic of horror in terms of the pitch and the tone. It’s almost like a sketch or a tracing of horror, getting the outlines but not getting the whole thing. And it’s just about having fun with it which is what you do when you write; you just want to have fun.
One thing that’s been talked about regarding this film is the humour in it. Was that a deliberate choice?
It’s really hard to say how things start. It definitely didn’t start with the humour, I know that. You try and explore a certain world, a certain atmosphere, but then the humour just comes out.
I did a short film in 2005, which was clearly meant to be a joke, about Foley artists and horror, but then I wanted to step away from that and do something darker. So I guess it wasn’t my intention to do something funny, but when I wrote it, it naturally ended up that way. Then there are some parts which we shot and then we thought “lets scale it down a bit.” So we took a few scenes out that had humour in them. It’s a really fine line, that was one of the hardest things when we edited the film just thinking about the balance. I think the Coen brothers are a really good example of people who are funny but tragic at the same time – and it’s really natural how they do it. I know there are people who put things into a bracket – “it can’t be funny and horror, it has to be one or the other” – but it’s just very hard to achieve that.
Some critics have mentioned, in addition to Italian Horror, the possible influence of 70s conspiracy thrillers on your film. Were they an influence?
I’m happy if people say that but they weren’t a massive influence. I actually saw Blow Out after the film was made. I had seen it before, but I’d forgotten the horror part at the beginning and I kicked myself, because I would have nicked something quite happily. It was a very weird thing because when I watched it that night some friends of mine were staying at the cameraman’s (Vilmos Zsigmond) house – they’re not in the film industry, just friends of his and it was such a weird coincidence; I called them up and asked them to tell him I was watching his film, but he was out on a shoot.
in hindsight I needed those thirteen years because I guess I wasn’t up to scratch
You didn’t go through the film school process and I was wondering if, like for instance Shane Meadows, you learnt how to make films through watching them and absorbing the techniques?
Well I did try and get in, but never made it. It’s bizarre you should mention Shane Meadows because my first time at Edinburgh was in 1996 and we both had our first film on show. He had Short Time and I had my first short film, and he just catapulted instantly and I was left behind for another 13 years. In hindsight I needed those thirteen years because I guess I wasn’t up to scratch and it took a lot of bad short films – making mistakes. It’s a mixture of practising and practising, but also just watching films. I think so much of it is to do with love, just loving something. A lot of the bands I love, they weren’t musicians, but they just listened and listened and listened. For instance the Jesus And Mary Chain’s first album, they were just guys in their bedroom in East Kilbride, just obsessed with listening to rock and roll and just knowing the dynamics of it and I think that just rubs off. You just need practice time and passion for something and it does rub off – I think anyway.
Finally, a lot of people might be tempted to seek out Giallo films after seeing yours. As an aficionado, which films would you recommend?
I would go for the classic one The Bird With The Crystal Plummage by Dario Argento. Suspiria obviously also by him, Don’t Torture A Duckling by Lucio Fulci. There’s a very nice one called Footprints On The Moon by…I can remember the composer, but not the director (Luigi Bazzoni)…it’s got Klaus Kinski in it and Florinda Bolkan who’s in many of them. Oh my favourite one is Lizard In A Woman’s Skin – Lucio Fulci again. It’s beautifully psychedelic and it’s got a brilliant Morricone soundtrack – one of his best. I like The Beyond, it’s got a great Fabio Frizzi soundtrack. It’s a little bit trashy, but that’s part of its charm. Bava – Blood And Black Lace. That was one of the first Giallo films. I think a lot of the soundtracks are fantastic. Bruno Nicolai – The Cry Of The Prostitute soundtrack is phenomenal, it’s better than Morricone, it’s so so good. Some of the Giallo films are a bit… you know… but the good ones – like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage look so ravishing and the soundtracks, particularly those that use the eerie wordless vocals of Edda Dell’Orso are some of the strongest things about the films.