We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale
Edited by Neil Snowdon PS Publishing 491pp.
Publishing date: June 2017
The Gremlins director talks about the ground-breaking British screenwriter best known for the Quatermass serials and films. This is an edited version of Neil Snowdon’s interview with Joe Dante on Nigel Kneale, which is published in the newly released book We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale.
Joe Dante is one of the great heroes of American cinema. His highly subversive, wildly entertaining movies are unique in the landscape of Hollywood cinema. Cine-literate, politically aware and scathingly satirical, his extraordinary filmography from The Howling and Gremlins to The Burbs and The Hole will make you laugh, feel and think. Dante is also one of Hollywood’s great advocates for cinema history. His encyclopaedic knowledge is on display in all his movies, and at his website, trailersfromhell.com.
Cast: Romola Garai, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Dean Andrews, Julian Barratt, Jane Asher
For Halloween 2015, BBC Radio 4 commissioned a pair of new radio adaptations of modern horror stories. Alongside an hour-long dramatization of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring (Ringu), the BBC also broadcast a revised version of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape directed by Peter Strickland, best known for his films Berberian Sound Studio (2012)and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This chilling play, considered a classic of 1970s television, relates the tale of some audio researchers investigating a haunted Victorian mansion, using difference frequencies to try and explain ghosts as a playback phenomenon, due to the fact that the stones of buildings capture recordings of the past.
The 2015 radio adaptation moves the temporal location of the play forward to the end of the same decade, when home recording had started to become a normal occurrence, and removes some of the story elements concerning pre-existing ghosts, to concentrate on the arrogance of the researchers creating a dangerous and uncanny situation all by themselves. An alternate download version of the play (available alongside the traditional stereo mix as broadcast on Radio 4) was partially recorded using ‘3D audio’ a.k.a. binaural sound, where a manikin dummy is used in the studio to simulate the position of the listener, with microphones attached to the sides of the dummy’s head to capture sounds at the distance and location where they would be heard from a listener’s ears.
Alex Fitch spoke to the director of the new Stone Tape to talk about his move from cinema to radio, his interest in 1970s drama and the aural influences on his radio play.
Alex Fitch: This is your second radio play after The Len Continuum, which featured your Berberian Sound Studio collaborator Toby Jones, but with The Stone Tape you have brought more filmic techniques to radio, in the sense that you’ve created more of a surround sound soundscape.
Peter Strickland: Yeah. The first one was more of a straightforward drama; I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous with the sound in Len, but with The Stone Tape the sound is so inherently part of the narrative, and part of the appeal. There are a lot of records that I love and I felt that if they’re going to be shoe-horned into the script, there’s no point in doing it. With The Stone Tape it was crying out to have these ideas informing the whole play, such as Arvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’. So, it was a great opportunity to pay tribute to music, rather than anything to do with film. There’s the original Stone Tape, of course, but I wasn’t really thinking of any other films at all.
You used a 3D microphone set-up that records sounds coming from all directions. Did that make any difference to mixing the tracks for radio, or did you do two different edits – one for broadcast and one for download?
There are two different edits. When we did the assembly edit, the sound that was recorded using the microphones attached to the dummy head was mixed into one track. My editor John, who was doing this using ProTools, has one track for the straightforward edit and another for the sound from the dummy head. It was quite complicated – with radio it’s so complicated, you sometimes only listen to temporary audio, but for us it was sometimes two or three different edits within sentences, which can be a nightmare with the dummy head in terms of the whole special quality – if an actor moves slightly that’s going to disrupt things.
Only at the last minute did we realise there was a bit of spare time – not for the radio edit, but for the binaural download – so what we did was extend some of the things that had to be shortened for radio. So we extended the scream decay at the end of the play. James’s experiments with resonance were extended, but as far as I remember there were no extensions to the amount of dialogue; there was no time to do that.
It would be great if they released a soundtrack of the actual sounds; James Cargill did a lot of work and Andrew Liles did as well. There are five separate components: James did all the electronic tones and the library music at the beginning; Andrew did the vocal sounds; Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand took what was recorded and added all these analogue effects; Eloise Whitmore was on hand with the Nagra 4D, plus the whole mix, the foley and everything; and then Chris Pike worked with Eloise on the 3D sound.
When we recorded with the Nagra, the fidelity was so good that we could barely hear the difference between it and digital. So, we did this thing where you can feel the difference when you go from tape to ‘real sound’. We didn’t want to cheat it, Steve gave us the option of using a high gain to make it sound a bit ‘crunchier’, but I thought that was a bit of a shortcut. If the Nagra 4D is that good, let it sound that good. So what we did was: for the 3D sound we used mono, which seems kind of perverse! We’re spending all this money on this incredibly expensive studio and then we’re using mono for about 30% of the whole play, but what that does is really interesting regarding the contrast in sound. If you have 3D sound being used all the way through, you become numb to it somehow. By dipping into mono when it switches to tape, it seemed like a good way of solving the whole thing.
And also, because the play is very specifically located in 1979, you probably wanted to limit yourself to the technology of the time, so it sounded authentic
Well, that was the thing. Even though we recorded the whole thing on digital, when we did the tape parts, that was recorded on the Nagra 4D, which has been around for donkeys’ years! Obviously the original play was 1972, but by moving it up to the end of that decade, a lot of the possibilities of sounds fitting into smaller spaces don’t sound quite as preposterous as it would have done 7 years earlier. I really wanted this idea that, if not clearly a ghost, there’s a lot more in this version on the fact that this is something much more that they can monetise, and either use it for the consumer market – which is essentially what the mp3 generation has done – or for MI5 or MI6, in terms of setting a whole house up as a recording device.
So, I wanted to expand on this and get into the idea of how we perceive recording and playback set against the time we live in. It’s all dictated by what’s happening at the time. In the 1970s you were still thinking about side A and side B – to get beyond that concept is quite strange – whereas now young people don’t even know about side A and side B.
It seems almost a natural progression for you to move into radio, particularly following Berberian Sound Studio, which was also an obsessive attempt to find some meaning in layered sound, which seems to offer many parallels with The Stone Tape. Is there something about audio, which you think other filmmakers don’t explore, that you’ve had an opportunity to do more with in your work?
I don’t pay too much attention to that. It’s just stuff that works for me in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s always that way – the last film I did, The Duke of Burgundy, had nothing to do with sound. We do our best with it, but we didn’t want to be emphatic with it, we don’t want to be gratuitous. I suppose a lot of filmmakers get their cues from painting, for me it’s always from sound. With my last film, the whole structure of it came from my listening to minimalist music, even though it wasn’t a film as concerned with sound.
I grew up listening to a lot of records that were fascinating. I was always dying to use some of Arvin Lucier’s ideas in something, and I think The Stone Tape was the first thing that was the perfect way of doing that – a way of looking backwards from what Lucier was doing. He was trying to annihilate his voice and we’re trying to do the opposite, bring back a voice from annihilation! On the one hand, it might be seen as a very dry, academic piece of work, but on the other hand it was something very sad – here’s this character that doesn’t like his voice and he wants the dominant frequencies of this room to smooth it out, he wants his voice to be subsumed. All of us can relate to that in some way.
But also thinking of your debut film – Katalin Varga(2009) – you created a lot of atmosphere in that film just from discordant noises overlaid with images of landscape. So I think it’s a tool that isn’t used enough by some filmmakers, and by using this technique, you’re experimenting with its possibilities as a threatening presence within the film.
In hindsight, yes. When we made that film, it was my habit of working. I took this long gap between making short films and my first feature and got into making sound stuff. So I’d developed this habit of working, which no one gave a damn about at the time! I’m not saying that out of sour grapes, it just took me by surprise when the film got recognised for its sound. I thought: ‘What?’, because people always did that on records and no one really paid attention.
So, I never thought in a million years that it was going to be special I was just making this story, working by habit, and then all this. There was that very pleasant shock when we made that film, and that’s what led on to Berberian, thinking of all those records that I loved, and if you use those ideas, combined with imagery, somehow it clicks with people. The best example is Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for The Shining(1980); on vinyl people find it too academic, but on film there’s something about the timbre and the dissonance that really ignites how you see the scenes.
So, a long way of answering your question is: I just work that way out of habit! After Varga, I thought: ‘people are responding to the sound’, and that had never happened to me before.
Obviously you’re a child of the 1970s, but it’s also a temporal location you keep returning to. The Stone Tape is set in 1979, the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy hark back to the 60s and 70s’ style of credits, and Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s as well. Is there something about that decade you’re almost trying to exorcise through your work?
I think it’s just childhood. Many directors just reference their childhood. If you think of the 1980s, the directors of Back to the Future (1985), Gremlins (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) were all going back to their childhoods in the 1950s. People’s childhoods are just perhaps more intense; whatever you experience or perceive embeds itself in you more, whatever you perceive now just goes straight through your head, like water off a duck’s back!
The way I saw television, the way I heard music, it somehow had this uncanny feel to it, and that’s something that stays with you. Was it a particularly odd decade? Maybe not. This generation working now just happened to be kids in the 70s. Perhaps in 20 years’ time you’ll have people looking back at the 1990s in a strange way, but for me the 90s was completely strait-laced. I think that’s all it is. I’ve become aware of that; Varga was the only contemporary story I’ve directed, but for some reason I always end up in that blasted decade!
Was the original Stone Tape something that made an impression on you, when you were young?
No, because I didn’t see it when I was young. I was born in 1973 and must have missed it when it was repeated in the 80s – I saw it much later. I saw it sometime last decade, so it didn’t have the same resonance… A lot of people I spoke to found it absolutely terrifying when they were children, but I was more into it for the whole sonic notion that was being explored, these notions of natural acoustics and so on.
I found it uncanny, but what we wanted to do – when Matthew Graham and I wrote the script – was to focus more on the melancholic side of Jill, and the slightly creepy nature of it. But I think I never found it really terrifying. The stuff I found terrifying was more mainstream like The Omen (1976) – Billie Whitelaw’s eyes – and so on. It’s strange, even with M.R. James, the only one that scares me is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).
With this radio version of The Stone Tape, you’ve cast comedy actors as two of your lead roles – Julian Barratt and Julian Rhind-Tutt. Is that because their heightened performances work well with horror, particularly on radio where it’s just voices?
I didn’t pay too much attention to that, there’s definitely some humour in the script, but in terms of casting I thought they would be interesting. What I wanted to do, and I guess it all goes back to when you hear bands like Joy Division, is that they have these gloomy personas, but when you hear about them, they’re just a bunch of lads messing around.
I think having worked in studios a lot, it is quite laddish in there. You get this kind of cabin fever, people just get on each other’s nerves, they start messing around and playing up, so I wanted an element of that kind of banter you get in the studio, especially back in the 70s where there was this casual sexism. To be a woman at that time, with all those blokes, must have been quite unpleasant. Also, what I like about that is that it sets up this fairly innocent framework, and when the creepiness does come in, it’s a bit more of a contrast, perhaps. I wasn’t interested in having a creepy atmosphere throughout the whole thing. The first half is more like a bad version of Fawlty Towers, and then slowly things happen. I never wanted to have any kind of background music, every single sound in the play is diegetic, and everything comes from what the characters are doing, even if the radio is on in the background. I never wanted to creep people out, the films I find scary are the ones where nothing is signposted too much. A lot of the terror I find is in Michele Haneke’s films – they’re stone cold silent. So, I’m only using the sound for when the characters are employing this machinery, this sonic drilling.
It’s a great sound in itself, and it’s a sound I like – you don’t need much more than that. There’s no emotive element to it. It’s cold and hard, and I really enjoy that.