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.