Peter Strickland’s fourth feature is the director's most ambitious film, his most extravagant and his funniest. After making films that have focused narrowly on a small group of characters, and often set largely within a single environment, In Fabric sees him telling multiple stories about disparate characters, all of whom are connected by a haunted red dress. This dress – which is listed as ‘artery red’ the the Dentley & Soper’s department store catalogue – floats from one owner to the next, seemingly a perfect fit for their bodies until it renders those bodies lifeless. Pitched somewhere between Suspiria and Are You Being Served?, In Fabric is another singular film from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in British cinema, and I met Peter Strickland to discuss it during the London Film Festival. This conversation covers some surprising plot developments in the film, so I’d advise people to read it after watching In Fabric.
This feels like a more expansive vision from you, in that we're getting a look at the world that surrounds your characters. Is that something you had in your mind when you were developing the film?
Not really, but it makes sense now. For me it was just that the habitat was a high street, which involves lots of habitats within that, and I guess stuff came out of that organically. There was no conscious decision to open up the world, that's just what the story needed. The high street, a dress causing havoc, it was very difficult to do. We had more money than my previous film and I thought, "Wow, this is great!" but then we had more than triple the amount of actors, more than triple the amount of locations and so on, so that money doesn't go far at all. Plus we shot it in London whereas the last film was shot in Hungary, which is cheaper. It was tight, very tight, but you just have to make it work somehow.
Did you always see it as a two-part story?
No, there were many variations. There were some with six stories, there was one story, but in the end I settled on two halves. It could have been a TV series, quite easily, it could have had sequels and so on - it's still open to that, the dress will continue - but ultimately money decided it for me. I was a bit sad about it initially but I realised with hindsight that I wouldn't have time to be with those characters and then you don't get attached to them. The important thing was to not want them to die. I didn't want to it be like a slasher film where you don't care about the characters dying, or even worse this tacit understanding that they deserve to die because they've fornicated, which has always perplexed me. So it was very important that you see characters with all their frustrations, their dreams, hopes and motivations, and hopefully you can see that this dress is random in its power, it's not judgemental.
I guess there is a risk there in the fact that we get so attached to Sheila and her story...
Yes, I've noticed this...
It's a bold move to replace that character we've grown fond of with a guy who keeps delivering monologues about washing machine repair.
Yeah, I've paid the price for that. I've been told off quite a few times for the second half. I mean, that's the way it is and I wouldn't change it in hindsight. It's tragic that she dies, and to be honest I'd be more concerned if you weren't bothered by it, because that would mean I'm not doing my job with Sheila's character. The fact that there is such a strong reaction to her death means Marianne has pulled it off, she's really inhabited that character. For me, it always had to move on to other people.
But the shop still gives it all a sense of unity.
Yeah, and Stash and Clive. It's the high street. Originally I was going to have Reg fix Sheila's washing machine but that felt too connected, too fatalistic. It was important that they'd never met each other. There are hints, you know, when Bananas Brian is wrapping up the baubles in newspaper and you see that headline. That's one of my favourite moments in the film, just how cheap death can be, someone else's bauble wrapping. It's tragic, but there you go.
Another piece of connective tissue between the two halves is this idea that neighbours and co-workers are constantly snooping and reporting on each other. Where did that idea come from?
[Laughs] From real life! Well, maybe not neighbours, but you've never been grassed on at work?
I was just struck by how prevalent it is here. It seems like everyone is at it and it creates this paranoid Kafka-esque atmosphere.
I think it's because I lived in Eastern Europe too long. In Eastern Europe Kafka is regarded as a social realist, and I think it's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it, everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality. It is exaggerated but there's still a link to real life, that managers can behave like that and people are...I mean, you must know people at work who get jealous because somebody's going to the toilet and then clocking off. It's this petty mindedness. So much British humour comes from one-upmanship and making people look stupid, that's just a British thing and you don't get it so much in Hungarian humour.
Do you feel like your time in Eastern Europe gave you a different perspective on that kind of Britishness?
It's stuff I never noticed until I lived abroad. English euphemisms, the way Fatma's character speaks and all this kind of stuff, and how common acronyms are. And class hits you like anything. I guess because I'm middle-class I'd never really thought that much about it, and it's only when living abroad that I really hits you how class seeps into everything in this country.
Does it feel like a more personal film in the sense that you're back to where you grew up and exploring the shops you remembered as a child?
They're all personal, all the films. They're not autobiographical but they're all personal. It's weird because living in Reading I really craved escapism and I was obsessed with Herzog and Tarkovsky and the exoticism of Eastern Europe or Germany, and so on. I craved that as a filmmaker. But living for quite a long time in Eastern Europe, in Slovakia and Hungary, Reading became exotic for me. I would bring friends over to Reading and I could see it through their eyes as something wonderful rather than how I looked at it as a kid. So yeah, I guess I saw Reading with fresh eyes and I guess you try to combine your childhood perception with the perception of someone who is new to Reading, and that's how In Fabric ended up, as a merger of these two things. A Euro-pudding, I think we call it.
There's a nostalgia for a lost era of retail too. Going to a big department store which is this grand palatial space, and the tactility of sifting through objects and looking at catalogues. It's a stark contrast with how we shop today.
Yes, I think it's very sad. I think online shopping is great for people who can't get to the shops for whatever reason, but it's kind of taking over and very soon we're only going to have one mode of shopping. It's good to have both worlds. I like entering another space, especially independent shops, which always have a unique atmosphere, and I like the interaction. I also don't like having a record of what I buy online. I buy a lot of dodgy DVDs, that's no big secret.
And then you get a lot of weird recommendations.
Oh, the algorithms! They drive me mad. I just want to speak to a human being and flick through a rack, there's something physical about flicking through records and that process of discovery, and talking to people. I think something would really be lost if we only did things online. You know, we all shop online and we have to sometimes, but when I go into DVD stores they're just empty now, it's just tragic. So yeah, I see it as much as a celebration of the shops as I do a light satire on consumerism, because I don't regard the lead characters as consumerists but that is in the background of it with the fighting and the queues and so on.
And the people working at the shop being personified as vampires.
Yeah, and this idea that once the dress is out it should never come back, so they always freak out when someone comes back with the dress. The vampire thing came very naturally, it just kind of made perfect sense in a way. And this idea of humans looking like mannequins and mannequins looking like humans. And this idea of bodily fluids; is the menstrual blood of the mannequin acting as some kind of dye?
The dress in the catalogue is listed as being 'artery red'.
Absolutely, yeah. Actually it's a shame because there was a scene that we just didn't have time to shoot, it was an extension of the scene where Mr Lundy ejaculates, and in the script the cum lands on a blouse and creates this beautiful splatter pattern. The next morning it dries into this kind of crystalline silvery thing and a woman sees it and says, "Ooh, that's nice!" and buys it. I really wanted to explore this idea of bodily fluids on clothing because, you know, all clothing has bodily fluids, sweat, blood, cum, whatever. It's very taboo but it's such an everyday thing, and there's something haunting in that, I mean, Vince is so obsessed with it that he wants his face printed on Gwen's underwear, but Sheila is disgusted by the same underwear, she won't even put it in the washing machine. Objects have a power, a dead person's clothing can make someone cry, so objects are not just objects, they're very powerful things that create human emotions. I think the film is just using the haunting as a device to explore ideas about...not about fashion - which I'm not very interested in, as you can probably tell - but about how we feel when we wear clothing and how we feel when we see clothing.
How do you work with your design team - your cinematographer, and your costume and production designers? Do you present them with a lot of photographs and references materials, or do you give them a sense of what you want and have them present ideas to you?
I give them stuff and they give me stuff, so it's like a two-way thing, and through trial and error we discover things. It was interesting with this film in particular, because the dress in The Duke of Burgundy was very heightened and not realistic at all, and there was a great chance to do something really beautiful, but these characters have to work on the high street. Reg has a fleece jacket, Marianne has an ordinary coat, and what I loved about working with Jo Thompson in costume is that she's not afraid to put those on a character. Sometimes people are like, "It doesn't look good on my portfolio!" but she was so good like that. She didn't care about the portfolio she just cared about the character. Yeah, Reg looks really, really plain in jeans and a fleece jacket, that's as plain as you can get, but that's his character. So I was really liberated by that and I think what's good about having the plain clothing is that it really contrasts with the staff in the store. My favourite moments are when you've got Marianne's very plain jacket with Fatma's very flamboyant costume. But yeah, I think with all these elements we spend a lot of time on details you don't see much, like the catalogue, that was a huge job.
Tell me about working with Fatma Mohamed, because I think I've only seen her in your films and she's incredible. Her presence, her delivery, everything she does is remarkable. When you create a character like this, I assume you're creating it specifically for her.
Do you already see the character very vividly at that point or is it something you work with her to develop?
I do see it in my mind. It was written for her, clearly, and it's developed together in the sense that, when she did The Duke of Burgundy that was her take on my script, that delivery. That was very much her, and I really enjoyed it and I wanted to extend that into another character, so to that degree it was taking her cue from that film. I feel like we can't do it again, that's it, we need to put it to bed and find a completely different part for her on the next film, in a different look. But I love working with her, she's a chameleon, and it's an incredible privilege to find an actor you can trust, feel comfortable with and work with again and again, so I can't imagine not working with her. I was very lucky to find her. When I cast my first film Katalin Varga, she was in it purely because she was in the same theatre as Hilda [Péter] and Tibor [Pálffy] and everyone else, they all came from the same theatre, pretty much, in this small village in Transylvania. I loved all of the actors in Katalin Varga so I'm not trying to prioritise one or the other, but there was something about Fatma. Normally when I write a character I don't know who is going to play that character. When I wrote Sheila, in the first few drafts, I didn't know who would play that.
Because Marianne has mostly been off the scene in terms of cinema.
Yeah, thank God she accepted. I had no idea how she'd react to the script because I think she hasn't done genre before. She did Robocop, but not as a lead. Thank God she said yes because I can't imagine it with anyone else now, she's perfect.
Thinking about Fatma's performance also got me thinking about line readings. It's not just Fatma, but there's also the washing machine monologues that induce a trancelike state, the repartee between Julian Barrett and Steve Oram. The characters all have very specific ways of delivering their dialogue. How closely do you work with actors on that aspect of their performance?
It depends on the actor and the scene. Some actors I was very free with, like Hayley [Squires], I trusted her. Marianne as well, I was pretty hands off. With Reg it was a bit more about modulation, there's no high and no low. I know a few characters like that who just don't get excited, which I really respect, they're just not emphatic at all, everything's alright. So we talked a lot about people we knew, we both have friends like that, and we were just trying to find that tone. The whole mantra came from these guys called the Bowler Brothers who would read stuff from DIY catalogues. I mean, Fatma was the most specific. It was a weird one because it was written with her voice in mind but it had to correspond with how I had imagined her voice.
The sound in general is fascinating. I think I'm right in saying that we hear a different emotion in Sheila's voice every time we hear her answerphone message?
That's correct! Very good, you're the first person to say that. It was very important to do that, it's as if the machines are emoting with the characters, and it also happens with the fire alarm, the pre-recorded voice by Fatma, which changes.
It made me think of the old Preston Sturges gag with painting changing its expression.
That's a good point, I didn't think of it like that. It's true. The answerphone just seemed the perfect way to show how tragic it was. I didn't want to show Vince crying, I mean, he's masturbating upstairs, he's completely unaware and that's tragic. This is what happens, you know, you get a phone call that somebody close to you has died and you're masturbating upstairs, it's terrible. It's absurd and ridiculous, but it's kind of real life as well. I was not trying to make light of her death at all, I was just trying to show how fucked up real life can be. The answering message is completely unrealistic, of course, but that seemed the most effective way to show how sad it is that she's gone.
Sound design is obviously a key part of the process for you. Is it a process of discovery?
Yes, I'm very involved. There are discoveries, of course. The big discovery in sound design was the muttering in the store. We struggled a lot to make it work. It just didn't have that 'otherness' which I really wanted that department store to have. Martin Pavey, who did the sound mix, suggested bringing in six or seven women into the studio, to improvise and do muttering, just as plain background, not to the extent that we used it. They came in, stood in a semi-circle in the dark, and improvised, and I kind of fell asleep to it which is always a good sign. It was like a eureka moment for me, that this is more than just filling, this is like a chorus. So after that I had the confidence to take off all the foley and all the atmos, and have a really barren mix. Everything just floated after that, but again that was a collaborative thing. It was Martin's input and my input, and it was all chance, so a lot of things in the sound mix are from discovery. Even the graphite, the pencil against the paper, we did a mid sweep on that which makes it sound like it's sucking in. You can only do that by being there in the studio with someone. If you're doing it remotely, these things don't happen. In a way it's one of my favourite processes, I think writing and sound design are my favourite parts of making a film.
I was reading an interview you gave around the release of The Duke of Burgundy and you said your next film was going to focus on gay life in the pre-AIDS era. Is that still in the works?
That's going to be my next film! [Laughs] It was going to be my next film after Berberian and then after Duke, it's on and on. It's just so difficult to get money for that kind of thing, just because of what it is. You can't sell it to many countries, hence you can't make the money back. If it was cheap I reckon we could do it, but because we have to recreate a lot of nightclubs, it's really difficult. We've got Christine Vachon now on board, she's been really great, she and David from Killer Films, and Tristan Goligher from the Bureau. We're trying now to make it work but it has been six years that I've been trying to make that film. I guess it's just the way it is, someone else will say to me "I've been waiting twelve years to make my film," so I'm not complaining.
You mentioned Querelle as a reference point. Is the idea still to go for that kind of heightened, artificial style?
That's still the idea. Since then I've really got into '70s gay porn, specifically Wakefield Poole. There's one film called Bijou, which blew my mind, it was so strange and psychedelic, and vaguely similar to Pink Narcissus; completely underground, self-made sets, with dry ice and mirrors, and multi-projections. I thought, "Wow, this is the key!" I mean, I can't recreate the clubs because I wasn't there, I was in my school shorts in Reading, so you might as well go completely the other way and make it into this cinematic netherworld, which has its own logic. I'm trying. The cynic in me suggests it's just going to go on like this, but I hope not.
In Fabric is released in the UK on June 28th