Out now in limited release and on VOD is writer/director Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a haunting exploration of isolation and loneliness set against the backdrop of a Giallo movie, which stars veteran actor Toby Jones (Captain America).
Dread Central recently chatted with Strickland exclusively about what inspired Berberian Sound Studio, how creating a story about sound design challenged him as a filmmaker and much more. Berberian Sound Studio is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and Downtown Independent in Downtown LA. For those of you not in those areas, the film is also currently now available on VOD.
Dread Central: Thanks for chatting with me today, Peter; I thought this was an incredibly fascinating film and definitely a very unusual story as well. What inspired you to create a story around a sound engineer and Giallo films, of all things?
Peter Strickland: Oh, thanks so much; I think for me I was interested in capturing the mechanics of exploitation cinema. I think part of that comes from my fascination with DVD extras and so I wanted to make a movie that circled around that kind of world but make it a little more fictionalized and, of course, entertaining. I think what was most powerful to me was this ridiculous image of a grown man smashing watermelons with this horribly violent movie playing behind him; I wanted this movie to exist in that kind of confusion and explore the power of violence but not in a didactic way.
Another reason I made Berberian Sound Studio is that I wanted to show just how complex the idea of movie violence really is and reduced that idea down to only the sound. At the same time, I wanted to create a very visual movie about the world of sound, something I don’t think I had seen before; I also wanted to pay tribute to this incredible time period in cinema in particular because there has always been a strong connection between Giallo films and their music and sound design. People really tend to forget that Giallo films created an amazing link between high-art concepts and b-movie exploitation, which is endlessly fascinating to me.
Dread Central: I would definitely say a lot of that certainly plays into Toby’s character, and it’s very compelling to see just how affected by this world he becomes; can you discuss collaborating with him for this role and how the two of approached Gilderoy and his downward spiral throughout the film?
Peter Strickland: Toby was wonderful and added so much to this character- I mean, of course I knew he would, but it was beyond anything I could have initially hoped for while I was writing the script. I just thought it would be interesting to see how someone who has no frame of reference for this world would react to being suddenly immersed in it; what does that do to his psyche and how does it parlay into his own feelings of isolation being in a world he knows nothing about?
And Toby really embraced that and I definitely think that’s why the movie works so well; you just cannot take your eyes off of Toby, who in turn cannot take his attention away from this world he’s suddenly been put in the middle of and can’t relate to at all. He’s used to working on children’s stories so Italian horror movies, to him, are utterly shocking and almost a bit maddening. A lot of what you see in the final film was in the script, but of course Toby managed to work in certain elements of this character that only he could, and I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out and with my experiences working with him on this movie.
Dread Central: Because you’re making a movie that’s focused on sound design, did that add any pressure on you in terms of creating the perfect sound mix or incorporating the right sound design elements you needed for Berberian Sound Studio?
Peter Strickland: I think that for me the element I was most emphatic over was the sound perspective and just how a voice sounds in one shot and how that same sound or sentence will travel to someone’s headphones. Keeping the sound consistent throughout was really the biggest challenge- we wanted everything you were hearing to feel authentic, even during the moments where maybe we were amplifying certain sounds for dramatic effect. The biggest temptation for me was to just ‘go crazy’ with it during the mixing process because we actually had a great budget allotted for sound, but then I thought better of it. That wouldn’t have added anything to the movie at all so we really just concentrated on those tangible sounds – hearing what you’re actually seeing – and getting them to seamlessly integrate into the rest of the sound mix.
Dread Central: As someone who grew up during the 80’s, I have to say it was nice to see someone celebrate classic filmmaking, and I thought the studio itself was very visual striking- particularly the scene where Toby has the loops of tape spooled and hung throughout the studio.
Peter Strickland: Oh thanks- I love that scene; it really reflects the cyclical nature of the script and it’s by far one of my favorite visual moments from the film. I think that one of the main reasons I wanted to write about analog sound is because it WAS so incredibly visual both in terms of the machinery and the performance aspect of splicing tape and looping it. When you look at those old control rooms, they do have a very powerful, almost otherworldly feel to them- there are the racks full of oscillators and filters and all of that. There’s almost a ritualistic and mysterious quality to everything you see in those rooms, and Berberian Sound Studio is a celebration of just that. I wish more people could appreciate the artfulness to filmmaking in that era.
Toby Jones and Tonia Sotiropoulou star. Check out our Berberian Sound Studio review here.
Set in 1976: Gilderoy is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by Italian horror maestro Santini. As time and realities shift, Gilderoy is lost in a spiral of sonic and personal mayhem and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat.
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