Interview: Peter Strickland
All images from In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)
Following the 2012 breakout Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland cemented his stature as a droll fabulist with impeccable craft and a penchant for hypnogogic fetishism with the emotionally resonant The Duke of Burgundy (2014), in which two lovers in a world devoid of males negotiate their commitment to a long-term relationship buoyed by a rigorously imaginative BDSM practice. Strickland’s latest feature, the tripartite In Fabric, tracks the perilous trajectory of a haunted dress purchased at a department store that houses eerily persuasive salespeople and perverted wee-hour staff meetings. The film boasts superb performances, from Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed and musician Barry Adamson most especially, and, while hardly lacking in flights of disorientation, may be Strickland’s most accessible work. We spoke when In Fabric had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival; the film screens April 30, May 1, and May 3 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The last time we met, to discuss The Duke of Burgundy, you’d spoken about the pitfalls of creating entire worlds, worlds you can control—the problem with control being that things can become insular. In Fabric is an interesting response in that it sort of splits the difference. There’s just enough extravagant artifice to push things in a specific direction while letting in just enough oxygen from the familiar world to allow certain aspects to slip somewhat out of your control.
That’s probably by nature more than design. It comes with shooting out on the streets in London. There are outdoor scenes in The Duke, but there’s not much visible architecture apart from this house, which we had control over. It’s the story as well, of course, these human dramas punctuated by this absurd metaphor for the haunting power of clothing.
And the hypnotic power of consumerism.
There’s also that, which I have to be very careful with because I’m not a fan of didactic filmmaking. I’d feel like a hypocrite as well, because I don’t check the label of every item of clothing I buy. I’m sure something I’m wearing now was made in a sweatshop, which is not a good thing to admit to. I also don’t regard the main characters as rabid consumerists. The world around them may be, with all the fights and so on, but Sheila, Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s character, absolutely deserves that dress. In her shoes I would buy two such dresses, given the way she’s treated at work, and so on. My affection for these characters was important, a way to underline the fact that their fate is random. Like cancer. Like all manner of hideous things. There’s no judgment, no logic. But yes, there was this heavy backdrop of consumerism. We’ve all seen Black Friday chaos in the States, and in the UK we have the January sales.
But consumerist culture wasn’t the initial prompt for In Fabric.
Not at all. I wanted to make something with the atmosphere of a ghost story, even though we’re not dealing with a ghost. I was looking at all these BBC M.R. James adaptations, just trying to key into that atmosphere while not using the same tropes—no beach, no mist, no haunted house. Rather, I was trying to find the most prosaic setting I could think of: my hometown, the January sales. As soon as I started to speak about this idea people were shocked that I would do something so boring. But then you think about it. You look at the shops when it’s five o’clock in the morning and there’s this eerie, silent queue of people. Images like that are what made it come alive for me. Of course, you wind up in similar territory to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
I’d like to speak a little more about the fusion of the otherworldly and the familiar. In Fabric seems to be set circa your teenage years. I’m guessing, 1994?
Very close: 1993.
Did grounding the film in a place and time you’d personally inhabited contribute to what, for me at least, feels like a less tightly controlled film?
That may be true, but from my perspective what you’re responding to is just the nature of this particular production. We had 26 days to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before. There wasn’t enough money and, compared to my last film, a huge cast. At some point you have to say, this is what we got, so fucking get on with it. With The Duke we had time to mold every little thing, whereas with this film we were really running around. As for 1993, most filmmakers allude to their childhood years, which for me were the 1970s, but I didn’t want to do that again. The ’90s felt exciting, like a blank canvas, yet those department stories, which are pretty much extinct now, always felt like the ’60s and ’70s. Meanwhile, the Lonely Hearts thing, which is, of course, also dated, was something practical, in that it was essential for this sort of story. The guessing: you see a description and can only guess what someone looks like. So I needed newspapers and answer phones [answering machines], which would take me up to the mid-’90s, because after that you had the internet.
Given the film’s setting, as well as his being an art student and the nature of his imagination, Vince, Sheila’s son, struck me as something of a surrogate for you.
[Laughs] You won’t believe it, but they’re all surrogates for me. I try to put something of myself into all the characters, me and other people I know. There’s a lot of me in Sheila, a lot of me in Reg. I’ve stuttered, on and off, all my life, and Reg stutters under pressure. I always think it’s a mistake to say things are autobiographical, because it inevitably takes away something from the work, but it goes without saying that this sort of work is very personal. A lot of us filmmakers have had to do the kinds of jobs these characters do: temping, retail. The challenge is to usher those experiences into one’s films without it feeling like a vendetta, because a lot of those experiences are quite ball breaking. It’s more desirable to find humor there, to take characters like [Sheila’s employers] Stash and Clive and make them funny. I actually quite like Stash and Clive. But anyway, not to dodge your question: there is indeed something of me in Vince, but there’s also a lot of me in Vince’s girlfriend Gwen. She likes to get a reaction out of people, and that’s what we do as filmmakers.
Did the ’90s setting also play into casting of Barry Adamson as Zach? The music he was making in the late ’80s and early ’90s was especially exciting. A record like Moss Side Story is also very much about world-building and also places a considerable premium on atmospherics. I didn’t know if perhaps you wanted him around as a kind of talisman, a figure who could give you a flavor of that period.
No, all credit for Barry goes to Shaheen Baig, our casting director. I wanted someone from music—I always feel there’s something fresh to be found there—and she suggested him. Like you, I was a fan. On top of his own work he was in so many bands: Visage, Birthday Party, Bad Seeds, Magazine. But it seemed like a great idea to bring him on. There wasn’t really any thinking beyond that.
His performance is particularly endearing to me. He carries this air of rehearsed charisma. I found myself very touched by the sweet things he says to Marianne Jean-Baptiste.
And he doesn’t always say the right thing. The way he tells her to put on the dress, for example. All the characters have their flaws. The way Sheila spies on her son. Again, they’re all characters I love and they all have their issues.
Indeed, Sheila seems as intrigued as she is disturbed when she’s looking through the keyhole at Vince and Gwen in bed.
There’s a lot going there, isn’t there? To see your offspring doing that would be, I imagine, very intense. But there’s also the simple fact that she’s lonely. And her son is leading the active sex life that she once had. She doesn’t deserve what happens to her with the dress, but she does kind of deserve what happens to her with that scene. She shouldn’t have looked through the keyhole.
Jean-Baptiste is so brilliant, her timing and frankness and tenderness. She really anchors the first half of In Fabric. That moment when Sheila and Zach are dancing, when they tell each other that they’re not going to look for other people anymore, is so achingly sweet.
I’m glad you felt that. And I think it rings true. If you look at their town, or maybe any town, it’s really weird. Living in cities, it’s quite easy to make friends. Living in towns, it’s quite difficult.
And the process of connecting with others becomes compressed as we age. The occasions on which it happens, on which you really feel something for someone you’ve met only recently, are rare, so you’re inclined to push it forward.
That’s very true.
Fatma Mohamed has appeared in each of your features and seems to have a singular handle on your particular approach to tone and character. While Jean-Baptiste is instantly relatable, with Mohamed you have an actor who is able to enact bizarre rituals, deliver enigmatic lines of dialogue, perform puzzling gestures, not to mention demonstrate how to use a human toilet. She does these things with a disarming earnestness.
Which is absolutely logical. As the saleswoman, Miss Luckmoore, her lines might be a little bit dressed up, but I could tell you what each one means. So Fatma’s precision is essential here. Many of us have worked in retail and, especially in the English language, the lingo is so euphemistic. Even the whole greeting ritual. I worked in a restaurant once and our ritual was that in the morning all the staff, including the chefs, had to very formally greet the first customer. So all these activities and nomenclature are normal to me.
But if you go into a department store, these days at least, most employees will greet you according to a script, but they’re not going to look you in the eye and truly try to convince you that you look wonderful in this dress or that those pants will change your life. Whereas Mohamed conveys conviction and makes eye contact.
It’s true that most department stores staff wouldn’t talk to you quite like that, but they would give you attention. Whenever I spoke with the actors we always agreed that reality was a factor to be adjusted as with a dial. In the department store we had the dial set at nine, stretching it as far as we could, while at the bank it might be under five. At Babs and Reg’s house it would be back almost at number one.
There was an unanticipated tricky aspect of casting Fatma in this particular role, however. Brexit was happening, and even though it’s 1993 in the film there’s this post-Brexit paranoia that could skew one’s response to having Fatma in that part. I spoke to Fatma about this and she said, “Just go for it.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone read this aspect of the film as xenophobic, the idea that the most visible villain in the film is Eastern European. To be clear, I wrote this part for Fatma. I didn’t write it because she’s Romanian. I just love working with Fatma. I think it’s weird that she’s not in everybody’s films. She’s one of my favorite actors. I was so lucky to find her.
It’s no slight on an actor to play supporting roles, but can you imagine creating something in which she might play the lead?
We talk about doing more things together all the time. It’s just finding the right thing, really. All the actors I worked with on my first film, Katalin Varga, I’ve wanted to work with again. Tibor Pálffy, who played the rapist in Katalin Varga, was supposed to be in the short film I did for the Field Guide to Evil anthology, but he was too busy with the theater. The problem with Transylvania, if not the whole of Eastern Europe, is that theaters work in repertory, so the actors are signed up for the whole year. They’re only free in the summer, so all the directors there want them in that tiny window of availability. We had to fly Fatma over three times because she had performances in Transylvania.
Some artists feel that sexuality is boring, while others feel exactly the opposite. With many of your characters, we learn something about them through their sexuality. Their sexuality humanizes them, brings us closer to them.
I think you’re absolutely right that sexuality can get us closer to character. What I like is that it defines virtually every one of us to some degree. Most of us, thank god, are not violent. I don’t really have any great interest in violence, though I’ve watched a lot of violent films. With sex, whether we practice it or not, we all have an idea of it. We have an idea of what we like or don’t like. No matter how vanilla our tastes are, no matter how extreme or bizarre, we’re all haunted by our desires. I suppose that’s why I love Buñuel, because this is something he understood so well. I’m interested in the erotic potential of cinema, not to turn people on but to explore what turns them on. I’m British and it’s always a bit complicated with us. We tend to either approach sex too comically or too seriously. The balance can be elusive. We have a scene in which Reg and Babs, this couple who have been together 15 years and are talking about wedding plans, are making love. It’s played for humor but it’s a serious thing. Usually in movies the young couple get an erotic sex scene while sex with the older couple is played for laughs. I wanted to do the opposite, allow the couple in their 50s to have a serious, tender sexy love scene.
Sex is, of course, also something sinister in In Fabric. Is there some sort of esoteric causality between the sex rituals being performed inside the store at night and the manipulation of the dress? Or is the dress an independent entity?
There is, but I didn’t want to make it too blatant. For instance, when Miss Luckmoore is having a seizure—which is actually inspired by a Swans performance of the song “Coward,” which you can look up on YouTube—it’s intercut with the clothing rack moving back and forth, so there is the sense that Miss Luckmoore’s the puppet mistress.
That part seems pretty clear, but the whole menstruating mannequin masturbation scene is a little more opaque in terms of connecting that with what’s happening with the dress.
Yeah, it is more opaque, but there is the sense of some sort of dark sex magick going on. I wanted to leave certain questions open. Is there more than one dress being made? Is the mannequin someone who had lived before? There’s always that fine line of what to leave ambiguous and what needs to be made clear.
I certainly never got the impression that every scene neatly adheres to some narrative superstructure.
Not always, no. And that goes for all my films. The scene we’re talking about came to me while listening to Ennio Morricone’s “Sun on the Skin” from the film Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. I was on a train stuck outside Aszód in Hungary. Notable for being the town in which Brady Corbet’s Childhood of a Leader was shot. I had the song on repeat on my headphones and the whole scene came alive at that point. So the way I wrote that was very intuitive. Other things are more calculated. There’s always a danger in surrendering to intuition for its own sake, but that definitely felt like it had a resonance with the rest of the world of the film. It’s actually my favorite scene in In Fabric. There’s such a change to it.
With The Duke you managed to eliminate the question of gender, but with this film gender returns in a big way, because Mister Lundy, the department store boss, appears to be the pulling the strings. He struck me as the child of Frank Booth and Nosferatu, or something.
Oh, god. That’s quite a match.
Initially, Mister Lundy’s voyeurism, like that of Frank Booth, suggests that he might be impotent, but, as is illustrated in the scene we’re discussing, he clearly is not. Though perhaps he can only respond sexually to mannequins. Weirdly life-like mannequins.
Which isn’t that strange really. I’d rather not give the impression that I’m sexually attracted to mannequins, but… [Laughs] They eroticize clothing. That’s what mannequins do. So why wouldn’t they be fully functioning down there? Though perhaps that’s a’70s thing. Pubic hair, I mean. It’s a trope of ’70s softcore films.
You spoke earlier about the importance of not applying karmic logic to the events of In Fabric, which makes me think of how many times I’ve heard people apply such logic to Psycho, this idea that because Marion Crane stole the money she deserves to get murdered. One of the most striking things about Psycho is the terrifying randomness of what happens to its heroine. What’s more, it’s also, like In Fabric, a kind of splintered narrative.
Psycho was indeed an influence in that sense, something I could fall back on and say, “Here’s a narrative where the lead character drops away.” I know some people who read the script weren’t crazy about that, but it was really important to me that we see the film as a chain of events, that the dress moves from person to person, wreaking the same havoc. It would be the same if you had this shirt that was worn by, say, someone in your family who died, or it’s a shirt you can’t stand, or a shirt you’re erotically obsessed with, or whatever, there’s just something potent in human reactions to clothing, to bodily stains, blood, come, all kinds of things. That’s what I’m interested in, the way that an inanimate object, something that someone has worn, can change your blood pressure.. In hindsight, I wish I went a bit further with that.
The chain narrative also got me thinking about EC Comics and the like, narratives where at the center is this conceit, a haunted something-or-other that we’re going to follow over time.
Weirdly enough, one of the filmmakers I was thinking about with In Fabric was Peter Greenaway. The film is a million miles away from Greenaway, obviously, but what I love about his approach, what was useful to me here, was his use of bullet points. We have a film about clothing so we’re going to touch on all this substrata, all the facets: hosiery fetish, body dysmorphia, dealing with a dead person’s wardrobe. All these things come back to clothing and our relationship with it. This is a middle-class, High Street story; it’s not really about high fashion. It’s about the human response to clothing. The consumerist commentary is there, as we mentioned, as it’s there in this sort of afterlife sweatshop. In my first draft, someone had actually cursed the dress in the sweatshop before it made its way to the store.
I was actually wondering if you’d considered that.
I did. And it felt very precarious. There was a sweatshop worker who’d been treated especially badly and had given up on life and cursed the dress as a form of revenge. But ethically you slip into some really troubled waters with that. Still, I really wanted the sweatshop, so I just switched it around to the end of the film, to this afterlife in which one’s blood is stitched into textiles. Again, this element of bodily fluids. There’s a scene we didn’t have time to shoot in which, after Mister Lundy comes and the ejaculate lands on a dress, it dries and the next morning a customer picks it up. What I like about bodily fluids on clothing is that it really shocks people. People seem able to handle death and mutilation, but as soon as you get into body fluids on clothing they get uncomfortable. Yet it’s the most everyday thing: the human imprint on clothing. It’s literally surrounding us nearly every moment of our lives.
José Teodoro is a freelance critic and playwright.