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Writer-director Peter Strickland on creating the sound of Berberian Sound Studio

In the final part of a three week column, writer-director Peter Strickland shares the process of bringing his second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, to cinemas. Berberian Sound Studio is out now on DVD.

Toby Jones stars in Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones stars in Berberian Sound Studio

The initial temptation when making a film about sound is to go town with as many effects as possible. We could’ve been forgiven for coming up with a flamboyant sound mix, but perhaps it would’ve felt too obvious. The clues to alerting an audience to the hidden properties of sound lay not so much in the sounds themselves but in how they’re heard, which is where perspective came in. It was always clear in my mind that we’d be creating a diegetic mix to drive the film and anchor it. The fiddly part was switching perspectives between rooms as sound continually interweaves between them. It turned out that I needn’t have worried. The switching of perspectives worked quite effectively: from the voice to the voice coming from the Nagra and the mixing room speakers, headphones, tannoy, etc.

It took time to get it right, but it always felt both striking and believable. It was actually easier than most films where one has to think about rounding the music up nicely at the end of a scene or fading or whatever else. A sonic or musical hard cut usually has to have a very strong dramatic reason to exist in a film, but with our film, we could just punch a sound out or in purely because that’s what the characters do. We filmed enough pick-ups of either Toby Jones (Gilderoy) or Guido Adorni (the miserable Lorenzo) flicking switches, pushing faders, turning dials or using the patch bay to liberally sprinkle those shots throughout the edit if we wanted to try something. All that had to be done in advance with Chris Dickens, and having those cue points was great for us and acted as a kind of score to help the final mix.

Various people started making demos for the film in late 2009: screams, oscillations, feedback and so on. Sounds just trickled in from that point until the very last day of the sound mix. The hardest thing to get right was the screams. Countless people lent their lungs to this film – actresses, friends and one of the original giallo actresses, Suzy Kendall. The problem is often that people just have too much fun when they’re screaming in a studio stocked full of shortbread biscuits and other high class comforts. It takes something else to attain the aggression and gristle that one would find on any screams by the bands, Suicide or Whitehouse. That’s what I love about sound technology, whether digital or analogue – the power of alchemy to transform innocent or nondescript sounds into something that exists in new realms and contexts.
The people who treated the raw screams knew how to use delay, distortion and other nasty effects to lose the shortbread biscuit associations. Andrew Liles sent me two CDs crammed with eerie and devastatingly dark screams ‘remixed’ from our originals. Steven Stapleton, Colin Potter, Tim Kirby and Jonathan Coleclough also sent in screams prior to the shoot, which sometimes were played on set to create the right atmosphere for the actors.

By the time we got to the edit, I had a fair amount of sounds along with music from James Cargill and the late and much missed Trish Keenan. This really helped us in the edit in terms of dictating how long certain shots should be and where we should insert ‘technical’ shots. All those hand movements we see on the mixing desk and so on are very key to the soundtrack. When Gilderoy cross fades the sound of boiling water with a Luigi Nono track, we both see and hear it. During the Copicat scenes with Silvia’s echoes and the headphone assault at the end, it was very important to actually use that Copicat model to create the echoes and feedback. Now and again we cheated and used tape delay on a scream over an oscillator shot, purely because it sounded better.

Berberian Sound Studios

“The people who treated the raw screams knew how to use delay, distortion and other nasty effects”

The production allowed us a lot of time to mix the film. Joakim Sundström was the supervising sound editor, Linda Forsen did dialogue editing, Christer Melen was on track laying and effects, Markus Moll and Doug Cooper were on the mixing desk. To my great regret, I couldn’t attend the foley sessions in Finland, which I guess brings some comparisons with me and the Equestrian Vortex director, Santini.

I knew Joakim from years back. I used to share a house with his girlfriend in 2000. We were both involved in film in our different ways, but I mainly viewed him as that one extra person who’d get into the shower before me in the mornings. Every time Joakim came round in the evenings, I knew I’d have to get up earlier and beat him into the shower. I guess that rivalry is a kind of extended metaphor with directors and supervising sound editors. We usually both have the same idea, and it’s just a question of who says it first to the mixers. It was actually a lot of fun most of the time. Now and again I’d secretly curse if he asked Doug for a mid-sweep a split-second before me. It could get like a game show in that regard, but it kept us all on the ball and I think we barely argued. We have almost identical taste in music and that became a short hand: I could just mention Merzbow and Luc Ferrari and that was all that was needed. Doug’s background in dance music helped in some scenes. All the projection shots have varying degrees of mid-sweep applied to them. I’ve never been conscious of it in a film, but it’s everywhere in dance music. Sweeping the EQ from left to right quite rapidly has this wonderful rasping quality that sucks you in, and we really enjoyed applying these methods from other fields.

The hardest scene to put sound to was Elisa’s headphone torment. Here was a chance for an audience to directly physically endure the same hardship as an onscreen character, but how far can one go with that without permanently damaging someone’s hearing? I was into noise and familiar with bands such as Swans and My Bloody Valentine, but the concert hall has those expectations all set up whereas the cinema doesn’t. Christer and I spent one or two days working on that scene prior to the mix and I certainly had pain in my ears and dull hearing for a few days. It wasn’t so much the volume, (given mass from a distorted food blender), but the high frequencies from that exact Copicat’s feedback. By the time we took it to the mix, we all decided that it just wouldn’t be right to shred people’s ears. It’s loud enough for someone to do that on headphones should they so wish, but when turned up to 7 in the cinema, one should only feel how that sound could destroy the eardrum.

Berberian Sound Studio

“When turned up to 7 in the cinema, one should only feel how that sound could destroy the eardrum.”

Overall, we barely used any traditionally bombastic effects. There was enough sub-bass coming from Sherlock Holmes 2 downstairs in the studio. I was tempted to throw in some sub-bass if only to get back at the production on the floor below us. James kept honing his music up until the last minute and when I could, I tried to feed the film with recordings that had some personal resonance. I recorded my uncle’s mantel clock for one scene as an obscure reference to the man whose inheritance funded Katalin Varga. There are other small details like that, which are only relevant to me, but they do add something to the film.

What is worth emphasising about the soundtrack is that we used whatever means we could to come up with the final sound mix. Both analogue and digital are there and there was never any intention to be purist. Analogue certainly has a visual magic and an inherent discipline to it, but digital is mostly just as good. It’s always a case of use what’s available. My only issue comes with library sound – whether on a hard drive or vinyl. For us, using generic library sound effects worked for some scenes within The Equestrian Vortex simply because that kind of film would’ve used them. But even then, we had so much original material from all the contributors, and Joakim and his team were very good at putting all these disparate jigsaw pieces together.

Of course, no matter how much time you’re given, there’s never enough time. We had a pretty generous amount of time at De Lane Lea to mix, but even if we had a year, I’d still be kicking myself for not trying this or not trying that. It is a process I miss. It’s the most comfortable and exciting part of a film production for me and the sky’s the limit with sound. When you edit, you only have your footage and nothing more. With sound, you can bring in whatever you need at no great cost in terms of time or money. I still idolise the likes of Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Alan Splet for the innovation they brought to filmmaking. We might have enough plugins and sound effects CDs to come up with similar sounds very easily, but that’s missing the point. What those sound designers taught me was how important the process is and not necessarily the results, and that needs time, money and patience. The spirit in which their innovation was brought about is vital now more than ever, when everything is in danger of coming off the shelf.

Berberian Sound Studio is out now on DVD – click here to watch clips and find out more

Click here to buy the film from Amazon

Writer-director Peter Strickland on the process of editing Berberian Sound Studio

In the second part of a three week column, writer-director Peter Strickland shares the process of bringing his second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, to cinemas

Chill your marrow

"It’s the equivalent of a local anaesthetic during an operation. I’d rather be out cold."

The first assembly cut of Berberian Sound Studio felt like a dour, Italian special of Some Mothers Do Have Them. That kind of daft ‘70s humour was always drifting in and out of the script, but we had to think about how one can make the comedy naturally embed itself within the atmospherics. Sound was vital in this process and a hefty amount was arranged prior to the shoot, so we had the luxury of messing around with it in the edit. James Cargill from Broadcast worked concurrently with us on the score and kept feeding me mp3 demos by email. Similarly, we’d show him what we could and it became a back and forth process over several months. Chris Dickens always tries to edit with sound in mind and he’ll go to great lengths to track-lay any extraneous atmospheric noises with music and dialogue. It’s a huge help to work with an editor who takes the trouble to use sound elaborately. The last thing you want is sonic ‘air-pockets’ where sound is left out in places.

The whole edit took around three months. Initially, the film had a five reel structure and we genuinely tried to make each one of these ‘acts’ around twenty minutes, so it could physically function as a 35mm reel for the projectionist. It’s an idea that I was attached to from quite early on when writing the script, but Chris was convinced that it wasn’t immersive enough. I resisted the suggestion to lose the reels for ages, but eventually thought that he might as well try. Chris has seen it all before with that kind of resistance. He’s used to writers clutching his knee, shouting “Don’t do that!” To spare him the knee-clutching, I took a break. That was the only time I left the edit room. I can’t watch someone cutting away like that. It’s the equivalent of a local anaesthetic during an operation. I’d rather be out cold.

I returned to the studio a week later to see something that to my surprise really did work and flowed to the same inner logic I initially envisaged. Part of me misses the more formalist five reel structure, but I would concede that it perhaps bordered on gimmick at the expense of more pertinent things we both wanted an audience to get out of the film. Being fully immersed in an edit, it can be hard to be clear-headed when it comes to embracing or rejecting ideas from colleagues. I need at least a few evenings to reflect upon my reaction to suggestions. Am I agreeing to an idea for the sake of staying in favour? Am I rejecting an idea for the sake of my stubborn ego? They’re both easy traps to fall into and ultimately go against the film you’re making.

Projection

"Our sole concern was to serve the climate of the film"

In general, Chris and I had very similar ideas. Someone recently asked me if it was difficult to cut a relatively slow film with someone who cuts so fast, but I didn’t feel that. Chris adapts himself to the climate of each film he works on and has no ‘one size fits all’ approach. He’s very open to looking at references and understanding what it is about them that can feed into what we’re doing. Slow is not a problem if that’s what the film needs. I really love to let shots breathe if they need that, and not just top and tail around the dialogue or action.

The editing process for us was largely a case of trial and error, just trying things out and it’s incredibly gratifying to have that luxury without the fear of the clock ticking as it does on a shoot. Chris and I spoke a lot about how we saw the film, but always related that to the visceral and emotional impact of some of the key sequences. We never felt the need to theorise as such. Sometimes things can’t be discussed in concrete terms. However, we both knew on an intuitive level when to delve further into a particular atmosphere or just stop if it felt too contrived. There is a danger of using ambiguity as a pose, but conversely, this particular film wouldn’t have lent itself to concrete answers. As long as we left a trail of enough conceptual breadcrumbs throughout the film, there is some kind of anchor for the audience to formulate their own ideas around. Our sole concern was to serve the climate of the film and not get bogged down in ‘this is right, this is wrong’ conversations.

The transition scenes between the studio and the apartment were filmed with the edit in mind. OK, well everything was filmed with the edit in mind, but these shots were made to interconnect scenes and it worked really well. The only problem is we didn’t shoot more basic options to end the scenes, which didn’t give Chris much flexibility to at least try jumbling up these scenes. The way we shot these scenes meant that scene 32 could only follow scene 31 and so on. There are nine of these scenes with transitions going into and out of them, and they’re essential to the interweaving of the film.

Neither Chris nor I approached the film as a narrative. He often referred to the film as if one were caught in the sprockets of a soundtrack. I thought of it as a spell at times. The structure owed a lot to the experimental music that inspired the film. Viewed in that context, it all makes sense – the repetitions, the ambience and even the incongruous scenes. That’s been part of the fabric of that kind of music for decades. Music and sound is really the code for entering the film and we made the connections explicit by either inviting some of the musicians who inspired the film to contribute sounds or we just sampled them.

"I kick myself without fail every time I see clumps of celeriac on sale in the local market."

If you’re going to spend three months in a room with someone, it goes without saying that you need to get on with them. That chemistry between two people is more important than CVs or counting how many awards someone has stashed in their pantry. If you’ve fallen out with someone on a shoot, there are enough other people around you to dilute the tension, but in an edit room or studio, it’s a nightmare if you don’t get on. I’ve had it in the past and it just poisons everything. Even the smell of that person’s aftershave gets your back up years down the line. There is always that apprehension when you work with someone new, but Chris and I passed the time quite pleasantly. Boring for anyone reading this, I know. If I’m going to be alone with someone for months, I want to indulge a little in local gossip or slag off commuters who sit on the aisle seat and dump their bags on the window seat. That kind of idle chat warms me up for the edit each morning and Chris is good at tolerating my nonsense.

Looking back on the film, I can’t help asking myself the same dumb question as I did with my first film: am I happy with it?

Yes and no.

Yes, because the producers and financiers placed a huge amount of faith and trust in the notion that the film had to be made a certain way, and I can look back knowing that the film was done entirely the way it had to be made. I have no regrets over the suggestions I either embraced or rejected.

No, because that’s par for the course. That might come across as smug false modesty, but I think it’s hard to see one’s work as a whole piece. It’s only about moments for me – some brilliant moments that make me very proud and some other moments where it didn’t work out and it’s usually stupid stuff such as hating the parochial wood finish on a door or forgetting to use celeriac for the vegetable shots. These small things come back to haunt you again and again, no matter how insignificant. I kick myself without fail every time I see clumps of celeriac on sale in the local market. Put a macro lens on those things and you’re instantly transported to another realm. That kind of thing makes me want to go back and shoot again. Otherwise I’m very happy.

Berberian Sound Studio is in cinemas 31st August – click here to watch clips and find out more

Writer-director Peter Strickland on the filming of Berberian Sound Studio

In the first part of a three week column, writer-director Peter Strickland shares the process of bringing his second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, to cinemas

Shooting Berberian Sound Studio was a fairly straightforward process, not without its occasional dramas, setbacks and arguments, but the majority of the 24 days on set were a case of being quietly industrious. On my first visit to the empty studio space at Three Mills, I felt as if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Prior to this, I hadn’t even seen a film studio, but I was lucky enough to be flanked by a remarkable crew who had done time as it were in these strange environments. Of course, being an inexperienced director surrounded by an experienced cast and crew can be a mixed blessing. As supportive as my colleagues mostly were, my amateurism was often brought into sharp relief. It’s not necessarily a problem as long as one doesn’t pretend to know everything. Assuming you know the basics of your craft and you’re able to communicate what you need, everyone will be OK with what you don’t know and gradually it all falls into place even if it might be in a haphazard manner.

Probably the hardest thing to work out was how to make all the actors feel comfortable. With my first film, Katalin Varga, the fact that almost all of the actors worked in the same theatre in Transylvania helped in that they all worked in the same way. With Berberian Sound Studio, none of the actors had worked with each other before and one has to quickly adapt to their different needs. One actor might only want to deal with words and emotions at the beginning of a rehearsal whereas another actor might prefer to begin with blocking and where he is in relation to the camera. Combining these different preferences when actors are together is often a case of everyone trying to meet each other half-way. It usually works out, but on days when we were all tired I was relieved just to be shooting rotten marrows. In general, I guess I’m not a big actor’s director. I place huge emphasis on casting and rely on the fact that I’ll trust in the emotional intelligence and talent of the actors that agree to work with me, and so far I’ve been very lucky. To a certain extent, I can let the actors do what they have to do and only offer guidance either if they require it or if they’re interpreting a scene differently from how I imagined. Otherwise I leave them in peace and focus on other things. As atmosphere means almost as much to me as acting, time also has to be devoted to elements that some people might consider a waste of time on set. All these things are down to personal taste, but I’ve always been drawn to watching and making films that are of their own world and have a strong atmosphere, but I would concede that if the acting is not believable, no amount of atmosphere can save a film.

It was a fiddly and detailed process to make the actual sound studio come to life. Jennifer Kernke and her team did a great job of assimilating all the different references I provided. It wasn’t easy recreating that Mediterranean analogue look in London and Daisy Popham, who was responsible for props, probably had the most stressful job on the film sourcing a variety of oscillators, filters, delay units and so on. The vegetables also played a huge part not only in the finished film, but also on set in terms of the stench, which motivated us all to finish on time each day if only for the sake of getting some fresh air outside. The general fuggy air that was artificially created in the studio didn’t help with the methane-like odour emanating from the vegetables. Andy Lowe (gaffer) brought in a machine that could produce enough mist to help enhance the projection light and the general atmosphere. Technically speaking, it was haze rather than mist and to this day, I still try to count the number of times Andy had to politely correct anyone who mistook his haze for mist.

The vegetables were left to rot in a vat and one long trough for ten or so days until they were suitably decomposed. Someone made some Freudian assumption about me based on my obsession with rotten vegetables, which I guess was interesting for a minute or so. Nic Knowland and his focus puller, Tom McFarling did a great job shooting the vegetables. It’s a lot trickier than it looks in terms of focus when you’re panning and tilting at such a close angle.

To save time, we often used a zoom during the shoot instead of prime lenses. The zoom was also an essential piece of exploitation grammar. It’s often labelled as the poor man’s shortcut to dramatic effect and usually it’s associated with allegedly low brow directors such as Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco. Personally, I love the zoom and the compulsive atmosphere it creates. It just needs to be done at the correct speed. When slowed down, it can be wonderfully hypnotic. The camera crew enjoyed moving the camera at a different pace from what most of us are used to in Western cinema and once that rhythm was established early on, it became second nature for everyone on set. Nic and I were both keen to avoid any overt angles and mostly didn’t use any wide lenses. In terms of framing, we both wanted relatively natural, un-staged compositions. The challenge was to make each scene in a limited space look fresh, but without resorting to shots that attract attention to themselves – no overheads, thank you. No wide lenses close to the actors and that kind of stuff. No. I have immense respect for Nic and his work and I felt comfortable enough with him to be spontaneous on set. A certain amount of shots were planned in advance, but often we were happy to find our way during the shoot. The most important thing was to match beginning and end shots for any studio scenes followed by apartment scenes and vice versa, since we would need that flow in the edit according to how I wrote it in the script.

A dramatic technical decision made early on, was to shoot the film digitally with the ARRI Alexa. I was given an allowance of film stock if I chose to shoot on 16mm and I had to weigh that up with the realities of the schedule. There was that to consider, but I also liked the perverse nature of shooting a film about analogue on a digital medium. The Alexa is the first camera for me that is at least acceptable on the big screen. When I was told it only shot in HD compared to the 4K resolution of other digital cameras, I wasn’t so sure. However, when Nic made some tests, both of us were awestruck with how remarkably alive and non-synthetic everything looked. What you don’t get in resolution with the Alexa, you gain in colour calibration. The skin tones look remarkable and that is often where I find digital can let you down with a pasty texture.

Lunch breaks were always a good chance to unwind and talk about more relaxing subjects than the film. I often asked one of the assistants to whisper in my ear what the lunch menu would be on any given day. It’s always good to think about what you’re going to eat later on – it helps concentrate the mind. The menus were usually worth getting excited about and it does help with my mood. When we made a demo reel for Berberian in 2010, the sandwiches were profoundly rubbish, and I remember how it cast a slight dark cloud over how I saw things that day. I was told by someone who worked on a few giallo films in the ‘70s that the food was so great that the crew often spent several hours sleeping it off in the afternoon.

When writing about a shoot, it’s inevitable that you can’t mention everyone. I was lucky in that the entire crew were completely devoted to the project and without their input the film would only exist on paper. And as with Katalin Varga, some great friendships were made. It probably doesn’t get any better than what I experienced. Many people quietly worked away in an office near the studio and amongst other wonders, set a sterling example of instantly reimbursing travel costs – something that the film’s main character would deeply envy. Despite the good memories, it’s a given that any film shoot is not all beer and skittles. Arguments do flare up, but at least on this film the few conflicts reflected the fact that we all cared about doing our best. Nobody threw a fit about the kind of nonsense you hear about on other films.

 

Berberian Sound Studio is in cinemas 31st August – click here to watch clips and find out more