Berberian Sound Studio, about an English sound engineer going bonkers working on an Italian horror film in the 1970s, grew out of a one-minute short of two guys doing 10 foley sessions. At the New York Film Festival last fall, Hungary- and England-based director Peter Strickland discussed the avant-garde horror connection, working with star Toby Jones and the band Broadcast, and how to get to Anthology Film Archives.
I love how there’s one dubber who specializes in goblin howls.
That came from Cathy Berberian’s track “Visage,” which she did with Luciano Berrio. It was an avant-garde piece of music never meant for horror film—like a 20-minute piece of howling. There’s this really weird avant-garde/horror connection going on. That track made me think: what if it were in a horror film? It’s like Penderecki’s music: on a record it’s difficult, but as soon as Kubrick used it in The Shining, it’s like, Right! It’s all about context for me.
A lot of avant-garde musicians worked doing horror on the side to make their money. And Morricone, before he was famous, was in this avant-garde group Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza—really serious guys, with gongs and so on. I love this sonic no-man’s-land between avant-garde and horror. You listen to these soundtracks and it’s totally there. You hear the dissonance, the musique concrète, the free jazz in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It’s really cohesive and alive.
Why do you think Italians accepted dubbing?
I don’t know which came first with Italy: they wanted to get international actors, so they thought, to hell with it; or, doing it then freed them up to get international actors. You look at the cast for those giallo films and it’s all international names: Hungarian, Yugoslavian. With The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the crew didn’t care, so you’d often hear them mumbling in the background what they’d eat for dinner. And there was a dubber called Nick Alexander, he passed away few years ago—he was an English guy living in Rome doing a lot of giallo films.
People kind of laugh at those dubs, but I think they’re great. The dubbing gives this ghostly, inhabited quality to the characters. I like the artifice. I remember this book on Lucio Fulci by Steve Thrower. He talks about how people don’t accept dubbing, saying it’s artificial. But if you give them really authentic sound—which is what Cassavetes was doing, or Paul Morrissey with Trash and so on—they say, aw, I can’t take it, I can’t hear them with the traffic. Everything is artificial anyway. Every film I’ve worked on, you’ve always got dubbing going on.
How did you work with Toby Jones to prepare his sound engineer character, Gilderoy?
It was loosely based on someone I knew, Adam Berman, who’s actually in the film. His music inspired the film as well. But we realized we needed an actor. So I got him to meet Toby and to give him a private concert in this room. And we spoke a lot about the kind of place Dorking [Gilderoy’s home back in England] is. Toby understood the stillness of the character: how to be nondescript whilst dominating the screen.
Broadcast is a big part of the soundtrack. Was that specially composed?
There’s one vocal piece which was taken from some tapes of Trisha [Keenan, of Broadcast, who passed away in 2011]. The other vocal piece she did, that was for the film. They got involved in 2009 even before [Strickland’s debut] Katalin Varga. So much of this came from their world. They got me into a lot of those soundtracks, just from the interviews they gave to magazines like Wire. James [Cargill, of Broadcast] saw the assembly cut of the film, and he’d send mp3’s over by email. Chris and I would edit scenes to that. This was a film where the image was so tied up in music and sound that we really had to do that back and forth.
It’s a deeply textured design.
I think if you don’t approach it as a narrative, if you approach it as a spell, or the way some of that music was constructed into terms of repetitions... Or as a world you can enter and exist in. I just saw the Quays exhibition [at MOMA]. It’s amazing. We share the same producer, the same cameraman. Street of Crocodiles is one of my all-time favorite films: it’s a world I can enter, it’s a climate I can live in. That’s one of the attractions of cinema: it’s texture, it’s not just narrative.
It’s too bad you just missed the giallo series at Anthology. I just saw one called One on Top of the Other.
Is it the one about the lesbians? Lizard in a Woman’s Skin? Is Jonas Mekas still there? He’s one of my heroes. Walden is one of my favorite films. I went into it to see Kenneth Anger, Warhol, and so on, but the most interesting parts were the kids feeding the swans, all the family bits. When I first went to New York, that was the first place I went to. I took a lift in a car which was stolen. I was going to meet Jonas Mekas that night.
Where are you based these days?
At the moment, it’s a bit weird. Half Hungary, half UK. I’m trying to get back to the UK but financially it’s a killer in that country. I don’t know how anyone can afford it. The beauty of living in Hungary was there was no pressure to do commercial films. A little bit of money can go a long way.
Berberian Sound Studio was originally a short film. What was it like?
We had it on YouTube, but we asked to take it off for marketing reasons because it has the same title. It will come back on again. It was done as a one-minute sketch of two guys doing 10 foley sessions—only the foley sessions—and you pick up this hidden narrative from it. You never see the film. It’s a character called Vincent, and you follow him as he goes through the forest, ends up sinking in mud, a UFO lands, and zombies come—porridge for the sinking mud [sound]. I did it as its own piece back in 2005. Late 2006 I came back to it thinking, “This could make it a bit longer than one minute.”
One thing I found very interesting was the idea of context and association: the innocence of certain sounds. Stabbing a cabbage is completely innocent—kitchen, food—but as soon as you put an image against it of a woman being tortured... I find it really simple but quite disturbing at the same time. If you take out Tobe Hooper’s sound design for Texas Chain Saw Massacre and play it in a concert hall, you’d say it’s like Pierre Schaeffer or something. In the context of that film, it’s really skuzzy hillbilly noise, but actually it’s incredibly meticulous musique concrète. it just sounds like they’ve got a lot of grease on the tape heads.
It’s interesting how soundtrack and sound design can blur. Like in some Gus Van Sant movies.
What I really find interesting with him is he uses Acid Mothers Temple [in Elephant], but at a really low volume. Which you would just never think of, because it’s usually high-volume rock n’ roll. So much of sound is not about effect; it’s all about perspective. And about foregrounding, EQing—these subtle things—and placing it in the mix.
How closely did you work on the sound on this film?
Technically I never man the boards. I’m rubbish. But apart from the foley, I was there. During the mixing, which is the most fundamental part, I was there every day, partly because I enjoy it, partly because it’s a lot harder to fix things if you come once every few days. There was a lot of us. It was all done in different stages, so a lot of people worked independently from their homes, sending in sounds. We recorded a lot of screaming, and then sent that to various people. It was almost like a remix. You send one track off to four different people and they do different versions of it.
Where did the name Gilderoy come from?
That was from a Shirley Collins song. A few things came from that. He’s this kind of garden-shed eccentric, and I guess there was this British tradition of that. British guys who would work on their own, this semiprofessional mode.
We see a little of the documentary Gilderoy was working on back home, about the English countryside. It reminded me of Penda’s Fen by Alan Clarke for some reason. Bucolic yet mystical.
You know, I did actually see that prior to shooting. You’re the first person to pick up on that. That was in the mix. It’s weird because Mulholland Drive comes up—we ripped off a lot of things, but that was just a coincidence. But Penda’s Fen, yeah, was definitely in the mix. It’s got a really good BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack as well. And The Cremator, by Juraj Herz. The way we edited the film followed how he edited The Cremator. And Peter Tscherkassky... I think they were the main film influences. Otherwise I guess it was music.
It all just really draws you into Gilderoy’s world, which then breaks down.
You can think of cinema as a portal to enter into something. Like with Sonic Youth or bands like that, a song would just break down, and suddenly in the middle, everything just deconstructs. And you enter this other zone within that—like a vortex within the song. In film I always thought it would be so interesting to go that road.