Sound and fury

Kafka meets Ital­ian hor­ror in Peter Strick­land dark new film, con­firm­ing his place within an elite class that in­cludes such left­field­ers as Roeg and Buñuel. He talks to Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

THE SUN­NIER END of the moviev­erse is lit­tered with sto­ries of lit­tle films that could and out­siders made good. There are tal­is­man tales of Robert Ro­driguez, who made his break­through fea­ture El Mari­achi for $7,000, or Kevin Smith, who maxed out his credit cards to pro­duce global hit Clerks.

At first glance, Peter Strick­land fits neatly into this Cin­derella tem­plate. The story of how the young British writer-di­rec­tor turned a small in­her­i­tance into the award-win­ning Tran­syl­va­nian thriller Katalin Varga made head­lines in 2009 when the film played in the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val along­side the works of ma­jor art­house pitch­ers Chen Ki­age, CostaGavras, An­drej Wa­jda and the late Theo An­gelopou­los. It even took home the Sil­ver Bear. More im­pres­sively, Strick­land had set and shot the pic­ture in the Hun­gar­i­anspeak­ing re­gion of Ro­ma­nia, de­spite know­ing lit­tle to none of the lan­guage.

“I made a lot of good friends but it was a real pain,” re­calls Strick­land, who di­rected his be­mused Ro­ma­nian crew in TEFL English. “It’s a weird one be­cause I wouldn’t be here talk­ing to you with­out it. It did pro­pel me for­ward. But it’s not a happy mem­ory. It’s a bit like get­ting an in­sur­ance claim af­ter you’ve injured your­self and you’re ba­si­cally fucked.”

It’s easy to see why the crew might be puz­zled by Strick­land’s an­gu­lar use of shots and fram­ing. Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio, Strick­land’s sopho­more pic­ture, con­firms his place within an elite class of ec­cen­tric, cinelit­er­ate film­mak­ers: a new Nic Roeg or the English Char­lie Kauf­man.

When most young guns of his gen­er­a­tion cite Star Wars or Jaws, Strick­land plumps for the Quay Broth­ers’ un­set­tling stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion, Street of Crocodiles and Per­for­mance. “I wouldn’t dare com­pare my­self to the di­rec­tors I love,” protests the unas­sum­ing film­maker. “Ni­co­las Roeg blew me away when I was younger. I love those strange shots and close ups of his. I love Buñuel too and how caus­tic and sav­age Buñuel is with­out be­ing at all bom­bas­tic.”

Never mind the mod­esty: there’s more than a hint of these film ti­tans about Strick­land’s new film. Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio con­cerns Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an English sound en­gi­neer lately sum­moned to Italy to work on a 1970s Gi­allo pic­ture. The gore of The Eques­trian Vor­tex, the film within the film, re­mains com­pletely off­screen as Gilderoy records and mixes cab­bage stab­bings, wa­ter­melon dis­sec­tions, and over­writ­ten sub­ti­tles: “Sig­nora Col­latina’s sac­ri­fi­cial at­tack is thwarted and the tables

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are bru­tally turned!”

The op­er­atic Ital­ian sub-genre, which did for hor­ror films what Spaghetti Westerns did for cowboys, is noted for its idio­syn­cratic sound de­signs and un­wieldy ti­tles: its quin­tes­sen­tial canon in­cludes Lu­cio Fulci’s Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling, Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Dario Ar­gento’s The Bird with the Crys­tal Plumage. De­con­struct­ing the Gi­allo into a se­ries of sound ef­fects and clunky, Ital­ian di­a­logue of­fered lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties, al­though Ber­be­rian’s tricksy, psy­cho­log­i­cal scares are rather more nat­u­ral­is­tic than any­thing found in the films that in­spired its set­ting.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a hor­ror fan re­ally,” ad­mits Strick­land. “But the Ital­ian Gialli pic­tures were cin­e­matic and oth­er­worldly and had such a unique sound. You just didn’t find that level of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and care any­where else in the world at that time. It was far closer to the stuff com­ing out of the Cologne School and Stock­hausen Stu­dio than any­thing com­ing from cinema. So much of it is com­pletely jar­ring. I played a friend a beau­ti­ful piece of mu­sic re­cently and they had no idea it came from Can­ni­bal Holo­caust. So its a re­ally ex­cit­ing genre to play around with. There’s so much fun to be had. All of the sound in our film is real and diegetic even if the sounds rep­re­sent un­re­al­is­tic things. We didn’t cheat. It’s all real sound. No blood what­so­ever. It was a game. It was like be­ing a kid in a sweet shop.”

As Gilderoy’s ex­pe­ri­ences in Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio turn into a Kafkaesque night­mare, the film turns its strange li­brary of sounds into an in­creas­ingly dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing musique con­crète opera. A light­bulb be­comes a spooky makeshift Theremin; cabbages can sound like bats or be­head­ings. Suf­fice it to say, the film’s gro­cery bill was rather high.

“An em­bar­rass­ing amount of the bud­get went on veg­eta­bles,” notes the Read­ing-born di­rec­tor. “The smell on set was hideous, al­most amus­ingly hideous. We just put them in these troughs and vats and left them so we could shoot 10 days of de­cay­ing veg­eta­bles. Lucky it wasn’t meat. Why didn’t we use more cele­riac when we had the chance?”

It’s tempt­ing to see Ber­be­rian Sound Sys­tem as part of a larger, post-Stere­o­lab vogue for an­gu­lar elec­tron­ica and hauntol­ogy. Since 2005, bou­tique record im­print Trunk Records has gath­ered to­gether a spec­tac­u­lar col­lec­tion of creepy cult sounds of the 1970s, sam­pling mu­sic from Deep Throat, Night of the Liv­ing Dead, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Clangers and the hum­ming, sem­i­nal fre­quen­cies of Ir­ish com­poser Des­mond Les­lie. Else­where, Ju­lian House and Jim Jupp’s Ghost Box Records have turned BBC stock and pub­lic in­for­ma­tion films into the sci-fi sound­scapes of Bel­bury Poly, The Fo­cus Group and The Ad­vi­sory Circle.

“A lot of it is co­in­ci­dence, but there is some­thing in the air,” says Strick­land, who col­lab­o­rated with Ju­lian House on Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio. “There is a re­newed in­ter­est in peo­ple like Basil Kirchin and Ver­non El­liott and Des­mond Les­lie, who re­ally con­form to that idea of the ec­cen­tric work­ing away in their gar­den shed. I started Ber­be­rian as a joke back in 2005, but since then there is more aware­ness of en­gi­neers like Joe Meek and the craft in­volved in ana­logue sound pro­duc­tion. There was a real alchemy about that work. You can see why peo­ple like Joe Meek and Gra­ham Bond even­tu­ally be­came in­volved in black magic and the oc­cult. What they do is like a spell, some­thing ex­pe­ri­en­tial. Be­cause I was aware of Ghost Box, I ap­proached Ju­lian House who had ideas for the film I would never have thought of. He sug­gested that the credit se­quence shouldn’t be for our film but for The Eques­trian Vor­tex. Things like that.”

You don’t have to be a Gi­allo hound or an ana­logue geek to ap­pre­ci­ate Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio. Hence, Mr Strick­land has just been snapped up by Ben Kill List Wheat­ley’s pro­duc­ers and by Film 4 to de­velop two sep­a­rate love sto­ries: “I think I’ve done enough dark stuff to put it aside for a lit­tle while.”

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