Peter Strickland and his Berberian Sound Studio – an interview
The story of Peter Strickland is as compelling as his films. The British director and screenwriter made his breakthrough feature Katalin Varga independently, using money from his uncle while moonlighting as an English teacher in Hungary. A darkly emotive movie set in Transylvania—with a script in a language the director didn’t speak—it earned Strickland a Silver Bear at the Berlinale as well as numerous other awards, granting him instant access to the upper echelons of the film industry. His follow-up feature Berberian Sound Studio pursues a very different direction: set in 1970s Italy, a hotbed for giallo films and soundtracks that went on to influence generations of sonic horrorists, it features an ethereal soundtrack provided by Broadcast. Here, the director talks about his “hauntological horror film” (a description he contests), working with Broadcast and meeting the Goblin
What was the inspiration behind Berberian Sound Studio?
Normally in a film, the mechanics and process are completely hidden from the viewer. With Berberian, I wanted to try the opposite—to reveal the mechanics of a film, but not actually show it. But also what’s interesting about the foley sound effect process for horror films is the two extremes: intense violence on the screen soundtracked by a process which is actually quite comical, with people smashing vegetables and trying ridiculous things with many objects. So the question for the audience is how to react to these scenes showing this? Should they laugh? Should they be disturbed? Those foley scenes cause a kind of polarity in the viewer, which I wanted to exploit, especially since we’re dealing with the subject of exploitation.
Why have you decided to set your film in that specific context, especially after your debut which was from a completely different time and space?
It had to be Italy in the 70s. There was no other country in the world with such a profound relationship between horror and music/sound. There was also that very strong and specific link to horror from the avant-garde with both Bruno Maderna and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza putting out electro-acoustic music, but also making soundtracks to giallo films. I found that really fascinating and I wanted to dip my toe into that world for 90 minutes. There is a continuation from Katalin Varga in that the film is exploring the effects of violence on the psyche. Superficially the films are very different (apart from the fact that Gilderoy has the same suitcases as Katalin Varga), but both the atmospherics and the emotional weight they carry come from the same place.
Have you been inspired by the revival of interest in Italian film soundtracks in music?
I started buying Italian soundtracks around 1997 when the first Mondo Morricone compilations came out and they were truly beautiful and sinister with Edda Dell’Orso’s voice getting under my skin. The Mondo and Canto Morricone compilations were amazing, but this was years ago. All this stuff was in the air for years—there just wasn’t a name for it, which I like. I had arguments with someone who wanted to market Berberian as a ‘hauntological horror film’. I said “no, no, no”. But yes, I buy records from Trunk and Ghost Box and they do great stuff.
The sound plays a leading role with its synesthetic and suggestive capabilities. Can you describe your relationship with sound and music in general—as a musician and filmmaker, and in particular in film and in the context of Berberian Sound Studio.
I was interested in how we contextualize ‘difficult’ music or sound. On record, many people wouldn’t respond to Berio or Pendericki, but in the context of horror, it is accessible. I love the fact that genre cinema and avant-garde music are worlds apart, yet there are links to be found. Since avant-garde is so reliant on texture, dissonance and atmospherics, it makes sense that it works so effectively in horror films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Death Laid an Egg and The Shining are the best examples of avant-garde music in horror. Structurally too, avant-garde music is so inspiring and Berberian‘s structure with its repetitions and absurdist portals comes directly from some of the music I listened to.
Overall, the film and the music and sounds conjure a certain psychedelic effect, and despite being a horror, remains subtle and steers clear of the more obvious visual gore.
My favorite horror films have an element of psychedelia to them. I’m more interested in that and atmosphere than gore. Horror seems the perfect genre to allow both sonic and visual psychedelic elements to come to the foreground. Giallo and Italian Gothic Horror always that had dreamy, ethereal quality to it and it’s great that Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani took it a step further with [2009 Belgian-French thriller] Amer.
How did Broadcast become involved in the film and why did you choose them in particular?
Broadcast’s former keyboardist Roj did quite a few sounds for Katalin Varga. He put me in touch with Trish Keenan and James Cargill around 2009. Warp Films became involved in the film by coincidence, so it seemed quite natural that a band on Warp Records should align with a film by Warp. That was the easy part. I chose Broadcast purely because there was no one else I was aware of doing this kind of thing. Since they signed to do the film, there have been quite a few bands explicitly paying reference to giallo soundtracks, but I approached Broadcast purely because they were never explicit. They had so much going on in their sound. On one level, their music opens up a portal to Italian and Czech soundtracks, but also British eccentrics such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Basil Kirchin and also West Coast psychedelia. But on another level, the music works on its own as something very emotive and darkly beautiful.
How did their involvement in the film’s soundtrack—in cooperation with Joakim Sundstrom—work in practice?
It was a back and forth process. James sent Chris Dickens (the editor) and me sound files during the edit. We’d roughly edit to the music, send it back to him and he’d make adjustments. Trish and James sent over a few things before the film. Most of the music was done by the time we went to the sound mix with Joakim. There were plenty of other things to do in the sound mix.
The soundtrack to the film has just been released. What sort of memories does listening to it conjure now?
It wasn’t the best time for us.
What’s next on your horizon?
The Duke of Burgundy. A love story.
Finally, are there any unforgettable experiences from the shooting?
The Goblin—Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. I don’t think the cast and crew will ever forget him. ~
Published February 11, 2013. Words by Lucia Udvardyova.