You’re just as likely to remember the ultra-immersive soundscapes as the rich visuals in Peter Strickland’s films, which after three efforts have cemented him as one of the most strikingly original filmmakers working today. After his 2009 debut feature “Katalin Varga” drew considerable acclaim, it was the giallo-influenced “Berberian Sound Studio,” starring Toby Jones as a frustrated foley artist losing his grip on reality, that truly showcased his ability to tweak genre into new, darkly comic forms.
The success of “Berberian” pressed Strickland towards more ambitious material than commercial prospects. His latest, “The Duke of Burgundy”, was crafted and filmed in Hungary as a tribute to the skin and blood-drenched ‘70s films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, telling the tale of two lovers and bug collectors Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chaira D’Anna) living in a remote mansion. Each day the duo stage a script of sadomasochistic trials and punishments, but soon it is revealed that Evelyn keeps pushing boundaries, while Cynthia questions whether she can contain her own growing reservations.
We recently got the chance to unpack Strickland’s vast array of influences on the film during an interview with the director, and today he digs a bit further into behind-the-scenes facets, starting with the material that he set out to explore.
Being both a film soaked in genre and also a quite intense look at the intentions behind relationships, what was your inclination when writing and staging the project?
Peter Strickland: I felt that genre fans might be a little disappointed, just because it’s so far from the original sources. It started off as a genre exercise and drifted, but not on purpose. I wanted to take these genre tropes, the sensational aspects —sadomasochism, female lovers— and try to put realistic emotions behind them and put up pragmatics. What happens if one ties the other up all night and there’s a mosquito in the room? What happens if one person’s not into the kink? That’s the aspect that’s interesting for me.
What were the initial influences?
Jess Franco was the starting point, but so was “Le Boucher” by Claude Chabrol, and Fassbinder‘s stuff, “Martha” especially. What Fassbinder said about masochism was so searing sometimes —that scene at the end of “[The Bitter Tears of] Petra von Kant” with that maid who’s treated like a dog throughout the film. She’s so loyal, and as soon Petra shows some vulnerability, she just lost that dominant aura. The maid’s just like, “i’m out of here.” It’s so intense, and “Martha” even more so. That’s the hardest film I’ve seen about masochism —my film is like a game compared to that. There’s something far more troubling about someone who actually doesn’t want to be a masochist but can’t help herself. And she’s with a genuine sadist. There’s nothing consensual about that film.
Was the focus of masochism and its minutiae something that had stayed with you for a long time?
Yeah. It was also about other films that I had seen that were so lame and didn’t really puncture the reality of masochism. They always propped up the fantasy and never really investigated it. Most of those films about sadomasochism were essentially designed to masturbate to, so they wouldn’t dare break the spell and show a dominant man or woman in their pajamas and out of character. Everyone’s in character in those films. I just wanted to peek behind the curtains a bit and show the doubts, as well as the pressure of putting on a persona for someone else. And the film in a way is about acting, the parallels between a masochist and a director. The fact of nuance and the intonation of the lines —it’s not just saying your lines. When Evelyn says “try to have more conviction in your voice,” it’s just like a director, even down to the marker tape on the floor where she’s supposed to stand.
That relationship between Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen is so multi-layered and crucial, yet this is only Chiara’s second film performance [after “Berberian Sound Studio”]. What was that dynamic like between the two?
I think they were both terrified. Sidse came from another country and was completely out of her zone. She was a lead in “Borgen” [playing the Danish Prime Minister], [and now she] working with a director that she didn’t know, and this is only my third film. She never said this to me, but you could feel perhaps that she was like, “is this gonna be alright?” She took a huge risk, especially since she worked for many years in low-budget Danish films and quite rightly became very respected in her country, so much so that people actually wanted her to be the Danish PM.
So going from that to doing this, what on paper is quite a sleazy film, I thought spoke to tremendous bravery on her part. Or maybe she was actually quite clever, since all politicians get involved in sex scandals, so maybe it’s not such a jump after all. [laughs] They’re always caught with their pants down. It’s like: “Shocker: Politician Found Sitting on Someone’s Face.” Happens every day.
Speaking of which, the Dom/sub scenes are very suggestive but actually tame for what’s actually shown. You wrote the script as much more explicit?
Yeah, I did that just to cover myself. Because if I wanted to go further, it’s in the script. There’s nothing worse for an actor as when a director says “oh by the way, can you go one step further?” Anything to do with sex and flesh, you have to be really candid and upfront and you gotta put it on paper for an actor.
It took some time for [Sidse and Chiara] to get to know each other, and weirdly the argumentative scenes were mostly on the first week, and the more intimate scenes were shot later on, when they were more relaxed with one another. Strangely, I was nervous about doing the intimate scenes, but they were fairly laid back.
What was your approach in covering those and other scenes in the film, given that they’re so superimposition-heavy, with seconds-long closeups and lots of sound design work?
Closeups were done with a guy Mátyás Erdély, who shot a great film I love called “Delta” by Kornél Mundruczó, and then there was my DP Nicholas [Knowland] elsewhere. Mátyás and I went out with a very small, minimal crew to shoot various things, stuff like underwear in the sink, which was my little tribute to “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”
Out of all of the references you could have made in the film, I would not have guessed that one.
I love that film. John Candy‘s great. But all that stuff with the leaves and the lights —there was planning, but a lot of it was spontaneous as well. What I tend to do is look around the space on my own for a small period of time, just looking at as many objects as possible that we can put the camera behind or move along. Then Nicholas comes in and adds his own ideas, and then we just gradually go from there.
The superimpositions were all in camera, a bit of trial and error. Nick had this idea of putting these bevels in front of the camera, pointing it into a mirror slightly at an angle which points into another mirror, and then it was like, “wow, we don’t need to do anything in post for this.” Just positioning the actors in a certain way to get that feeling. He always had a smoke machine on, because he comes from pop videos from the ‘80s. And I usually play music for those scenes, so I don’t really record live sound.
I read that the bug recordings were sourced partially from your record label [Peripheral Conserve]?
Four of them were. Weirdly, I find that my films are sort of leftovers from my record label. Because I had a very unsuccessful record label —I couldn’t shift anything— these things find their way into my films and I try to sell my records off the back of them.
I put out a record of mole crickets that were the same sounds in the film, and I thought they’d be great in the lecture scenes because they have a scientific purpose. Those two species of crickets are virtually identical. Even an expert could barely tell them apart, but one of the only ways to do so is in the sound they make —a radically different pitch. So the recordings had a classification aspect, but they also remind me of something like Whitehouse or even some of La Monte Young’s tone work. Then the Michael Prime piece for the silkworm moth freakout is something that I heard 12 years ago. He played it for me, and that was the only piece that we slightly manipulated —we put in a tiny fraction of sub-bass, just to give it a bit of horsepower when it’s in the cinema.
So you just dove into your collection of these recordings and picked out the best ones?
I also knew this guy, Alan Burbidge, who’s a field recordist, and a couple other people. We tried very hard to use library music, which is a weird notion with recordings of bugs —what’s classified as someone’s field recordings and actual “library music.” There’s nothing worse than sitting there, bag of crisps, mouse in another, clicking through your database, unless it’s a real purpose behind it. For “Berberian,” we went to town and drew attention to the soundtrack, but in this one, we didn’t want to show off. So essentially a lot of it was just taking sounds away and making it as barren as possible, but still making it sensual and tactile.
Tactile’s a good word for it —do you find that you’re completely hands-on when it comes to getting those visual and aural details right, or can you articulate it completely to your entire crew?
With the sound, I’m quite didactic, but Nick usually has better ideas than me visually. I have more experience in sound —I’ve done camera, but I’m quite shaky. Luckily, he discovered the bevel thing on the first heightened scene, where Evelyn’s getting horny, and I thought “right, this is going to be a motif we can use in subsequent scenes.”
How did you create the mood and motifs with Cat’s Eyes [the pop duo of The Horrors frontman Faris Badawan and Rachel Zeffira, who scored the film]?
Faris put the strings through effects units to make them sound like synths. He landed on a beautiful raspy sound that I hadn’t heard before. I really love his and Rachel’s chord changes and production, and I think they got something really melancholy that I wanted to have in the film. It’s a domestic drama with a bit of humor; I wanted humor, but I wanted it to have this very mournful, elegiac tone, sort of like a Joy Division album but maybe not as depressing. A bit like William Lawes —a very autumnal feel, like things are coming to an end and going into hibernation.
“The Duke of Burgundy” opens in theatres on January 23rd and is also available on VOD.