Aspiring filmmakers should take note of British helmer Peter Strickland — with a few shorts under his belt and a small wad of cash (about £25,000 which was spent mostly on film stock), the director headed to Hungary and shot an atmospheric, deeply nuanced movie and spent the next two years tweaking the edit and soundsphere. “Katalin Varga” was born, and though its distribution left something to be desired, the movie itself was one of the most impressive feature debuts in a long time — cheaply shot on celluloid yet highly masterful, absent were the hiccups or generous shots of people-talking-in-apartments that are contained in most first feature attempts.
And with that, Strickland was able to move onto another original project, “Berberian Sound Studio.” Toby Jones stars in the psychological horror, playing an introverted post-production engineer named Gilderoy who is hired for a rather rough Italian giallo. Homesick and completely out of his element, the crew behind the movie-within-a-movie “The Equestrian Vortex” begin to test the man’s patience in various ways, pushing him closer and closer towards a breakdown. The filmmaker plays up his lead’s degrading mental state by focusing closely on the cold machinery surrounding him and the weird, innocent things they have to clobber in order to create the sound of a knife going through flesh.
Promoting the movie during the New York Film Festival, Strickland sat down with us for a great conversation concerning his thoughts on digital, the odd things that were inspirations of the film, his working relationship with Toby Jones and a few crumbs towards what he’s going to do next. “Berberian Sound Studio” will hit sometime next year, courtesy of IFC Midnight.
Your first film was self-funded and shot on 16mm and ‘Berberian’ was shot digital. What’s your perspective on this oncoming digital landscape?
What I resent about the whole digital revolution is that it’s being forced on us, it’s not happening naturally. It’s people coming to us saying that they’ll only make DCPs now, therefore you can’t show your film because we don’t have the projector. I mean, I actually prefer the hard drive projection after seeing so many different prints of my films and seeing how they vary, how the sound could be so terrible. I just don’t like the principal of it being forced on people, that’s what scares me. And the storage — how is this going to be formatted in 30, 40 years time? With film, it’s a physical object, you have to preserve it.
Do you miss shooting on film stock?
We were planning to do my next film on 16mm, which I actually like better than 35mm. [On] 'Berberian' we did two sequences on 16mm — one when the film breaks up — because digital can’t quite capture that whole deterioration of the image. We shot Toby Jones on the Alexa and then projected that and shot it on 16mm, took that to the lab, projected it and shot that and kept doing that for 3 months until the money burnt up. That needed to be on film, he was actually putting the camera lens into the projector and then burning up the film — which was so difficult because film is so flame-safe now. Jamming the projector didn’t work, hair dryer didn’t work… just anything you could do to make it melt, it was tough.
Built to last, no?
I mean, I’m not purist about it and I see the pros and cons of both. If you go to a film lab and see the carcinogenic noxious chemicals that are involved with film processing, you think… maybe digital isn’t such a bad thing [laughs]. I also have a really bad back because of film, lugging it country-to-country for ‘Varga.’ But part of me misses the discipline of analog, that you have so many times to get it right, that you can’t erase and go again and again and again. I enjoy the physical aspects and the performance aspects, cutting tape and looping it. That’s what fascinates me about Berberian, because I couldn’t set this film now — if Gilderoy was using a laptop and Pro Tools, it just wouldn’t have that same talisman or alchemical quality. Plug-ins just don’t look as good as those oscillators and rebox and so on. Part of that is kind of a fetish for that gear.
What inspired you to do the film?
I remember watching this short documentary on Luciano Berio’s studio which he shared with Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono, it just had this strange zoom-ins on these oscillators — it doesn’t matter if you know what they do, it’s like this medium between human and a strange sound. That whole idea of taking sounds and transforming them — you have a very innocent sound like a watermelon being hacked and it’s something you always associate with being a good meal or whatever, but the machines change it and either physically alter the sound or the editing changes the context of it, thus changing your perception of it. And I just find that disturbing somehow.
Was that the sole inspiration?
There’s a whole number of things that inspired it. Those soundtracks — Bruno Niccoli, Goblin of course — the soundtracks were so advanced for the time and so different from what we have now. I think they all came from avant garde backgrounds and I love that connection. But also the character of the British sound-recording-garden-shed eccentric, which is like a million miles away from those Italian studios but as I got more into it the more I realized there was a similarity between their work methods. You read about all these guys who got involved with the occult and there was quite a dark side to it all. It was just kind of linking up all these things between Gilroy and Dorking in Italy, just bizarre things like the Dorking Chicken which is like the symbol of the area… [laughs] Just kind of stupid stuff, but it fascinated me somehow that you could find all of these connections. ‘Berberian’ I guess is swimming in that well, but another thing that really interested me was how horror was this genre that people would accept more difficult ideas and music — like Penderecki, people get him when they hear him in ‘The Shining,’ but on record people are just like, ‘no.’ The horror genre really alters peoples’ perceptions of sound and you can get away with a lot more than social realist films or whatever. That’s what I liked about those films, they were just surreal and psychedelic. They’re heading more towards Kenneth Anger and that kind of world. I didn’t get into them for the sadism or the plot, it was just purely the atmosphere. Those good Italian horror films, they’re just incredibly heightened. They still work.
Were you at all nervous how the horror fanatics would take the film?
I’ve already had a batterance [laughs]. I kind of knew we’d get a lot of pissed off people, that’s to be expected. But I think with whatever you do, that’s going to happen, so you just go with what works for you as a filmmaker. For me it’s also, it’s a drama about work, office politics, just how things work in certain offices. [laughs] But in my mind it was never horror, it was about horror but also — this may sound pretentious — but it’s putting tracing paper over a horror film and following the dynamics, the highs and lows, not so much the scares but the intensity of horror. I hope for others it’s intense. If they don’t find it scary that’s no problem because I’ve never seen it that way. It’s really just down to taste and you can’t control these things, there’s no point in getting angry about it. I don’t mind it being called horror, but you don’t want that pressure of people getting really annoyed and wanting a refund.
Given the genre you play with in the film, were you thinking of financial aspects when writing the film?
No, not really. There were other options that were more financially rewarding things after ‘Katalin Varga’ which was tempting of course, but you just think… life’s too short. I just really wanted to do ‘Berberian.’ I started writing it late 2006, and ‘Varga’ seemed like it was dead in the water. We had finished shooting August of 2006, post-production was very slow and went to the end of 2008. I guess I just got used to this way of life, that it was never going to happen. I had been making films since 1982 so it was just 14 years of being in the wilderness. I just got used it. I said, ok, I found a way of working quite cheaply. This guy had a 16mm camera that he’d lend for free if he were able to get a stake in it, so I stupidly thought we could do this in a cheap studio in Hungary. So I wrote ‘Berberian’ with this in mind, but then ‘Varga’ did okay and it was surprisingly easy to get money for ‘Berberian.’ It only took two years… which I know for some people is a long time, but for me I was like ‘Wow, this is great!’ Some filmmakers complain if it takes half a year.
If one were to watch the trailer for ‘Berberian’ it might seem to be a strange leap after Varga, but their moody tone give them a similar feel.
In my mind they have a similar atmosphere, some of the actors were in ‘Varga.’ Aside from some superficial differences they have the same atmosphere for me.
How was your relationship with Toby Jones?
It was fine, but I was very aware that he had worked with many noticeable directors… and then I come along with just one film under my belt. [laughs] I had a complex about that, which is my fault, but you always have a gauge of what a good director is so I was very self-conscious about how to convey what was in my mind to him. But early after the shoot I realized you shouldn’t get into that rut, just be who you are and not to worry about how another director would do it. Because he would never say that ‘so-and-so would do it this way.’ So it was good.
He certainly delivered some fantastic work.
He doesn’t need much direction, which is a good thing. He kind of gets it. With the particular close ups and stuff like that, yes, but how he moves his face, how he conveys a lot, he just did his own stuff. We spoke a lot before about his character, and once he got that in his head he was on autopilot most of the time. With actors I only get involved if I feel that they’re not doing it in the right way or if the actor actually wants some help with it, but he actually seemed quite self-sufficient. We spoke a little after and he said that he felt that he wanted more guidance from me, which I can see in hindsight. When you’re directing a film you’re considering all these elements, especially this film which is a very visual machine, sometimes I could be quite vocal a machine looking good [laughs].
Just his face alone could drive a feature-length film. Jones has an interesting look with subtle mannerisms.
We did audition somebody else, and it’s a very tough role for an actor because he has to be nondescript and his emotional range is quite narrow, and he has to be very still. So how do you engage an audience for that amount of time? I mean, until I got to the edit I would just look at him and be like ‘Oh, god, I missed that on set but that’s something else.’ But definitely, I realize that with actors you have to give them more attention, even if they’re getting it right. You have to put yourself in their shoes and realizing that it’s their face on the screen.
Another great thing is seeing him in a lead role like this. He doesn’t generally get that opportunity…
He did ‘Infamous.’
Yeah but then ‘Capote’ came out and stole his thunder… and now with the Hitchcock movies…
Oh, right. There’s no second ‘Berberian’ though. It’s funny, Toby and the Italians had very different ways of working.
That’s kind of fitting, given the relationship between their characters.
…Yeah… [laughs]. I mean, there were good days and there were bad days. For rehearsals, Toby loves going through a scene with the words and emotions, that’s his springboard. Blocking, camera angles, that all comes afterwards. Cosimo Fusco, who plays Francisco, he works the other way: movement dictates words. You get the same results at the end, but different sidewalks. Some days when you’re tired it’s like… oh god… which one do I please this morning?
There’s some misogyny in the film among the film crew, and on the opposite end, it seems like Gilderoy can’t even hold a conversation with a woman.
In hindsight the film could be in danger of being against Italians, but it wasn’t intended to be like that. In our movie it was only the producer and the director that were behaving badly. It’s not specific to horror directors, because a lot of those directors when you hear about them you just hear that they’re big gentlemen. In my mind, Santini’s not even a director, he’s just a playboy.
It’s just a cool thing for him.
He’d rather be at a fashion show than on a film set. So to me he’s just an asshole. [laughs] Not a great thing to tell an actor. I don’t know why, but men relating to women just interests me. You have two very different sides to it, Francesco treats women in a very degrading manner, but he’s very hands off. I guess the misogyny in horror kind of feeds into that. It is there, but it’s something, I don’t know where it comes from, but it has to be addressed. But the whole thing that kind of fascinates me, when Santini says he has to address these terrible things that happened to these women in his film, in a way he’s making a critique of misogynism, but he’s fueling it even more. That’s my issue. ‘Berberian’ isn’t against horror, it’s against horror directors trying to defend all of these horrible things.
Right. Sometimes very lazily; less of an intent reasoning and more of an excuse.
It’s like when newspapers talk about a certain violent event and put in bold lettering "stabbed three times" and "battered" in bold letterings, what they’re telling you is really terrible but they’re sensationalizing it. And I love Fulci because he doesn’t defend his work at all, he says it’s horror and entertainment, he doesn’t excuse it at all. It’s more an arthouse film when directors defend the horror. It’s kind of arrogant to say that you’re high-minded about violence because you can’t control how your audience interprets your images. No matter how serious Michael Haneke might be about his films, I’m sure that, sadly, there’s enough people getting off on his images and appropriating them for their own sick reasons. Even with ‘Berberian’ I’m sure some people get off on that sound of torture. It’s just saying, you can talk all the baloney you want about making a serious film, but none of us can control how our images or sounds are appropriated by an audience.
Next one is a love story, I’m doing it with Andy Stark and Pete Tombs who do Ben Wheatley’s films. I was going to do it this year but I’m tied up with ‘Berberian’ and doing the extras for the DVD and the soundtrack. I don’t want to say too much because I feel I might jinx it. There’s something else I’m doing with Alexandra Stone from CMP (Creative Management and Productions) but that one’s not until 2014. The other one was very tempting to do this year because I kinda like the idea to keep moving, but I didn’t want to rush it. I’m really into it, though, it’s a very low budget and I like that way of working. For me, strategy and career paths… what’s the point? We’re not doing it for that. If you have a career plan, you should be doing something else. How can you know what is ahead?
Something can fall apart very quickly.
It’s kind of weird for me. Obviously you have to pay bills, but within that, try to do something that’s interesting for you. Just practice, really. I remember Hal Hartley talked about this in an interview, and honestly I’m not a big fan of his films, but I really enjoyed what he said: forget the pressure, just better yourself every time. He loves the idea of practicing. I guess also it comes from music, the bands that inspired me were Sonic Youth, Stereolab. They have their albums and in between are split singles, tracks they give away… I find that very liberating, the sketches that lead up to bigger things, you can follow that path. I love that, I’d love to continue doing short films. I hate the idea of them being a business card or calling card.
I don’t think that works any more, really, aside from a certain specific few that are moreso sizzle reels.
It all depends what you want to do, really, and it all goes down to personal taste. I just caught the Quay Brothers exhibition at MOMA and it blew my mind completely. They’ve done feature films but so much stuff in between: posters, short films, book covers. I could spend a whole week in there. It’s one of those occasions that you come out completely inadequate as a filmmaker, but at the same time so liberated and so inspired, and so full of the idea that there’s a world of possibility out there to do stuff. What I love about their films is that it’s a world you enter, it’s not about a narrative it’s about existing in a climate. Kenneth Anger does his films like that as well, just atmosphere. So many films just lack atmosphere at all.