When the English filmmaker Peter Strickland released his second film, the psychological thriller Berberian Sound Studio, in Europe earlier this year, some of the distributors and cinemas chains working with the movie had a request: Strickland had to sign a pledge that all the tape hiss in the film was deliberate, in case audiences doubted the sanctity of the cinema's sound systems.
it’s about the spell cinema casts on you and the nature of artifice
That level of unease about just what sound that is unexpected and unknown can induce in the unwary listener is taken to chilling lengths in Strickland's picture, where a mild-mannered 1970s English sound mixer who specialises in nature documentaries, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is brought to a grim and shadowy Italian production facility to work on an Italian giallo horror film.
In a world of red lights, demands for “silenzio” and a receptionist who refuses to reimburse expenses, the timid if talented artisan starts to wonder if he is a kind of sacrifice, brought forth to invoke the sounds the film – the wonderfully titled The Equestrian Vortex which is not seen, but very much heard – and then be subsumed by their uneasy aural life. The rituals of making a soundtrack, from recording terrifying screams to confecting a hint of a scrape, start to suggest the nightmarish.
“You don't have to know the technical references, it's about the spell cinema casts on you and the nature of artifice and how it deceives,” explains the 39-year-old writer and director. “We know in the film early on that nothing bad will happen – it's not that kind of film – but in that context why does it still get to you, why does it corrupt you?”
“This is not a horror film. It's a Santini film,” declares the Italian director of The Equestrian Vortex, whose appearances during the mixing are both brief and baffling. Much the same could be said for Strickland, who had the unusual experience of working on the sound mix for a film that is about a man who is unhinged by working on the sound mix for a film.
“Luckily I've seen a few more horror films than Gilderoy has,” notes the affable Strickland. “But I remember doing the screams for the film. You're in the studio with actresses, you know them personally and it's all perfectly relaxing, but when you listen to the screams again and again it gets under your skin in a very creepy way. It's the idea of violence by proxy.
“We were trying to make something that would interweave the spell-like nature of sound but at the same time be very concrete and logical,” he adds. “Every single sound you hear in that film is physical – it comes from a source. It's diegetic sound mixed in a very dramatic, non-diegetic way. If you watch the film again every single sound has a physical source, nothing is in the character's head.”
Strickland, a former teacher, made his first film, 2009's Katalin Varga, over three years, using a bequest from his late uncle and shooting in Eastern Europe where he was able to keep the unusually intimate revenge tale – a woman is looking for the man who raped her a decade prior while being accompanied by the child borne from the crime – on a shoestring allowance of approximately $50,000. In the wake of its positive reception he had more of a budget for Berberian Sound Studio, which helped recreate the analog environment the story had to be set in.
“It could have been set from the '60s to the '90s, but it had to be analog,” says Strickland, who was often using gear in the shoot that has been virtually salvaged from skips outside sound studios making the conversion to digital. “I have this primal fascination with tape. There's something sinister about the hiss and noise, but at the same time you wonder if that's just some kind of nostalgia.”
Strickland and cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland did shoot digitally, with the ARRI Alexa camera, adding grain for '70s warmth, but one short sequence required film. They shot on 16mm and then had to send the footage to Holland for processing, because there's no longer anywhere that prints 16mm film in the U.K. It took three months from shooting the scene to getting it ready-to-edit for the movie.
“Three months was totally worth it for those 40 seconds,” insists Strickland, and that sums up the obsessive attitude that a great filmmaker must possess. At another point the production needed a photo of Gilderoy's garden shed in his hometown of Dorking in Surrey, and the suggestion was to get a click and pay image from an online site. Instead Strickland went to Dorking, looked around, and introduced himself to a home owner with a suitable shed and successfully asked if he could take a picture and use it.
“If someone said here's an app that lets you make a film in one hour I'd be like, 'So what?' There's no joy in that, no pleasure in putting everything together or discovering new ways to do it,” reasons Strickland. “All those things stay with you, those wonderful coincidences and everything that comes with the process of making a film. Everything is just instant now, but it's created a lot of waste and a lack of patience.”
Strickland is currently at work on several scripts, while Berberian Sound Studio has been spreading on festival screenings and word of mouth, steadily adding cinemas releases internationally even as the first DVD release, in the U.K., looms. The director is pleased with the film's success on the independent circuit, but he doesn't see it as a form of vindication.
“It's very important not to consider what people might like or not like,” he insists. “It starts off as a narrative, but it turns into something else. My personal taste is not indicative of the general public, so I realise I was quite lucky to make something so personal and get away with it. It's incredibly gratifying that people respond to it, because I fully expected it would annoy a lot of people.”
Berberian Sound Studio screens as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, from Thursday 27 December to Sunday 13 January.