I wanted to start, as all interviews should, with Franz Kafka – you once directed a theatrical adaptation of The Metamorphosis, and Berberian Sound Studio to me was working in similar terrain as we follow and sympathise with Toby Jones through the bureaucracy and ominous world of giallo film production. But The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t have that same entry point – the rules of the universe of the film and the central relationship are already there as we play catch-up over the course of the film trying to work them out. Did it feel like a conscious decision, to have that different relationship between character and audience?
I agree that Duke is about us catching up with the games of the film. I’m still quite surprised that some people think Evelyn actually is a maid who later falls in love, as that was never my intention. I wanted to maintain quite a static narrative for most of the film but the progression comes from what is revealed to us and our gradual understanding is what contributes to the dynamic. Therefore I wonder if the film feels weaker on second viewing or if an audience has already read the synopsis. I completely forgot about Kafka when writing this film. I adapted the play in 1992. I wrongly considered Kafka as a surrealist being a young Westerner. It’s only until I lived and worked in Eastern Europe, witnessing how confounding and absurd bureaucracy and work can be that I realised that Kafka actually was a social realist.
Is the insect motif then at all a nod at Metamorphosis? There’s an interest in the role of identity and role-playing/expectations in the domestic environment of sorts in both that and the film.
Not at all. Perhaps a nod to Jean-Henri Fabre, but it’s more about contributing to the heightened sense of texture. It’s more of a surrealist framework for the film and a valuable sensual texture since so much of the film is about that fetishist impulse. There are a few jokes with some of the insect names, such as True Lover’s Knot, but the insects were more about heightening the atmosphere and adding to the sense that this is a very autumnal love story. All the insects are dying, flying away to warmer countries or hibernating. The final lecture is on the mole cricket’s hibernation. The idea of a mole cricket living inside a tomb seemed appropriate given Evelyn’s desires. There’s also a reference to that strange Italian film, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.
I noticed the extensive end credits involved crediting various insect recordings, which surely must be a cinema first. What was the thought behind that? Is that part of making this film a sort of scientific, anthropological study? That parallel goes throughout, I suppose.
It was more about giving the credits a life within the film. If Evelyn had written the credits, they would have that level of detail and obsession. It’s also a reaction to the culture of sounds-to-go when you click on any sound you want now and get it within seconds. It’s generic and off the shelf. I wanted to incorporate field recordings that had an identity – they have a date, location and temperature even. That’s what I’m always looking for when I watch and make films – something that has character.
The Brakhage Mothlight homage is one of the climactic points of the film, and is at odds with many of the other influences – how did that come about?
It seemed the most direct, aesthetically economical way of conveying the anxiety after the rot has set in within the relationship. It certainly wasn’t financially economical and was the most expensive shot in the film. It is a Brakhage reference but he would’ve hated it given that there’s sound and it’s digital. There is a danger of these references feeling shoehorned in, but as there are moths in the film, this was probably my only chance to get away with it. The strangest part of doing it was noticing that the moth recordist, Michael Prime, attended the same Brakhage talk as me in 1994.
Was there a tension for you in both paying homage to Jess Franco, Alain Robbe-Grillet and other “EuroSleaze” films, while also making a film that in many ways – formally and thematically – is concerned with restraint? Those films are known for many things, but not their discretion. Was it something as simple as laying ground rules like that there would be no nudity or things like that, or did the form and style follow the content of the film?
There was no big deal as the Franco thing was merely a starting point to go into a more emotionally intimate and domestic direction. I don’t think what we did was better or worse than Franco; it’s just different. For sure, we allude to Franco especially with the lovely Monica Swinn, but my concern was only to start off the film like a Euro sex fantasy and then after the climactic sequence fifteen minutes in, look behind the curtains at the mechanics of the fantasy as well as the fantasy figures and see what makes both people tick. I wanted to see a dominatrix out of character and wonder how demanding it is to put on that kind of persona for someone you love. The lack of nudity is neither here nor there. I don’t see the film as erotic or anti-erotic. It’s certainly about the erotic but Evelyn is clearly a fetishist and her arousal doesn’t come from nudity. Her arousal is derived from the erotic association of objects and the erotic dynamic within a theatrical situation. Cynthia demanding a massage in high heels and hosiery is a huge turn-on, whereas Cynthia pleading for a massage in her pyjamas is a complete turn-off. The action itself is not the turn-on, but all the theatre and association with it. So in that context, it was easy not to worry about nudity. But as you suggest, what with the whole notion of restraint, it makes sense for that to be mirrored in the filming process by setting ourselves limitations.
I wanted to ask about your relationship with the actors – this is Chiara D’Anna’s first lead role in a film after her smaller role in Berberian Sound Studio, how did your working relationship with her begin? She’s terrific in the film.
Chiara turned up for an audition for Berberian Sound Studio and it all began from there. She had the right voice and physique for what I imagined Evelyn to be.
Outside of the sadomasochism element, theres an issue of power and control that is in all working and personal relationships. How did you discuss this with the actors? Was the fact that Sidse Babett Knudsen is a very accomplished and experienced actor in a chamber piece with the younger D’Anna one of those instances of imbalance between the two actors that you had in mind? Or were you or the actors channeling other dynamics in preparation for the film?
I’m sure the actors channel other dynamics that I don’t even know about. A lot of the time I’m with other departments sorting out other things. I try to feed the actors with whatever information they want, but my direction is pretty simple. I only comment if something is definitely not what I want. But there’s a broad scope in what I do want – as long as it’s understated and relatively still. I played a lot of music when filming which the actors loved. I often indicate the mood I want that way and the actors respond to it instantly.
I apologise for Australia being a bit behind the 8 ball when it comes to many films like this, which has been out in cinemas and Blu-ray/DVD for a considerable while in the UK. You’ve since completed a radio play with Toby Jones, The Len Continuum, and you’re completing an adaptation of The Stone Tape, also for radio. What are some of the attractions – and challenges – to working in that medium? Just through your films, it’s clear sound design is something you’re very interested in.
The sound doesn’t have much to do with it. Radio productions are by nature low-budget, so there’s never time to achieve an ideal sound mix as you would in film. I was more attracted to the speed of it all and the complete lack of fuss that accompanies it. One has to generate so much noise with a film’s release as it’s very difficult to find an audience. There isn’t that pressure with radio. You just do it and the play disappears into the ether. It’s a strange feeling working in isolation like that, but it’s refreshing rather than the usual roll of the dice with a film – is what we did going to be embraced or slagged off by the critics and public? None of that applies with radio as plays don’t get reviewed and I don’t have to travel around and get photographed holding bloody props, looking like a prick. It’s also a chance to try out new relationships with actors and road test ideas. I find it a very liberating and satisfying way of working. But you’d have to do one play every two weeks to survive in London.
With that said, are you working on a film at the moment? Or do you have any ideas in mind?
I never get time to start a new script so it’ll be a long time until there’s another film. I’m also doing one more radio play this year and that’s already taken up a lot of time with the writing even though it’s an adaptation that I’m co-writing. Luckily, I don’t live in London, so there isn’t that financial pressure to force me into something when I’m not ready.
Thanks so much for your time.