While there, Gilderoy encounters a culture clash with the Italian crew, and, more disturbingly, finds the events of the film he’s working on starting to bleed into real-life, as his psyche grows increasingly fractured. Reminiscent of the unsettling work of Dario Argento and David Lynch, Berberian Sound Studio is a wonderfully weird, nightmarish experience you won’t soon forget.
The film opened in the UK last year to rave reviews (nabbing four trophies at the British Independent Film Awards), and makes its debut in US theaters/becomes available via VOD this Friday.
Just before its release, MM caught up with writer-director Peter Strickland to discuss the enigmatic Berberian Sound Studio.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you talk a bit about the development of the script? How did the initial concept come about?
Peter Strickland (PS): The general urge was to make a film about sound and show its power to deceive, confound, illuminate and express a whole other world. Sometimes just the context of a sound is enough to deceive the listener, which is where the cabbage stabbing came in [Note: To create the sound of a woman being stabbed for the horror film, the foley artists plunge knives into cabbage]. We never altered that sound, but the shift of association from the kitchen to a murder is disorientating.
Italian soundtracks also played a huge role in influencing the film. Some of those musicians, such as Ennio Morricone and Bruno Maderna came from an avant-garde background, which informed their soundtracks. For some reason, avant-garde techniques such as dissonance and musique concrete activate the imagination when combined with fantastical images. On record alone, I love that kind of music, but I’m painfully aware that I’m in the minority. It made perfect sense in Berberian to invite avant-garde voice performers to do the sounds for witches and goblins.
MM: Berberian Sound Studio can be a difficult movie to summarize. It’s not quite a horror film, nor is it a traditional thriller. How would you best describe the movie?
PS: Drama. It’s always easier to be neutral when describing things. In a way, it is a drama about work and the tedium and hierarchy of it all. If someone in the audience calls it “horror,” I’m fine with it. But I can’t call it horror—otherwise some people demand a refund.
MM: How did you come to cast Toby Jones as Gilderoy? As an actor, what did he bring to the role?
PS: [Casting director] Shaheen Baig suggested him, along with my agent. I showed Shaheen photos of the type of person Gilderoy was based on. [Experimental musician] Adam Bohman was a strong influence for the Gilderoy look and temperament, along with Basil Kirchin, Desmond Leslie and Trevor Wishart. Toby had the right look, but more importantly, he could inhabit that character. For him, it was a case of engaging the audience within a very narrow spectrum of visible emotions, which is a very difficult thing to pull off.
I think the main quality he brought to the role was a human warmth and vulnerability that acted as a counterpoint to a script that was quite cold and formalist. By staying true to the stillness of Gilderoy’s character, Toby had to keep the dramatic range incredibly compact and sometimes you didn’t notice the details of his inner facial gestures until the editing room. One of the other actors politely asked if Toby was actually acting, which I thought was very funny.
MM: Obviously, Dario Argento’s early work and the giallo films of the 1960s/70s were a major influence on Berberian Sound Studio. What are some of the specific films–and/or filmmakers–that most inspired the movie?
PS: Giallo and Italian Gothic horror was certainly a big influence—Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino. Specific films were Bava’s Black Sunday, Argento’s Suspiria and Guilio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg. However, the biggest film influences were Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space and Juraj Herz’s The Cremator. Both those last two films were a huge influence in terms of how to approach sound and editing. Everything else came from music, in terms of sounds, texture and structure.
MM: Though we hear much of its sound effects, we never actually see any footage of the film Gilderoy is working on, The Equestrian Vortex. Why did you make that decision?
PS: There seemed to be so much more scope for invention if I set myself restrictions. From the beginning, I wanted to get into the dynamics of horror, but without blood or murder. Also, since the film is partly satirizing some filmmakers who defend violent films based on moral high ground, I felt I would’ve been a hypocrite. I have no moral problem showing violence on screen, but for me the best violent films are the ones without any kind of rhetoric or morality attached.
The more our senses are deprived, the more our brains compensate, and in some ways being denied the sight of some of the atrocities in Berberian makes it more unsettling. I wanted to demystify the whole process and only show the mechanics, but somehow within that process, make the mechanical side of filmmaking mysterious.
MM: As the film continues, it grows increasingly surreal and the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Were you ever concerned the film might be too esoteric or challenging for viewers? How important does the notion of reality vs. fantasy play into the story?
PS: One is always concerned how an audience will react, but it’s important to put those fears aside and not second guess what an audience wants. To me, second-guessing and pandering to an audience is the most patronizing thing you can do as a filmmaker. A lot depends on how you approach the film and what head space you’re in. Strangely, I find musicians react to the film a lot better than film people, as they can grasp on to other things—such as texture, atmosphere and dynamics—when the narrative eludes them.
This film comes from a love of a certain type of music and film that was meant to be experienced rather than understood. That’s what I loved about American underground cinema—it was visceral, awe-inspiring and hypnotic, with atmosphere often presiding over narrative. Many of those films were not concerned with a message.
When I wrote the script, I tried to come up with more than one concrete possibility for various outcomes within the film and those possibilities relate to both Gilderoy’s world of work and the world within Santini’s film. When those two worlds eventually intersect, that’s when the film becomes more Escher-like and starts eating its own tail.
MM: The film focuses much attention on the old-fashioned, analog equipment used by Gilderoy and his team. Despite all of today’s technological advancements, do you think contemporary moviemaking is missing something that Berberian Sound Studio lovingly recreates?
PS: It’s hard to say. Digital certainly makes it easier to try more things out. It’s quicker and there are limitless opportunities to record, compared to a roll of film. However, with that freedom comes a certain slackness. You pay the price when you get to the editing room with literally days of footage. It might be better to be more focused on set and only get the shots you really need. I worked with both 6-plate Steenbecks and Avid, tape and Pro-tools. Pros and cons to both, but the important thing is to have a choice and that isn’t happening anymore.
Digital is great now and also doesn’t need all the noxious chemicals that film developing requires. However, what would Stan Brakhage do with digital if he were alive now? The archiving question hasn’t been resolved either. With music and video, we’ve had a ridiculous amount of changes in recording and storage in the last decade or so. One is constantly transferring things across! However with film, the irony is that all this technology is simply mimicking the look of film.
No matter how more streamlined digital has become, we still have a need to fetishize analog iconography. That’s very apparent if you look at the various apps and plug-ins you can get now for photos, video and recording. The VU meter hasn’t disappeared. It’s just moved to an iPhone now.
For more information about Berberian Sound Studio, click here.