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Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio

We chat to the British director about Catholicism and ambiguous cinema

Locked in a dark room surrounded by reams of tape, English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) composes deathly gargles, screams, slashes and witches ceremonies to accompany the bloodiest B-movies of 1960s Italy. While the timid engineer copes with rivers of gore and claustrophobia, he’s also trapped amongst all the vulgarities of office politics; bullying, extreme chauvinism and corruption. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a totally immersive and endlessly rewarding piece of cinema - sharing much with David Lynch at his most dramatic; in its colour, eccentricity and threats of solipsism. Dazed Digital had an aptly weird chat with the British director about pagan machinery, ambiguity and Catholicism.

Dazed Digital: Did you see Gilderoy as a quintessentially British character?
Peter Strickland: There is that very British element that comes with the garden shed eccentric going back to Oliver Postgate and Vernon Elliott, they did the Clangers together, then you go back to Joe Meek. The process of tape, the process of alchemy, by concrete methods you’re transforming everyday sounds. Not only that, but all the tape boxes back then had these very pagan symbols, if you look at them, you’re spending too much time in the studio, you can see why Joe Meek just went berserk, he turned to the occult. With digital, people don’t turn to the occult anymore. 

DD: Does this feed the idea of an engineer being locked away with witches?
Peter Strickland:There’s nothing concrete, but it’s something you can dwell on. The whole film is constructed like a meditation; there is a spell like nature to the structure, but for Gilderoy to hear these prayers again and again and again, especially Catholic prayers to a Protestant; Catholicism is much more visceral in terms of how they use language compared to the Protestants.

DD: The film has a very neat premise, was the idea quite immediate?
Peter Strickland: It happened quite naturally. It sounds pretentious, but usually these things just come to you. I find when I try to fish out ideas it just doesn’t work. What was difficult about this was the atmosphere and all the intricacies and the layers of it.

DD: How would you describe your artistic approach to Berberian?
Peter Strickland: For me, if you approach the film not as a narrative but as you would a piece of music, or a spell almost, something to be experienced, it’s just something sensory, it’s visceral, it’s just on that level, that is how I get off on the film. In the repetitions sequence when the film eats its own tail, I wanted to have more than one possibility. So one of the reasons you shouldn’t say exactly what’s on your mind is someone could come along and see something else and you think ‘oh my god I didn’t think of that!’

Are you in the space between what the artist wants to show and the spurious idea of the death of the artist?
Peter Strickland: It’s a very fine line. I think you know intuitively when you’re willing it, when you’re being contrived. I think as soon as you realise you’re doing ambiguity for pose, you need to put the pen down and stop it. These things don’t have to make sense, but you feel them on a gut level. It’s all about serving the climate of what you’re doing.

Berberian Sound Studio is in cinemas from 31 August 2012