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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
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.

Berberian Sound Studio
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.

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


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