Sound has played a key role in filmmaker Peter Strickland’s small but impressive body of work. Not just within the garish giallo world evoked so meticulously by Broadcast for Berberian Sound Studio but also amidst the Transylvanian landscape of his debut, Katalin Varga. His third feature, The Duke of Burgundy, continues to value the importance of sound design and of course the soundtrack.
A sensual and striking looking movie, Strickland has developed into one of Britain’s most original Directors. He enlisted the help of Cat’s Eyes – Faris Badwan of the Horrors and multi-instrumentalist and classically trained soprano Rachel Zeffira – to assist with his new movie’s score and the result is an astonishing journey that’s as bold and tender as the movie’s premise – a sadomasochistic, erotic tale of passion and the death of an affair.
At The Rio Cinema, Dalston, London, I met the duo to unearth some of The Duke of Burgundy’s secrets ahead of its release.
Do you spend a lot of time at the cinema?
Faris Badwan: We don’t tend to leave the house very much. I have been recently though – I went to see all the blockbusters, well, all the Oscar contenders anyway. I went to see Foxcatcher and American Sniper, so only twice actually… twice in the last 5 years. It felt like a lot as they both came at once.
I recently caught the trailer for Duke of Burgundy, is it as stunning as it looks?
Rachel Zeffira: We have watched it over and over again, it’s made up for all the films I haven’t seen as we have seen it an awful lot. Faris has watched it maybe twelve times and myself about fifty and I still love it. I still find things in it and think of things differently and everything is so beautiful.
How would you summarise the film?
Rachel: It’s set in a world without men and it’s a relationship set in this world, but it’s not a lesbian one.
Faris: It is a world without gender; a world where there have never been men and the question of gender doesn’t come into it. It is a normal mundane, day-to-day relationship and they’re trying to spice things up.
Rachel: That’s what I was trying to avoid, the grotesque.
Faris: Anything that alludes to foodstuff. Seriously, though, it’s the normal problems that people have in relationships and it examines what that would be like with gender out of the equation. Maybe we’re making it sound quite dry but it’s actually very funny. It’s very subtle, though, like it isn’t Laurel and Hardy or anything.
Did Peter Strickland contact you directly to ask you to write the soundtrack?
Faris: Peter got a message to us that he wanted to meet up and so we did. I had already seen Katalin Varga, which I loved, and he just wanted to talk generally about music and what we liked. He runs his own record label, which no one really knows – he gave me a load of his records and they are really good. The labels called Peripheral Conserve so people should check it out. He was vague and talked a lot about Bjork and Russia and he said maybe would you like to work together in the future.
Rachel: Not with Bjork though. Then he sent a script about a month or so later.
Faris: I find it’s really hard to convey how good something might be by just reading a script but that’s what was so different about this one, it was immediately exciting.
Rachel: His script made it really fascinating about how he was going to bring something like that to life. There were layers and layers to it, you could interpret that script in so many ways and still not expect what he achieved on the screen. Watching it slowly come to life, they started filming and then we’d get rushes of a scene sent to us – it was really interesting to see it take form. Even the casting was perfect.
Did Peter’s process match any preconceptions you both had about building a soundtrack?
Rachel: It was way better. I’d had some experiences of soundtracks before that were nothing like this. He gave us tonnes of trust and freedom.
Faris: He didn’t give us any film references, which was probably a good thing, and most references he gave us musically we hadn’t heard so that was refreshing too.
Rachel: We were sending demos back and forth to each other and his music matched what we were making so it was hopeful and we knew we were heading in the right direction. Peter was clear he wanted oboe – oboe was clear right from the beginning. He said he really wanted mournful, melancholy so harpsichord came next.
You mention Peter didn’t supply any film references, but were you both thinking of any movies as you were working?
Faris: No, it was so tied to the images that we were using which worked well.
Rachel: It is much better that way, to work with the film in front of you.
Faris: The Duke of Burgundy is so visually rewarding. When you’re watching such great scenes it’s hard to think of anything else. It is inspiring enough.
Have soundtracks informed any of your work in the past?
Faris: I can think of plenty of decent soundtracks but I don’t know how relevant they would be. I mean, Paris Texas is a wonderful soundtrack, although I have never made it to the end of the film. I have watched it three times and I always fall asleep at the same point. They’re not influences, though.
Rachel: I don’t think they influence you when you’re writing a soundtrack if I’m honest.
Faris: There are songs that stick in my head for sure, for example Midnight Cowboy when you hear Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ for the first time, you know it is iconic and you identify with it.
Rachel: For me it has to be Nino Rota, The Godfather, big time. [To Faris] You like the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, though, don’t you?
Faris: I have never seen the film, I just like the Ronettes! I don’t even know what’s on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, you’re thinking of somebody else.
Rachel: You would so love the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
Faris: Maybe I should watch the film. Is it liked by the same sort of people that like Ghost?
Rachel: Ghost is corny but Dirty Dancing isn’t that corny. Ghost just takes it too far.
Back to the Duke of Burgundy, Peter asked you to replace Mozart’s Requiem, which he had been using in pre-production for one particular scene, that’s quite a responsibility?
Faris: They got very attached to Mozart’s Requiem, which is obviously used for hundreds of things every week.
Rachel: Peter really liked it but he asked me if we could write a requiem, just in case.
Faris: This was with two days to go, can you write a requiem, but that is kind of Rachel’s thing – under pressure – otherwise she doesn’t do anything. Most people know that’s how she works but Peter didn’t so she stayed up all night working on this requiem and I didn’t do a thing, when I woke up it was done. It is always the case that the ones I don’t end up working on are the ones that I like the best.
How do Cat’s Eyes work together, then?
Faris: It varies. We could end up with 4 or 5 songs that I don’t take part in and another 4 and 5, which I write and produce so it’s very different.
Rachel: It is like a band, it generally is 50/50 and it is shared.
Now that release is imminent are you nervous about an audience enjoying the film?
Faris: Not so much. It helps that we really love the film. Even with Berberian Sound Studio, I mean, I struggled with parts of that. It’s not that I didn’t like it, it just wasn’t as much as my thing as The Duke of Burgundy is, so I would have found it a different experience.
There is a bit in Berberian Sound Studio where the film almost folds in on itself. Are there any such moments in The Duke of Burgundy?
Rachel: The moths, definitely the moths.
Faris: There is yes, in that there are clear atmospheric turns which I guess are important in Berberian Sound Studio. There are fascinating visual elements to this film too, which you just don’t expect. I think The Duke of Burgundy is the strongest plot Peter has had and the strongest story out of the three.
Now that you have created a soundtrack, will you approach the cinematic experience differently?
Faris: I have always looked at things by pulling them apart. With soundtracks or even people. Especially if a film is not very good you snap out of it and start noticing all the things. A really great film you just don’t pull apart, you naturally go with it, like when you listen to records, the second you start thinking oh this is a guy in a room with a mic it snaps you out and it isn’t what music or anything creative should be. It should be immersive and you shouldn’t have to think about it – this film is like that and it’s in its own world. A great example would be Carmine Coppola in The Godfather Part III where it turns into this TV movie soundtrack.
Rachel: Rota didn’t do it for that one and it shows – the music is just really over the top and sentimental and all that amazing atmosphere that was created for the first two movies was all of a sudden this puffed up saccharine thing. Like a soap opera.
Has working on The Duke of Burgundy inspired the next Cat’s Eyes album?
Faris: Well I wouldn’t say it’s heavily influenced any of the new album, we’ve been thinking about ideas for a long time.
Rachel: When you’re doing a soundtrack you’re just thinking about the film and it’s coming from a different place. You’re doing it for a whole other reason and we were doing it for Peter.