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
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.
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.
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.