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In Writing

Peter Strickland: “It’s possible to start the day with Xenakis or Whitehouse to get in the mood for writing, and finish with Modern Talking”

August 2018

Ahead of two new films In Fabric and The Field Guide To Evil, the UK director and screenwriter speaks to Lara C Cory about working with Stereolab's Tim Gane, and the role of music and sound in his films

Due for release next year, In Fabric is a ghost story that follows a cursed dress from owner to owner. It stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gwendoline Christie, Hayley Squires and Julian Barratt, and is scored by Stereolab’s Tim Gane (under the moniker Cavern Of Anti-Matter). The Field Guide To Evil is an anthology of eight frightening folk tales, put together by Tim League and Ant Timpson (producers of The ABCs Of Death TV horror anthology series). Strickland’s heavily stylised contribution – a short film called The Cobblers’ Lot – tells a silent tale of two brothers vying for the love of a princess and features a score by Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw. The distinctive way Strickland wields music and sound transcends traditional genre tropes, giving his films a special place in international cinema.

Others musicians who have worked with Strickland include pop duo Cat’s Eyes on The Duke Of Burgundy – his 2014 erotic British drama about a woman who studies butterflies and moths – their soundtrack won the duo the European Film Award for Best Composer; and Broadcast, who are credited with composing the music for Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s 2012 homage to the Foley artist.

Strickland also runs the label Peripheral Conserve and is a founder member of the vegetarian food preparation recording outfit The Sonic Catering Band, in which he performs alongside core members Colin Fletcher and Tom Kirby.

Wire contributor Lara C Cory spoke to Strickland on the set of In Fabric.

Lara C Cory: How did you come to work with Cat’s Eyes, members of Beirut, Broadcast and Stereolab? Are they all friends/associates or was there a bit of cold-calling involved?

I’m a fan of them all. I met Roj Stevens on a stag night in 2004, which led to me working with Broadcast. Cat’s Eyes was a cold call through Sasha Nixon. I heard their first album just as we were shooting Berberian Sound Studio and I was blown away. Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes got in touch after I mentioned how much I love A Hawk And A Hacksaw in The Quietus, and we ended up working together on a short film for The Field Guide To Evil.

How did you come to select these musicians for each film? Are you very much involved in the sound/music process, or do you give them plenty of creative freedom?

Broadcast made complete sense for Berberian given that I got into so much music related to the film through them. Cat’s Eyes just seemed right for The Duke. Rachel’s classical background was also a part of that decision; I put on Mozart’s Requiem as a temp track and Rachel came up with something much better that made me completely forget Mozart. Rachel and Faris helped the film enormously. Prior to Broadcast I had never worked with musicians on a film. Up until then, I’d find existing music and work to that. It’s hard to look back on Berberian with a clear head. Trish Keenan died just before shooting and other stuff was going on in my personal life. James Cargill later supplied music and sounds for a radio adaptation of The Stone Tape and they were much happier times. I still hope he’ll release those as an EP or mini-album. I thought what he did for that radio play was extraordinary, as with everything Broadcast did. Broadcast were one of those rare bands whose music was everything I could hope for.

What came first for you: film or music? What life-changing examples shaped your career in film?

Eraserhead at [London’s] Scala Cinema in February 1990 changed my life without question. That was the first non-mainstream film I ever saw and prior to that, I was watching regular stuff at the Odeon in Reading. Timing had a lot to do with it. When you’re 16, a film like Eraserhead just goes straight into your bloodstream and the illicit atmosphere of the Scala cinema played a huge part in that epiphany. If I saw the same film for the first time in my forties on a smartphone, I’m not sure if it would have the same impact.

Music is more complicated as I got into it a year or so later than film, but I also had a bizarre experience seeing Japan at [London] Hammersmith in 1982 thanks to an adventurous babysitter. I was only nine and couldn’t get over the shock of all these androgynous David Sylvian lookalikes putting their feet on seats. I remember my babysitter reassuring me that David Sylvian would never put his feet on a seat. I didn’t listen to music much after that concert. I was aware of bands such as The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cure or Joy Division, as they had a large following at school. I was content enough with the likes of Glenn Medeiros and didn’t gravitate towards anything different until I left school.

After Japan, the next band I saw was Nirvana in 1991 at Reading Festival on a Friday afternoon, but only because I wanted to get down the front in time to spot the drummer from Chapterhouse, who was two years above me at school. I’d never heard of Nirvana and at the time they were just a band to get through until Chapterhouse came on. Things really changed when I saw My Bloody Valentine later that year at Reading University. That concert got under my skin the same way Eraserhead did. You can revisit old concerts on YouTube but you can only vaguely attempt to watch and listen with the same state of mind you were in at the time. I’m not referring to drugs, but merely that influential age when there’s an alchemical power to several things one experiences.

Because of Berberian Sound Studio, I was offered a few horror films, but nothing was of interest. Horror at its best has so much going for it in terms of atmosphere, staging, music and dream logic. That’s the main appeal of them for me. Some of the most startling psychedelic or dream-like moments in cinema can often be found in horror, but my knowledge has always been patchy and I usually gravitated towards the more atmospheric films from the 1960s or 1970s. The only contemporary film makers working with horror I can think of who are doing something really transformative are Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. I haven’t really seen much horror recently beyond that and coming to think of it, I don’t see much of anything. When you’ve been writing or doing other film work all day, you’re too tired after work to put on Chantal Akerman or Straub-Huillet films. It’s a nice idea, but the reality is more likely to be an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The only recent discovery has been Wakefield Poole’s 1970s gay porn films. His film Bijou is miraculously underground and unlike anything else. One of those films you can drift off to and the whole experience is even more enhanced.

Can you tell me how you use music/sound during the creative processes of film making?

I often listen to music to get in the mood or, more precisely, erase distracting thoughts. I also listen to a lot of comfort music when checking or formatting a script. It's quite a boring process and you need something familiar and upbeat to keep you going. It’s possible to start the day with Xenakis or Whitehouse to get in the mood for writing and finish with Modern Talking just to get through the housekeeping process that all writing requires. However, it’s often best to avoid music. Once I feel I can start writing, silence works best, especially for dialogue. Music has helped shape a few non-dialogue scenes in my films. There’s a scene from In Fabric that completely formed from listening to an old Ennio Morricone track again and again, but thankfully, Tim Gane’s music for that scene is completely different and one of my favourite pieces by him.

With Berberian Sound Studio’s narrative hinging on foley and sound effects, and with the unusual sonic layers of whispering, fluttering and field recordings in The Duke Of Burgundy (2014); sound design plays an important role in your films. Can you tell me about the sound/music palette you used while working on In Fabric?

I'm not at liberty to talk too much about In Fabric at this stage, but one of the biggest influences on me recently was the realisation that I was prone to an autonomous sensory meridian response to certain sounds. I only found out a few years ago and it completely changed the way I thought about a lot of the music I loved. My response to the likes of Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Costin Miereanu, Nurse With Wound and others was more visceral than intellectual, yet the ‘difficult’ or inquisitive nature of that kind of music or sound seemed to demand some kind of explanation from the listener, which made me feel as if I was missing out on something regardless of how gratifying I found the music. I was asked by the radio producer Russell Finch if I was familiar with this thing called ASMR, which might explain the whispering in my films and my fondness for the names mentioned above. I had no idea there was such a thing as a sonic condition and when I read more about it, it threw some of my work into context and made everything connect. There was a naive and unknowing use of sound prior to this realisation, and the problem now is that I know what I’m doing when I incorporate certain sounds in a film, which is often not a good idea. Like all good kinks, some of the joy and mystery evaporates once you put a name to it.

As for music, I feel I can unglue myself from influences more and more with each film. Musical references are still discussed with musicians, but the focus is more on mood, tempo and instruments than aping any chord progressions or merely trying to sound like a temp track. At the beginning, I was very focused on temp tracks, but it’s a blind alley and I learnt how important it is to let musicians lead and take things in a different direction. You can be there as a director to guide the process, but I’d say that freedom is the most valuable gift a musician needs when working with a director.

How did Tim Gane writing the score for In Fabric come about?

I was a fan of Stereolab and so much of the music I fell in love with was because of their recommendations whenever they were interviewed. Using Steven Stapleton’s music in my first film indirectly came about from first hearing Nurse With Wound on the joint Crumb Duck release with Stereolab. Stereolab were a whole world, what with their championing of other bands through their Duophonic label.

I approached Tim in 2014 to put out a Cavern of Anti-Matter single, a very small run of 500 records, it was my 24th release on the label (Peripheral Conserve). After meeting and talking about film it made complete sense to ask him if he would do something. That was unusual in that I didn’t have any specific project in mind. Tim sent me some very long demos to help me write, he implicitly understood that longer tracks are more conducive to writing. Elements of some of those demos worked their way into In Fabric. It was a luxury to work that way, usually, musicians are only approached after writing, but the producer Andy Starke risked some money on letting Tim try out some demos.

The Field Guide To Evil screens at London’s FrightFest this month.

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