Bright Lights Film Journal

Portrait of a Soundscapist: An Interview with Peter Strickland

“I had to allow time to let experience ferment inside me, and by then you forget whether what you went through was useful or not!”

Peter Stickland came to the immediate attention of the European film community after his Katalin Varga won a Silver Bear in the category of Outstanding Artistic Contribution for sound design (Gábor Erdély and Tamás Székely) at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival, where he competed with the elite of international film community including Wajda, Tavernier, Frears, and Ozon. Other prestigious awards, like the European Discovery of the Year at the European Film Awards,followed, and so did invitations to festivals all around the world. Strickland also appeared on the cover of Sight and Sound. Not that “fame” and the numerous public and media appearances distracted him from artistic projects, but this spring (2010) he has started effective preparations for his second feature film with the working title “Berberian Sound Studio,” a project that promises further experimentation with aural/visual textures and will surely appeal to audiences with a musical taste for Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio/Cathy Berberian, and the Bohman Brothers, among others.

Recognition for Strickland came after almost two decades of involvement with small-scale filmmaking and music recording: mainly short films and sonic atmospheres mixing electronic and acoustic music. Strickland came to his present success along an unpaved road, often finding himself in soul-destroying jobs to support artistic pursuits, taking financial risks, moving between countries and cultures of Europe. He is clearly not the only person to have come the rough way, but few have managed to preserve such resolve and openness to the world, and the ability to turn failures and bitterness into intellectual self-exploration. Katalin Varga is a powerful film of exquisite psychological realism exactly because it follows characters on the paths of self-exploration, at the end of which one does not necessarily become a better, happier, or wealthier person, just a human being with a certain integrity. The interview that follows hopefully shows that Peter Strickland is such a person.

This interview took place in mid-January 2010, at Eger, Hungary.

You are from Reading, a town everyone remembers — as you have said in an interview — for being the place where Oscar Wilde was thrown in prison. As for Wilde, he pursued a cult of beauty in a Victorian society that had its own cult of discipline, even self-denial. Filmmaking surely requires a lot of discipline, yet it is passion that brings the screen to life. Are you a disciplined or more of a passionate person?

I’m half-Greek, so maybe I have the passion. Passion made me run into this project without thinking, and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in debt with an unfinished film. Then you need discipline to get out of the mess your passion has created.

There is this stereotypical approach to the British that they are unpassionate. According to you, who are those British directors who prove this preconception false?

Derek Jarman. I would imagine that would have been partly to do with his homosexuality. There was a huge fight for the kind of rights gay people take for granted now in the UK. I remember reading newspapers in the mid-’80s making scandals because of gay politicians. It has only been in the last twenty years that we have eliminated mass homophobia. Jarman’s early films had so much anger and venom. Jubilee is quite a bad film, but I respect it because it’s just like this spitting cobra, all reared-up and ready to strike at anyone.

The British can lack passion. It’s there, locked deep inside, and that’s the problem. We can be so repressed and whatever is lurking inside can come out in some unpleasant ways, especially with the help of alcohol. There is a colossal difference between a British drunk and a Greek drunk.

What traditions of British cinema do you feel close to?

No traditions as such. It was mainly a few individuals that usually were very un-British in their style: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Nicolas Roeg, and the Brothers Quay. However, I’m discovering unearthed films all the time because of these amazing DVD labels, such as the BFI and Eureka! Masters of Cinema. I’ve recently heard so much about two British ’70s films — Grey Gardens and The Moon and the Sledgehammer.

After Jarman’s death and Greenaway’s departure into the digital esoteric, I felt there was no one to turn to in British cinema. I never liked Mike Leigh’s films and even though Ken Loach is very good, to me it’s just TV drama. When Guy Ritchie and his legion of followers came along, I lost all faith in doing anything interesting. Recently it’s been getting better and a whole new generation of people are making quite magical work.

What are the things that British cinema does better in comparison to other cinemas?

Business. British film people pay on time. In the rest of Europe, you have to growl like a dog for months until you see the money you are owed. Otherwise I don’t think the British do anything better.

You seem to have an appreciation for European art cinema and American experimental, avant-garde cinema. How did your taste develop through the years?

The repertory cinemas in London were amazing in the ’90s. The Scala cinema in particular had such a schizophrenic programme of films. One minute, you’d be watching exploitation or sleazy Euro porn and then it would be Tarkovsky or Fassbinder. I grew up with that way of seeing the film world from the age of 16, so I saw little distinction between high art and low art or mainstream and underground. It was all there to cook with, and the question was to develop a sensibility or intuition to know how far to go with that.

I never saw the avant-garde as an end in itself. It can energise traditional filmmaking without necessarily suffering some kind of “crossover.” Music has done this so much more effectively: from the formalism of John Cage and LaMonte Young elevating the low-life paeans of the Velvet Underground to Glenn Branca’s modern classical music reinforcing rock n’ roll through Sonic Youth.

It is interesting that experimental filmmaking since the early sixties has been flourishing in the U.S. while there are hardly any acclaimed directors in Britain. I can only think of Peter Gidal, Malcolm LeGrice, and Sally Potter, all associated with the London Film-Makers’ Co-op. Why is that, do you think?

The U.S. tradition was definitely stronger and I don’t think it has anything to do with money. Very hard to say why. Perhaps some things are just in the genes. Those films blew me away — Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson, the Whitney Brothers, Tony Conrad, and Kenneth Anger. So many of their films offer pure rapture and transcend the forbidding academic rigour that surrounds them. I wasn’t so into some of the kitsch stuff, like Jack Smith or the Kuchars. When Paul Morrissey took over from Warhol, he injected the formalism and transgression that Warhol was known for with something very human and entertaining. His Heat, Trash, and Flesh trilogy is genius. I saw quite a few of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op films and I found them so dry and academic. They just lacked that other-worldly quality that I need in order to enter a film.

You have been living in Hungary for some time now. Why did you choose this country, furthermore did relocating to a new culture raise problems of adaptation?

I have a Hungarian girlfriend. That’s the main reason. I never really immersed myself in Hungary because I have always been moving back and forth. I also lived in Slovakia for a few years. It always is a problem adapting to a new culture. I’ve become familiar with the various stages: first love, then you become disillusioned and start hating everything, and then comes acceptance. You quickly start to recognise what works better or worse than the cultures you’re familiar with. I never really had a fixed cultural identity because I grew up in an English and Greek family, so in a way, it’s easier to adapt. However, it’s still difficult. I’ll never find a utopian country. If only you could take the best bits out of Hungary, the UK, Greece and put it into a new country and just leave all the shit behind.

How did developing a multicultural identity affect your advancement into a filmmaker?

Very difficult to answer. I certainly know that despite the fact that London is a very multicultural city, my friends and I were very insular and had little knowledge of the wider continent. Several years on, I’ve experienced and learnt a huge amount, but I don’t know if that has informed my work or not. I absorbed so much by watching films by Herzog, Tarkovsky, and Paradjanov in my teens and my “eye” comes from those days. It’s not a very romantic thing to say, but for many filmmakers, our sensibility develops from what we see on the screen and not always from what we experience. It’s very hard to say how different Katalin Varga would be, had I come over to film it straight from the UK. I would argue that the notion of travel/experience being artistically beneficial is perhaps overrated. Experience itself means nothing unless you are able to process it and use it. However, saying this, the mistakes I made in the past were to write too directly from experience and it always failed. I had to allow time to let experience ferment inside me, and by then you forget whether what you went through was useful or not!

The best arguments for multicultural experience or identity affecting artistic advancement would be to go back several centuries and look at writers who would have been unable to travel.

Based on Katalin Varga (2009), it is clear that you like to see things — in this case the motif of revenge and redemption — in a complex rather than black and white manner. Does this relativism arise from the previously mentioned cultural status and apply to your general perception of the world?

I wish it would apply to everyone’s perception of the world. The only realism I strived for in that film was in terms of morality, to show how precarious, amorphous, and subjective morality is.

Revenge narratives populate European, just as any other culture. From Medea to Captain Ahab, from Hamlet to Frankenstein, our most precious literary characters are all caught up in acts of vengeance. Cinema is no different. Films like Godfather (1972) or Kill Bill (2003-2004), A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Memento (2000) all make revenge their central motif. How does the “culture of revenge” work in such a god-forsaken place where you shot Katalin Varga?

What I find so ironic is how Transylvania is not god-forsaken at all. I know that I am presenting a god-forsaken world, but it’s a very civilised and dignified place. Money is scarce in Transylvania, but people don’t use that as an excuse for socially unacceptable behaviour, as in the UK.

Have you seen Bollók Csaba’s Iska’s Journey (2007), also shot in Transylvania, in a small mining village? Whereas your approach to rural life strongly relies on folklore and seeks aesthetic perfection, Csaba uses documentary techniques close to those of visual anthropology. Would it be a mistake to suggest that the two are not contradictory?

Contradictory approaches to narrative can certainly work within one film, but Katalin Varga needed to breathe a different air from what is actually there in Transylvania, and thus realism or documentary techniques wouldn’t have worked in my hands. The whole film is steeped in artifice. It’s closer to opera than film. Janacek was more of an influence on me than Béla Tarr or any other contemporary Hungarian filmmakers. Katalin Varga takes the mere skeletons or vestiges of certain Hungarian tropes, such as the ballad, but that’s reframed in something very flamboyant and un-Hungarian. Even the title pays tribute to Janacek — Katya Kabanova. Part of this thinking arose from the fact that I am not from Hungary or Transylvania. This is not in my blood. No matter how authentic I try to be, I will never be authentic. So let’s forget this and focus on the most effective means of taking a story from a very specific culture and make it speak to the world. But do not try to cross over. That was the balance — to concentrate this intensity, but give it a universal voice.

Even the names of the villages in Katalin Varga are fake. The birdsong is not from Transylvania, it’s from Africa and Hungary. Part of this need for artifice comes from my love of Powell and Pressburger. The irony is not lost on me that Pressburger was Hungarian. Their films really emphasise artifice, but they still resonate some kind of truth.

I really liked Iska’s Journey, and it reminded me of Paul Morrissey’s early work with the Factory. It had that same rough quality as Heat, and it’s not an easy thing to do. A very good film. Hungarians do have a talent for making great films. Satantango by Tarr and Szindbad by Huszárik Zoltán are works of genius. Now I feel that too many clichés are being used — the long take, meaningful looks, and no talking, no music, etc. That’s the frustrating thing — that whatever seems beautiful or radical at the beginning ends up as a cliché after a few years. It’s almost pointless trying to be original. The best we can aim for is to serve the story and atmosphere we want to create whether we employ clichés or not.

You film a lot of landscapes; some of the compositions remind me of the British landscape tradition. Is this analogy a forced one?

I think certain things just seeped into my subconscious. What’s strange about doing an interview four years after shooting a film is that hindsight can fool you into thinking certain decisions were premeditated, when actually we were just acting on intuition and urgency. However, that intuition has its roots. Since I have always been torn between natural history and cinema, this film felt like the perfect synthesis of my two passions. I certainly admired British landscape painters such as John Constable, but also the landscape gardener Capability Brown and the natural historian Gilbert White. Maybe I had this in the back of my mind when shooting. Maybe not. Mark Gyori (the cameraman) joked that you can’t go wrong in Transylvania. Everywhere you look, you have a ready-made composition.

I think we would do things differently now. Only in editing did we get a feel for what was really working. I like the wide shots that definitely have a Thomas Hardy feel — again, in hindsight. However, what I really responded to was the detail with textures — the cloth on the bed, the wood and the bucket coming out of the well. There’s a musician named Phill Niblock who made some films called The Movement of People Working, and he films people working in the fields and focuses on very repetitive hand actions in close-up and it’s extraordinary. Your first instinct is to feel pity because this work is so monotonous, but because of the texture and repetition, it takes on this alchemical, hypnotic feel. You feel almost guilty for enjoying it. What is so interesting is that these movements are normally left out of a film. Characters are normally not shown working. That is deemed irrelevant in narrative, but most of our life is spent doing repetitive hand work — even if it’s writing, and if you focus on that, you do get a sense of an inner life, which is where the fascination is. I digressed a little from the point about landscape.

The mentality of a natural historian is very different from that of a filmmaker or artist. If I’m in a landscape with my natural historian head, I view it very strategically. A landscape is not appreciated for its overall beauty, but for what it can reveal in each quarter. If I see dry, stony walls, I instantly know I’ll find certain types of reptile there. If I’m in a coniferous forest, I know what birds I’m likely to find, etc. It’s a very methodical way of thinking — all geared towards finding things instead of merely accepting scenery for what it is. When shooting Katalin Varga with Gyori Mark, we viewed landscape in its totality and were in acceptance mode. However, there has always been that slight antagonism between my two modes of viewing landscape. I took natural history very seriously and thought it could be a backup career if I failed in filmmaking. However, I failed my chemistry exam — a huge disaster. Maybe it was for the best.

Yours is a film of delicate soundscapes and landscapes: an aural vision of human passion. You shoot a lot of action outdoors, on the wide fields and in the thick of the forest, yet human presence is more conveyed by the eerie music, as if sounds were able to express things that characters cannot yet or no longer verbalise. Did you always want to make sounds/music your “main character”?

I learnt from the age of 16 that you could convey an inner world after hearing Alan Splet’s sound design on Eraserhead. I also soon realised that it’s rare to find film people who are also music people or vice versa. It’s so strange — you could meet someone into Feher Gyorgy or Béla Tarr, but they listen to very middle-of-the-road music. So I was aware of this unexplored niche in terms of informing film with a whole new world of sonic ideas. Hearing is a far more active human sense than sight. As a filmmaker, your potential to ignite an audience’s imagination is far greater through using sound. With images, most of the work is done for us, but with sound, you´re filling in the gaps and that is very exciting and provocative for an audience. Sound also offers the spatial dimension that the image can’t always do. Bresson gave us a whole outside world in A Man Escaped, and we yearn for it even more since we’re trapped inside a cell.

You are also involved in a band called The Sonic Catering Band. How does your work as a musician affect the filmmaker in you?

I didn’t realise how essential our sonic catering work was until we started getting positive reactions about the Katalin Varga soundtrack. We had been making these kinds of soundscapes since 1996. We used natural source sounds a lot, but restricted it to only culinary-related activity. When these sounds are just on record, people dismiss it as unlistenable noise, but when you do the same on film, it finds acceptance. For me, after 12 years of working like this with sound, it felt normal to do what we did with the Katalin Varga soundtrack. That became my way of working and without much conscious thought. At the beginning, we were slaves to technology because we were so in awe of it. We essentially hid behind effects because we didn’t have the confidence to let our source sounds reveal themselves. By drenching your source sounds in effects, you are defeating the purpose of what you’re doing and you also date the work. Most people with an appreciation of music can guess the date of a particular track by its effects. If you want a date stamp on your work, then fine, but we wanted to transcend that. The first time you see a studio, you just go crazy, but then you start to realise that you get more results by not using every effect. We kind of had to get rid of our enthusiasm and strip down our sound to just a few effects, and the real work involves editing, volume, layering, and positioning. All this really helped by the time we got to Katalin Varga. I was even putting out entomological records before, but we hardly sold anything. However, it all went towards the Katalin Varga soundtrack. The soundtrack took many years to complete. I started in 2004 with a sound recordist named Clive Graham. We collected a few basic sounds to start with — crickets and goat bells. These sounds were edited and multi-tracked and put aside. I took music from my record collection and asked friends to contribute sounds. Some of the “music” isn’t even music. One track, “Ciconia” by Nurse with Wound, is just massed birdsong, and the audience mistook it for sound design. After several false starts, I took all the material to Gyorgy Kovacs, Gábor Erdély, and Tamás Székely. We spent one month positioning all the sounds and giving them a final polish.

In a previous interview you recall someone from the film industry saying “you are only a filmmaker if people pay money for your films.” You not only prove him wrong but suggest that amateurism is sometime more professional than big-budget cinema. Do you see a new era approaching the history of cinema?

The notion of “the amateur” is something very romantic. It has that spirit of the underdog that is very attractive, but it also means that you are motivated by your obsessions and not by money. The amateur is obsessed and in love. I never trusted people who called themselves professionals, and often I was proved right. From my little experience of the film industry in Eastern Europe, I noticed how people constantly need to define themselves as professional as if it were an end in itself — a status, and not a means to doing interesting work. Part of being an amateur is embracing failure and working with that to produce something. I failed for more than a decade, but I don’t regret anything. People always call themselves “professional” and I find it such a soulless label. We were totally ignored by the establishment, so it was almost an act of rebellion for us to say “Fuck you, we’re amateurs.” I know that that word is a pejorative in Hungary, but for me, “professional” is a pejorative.

As for a new era, there seems to be one every year because of digital technology. It’s at once very liberating and unsettling. All of us are grappling with new horizons, and for every new horizon there is a new threat. The emphasis of struggle has shifted from ‘how do I get the film made?” to “how do I get the film seen?” There is a saturation of films out there. Digital has completely democratised the production end of the market, so the hierarchy is slowly evaporating, which is great. However, that hierarchy just shifts to the distribution end of the market because that’s where everyone is competing now. Output has increased, and with that, the audiences are more dispersed. Unless you’re rich, you can’t ignore that threat AND also the fact that many people download films. If filmmakers have the time to make films as a hobby, then this is the best time to do it. But the question remains: how will their work be seen? And from the audience’s point of view — the average person doesn’t have the time or money to go trawl through the internet or go to festivals to find the next hidden gem of a film, so the “middle man” end of the industry — the sales agents, distributors, publicists, exhibitors, and critics — are having more power than the studios or state funders that are in production. Pros and cons! A whole book needs to be written about this, but this is my best attempt at an answer.

Who are those young British filmmakers you feel spiritually close to?

There are filmmakers of my generation that I like — Gideon Koppel, Christine Molloy, and Joe Lawler. However, I don’t feel spiritually close to them.

Katalin Varga must have opened a few doors in the film industry. Do you plan on working in Britain in the future?

My next film does involve me moving back to the UK because I am working with a UK producer, Keith Griffiths, and also with the UK Film Council. Beyond this, I don’t know. All these things depend on the project and any funds available.