Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland on vegetable gore and the horror of sound
A few days before his movie Berberian Sound Studio opened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a newspaper story in Britain quoted director Peter Strickland as saying that he was delighted his countrymen were making “crowd-pleasing movies,” but he had no interest in doing the same.
Strickland laughed in a one-on-one interview in a downtown Toronto office when the Straight mentioned the story, “You know what it’s like. You do the interview and you just say something at the very end and it ends up as the headline.”
That said, he was happy to expand on his feelings about making films for the masses. “I think, for me, you just do what’s interesting," he said. "So I think part of the thing is that’s not the purpose of making a film, it’s just going with your gut instinct.”
Strickland’s gut instinct for Berberian Sound Studio (playing at the Vancity Theatre through Thursday) was to explore his passions for foley sound effects and Italian horror movies in his quirky film about a British soundman who makes a movie in Italy and ends up involved in... something strange...
“I think it’s like being in a candy store when you get a few months in a sound studio to do a film,” said Strickland. And he enjoys that candy so much that he formed a band in 1996, the Sonic Catering Band, to explore sounds most people wouldn’t think of as music.
"We started in 1996, so 15 years now I guess, recording a meal," he began. "Just recording the cooking of a meal. So you know the boiling, the frying, the chopping and just taking those sound and treating them, really layering them, multi-tracking them, putting them through reverb and so on and making I guess what Alan Splet did with Eraserhead. Not as well as what Alan Splet was doing, but he was taking industrial sound and making these atmospheres from it. And that always fascinated me, how people take that sound outside, you know, the engine, everything around you and just to emphasize it more. And how to make the ordinary sound extraordinary.”
That same fascination with sound is at the core of his new movie. “A lot of it is just about displacement, taking a very domestic, everyday sound from the kitchen. But once you put it on a record, there’s a completely different resonance. And I guess Berberian is a little similar to that, that, you know, you have the sound of smashing vegetables, the sound of vegetables being smashed, but as soon as you put the context of horror, it’s all about association. It’s all very weird what it does to your head. The sound of a cabbage being stabbed; you hear it all the time in the kitchen, but because of the film, it really screws with you somehow.”
Strickland’s passion for old-style audio is obvious when he raves about the art of foley and the artists who create sound with everyday objects. “It’s a great art form. And it requires so much skill to get it right on that second. I mean, yeah, anyone can smash a watermelon, but to do it in time to the image, the emphasis... it’s fantastic.”
As for finding a headline in his final quote, the Straight’s last question to Strickland was more of a comment about how his movie plays like a classic horror film, even though it’s not technically horror. He subsequently claimed, “it’s just about work and the hierarchy of the office.”
But the horror comment scored a smile from Strickland. “I’m glad you say that, because when I wrote it, it was very important to have these rules about no blood, no murder, but still follow that dynamic of a horror film; those highs, those lows. I guess it’s not scary, but still we wanted that unsettling nature. But it was an exercise in how to do that with only sound and not give in to a temptation of having blood. I mean our gore shots are the vegetable shots...”
There are still two nights left to catch the Newt-approved Berberian Sound Studio at the Vancity Theatre (August 14 to 15)