A Sound Awareness is delighted to present an interview with internationally renowned filmmaker Peter Strickland. The blog has been very quiet of late due to unforeseen family circumstances and hopefully this interview will make up for last few months of silence.
Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga is a stunningly dark and poetic tale of violent retribution and human pathos. Despite being filmed in Romania on a shoestring budget, it stands as one of the great masterpieces of recent cinema and I heartily recommend you endeavour to seek it out. Now for the interview.
The internet is a weird thing, I came across your film, Katalin Varga, after you’d written a few supportive comments about my blog on your site. I think I must have watched it five or six times now. It’s a stunning film on so many levels. Can you tell me a little about what inspired the film and how you ended up with a Hungarian cast and crew? How long have you lived in Hungary?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what started the film off. Revenge is one of those themes that constantly renews itself. Sadly, it will never be irrelevant and it’s marred by so many contradictions in every sphere of life, whether it’s the street, religion or politics. I wanted to delve into the whole revenge thing a little more and go into some of the more troublesome aspects of it that tend to get airbrushed out of many films. To leave an audience with doubt about a belief instead of answers seems to be far healthier. I remember a recent interview with Michael Haneke in which he said that only politicians give answers.
I was thinking about this today and I recalled reading Justine (Or the Misfortunes Of Virtue) by The Marquis De Sade as a teenager, which is a very bleak view of the notion of virtue. There is this endless quest for salvation but in reality Justine's life is subject to the most horrific and brutal abuse with little or no respite in between, if memory serves me right, in the end she asks god for help and is struck down by an unforgiving and vengeful bolt of lightening. Katlin Varga has a similar bleakness, you're willing her on but soon any notion of virtue, right or wrong soon become blurred.
That's what I admire about Bunuel too. There is nothing deodorised about his worldview in a film like 'Viridiana'. Even the scene with the dog is desperately brutal and it shatters our idealism about charity to some degree. We see Viridiana take pity on this dog that is chained up and she offers to buy it from the owners. Once the dog is sold, the owners go round the back and get another dog out for another good-willed person to take pity on. That's one of the most effectively cynical scenes I've seen in a film.
Some people were offended by the ending in 'Katalin Varga', but somehow it feels that you're cheating people to offer happy endings when dealing with that kind of subject. The film to me wasn't really about rape, but about the nature of wrongdoing in general. It was one little footnote on something that is so complex. As a filmmaker, you do ask yourself if you're promoting what you're condemning by showing perpetrators escaping justice. But the wider problem is that in society we see that notions of justice (be they civil or divine) are simply random and quite often not applicable. I've heard about plenty of people getting away with robbing others blind, but they're smart enough and connected enough to not be accountable and also sleep very well at night. Dishonesty pays as much as honesty does, and it's much harder to navigate your own morals around that when the traditional deterrents you grew up with turn out to be a fallacy. A much more alarming question to ask ourselves is how to make the argument for being decent and honest when we so often see dishonesty reaping in huge rewards?
Looking back on it, I can see that I definitely enjoyed tampering around with the genre element of it. Rape/revenge films have their own sub-strata in the film canon and I wanted to see how it would be to take such a disreputable genre and place it in a very different context and slow it right down. It was going to be an even slower film with donkeys until I found out that Szekely Hungarians in Transylvania prefer the horse wagon.
In terms of the atmosphere, the two starting points were Sergei Paradjanov's 'Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors' and Charles Laughton's 'Night of the Hunter'. The former had a huge impact on me. I was 18 when I first saw it and being a suburban Reading boy, that film felt as if it had been beamed over from another dimension. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but at the same time it felt familiar, probably because of the Greek Orthodox side of my family. It was something that I just grew up with and never really thought about. It didn’t feel particularly special until I saw 'The Colour of Pomegranates' and 'Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors'. Suddenly all this Orthodox iconography hit me as being very cinematic. That was something I could respond to. It's got nothing to do with belief or lack of it, it's just there in your system if you've grown up with it. It's very potent in Paradjanov's work probably because the Communists suppressed it, so it's almost this heightened form of Christianity on display. That was something I wanted to weave the film around, as some of the ideas revolve around redemption, divine justice and so on. But those ideas could also hark back to gospel or the blues. It might sound pretentious, but in hindsight I think about 'Katalin Varga' as the film equivalent of an old gospel or blues number. It has that downtrodden lament to it, but at the same time that faith in the idea that one should just forge ahead even though it'll most likely end in tears. It also has the same production values – very rough around the edges. That was not my intention, but that was the reality with the money we had.
I had no specific country in mind when I wrote the script. I needed mountains and somewhere relatively convenient. Romania was otherworldly enough, but not too much of a pain to travel to. I was open to finding any actors and didn’t have any ethnic agendas. Whoever was suitable and whoever was keen was all I cared about. So Hilda Peter became Katalin when I met her in 2005, which meant I had to change the religion to Catholic since she’s an ethnic Hungarian.
I’ve been in Hungary on and off since 2007. Some things are better than the UK, other things are worse.
I watched Sátántangó by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr at the weekend and was struck by it’s slowly evolving, almost meditative pace. There is a real sense of time in that film. Katalin Varga has a strange sense of time which switches between these disquieting moments of detachment and otherness and a more conventional dramatic structure. There’s a strong sense of narrative in the film which is discordant with these strangely heightened moments of separation. What’s you view on this interpretation?
Satantango is my favourite Tarr film. He really belly-flopped with ‘The Man from London’, but ‘Satantango’ has that rigorousness to it if you’re into more formalist stuff, and it also rings true. You can apply the doings of that small collective in Satantango to politics or even the film business in several countries east of Austria. It’s a very bleak ‘every man for himself’ world. There were definitely moments in Katalin Varga where we wanted it to drift into its own world a little. That was sometimes planned, other times it was impromptu. The script I wrote was fairly conventional and I often wondered how the film would find its own rhythm. When making short films, that was usually never a concern since they were so short. With 'Katalin Varga', it hit us in the editing room that with such a stripped-down narrative, we really needed to use up all that second unit footage we shot just to give the film some air to breathe. The whole process is very intuitive, but the deeper into the edit you are, the less sensitive you are to the material and the harder it is to judge the pacing and rhythm. The original script was quite wordy, but people kept going on about how Szekely Hungarians don’t talk that much. That’s something I’m still yet to notice. I remember one Szekely man taking thirty minutes to tell me that Szekely people don’t like talking.
There’s a dark ruralism running through the film, an almost hidden undercurrent of the supernatural, there are moments in the film when you almost forget it’s filmed in present day and it’s almost shocking when you see some of the characters in rural attire speaking on mobile phones? Was this intentional?
It was only intentional in that we had no choice. My big dream was just to rip off Paradjanov's 'Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors'. I showed it to Mark Gyori, the cameraman. That was pretty much the sole visual reference point, but I only had 30,000 euro to make the film. I was getting a little ahead of myself and realised that we can't go round villages ripping satellite dishes and aerials out. The more time I spent in Transylvania, the more I realised that we have something really special here - a country trying to balance itself between a determinedly unchanged past and the influence of lifestyle and technology from the West. You only get that clash in Romania, Albania and Moldova now. It was never a plan to do it this way. It certainly wasn't scripted. It was more of a case of us not fighting the reality around us and allowing it to add another dimension to the film. Strangely in the West, almost every single review I read picked up on the mobile phone. It was so funny for Hilda (Katalin) and the other cast from the film, as that extreme contrast is something quite natural for them. The mountains surround these small towns in Romania, so despite the fact that almost all the actors from the film live in these urban blockhouses, they still know how to ride a horse, they don't get freaked out by ticks and they can tolerate all kinds of things that actors' agents wouldn't allow over their dead bodies in the UK.
Katalin Varga has some particularly striking sound design. You’re obviously very interested in the transformative properties of sound as part of the film making process, I particularly thinking of the ‘rope sequence’ in Katalin Varga created by Steven Stapleton. How important is the use of sound in your films? Which soundtrack composers do you rate? How important is music to your creative process?
When I started out in the early '90s, wayward music was much more easily obtainable than film. I read about Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson, Tony Conrad and so on, but those films were very hard to find, so you just had to imagine them until you got lucky enough to find them. Whereas the equivalent in music was relatively easy to get hold of, so by default, all that stuff I heard just ate its way into me much earlier than the equivalent in film.
There was a period between 1996-2003, in which I burnt out financially from making a short film on 16mm, so I got together with some friends from Reading (Colin Fletcher and Tim Kirby) and formed The Sonic Catering Band, which allowed us to try out ideas and methods that several years later ended up in 'Katalin Varga'. There are very few tracks we made that I can actually listen to and be proud of, but despite some of our more embarrassing efforts, I learnt a lot from Colin and Tim about how to document and work with everyday sounds. I was hopeless with technology and still am, but I learnt just about enough to now be that irritant sitting in the most comfortable chair in the room and making constant suggestions without actually doing anything. Pure back seat driving.
The equipment Colin first had was very basic - a 4-track tape machine, a graphic equalizer, a reel-to-reel, a wah-wah pedal and a copicat delay. It was a lot of fun, but we totally missed the point of what we were doing. We wanted to bring out the otherness of these intense frying and boiling sounds, but instead we were just hiding the source material behind effects and only showcasing the technology we were using. That was a big turning point for us. Around 2001, Tim played me Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier and that changed everything in terms of my attitude. Suddenly I was no longer afraid to let sounds exist in their own realm. Prior to that, I wrongly thought that everything needed 'authorship' or some kind of stamp, but the really smart musicians knew when to hold back.
So with 'Katalin Varga', we used a little EQ and minimal reverb on occasion, but the actual sound design in the film mainly consists of mixing in a way that foregrounds some of the elements you normally wouldn't find so high up in the mix. Crickets are pretty high up in the mix and there’s this goat bell sequence that builds and builds. A lot of it was merely joining the dots in my record collection. There were references to Faust, Iannis Xenakis, Chris Watson and Luc Ferrari. No idea why I wanted those references. It just seemed fun and perhaps it could add some intensity.
The whole irony with the sound design is that there really wasn't much sound design at all. It was an assemblage job that involved decisions about where to put all this pre-sound designed material that people handed in, often prior to the shoot. With no disrespect to Gabor and Gyorgy (the sound designer and mixer) who were very sensitive and efficient with the material, I do feel that not enough credit went to people like Steven Stapleton, Geoff Cox, Roj (Stevens), Sculpture (Dan Hayhurst), Xylitol (Jim Backhouse), Alan Burbidge, RR Habarc, Pal Toth and others. I went out to Transylvania with Clive Graham in 2004 mainly to record goat bells. I suppose it’s called second unit sound. Clive also has his Paradigm Discs label, so I thought I could be sneaky and use a track from an Adam Bohman album that came out on that label. In my mind these people were the sound designers, but because they mostly made atmospheres, the majority of critics who brought attention to the sound kind of got the wrong end of the stick and just assumed that the work of all those guests was the sound design in post-production, which is understandable. I wanted the audience to either not notice or get confused over where the sound is coming from. The scene you mentioned with that Stapleton/Nurse track is the most emphatic example. You first think that this avian clucking sound is coming from these circling eagles and then it just builds and builds until you realise it's on the soundtrack and not in the background, then you start to wonder whether it's sound design or music. I love that confusion. It really works in a film like 'Elephant', which borrowed heavily from 'Satantango'.
Soundtrack composers – Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, Lubos Fiser, Zdenek Liska, Georges Delerue, Serge Gainsbourg, Michael Nyman up until 1988.
It took me a long time to work out that nearly all my favourite films either have a very distinctive musical score or very specific use of sound. "Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors" is a good example, I think it has a sublime mix of instrumentation, voice and sound which elevates and transforms what is witnessed on the screen. I think it's a 'cultural crime' that the score by Miroslav Skorik is not commercially available and if you want to listen to it you have to dub it from a dvd. Do you have any favourite soundtracks you consider successful, poignant or original which you feel are neglected?
That soundtrack is really something, especially with the wedding sequence. It's great that these old ladies sing out of tune and they just sound really raucous and unrefined. That's quite rare in film. Usually folk songs are so well produced, they just sound buffed. All that untramelled energy that went into these songs has been neutralised. I have this great recording of gypsy songs from this Romanian village we shot in and the singing is wild. Totally out of tune and wild, which is how it should be.
Other soundtracks that either haven't been released or just don't get enough attention:
'The Fearless Vampire Killer's by Krzysztof Komeda, 'Le Mepris' by Georges Delerue, 'Danger Diabolik' by Ennio Morricone, 'Allures' - no idea who did that soundtrack for Jordan Belson's film, 'The Cremator' by Zdenek Liska, 'Last Year in Marienbad' by Francis Seyrig, 'Carnival of Souls' by Gene Moore, 'Stone Wedding' by Dorin Liviu Zaharia, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' - general sound, and two Greek favourites'Girls in the Sun' by Stavros Xarhakos and 'The Girl and the Horse' by Gerasimos Lavranos (with songs by Elpitha). 'The World of Survival' nature shows often had some pretty amazing soundtracks, but they must have come from libraries, as they were never credited.
Music is almost vital when writing. I could never have music I like in the background. Rather it has to be something relevant to the atmosphere of what I’m writing even if I have no intention of using it in the film. Music is the best thing for transporting you out of your everyday thoughts. Usually I find I can write quite effectively once I’ve got into that world the script exists in, but the hard thing is leaving the normal world behind. That can take hours. I find that the older I get, the more clutter my brain collects – useless stuff revolving around daily irritations, some amazing thing I found on a blog, local gossip, and all that. A strong piece of music or sound can shove that all to one side on a good day.
I know you’re soon to embark on a new film project, are you listening to and watching anything particular things in preparation? Can you discuss the new project?
I've been writing a treatment for one of these film market catalogues. I could just copy and paste it here, but these things tend to be such a bore.
The new film started as a tribute to the Italian avant-garde music scene of the '60s and '70s and especially the technology used, but then more personal stuff crept in. What really drove the script forward was how musicians from the Italian avant-garde made some of their most beautiful and advanced music for horror films.
Music has been far more of an influence on this script than film. There's so much good stuff out there that not only sounds amazing, but is also full of ideas in terms of structure, juxtapositions and so on, and it's just there for the taking, as no other film makers seem to be picking up on it. I'm mainly talking about Luciano Berio and his Fonologia studio. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has deservedly been documented by several labels, musicians and websites, but Fonologia's ghosts didn't quite filter through. The studio wasn't as functional as the BBC's, as it was mainly devoted to the work of Berio, Cathy Berberian, Luigi Nono and Bruno Maderna, who scored the demented giallo film, 'Death Laid an Egg'. The studio did some work for TV and radio plays, but not on the same scale as the BBC, but it still had such an aura and strangeness. Marino Zuccheri, the Fonologia in-house engineer was an enigma and it was only since his passing that we've discovered that his own work was just as strange and wonderful as the composers he worked for. If you hear 'Parete' by Zuccheri, you can definitely hear where Nono got his sound from. Several other composers from that '60s/'70s golden period - Ennio Morricone (of course) and his Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza, Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, Franco Battiato and the strangest one, Enore Zaffiri. Saying this, we don't intend to use any music by these people. There is no intention to even emulate or do a pastiche, but anyway, the music side of the project has been put on hold.
This is a fascinating area of enquiry. Have you heard Morricone's Feedback lp? To me that's a perfect collision of rock and the formalism of the avant garde. [I've had a copy of Death Laid An Egg on my shelves of what seems like ages, I must make a mental note to watch it!]
Neither heard nor heard of the Feedback LP, but I should start looking for it going on what you just said. I thought I had a pretty extensive Morricone collection, but almost every month someone comes along and recommends another album that is bound to amaze me. The last Morricone album that blew me away was 'The Devil is a Woman'.
What was really fascinating about the Italian scene was how avant-garde and rock found its surrogate home in giallo cinema. Some of those soundtracks are so mind-blowing and propulsive. The Goblin soundtrack to 'Suspiria' still holds up. Even when Goblin are shockingly bad, they still have something. I'd rather listen to a bad Goblin soundtrack than any of these cynically-compiled soundtracks that are just dressed-up versions of those old ‘Now that’s what I call music’ albums.
In terms of film, there wasn’t any specific influence. The closest thing would be Peter Tscherkassky’s short film, ‘Outer Space’ in terms of its ideas, not in terms of how it looks. Some giallo stuff crept its way in too, but it’s misleading of me to say that, as we're not making a horror film. What we're doing is a little similar to mechanically-recovered meat, we’re ignoring the prime rump from giallo cinema and just picking up on all those peripheral, discarded elements such as design, atmosphere and music, which was either very rich in melody and/or very effects-driven. Needless to say I have no idea how it will all end up.
I would personally like to thank Peter for his generosity of time and spirit in making this interview possible. Credit should also be given to Marek Szold for many of the wonderful and evocative location shots.
I would personally like to thank Peter for his generosity of time and spirit in making this interview possible. Credit should also be given to Marek Szold for many of the wonderful and evocative location shots.