Screen talks to British director Peter Strickland, who is in Edinburgh this week for the world premiere of his second feature Berberian Sound Studio.
Peter Strickland won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival for his debut feature Katalin Varga. Now he is back with his second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, which had its world premiere this week at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Sold by Match Factory, the film was produced by UK outfit Illuminations and Warp X with backing from the BFI, Film 4 and Screen Yorkshire. Artificial Eye is handling the UK release. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild-mannered British sound engineer from Dorking summoned to do the sound editing on an Italian horror movie. Gradually, his sanity begins to unravel.
When you won the Silver Bear in Berlin, what opportunities did it open up for you?
It was a lot easier. I remember reading an interview with one director who was complaining that it took six months to put his film together. This film took two years which is like a walk in the park for me. Compared to last time, it was alarmingly straightforward. I do have fond memories of the Katalin Varga shoot – but that was only 17 days out of many difficult years.
How did you end up working with Illuminations and producer Keith Griffiths on Berberian Sound Studio?
I was a big fan of The Street Of Crocodiles (produced by Griffiths.) That is one of my all time favourite films. That just changed my life. I saw it on TV in 1991 when I was doing my A-Levels and it opened up a whole other world. I was in touch with Keith Griffiths a little bit prior to Berlin. It was a mutual thing – (the idea) we should do something together.
Was it a good collaboration?
I have nothing but respect for him. He’s honest, he’s fair, he is bloody hard working. He will see it through right till the end. None of would deny we had clashes. We are different personalities. It’s such an intense relationship (with a producer). It’s like being married! With Keith, we started just after Berlin 2009 and we had the final viewing round April this year. It’s a long, long process. He has great taste and he is a great producer. There is no question about that.
Why did you choose Edinburgh to launch the film?
(Festival director) Chris Fujiwara was so passionate. We were thinking about Venice. We were hedging our bets but we got an email from Chris, who had seen the film. Film 4 and I though that this guy is passionate about the film. It’s more important to go with a festival that really cares about it.
Was the film intended as a lament for a lost, pre-digital age of sound recording on film?
Back in the day, there were these huge stacks of (recording) equipment. It was so visual, so powerful, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. I don’t understand half of it. That makes it more powerful. There is a mystery to it. It’s kind of alchemical. They (sound recordists) are transforming things. The idea of alchemy fed into people like Joe Meek or even Graham Bond, who turned to the dark side and the occult. And it feeds into the idea of the English eccentric in the garden shed and to people like Vernon Elliott who did the Clangers soundtrack. There was an innocence and a dark side at the same time.
How did you present the role to Toby Jones?
We had a walk in Regents Park. We talked a lot about music and about how you can carry a whole film by being non-descript – maintaining this stillness but conveying an inner world. With Toby, he’s so good you just leave him to it. He is working within such narrow parameters. It was really interesting to see, especially in the edit. Sometimes, you don’t notice the odd little muscle twitch here and there. Then you look at it in the edit and think thank God he did that.
Are you a fan of Italian horror pics like Cannibal Holocaust or the works of Mario Bava?
It’s interesting you mention Cannibal Holocaust. I played the soundtrack to somebody quite recently not telling them where it came from and this person thought it was such a beautiful piece of music. One of the starting points was how incongruous the music was for these (horror) films. They were just these incredibly lush and romantic soundtracks but also very advanced in terms of free jazz. It was a very unique period. These composers had quite avant garde backgrounds. You felt they were wanting to swim in this world between experimental film and exploitation. The giallo films were very interesting in terms stylistically of colour, set design and costume but I wouldn’t say I like horror as such.
What are you up to now?
I am working on two projects at the moment. One is very low budget. That’s with Pete Tombs and Andy Starke, Ben Wheatley’s producers. It’s a very simple low budget story that I am writing myself. We might be shooting later this year. The money is there. It is private money. That was the idea, to work very quickly. It’s a love story. The other one is with Film 4 and the BFI. Alexandra Stone is producing it and Lizzie Francke (from the BFI) and Katherine Butler (from Film 4) are developing it. That’s another love story. I felt there was too much darkness in my life.
Did your backers on Berberian leave you to your own devices?
The film is how I wanted it but you have to go through a process to get to how you want it. I wasn’t used to this. I was unfortunate and fortunate enough to work on my own (before) and the luxury of that was to do exactly what I wanted. So I was a bit shocked when notes came in. But obviously everyone you work with say that’s just how it works unless you want to go back to being poor again! So you just have to engage in it. As long as you are polite and find a way to express that it has to be a certain way, they respect that. I was very pleasantly surprised. There were arguments but with this specific film, it had to be quite singular in its vision.
So this is the film exactly as you originally envisaged it?
Chris (Dickens), the editor, did push it in a different direction. Initially, it was split into five reels. It was quite formalist. He was very favour of making it more fluid. I was resistant of it initially but I saw it worked. You have to step back sometimes. It is all about the film for me. If it works for the film, you go with it. I guess I had to learn a bit of etiquette – how to convey what you wanted! I was very lucky. Given the money they put into the film, they (the backers) took a big risk. I have nothing but respect for them for taking that risk, especially in this climate now where you can’t afford to try things out so much.