What Dissonant Sound Looks Like
By MEKADO MURPHY
Published: June 7, 2013
No people were harmed in the making of “Berberian Sound Studio,”but fruits and vegetables didn’t fare too well.
In this British thriller, a sound engineer, Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones), arrives for his first day at an Italian studio unsure of what kind of movie he will be working on. Then footage of a brutal attack is unspooled for him. But as that plays, the viewers’ eyes are directed to a table with a microphone, on which two men create the sound of the attack by using machetes and hammers on melons. Gilderoy realizes that he, too, will soon be laying waste to various forms of produce in the service of movie art.
While films about the filmmaking process are abundant, most make directors, actors or screenwriters their central characters. Far fewer have set their sights on below-the-line talent like editors or costume designers.
“Berberian Sound Studio,” in theaters and on demand starting on Friday, is one of a handful that put sound work in the spotlight, and in a variation of the axiom “Write what you know,” more than one arose from a filmmaker’s own experiences behind the scenes. Probably the best known is “Blow Out,” from Brian De Palma, but they also include Wim Wenders’s “Lisbon Story,” from 1994, which follows a sound engineer around Portugal, and American indies like “Soundman” (1998), in which a sound mixer’s obsession with a violinist leads to violence, and “Nobody Walks,” from last year, about disruptions in a sound designer’s family life.
A person holding a microphone or sitting at a mixing board adjusting faders may not at first seem like the most compelling cinematic subject. The challenge is supplying creative visuals to illuminate characters focused on the aural.
“Berberian Sound Studio” takes an unconventional approach, keeping its film within a film off screen. Directed by Peter Strickland, “Berberian” is set in the ’70s, during the boom in Italian giallo (thrillers, mysteries and horror films). Its characters are working on a horror picture called “The Equestrian Vortex,” which has no shortage of shocking imagery. But the only moment the audience sees is its opening credit sequence. The camera instead finds other elements like actresses in sound booths recording their screams, the light from the movie screen flickering on their faces.
As the movie explores the dire psychological effect those images have on Gilderoy, Mr. Strickland looked for dissonant, visceral ways to illuminate the sound production process. “If you take this very ridiculous image of grown men smashing watermelons, but couple that with very repellent violence,” he said by phone from London, “when you’re watching it, you think: ‘Should I laugh? Should I walk out?’ It’s quite disorienting.”
In addition to watermelon and cabbage stabbings, the film devotes considerable time to quieter aspects of a sound engineer’s job: spooling tape, looking at dubbing charts (a kind of sound storyboard) and keenly, and attentively, listening. Mr. Jones said that last action was crucial to his performance.
“In any role, your listening is important,” Mr. Jones said by phone from London. “But what I found useful was to try and register, so that an audience could see it, shifts in my body, shifts in my breathing. The change the character undergoes is so gradual and, in a way, like a dimmer switch, even though the things he’s seeing and hearing are so extreme. I learned to trust the power of working on a very small spectrum.”
Working on a larger spectrum was John Travolta, who played a sound recordist for B-horror movies who accidentally records the murder of a presidential hopeful in Mr. De Palma’s 1981 thriller, “Blow Out.” Mr. De Palma, known for his focus on visual style, drew from his own experience with a sound editor.
“When I was mixing ‘Dressed to Kill,’ ” — his “Psycho” pastiche from 1980 — “I was working with sound effects editor Dan Sable, who had done a bunch of movies for me,” Mr. De Palma said by phone. “We were looking for an effect. We had some wind in the trees, and I heard the effect he used and said: ‘Dan, I’ve heard that same wind effect in the last three movies. Can’t you get me some new sound?’ ” (They both laughed; the next day Mr. Sable went out to record some new wind.) Mr. De Palma wrote a scene in “Blow Out” that is taken almost directly from this exchange.
While the film involves a serial killer and features elaborately staged action sequences, Mr. De Palma makes time for detailed moments that explore his main character’s work. In a crucial scene, he syncs his recording to film images of the same event. “I did this as an editor, and sound editors do it, but I don’t think anybody had ever seen the process,” he said.
The whirring reels, large recording equipment and rolls of audiotape seen in “Blow Out” and “Berberian Sound Studio” are artifacts of the pre-digital filmmaking eras in which these movies take place. The imposing hardware, as well as the sounds it produces, plays a supporting role, too. Joakim Sundström, the supervising sound editor for “Berberian,” said that his team used digital equipment but he gave the sound a retro feel.
“What I did was take the majority of sounds that were in the film and I retransferred them onto magnetic tape and quarter-inch tape,” Mr. Sundström said.
“Nobody Walks,” by contrast, puts a sound man in a more contemporary setting. In that 2012 film from Ry Russo-Young, John Krasinski plays a sound designer helping a young artist (Olivia Thirlby) with the sound mix on her art film, a collaboration that leads to an affair.
“From my own experience of working on films with editors and in the creative fields, you’re sitting in a dark room with somebody into the night, working relentless hours,” Ms. Russo-Young said by phone. “There’s an intimacy there, and that was one of the things I was interested in exploring.”
Then again, sound itself could serve as a metaphor for that intimacy.
(This film will be getting its Cincinnati premiere at 7:30 p.m., Saturday June 29, as the centerpiece of Mindbenders: Far-Out Films, a series being presented at Art Academy of Cincinnati. Discounted advance tickets ($8.75) are available through the Pay Pal button on this site.)