The Berberian Sound Studio director discusses the technicalities of making a film which is all about sound
Berberian Sound Studio is the second feature film by British director Peter Strickland, and is unrecognisably different from his brilliant debut film, Katalin Varga, a slow-burn rape-revenge saga set in the Romanian countryside. His film, set in the 1970s, is about a foley artist (the great Toby Jones) who is requisitioned by an Italian gore director and who ends up going a little stir crazy. We talked to the director about horror, sound systems and how he was able to annoy Guy Ritchie...
The film has just been at FrightFest in London. How was that for you?
Yeah, it was quite nerve wracking. I'm scared of speaking to horror types and sound types. But I had a blast. The only bummer is that I wasn't able to see it on the big Empire Leicester Square screen. It's got Dolby Atmos which is this new system. Reports were that even those who hated the film thought that the sound was phenomenal.
I always found that cinema too loud.
I like loud. We worked on a sequence in the film near the end where the Elise character is subject to all this headphone abuse when they turn the feedback up really loud. I wanted to do a William Castle thing, like when he put the buzzers on the seats. I wanted people to physically, not vicariously, feel what a character is going through. We wanted that direct connection. But I think your empathy gets in the way. In the end, I decided that I didn't want people coming away from the film with tinnitus. Then I regret it afterwards, because you hear how loud most films are.
At least this film is about the sound, rather than a blockbuster where they just turn it up so there's a constant stimulus.
I think they turn it up just to drown out people on their mobile phones. It's weird, because I was working on it for days. I had terrible ear ache.
Did you work on the sound design with headphones or with speakers?
Mostly it was in a studio. It was a tiny, tiny cupboard and there was just two of us in there with headphones. With the track laying we just did it in someone else's apartment. The final mix was done in Soho. We had that Guy Ritchie film below us, Sherlock Holmes 2. There was all this sub-bass coming up through the floorboards. I just felt annoyed. I wanted to get back at them with some sub bass. We took most of it out, but any that remained in was just to annoy Guy Ritchie. It's annoying that I don't like sub bass. Sub bass for me is how other directors feel about the zoom lens. They see it as a shortcut to dramatic effect. I love the zoom myself.
Do you enjoy discussing the film in terms of it being a horror genre movie?
Not really. I don't mind if people see it as one, but I'd feel like a fraud for calling it one. I wouldn't get offended by it, because it is using the horror film as a template. We're showing the gore shots but replacing them with vegetables. It's fine to talk about the film in that context. I watch a lot of horror. There are a lot of references in the film, but I don't think it matters if you get them or not. A lot of it is just me. It keeps me entertained.
What films are referenced the most?
Well there's one called The Cremator from 1969 by a director called Juraj Herz. The title sequence comes from that. Even the poster comes from that. The way we edited every transition scene from the studio to the apartment was totally taken from The Cremator. What Herz did there was fantastic. There was some bits from a film called Morgiana, also by Herz, which inspired us when we were doing the final grading of the print. The shots of the food were inspired by Zoltán Huszárik's Szindbád.
When you watch films, do you see your self as something of a magpie?
Yeah. I always have done. Ever since I started watching films seriously in 1990 I had that scavenger thing going on. Back then it was shameful to nick stuff from other films, then when Wild at Heart came out, the Coen brothers started to get some renown, and Tarantino came on to the scene, all of that scavenging was OK. They just called it post-modern. Now, it's almost like a badge of honour to say that you stole something. It's weird isn't it? The weird thing is that, having read some reviews of the film, the one thing we didn't nick is always mentioned which is the shots of the 'silencio' sign. On set, Toby Jones mentioned to me that I should stop all that David Lynch stuff. I realised too late, and it was only when he said that I realised it was from Mulholland Dr. It's just one of those things and we went with it. If we had nicked it, I promise I would have come clean about it. It's all how you use thing really. It's not just about the movie you're watching, it's about the treasure trail. You read about the references, and you want to discover them for yourself. A film is just one fraction of that trail.
The film is very open to interpretation, so when you say you read reviews of the films, do you tend to agree or disagree with theories about the film?
Both really. Sometimes people didn't get it and it matters. Sometimes people didn't get it and it's great. I keep my reactions to myself. Once you start responding to reviews, especially those you really differ on, is just fatal. It's a tricky one. With Berberian, it has this thing where it eats its own tail and there is an ambiguity to it, but I'm very aware that it could be seen as a gimmick. At the same time, if you go down the concrete route and giving finite answers, it doesn't really work. You've got to go on your gut feeling and be intuitive. I feel that as soon as I explain something, it kills off all the other interpretations which is no fun at all.
I had a very simple interpretation of it, which is that it's a piece of autobiography about making Katalin Varga in Romania. It reminded me of Godard's Le Mepris in that respect.
I love that film. Georges Delarue! What a great soundtrack. I mean, you can't help it when you write something. It's always personal. It's fatal for a director to reveal that, say, this film is about a day when I went to the shops and someone was really rude to me. From being a film fan and seeing where other directors have gone wrong, I just like to keep my mouth shut. It also ruins it for an audience. It kills of the mystery if it turns out that things are related to my boring life and my stupid concerns.
Have you shown the film to any Italians? How has it gone down with them?
I was always very scared of that and have very little experience in that country. I was very careful to make it a celebration of their music and their filmmaking. Cosomo who plays Francesco, has told me that some people just don't like it, having a foreigner come along and make a film about your country and present people in a certain way. But I'm just presenting a few characters. It's one bully, and one sleazy guy. It's fictitious, and it's not my right as an Englishman to say this is how it is in Italy. As a defence, you could ask me why I made it about Italy if I don't know anything about the country. The answer to that, is that it had to be because of the genre. There was no other film genre that was intertwined with music in that way. At the same time, there still is the language barrier. You see people who clearly can't speak a word of English walking around with t-shirts that say things like 'Man Teaser' on them. They have no idea what it means. That's how I feel.