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