Interview: Toby Jones on Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio
Hannah McGill speaks to the actor about the genre-defying anti-horror movie
Two stories drew Toby Jones to Berberian Sound Studio, the sophomore feature project by British-born director Peter Strickland. There was the tale to be spun onscreen: that of a mild-mannered British sound engineer coming unstuck whilst working on sound effects for a gore-soaked Italian slasher movie. Dark, interior, wreathed in shadows and cruel humour, Jones says that Strickland’s script reminded him of ‘the kind film I wanted to be in when I was a teenager hanging out with people older than me and going to the local arthouse - and that I thought didn’t really happen any more because there was no market for them.’
But there was also the story of Strickland himself and his first film, Katalin Varga, which Jones had picked up from a distance around its release in 2009. ‘I was making a film in America and I used to download the podcast of the Radio 4 Film Programme. I remember exactly when I heard this extraordinary story about this man living in Reading, moving to Eastern Europe, working as a computer games writer, always having this dream, getting a bit of inheritance and through all of that winning the Silver Bear at Berlin - and it stuck in my mind. We all live around people who say, ‘I’m gonna make a film’ – well, he made his film! And then this script arrived…’
Katalin Varga, which had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival after its win at the Berlinale, was an intense rape-revenge fable set in Transylvania and distinguished in part by extraordinary use of sound effects and an otherworldly electronic score. Berberian Sound Studio extends its director’s interest in evocative and unsettling audio, as Jones’ character, Gilderoy, deploys outré means to replicate the sounds of torture and murder, and feels the film’s nasty energies colouring his own perception. Jones, who has been seen of late in blockbusters such as The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would soon discover that Strickland’s iconoclasm was part-founded in genuine inexperience. ‘I only realised after we’d made it that the frustrations I’d felt during it – why is he putting that in? Why are we doing it like that? – were because he’d never been in a film studio before.’
This unusual freshness clearly contributed to the oddness and originality of Berberian Sound Studio, but also permitted Jones a degree of freedom not always afforded to the ‘character actor’. ‘It feels like a different job. On the big films, it’s not quite as cold-blooded as ‘do your thing’, but to a certain extent you are a brand; you’re brought in to deliver things on a craft basis, because European actors bring a certain cachet. That’s all fine - that’s show business – but then that allows you to do this kind of job, which is an interpretative job, much closer to how you trained as an actor.’
And Berberian Sound Studio, as its strangeness piles up, certainly takes interpreting. How much did Jones have to make his own sense of the ambiguous narrative? “I had a chart on my wall,” he admits. “because it was so easy to get lost in the maze. But I can only act one way, on one level: that this is a person to whom concrete things are happening. Otherwise I’m acting an idea, which is impossible.”
Berberian Sound Studio is on selected release from Fri 31 Aug.