Interview with Director Peter Strickland

After astounding audiences with his tribute to giallo and foleying two years ago in Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland returns to Vanguard this year with The Duke Of Burgundy, a film about the relationship between two women with conflicting desires and a shared interest in lepidoptery and entomology. Strickland was kind enough to answer a few questions. In this short interview, he talks about sound, the pressure to put on a persona, pheromonal perfume and mole crickets. ~ Carol Borden

Sound design played an integral role in Berberian Sound Studio and plays one again in The Duke Of Burgundy. What interests you about sound design and soundtracks in film, and how did you come to use insect sounds for The Duke Of Burgundy

There was a conscious effort to do something rigorous and defined for the sound design in Berberian Sound Studio. That approach would’ve felt frivolous had we done it for The Duke of Burgundy. Martin Pavey stripped a lot back for the sound mix. We probably put more time and thought into taking sounds away than in constructing anything. We tried to offer something sparse with air to breathe and most importantly, we didn’t wish to draw attention to ourselves since sound was not the subject as it was with the previous film. But taking that into account, Martin is a highly inventive one-man show of a sound designer. He does the job of five people on any other film. We don’t want to wow people with sound but we want to evoke a strong sense of place and feeling. Carefully looking for original field recordings to mix in with Rob Entwistle‘s work certainly helped. Certain animals were not available or on cue during the shoot, so we had to hunt down recordings of roe deer and scops owls during post production. I was very happy to include the wing sounds of Bombyx mori by Michael Prime (a member of Organum, one of my favourite bands).

I can’t really explain my interest in sound and soundtracks. It’s just something I naturally key into, though I greatly admire directors who resist soundtracks. It’s all ultimately down to what most suitably serves the mood and subject of a film, whether that means no music or something incredibly lush. I came to use mole cricket sounds for The Duke of Burgundy because I put out a record of these in 2003 and couldn’t sell any. I got tired of those boxes taking up so much space under my bed, thinking that if this film does well, I can finally sell those records. I’m kind of desperate to be honest and I’ll be bringing a box with me to Toronto.

The Duke of Burgundy feels quite a bit like a lot of Lesbian literature, pulp melodrama and historical material from the 1930s and 1940s, while portraying a very emotionally believable relationship between two people. I was wondering what, if any, research you did and how it informed the film and your portrayal of Cynthia, Evelyn and their relationship. 

I didn’t do much research. It’s a completely artificial world which I wanted to exist on its own terms. In terms of the emotional resonance, that comes from somewhere or other. Just being a human, that side takes care of itself when writing. I didn’t want to make a judgement either for or against BDSM nor did I want to send it up, but the practicalities of enacting any fantasy can be as ridiculous as the practicalities of doing foley work for a horror film. What I wanted to do was push the audience to a far point in terms of being able to relate to a sexual desire and almost lose them. But once the surprise at the lengths Evelyn will go to for her sexual kicks has gone, one can hopefully see what is at the crux of the film: how can compromise be reached between two lovers who have different intimate needs?

But research aside, I’m very fond of a lot of those euro sleaze films from the ’70s, especially anything with Joe Dallesandro. My first meeting with Andy Starke was to do with remaking Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist. We ditched that idea but wanted to wade into that fantastical realm that Franco was notorious for. In some way, taking some core cues from Franco’s films was a starting point for the script, but then with the process of writing it changed naturally into something else, though staying true to the sadomasochistic pulse of the majority of his work. The first proper job I ever had in the film industry was as an assistant on Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick in 1998, so maybe something stuck.

Berberian Sound Studio explored the artifice of film, while showing the blurry line between reality and fantasy in people’s lives. The Duke of Burgundy reveals the artifice necessary to make fantasy reality in the context of BDSM and, possibly, love. Is the relationship between people’s inner and outer lives something you find particularly interesting? 

That’s something I can only consider in hindsight. I wasn’t really conscious of that when writing either script. What I found interesting from the films I had seen which explored different desires was that they rarely exposed the reality behind the fantasy. The dominant male or female is inherently so in these films. It seemed both more fun and truthful to peel off the ice queen mask and reveal an altogether different person – a reluctant dominatrix, which Sidse portrayed so vividly.  The ritualistic/repetitive aspect of the sexual role play is fascinating and you can manipulate that in a film as a means of altering one’s perception of power, meaning and even time. The same words are repeated but with the accrued knowledge the audience have of the characters and their dynamic, the meaning is totally different. But ultimately, the most universal connection the film has is the pressure of putting on a persona. That’s something that’s always a demand on us in almost all aspects of our lives.

Mole cricket via Listen To This Noise

The film is incredibly sensuous, not just visually and aurally, but appealing to senses less easily accessed by film. There are strong tactile elements, but I also noticed a perfume credited in the opening titles. Was it a scent worn by one of the actors? What role does it play in the film? 

That’s a new perfume–je suis Gizella. She’s an erstwhile javelin champion who had to take early retirement due to an in-growing toenail. The perfume is allegedly made from some clandestine serum but she won’t divulge too much. It’s quite pheromonal and was making a couple of the crew members too horny, which meant I had to confiscate the bottles.

Do you have a favorite insect or insect sound? 

It has to be the mole cricket. They’re hated by golfers which gives them an instant thumbs up from me. I find them staggeringly beautiful even though they’re probably the most elusive of insects. Also, the sound they make can be harsher than a Whitehouse record.

Thanks to Peter Strickland for taking time to answer my questions. And make sure you get a copy of his collection of mole cricket sounds! 

Read my thoughts on The Duke Of Burgundy here.

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY screening times:

Saturday, Sept 6th 10:00 PM TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX 1

Monday, Sept 8th 3:15 PM SCOTIABANK 12

This post was originally published on the Vanguard Program blog of the Toronto International Film Festival

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