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NYFF: Director Peter Strickland Talks 'Berberian Sound Studio,' Toby Jones & The Forced Digital Revolution

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 13, 2012 at 1:03PM

Aspiring filmmakers should take note of British helmer Peter Strickland -- with 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 and highly masterful, absent were the hiccups or generous shots of people-talking-in-apartments that are contained in most first feature attempts.
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Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland

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.

"Berberian Sound Studio"
"Berberian Sound Studio"
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.

Berberian Sound Studio
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.

This article is related to: Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio, Interview, New York Film Festival


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