As the stage adaptation of 2012 cult film Berberian Sound Studio runs at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Kaleem Aftab talks to the original film’s director Peter Strickland and finds out why he’s happy to let go of the creative reins
This year marks a series of major film-to-play adaptations in the UK. While some will be instantly recognisable to audiences – 9 to 5 the Musical and All About Eve – it is striking that a host of indie films are also coming to stages here. From Waitress and Local Hero to Little Miss Sunshine and, most intriguingly, Berberian Sound Studio.
A lot can be said for smaller, less expensive, independent films being better candidates for a stage reworking. They are likely to have fewer special effects, fewer locations and rely on performances, dialogue and characters.
This is why an adaptation like the Almeida’s 2004 staging of Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish family drama Festen – a film that all took place on one location – was so successful, touring the UK before hitting the West End and then Broadway.
Yet it can still be something of a surprise for a director of an independent movie when the call comes asking to adapt their work for the stage. Often, a filmmaker has moved on from it as soon as they start production on something new, and has resigned themselves to occasionally catching it on TV, or being asked – if they are lucky – to help with the transfer onto a new movie format, such as a 4k Blu-ray.
That was the case for Peter Strickland, writer and director of the film Berberian Sound Studio, which has now been adapted for the stage of the Donmar Warehouse in London. “The Donmar got in touch out of the blue, which was a surprise given that the film was very divisive, even during production,” he says.
In 2005, Strickland made a short film with experimental musicians the Bohman Brothers about a sound engineer from Dorking who goes to Italy to work on a ‘giallo’ – Italian horror film – in the 1970s.
The story stayed with him, and in 2012 he turned it into a feature film starring Toby Jones as a meek sound engineer who ventures to Italy to supervise the audio for a film we hear, but don’t see, called The Equestrian Vortex. Strickland saw his work as being about the mechanics of making sound for a movie.
Some critics, such as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode, loved it so much that they put it on their end-of-the-year best-film lists, and in the end it made just over £167,000.
“I did a film dealing with my obsessions. The nature of anyone doing that results in polarised reactions,” says Strickland, who had battled on set with his producers over how to bring his vision to screen. “My only worry was making the film the way it should have been made, which is thankfully now a dim and distant memory.”
Strickland is known for making offbeat movies. His 2009 debut Katalin Varga was a rape-revenge drama filmed in Romania. After 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, his 2014 effort The Duke of Burgundy followed a woman in a sadomasochistic, lesbian relationship. His upcoming film In Fabric is about a killer frock.
I’m happy if a film lives on in some other form, whether it’s the stage, toy merchandise, or beauty products
He was immediately excited by the prospect of seeing his work being recreated in a new setting. “I’m happy if a film lives on in some other form, whether it’s the stage, toy merchandise, or beauty products.”
Playwright Joel Horwood and the stage production’s director Tom Scutt asked if he would be interested in helping with the work, but Strickland decided it was best to let it be interpreted and given a new lease of life by others.
“It’s not my right to get involved in any adaption of my work, even though Joel and Tom were very forthcoming and wanted my opinion on the various stages of the script,” says the 45-year-old filmmaker. “As far as I’m concerned the baton has been passed.”
He doesn’t believe that such a hands-off philosophy should be a rule of thumb, but it works for him because for his own productions he believes the director should be boss: “My belief is that writers and directors should be free to work without interference even if it’s an adaptation. Whether I like the adapted script or not is irrelevant and they shouldn’t be influenced by that.”
He adds: “There are too many opinions when work is made and it’s often counterproductive. I’d be a hypocrite if I started telling Joel and Tom to change things in the script.”
Strickland had no qualms about how the pair would interpret the original film, no matter what they did with it. “Even if they turned the play into a musical, it’d be their prerogative. Actually, a musical would be great.”