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Exclusive Interview: “BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO’s” Toby Jones explores new dark psychic spaces in “KALEIDOSCOPE”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 | Interviews


Back in 2012, British actor Toby Jones created an indelibly disturbed protagonist in Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, playing an audio engineer who loses his mind while working on a giallo film. This week, he returns to psychological thrills with KALEIDOSCOPE, and RUE MORGUE got exclusive words with Jones about this and his past genre roles.

Opening in select theaters and also available on VOD and digital platforms this Friday, December 8 as an IFC Midnight release, KALEIDOSCOPE was written and directed by Jones’ brother Rupert in their first feature collaboration. The actor plays Carl, a London gardener who has recently done time in prison. Attempting to put his life back together, he invites to his apartment a young woman (Sinead Matthews) he has met on-line. But the date goes awry, and Carl’s situation becomes further complicated—and traumatic—with the appearance of his mother (Anne Reid), with whom he’s had a severely troubled relationship. The unsettling drama that results offers a fine showcase for both Toby (who also played supermarket worker Ollie Weeks in Frank Darabont’s THE MIST) and Rupert’s talents.

How long have you and Rupert wanted to do a feature together, and how did KALEIDOSCOPE wind up becoming the film you collaborated on?

Well, I worked with him a little over 10 years ago on a short that did very well called THE SICKIE, which was very different—it was comedic. It was set in an office, and it was a lot of fun. Then he started writing this piece, and told me it was with me in mind—I hope not with our mother in mind!—maybe two or three years ago.

Did he consult with you while working on the screenplay?

Oh no, he did it all independently. And when it was presented to me, as you would imagine with a script like this, that led to questions—some of which he answered, and he made some adjustments. But that was pretty much the screenplay we filmed.

Had you been seeking another project like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, and if so, did Rupert have that in mind when he was writing KALEIDOSCOPE?

I don’t know that I was seeking a project like BERBERIAN. I think KALEIDOSCOPE has similarities to it insofar as it’s opaque to a certain extent, and it’s also about a victim to a certain extent. I’m always interested in scripts that are led by atmosphere, and both films are very concerned with atmosphere and menace. They also pay homage to other genres; I’d say KALEIDOSCOPE is a nod to Polanski, and that tradition of the psychological thriller. It’s almost superfluous to note the debt to Hitchcock, because just about every film that’s made owes a debt to Hitchcock, but there are some fairly obvious thematic winks to PSYCHO.

When it came to getting into Carl’s headspace, did it help that his creator was your brother, in terms of communicating his ideas about the role?

Well, yes and no. I have to be honest: I think that a bit like Peter Strickland on BERBERIAN, he didn’t have answers to all the questions I needed, in a sense; the characters weren’t all there on the page. There were suggestions of why they were doing what they’re doing, but in terms of the backstory I needed to play them, I had to do that work myself. And I’m not sure whether either Rupert or Peter were that interested in hearing how I got there; they were just interested in the result.

So what was your personal process of getting into Carl’s head?

It was important that alcoholism is clearly at the center of his psychic world, and there’s a sense of multiple betrayals—both on the night, with how the date goes, and also the larger betrayal with his mother. So I was thinking about that, but always, I suppose, I try to look at a character and the opposing forces driving him. Here, Carl could so easily have been unsympathetic and dangerous and menacing, and I’m always looking at a way of balancing that out, because otherwise the thing would have become melodramatic. I’m always trying to find a vulnerability and a sympathy.

How about your onscreen relationship with Anne Reid as your mother?

Anne Reid is phenomenal; she wouldn’t like me to say this, but she’s quite a bit older than me, which she would have to be to play my mother, but she has all the necessary sensuality and allure that the character requires, for the sexual ambiguity of the story. She was so game on for doing a little independent picture like this; I would imagine she’s somewhat undiscovered in America, but she’s an extraordinary theater actress in Britain; I’ve seen a lot of her stuff on stage.

How did you keep Carl’s mindset on the right track while shooting out of sequence?

How I work is, I tend to draw a big chart. Peter described them as “occult charts,” because I did a similar one for BERBERIAN. I mark up where I want to repeat things, or vary them, and try to fill out the story myself, and create rhythm and a contrast within the character, because the script doesn’t do that, necessarily, and you have to be aware of that.

How was the overall experience of being directed by your brother?

Pretty good. I’d love to be able to tell you that it was a stormy, emotional and ultimately amazing rapprochement between two disagreeable personalities, but it was none of those things. We got on well before the film started, and when you’re shooting, there isn’t the time to get into anything that isn’t work-related. The professional roles you take on a movie set actually protect your relationship, and in the end, it was a very pleasing thing to be with each other in a professional space. You learn more about someone, and a whole new dimension of that person, in the workplace.

There’s a lot of great mood in and around Carl’s apartment; was that shot in an actual location, or on sets?

Both. They found a fantastic place in Hackney, in north London, with that extraordinary staircase—the vertiginous staircase that sort of haunts the film. But they also built a set for the interiors, because they wanted to play with the decorations; there’s a lot of sickly and hallucinatory atmosphere created by the different wallpapers.

When you made BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, how aware were you of giallo cinema, and did making it lead you to explore those movies further?

In terms of preparing for it, BERBERIAN reminded me more of the David Lynch world of people walking in and out of dreams than it did giallo films. I wasn’t familiar with those, and I did watch a couple as a result, and what was clear to me was that obviously, narrative is just one element, and design is just as important. I was actually inspired more by the music of those films; the stuff Ennio Morricone composed for them was so inspirational. Like with KALEIDOSCOPE, I find those scores, and the atmosphere they create, so compelling and hypnotic.

Can you talk a bit about working in the ensemble cast of THE MIST?

THE MIST was extraordinary. Frank Darabont told me, “I’d love for you to do this film,” and I said, “Yeah, but my script seems to be missing the last two pages; I don’t know what to say about that.” And he said, “I can’t release them,” and told me the whole history of the project and the original Stephen King story. Then he told me how he wanted to have this very dark ending, and that he wasn’t going to make the film unless he could do that. I found that very exciting, and Marcia Gay Harden’s character a fantastic, dark character of the religious right, who gives the film its whole allegorical meaning. It’s good in black and white; you can take that option on the DVD, and that’s the best way to watch it.

What was your experience working with all the creature effects?

Greg Nicotero, the legendary special effects guy, is so talented. I just assumed it was all going to be greenscreen, and then these fantastic tentacles and models and monsters started appearing on the set, and I thought, “This is great—this is how it must have used to be.” They did replace quite a bit of them with CGI, but it was great to have those fantastic models there. I loved working with Greg and all those guys.

Do you think you might work with Frank Darabont or Peter Strickland again in the near future?

Well, I’ve done a bit of radio with Peter, and I was going to do his latest film, IN FABRIC, but we just couldn’t make it work. We always chat before he starts a project, and I adore working with Peter; he’s such a unique filmmaker. There was also a film I was going to do with Frank that fell apart, but I hope that those relationships are just merely simmering for the moment.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.