Shock Interview: Toby Jones on Berberian Sound Studio


Any diehard reader of should be intimately familiar with the Giallo style of horror filmmaking that came out of Italy in the late ’60s and early ’70s, gory and gruesome affairs that made cult figures out of the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Those films have been hugely influential on American horror from the original Friday the 13th to the works of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie.

British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is not a Giallo film but it pays loving tribute to them by going behind the scenes in an Italian recording studio where they’re doing voiceover and sound FX work for one of those grisly Italian horror films. Toby Jones (Frank Darabont’s The Mist) stars as Gilderoy, a British sound engineer who travels to Italy to work in a studio doing sound FX for what he thinks is an “equestrian film” but turns out to be a gruesome horror film involving the brutal torture of nuns. Eventually, the inner politics of the small Italian studio and the imagery he’s forced to endure starts to get to the meek sound engineer and starts to affect his mind in strange and negative ways. got on the phone with Jones a couple weeks back to talk to him about the film, an interview you can read after the jump. I’m really pleased to be able to talk to you about this character because I used to be a sound engineer myself.

Toby Jones: Ah! The perfect audience member!

Shock: Exactly. I didn’t engineer crazy horror movies, just music, but I could relate to a lot of the stuff that was going on in the studio.

Jones: (laughs)

Shock: In fact, I ran into Peter (Strickland, the director) in Toronto and I told him how impressed I was with the authenticity and how accurate the studio experience was depicted including track sheets and everything.

Jones: They’re beautiful track sheets, aren’t they?

Shock: Absolutely. So how did he get in touch with you about this movie? I’m sure it was a great script but so much is added by the music and FX that might not be apparent from the script.

Jones: He sent me the script and I went to meet him on three occasions and we chatted about the script. It was based on a friend of his who had made this sort of mood reel of this film and he showed me the mood reel and the guy didn’t look much like me. He’s a big, big guy—Adam Bowman—he’s a sound artist and does concerts of live sound, so there was that, and also, I didn’t know much about Giallo films. I knew more about Giallo music than Giallo films until I watched a couple of those, so there was all of that, and he was interested in a couple shows that I’d written which I told him about. One was a show I performed with a Foley artist and the other was a show I’d written about being in a shed with loads of tape recorders and stuff. Obviously, Peter was interested in that. I don’t know if that got me the job but it certainly opened the discussion about sound in general.

Shock: So you were interested in Foley and sound FX prior to your involvement with this movie?

Jones: I find Foley absolutely fascinating and I’d written a show where we had a whole sound FX studio onstage.

Shock: It’s really a specialized thing and these days I have no idea if they even do that much Foley or they just sound FX CDs and things like that. Did you have experience doing Foley or had you seen it done in studios while making movies?

Jones: Yeah, that’s really it. I’ve talked to Foley people and I’m interested in them. I shared with Peter an interest in the poetry of Foley that every sound has a sort of poetic analogy. I remember some Foley guy telling me about how you do a broken neck—you put a lightbulb inside a frozen chicken and then you smash it, which is a great sound for a broken neck on a piece of Foley. Or a marching Army can be replicated by crunching potato chips.

Shock: I love the scenes where you’re snapping off radish stems and stabbing heads of lettuce.

Jones: Yeah (laughs)… brought a lot of memories back.

Shock: I guess you must have shot the movie some time ago. It’s actually a funny movie and it has a sense of humor you wouldn’t really expect. It’s somewhat subdued and dry, like with the relationship between Gilderoy and Francesco. Was it very clear from the script that the movie had that sense of humor?

Jones: Oh, definitely, yeah. I found it to be hilarious in the way that David Lynch is hilarious and very deadpan humor, very straight-backed. The humor is almost so straight forward with people saying things unexpected in extreme situations.

Shock: What was it like shooting the movie? I assume you didn’t shoot in Italy but shot in England with Italian actors coming in?

Jones: It was claustrophobic with not many locations, all inside, no external shots, often in very cramped situations. It was a very claustrophobic shoot and that’s all very useful when you’re playing a character that’s imploding. It’s a very useful situation to be filming in.

Shock: When you’re working on a movie like this does it start affecting you like it does Gilderoy? He gets pretty affected by what he’s doing on the movie… did you actually see any of the footage from the horror movie?

Jones: No, no, no… never saw it. I just had to imagine those horrible things, but yes, it did affect me a bit. I guess the claustrophobia would begin to affect me and I suppose there was sort of a relentlessness about… on a minor level, it’s also useful that you’re surrounded by Italians speaking Italian, because it helps you with the part. You don’t feel the same alienation, but it’s a good imaginative cue, you know?s

Shock: Did a lot of the Italian actors speak English as well?

Jones: Oh, yeah, yeah, most of them spoke it.

Shock: That’s good to know. Is the movie supposed to be taking place in the ’70s…

Jones: Yeah, 1970s, exactly in the heyday of those Giallo films.

Shock: I wasn’t sure because it had a timelessness to it since we’re always inside and who knows when it might be taking place, and people make these types of movies today as well. I wasn’t sure if Peter was deliberately trying to make it the ’70s or not.

Jones: Oh yeah, definitely ’70s although you’re right in the sense that fashions go in cycles. It could easily have been last year in certain parts of London. (laughs)

Shock: They’re still very influential, those Giallo films.

Jones: Are you a fan of them?

Shock: I like some of them, like some of Argento’s films, Bava, the classics, but some of the more recent ones I don’t like as much.

Jones: So they do still make them you think?

Shock: Well, Argento is still making films but there are other filmmakers who are hugely influenced by the. Eli Roth has been a bit booster of Giallo fans throughout his career, but they’re still influencing horror filmmakers today. You talk about the sets being claustrophobic, but was a lot of the vintage equipment there.

Jones: I think Peter had to source all of that equipment, find all that equipment, and Steve Haywood, the sound guy on set, he was able to get some equipment—the Nagra and a lot those little effect things. I have to say that the long loving close-ups on amplifiers and sound equipment, I don’t share that sort of delight in audio porn but Peter clearly has it. He’s not that interested in how it works, he’s much more interested in how it looks and feels.

Shock: Did you have to learn how to use some of the equipment or did you have a little working knowledge of some of it?

Jones: No, no, I didn’t have to do very complex things and there were people there to show me what to do.

Shock: I’ve been following your career for quite a while—in fact, I was at the junkets for both “The Mist” and “Infamous”—and it’s interesting that you’ve been doing more franchise movies lately like “The Hunger Games” and “Captain America” and I was curious to know why you think that is or why you’ve gone in that direction?

Jones: It may seem like that. I think often it looks like an actor is doing more franchise movies because franchise movies are more in the public eye. You’re a prisoner to what you get sent in the mail. It’s whatever comes through the mail. You say, “No I don’t want to do that, yes I do want to do that” but you’re always trying to stay a moving target really. You don’t really want to be pigeonholed too quickly. You try to go “I can do that but I also want to do a bit of that.” I suppose you don’t have any say in it or any strategy, it’s only that I try not to repeat myself really.

Shock: I don’t think there’s a lot of common ground between Alfred Hitchcock and Arnim Zola but now that I think about it, maybe there are a few similarities. They’re both control freaks.

Jones: (laughs) And they share an interest in technology. You can read more of what Jones had to say about the return of Arnim Zola in Captain America: The Winter Soldier over on SuperHeroHype

Shock: So what else do you have going on? Do you have any other shows lined up?

Jones: I’m about to do a piece of theater which might not be of interest to your web readers but it’s an American play and I’m about to do that and hopefully I’ll be finishing up a little MAFIA film that I was doing in Boston coming up, there’s that, and looking further ahead, there’s a couple things I can’t really talk about now that if they come up they’ll be great earlier in the autumn.

Berberian Sound Studio opens on Friday, June 14 in New York City at the IFC Center and Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema as well as on VOD for those unfortunate souls not in New York City (like me).