He’s not been around for a particularly long time, but Peter Strickland has already developed a tone and a voice distinctive to his sensibilities as a storyteller. Having wowed audiences with Berberian Sound Studio, his latest is In Fabric, a mysterious, creepy thriller that scrutinises over the notion of clothes carrying malevolent forces. Back at the Toronto International Film Festival we had the pleasure to sit down with him, and attempt to pick his brain.
Let’s talk about the ghost story sub-genre, and what’s the appeal for you? And whether you’d define In Fabric as being that?
It’s a tricky one isn’t it? I’m cautious about calling it a ghost story, not out of any kind of superiority, I adore ghost stories, I think they’re wonderful. I just don’t know if it delivers. There’s always that responsibility, as someone who used to work in retail, to brand it correctly. I mean it’s a cursed dress, we can’t deny that, but it’s more a way of exploring the haunting element of clothing. Dead people’s clothing that you love, when you clear out a wardrobe. It’s about different people’s reactions to clothing, and different reactions to wearing clothing, of feeling inadequate, feeling empowered. It changes your whole posture. Marianne feels great in that dress, Hayley thinks she looks fat in that dress. It’s exploring these side elements to the story. It’s clothing and human beings, that’s the subject really.
With all of your movies, there’s such a distinctive aesthetic and feel and tone. When does that get implemented? Is that something that very much comes through in post, or are things like colours and lighting on the set all very deliberately placed?
It’s a mixture of everything really. Every department has their part to play in that. Very strongly costume and make-up in this film. Camera, production design, and the sound, which is a huge part. Everyone has a part in this absolutely.
You’ve displayed a great affection to sound in your movies – Berberian Sound Studio was entrenched in that. How much of a pivotal role does it play in your movies?
For me it’s about an expressionistic approach. This film was a realisation that I had a condition called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Where you have a very strong reaction to tactile sounds, whispering, turning pages. You can literally fall asleep. I just didn’t think anything of, I thought everyone had that reaction and I realised they don’t. In this film it’s everywhere, it’s the washing machine, the dream, the legs in the shop. This is my gift to people who have ASMR really. It’s that world. I think if people fell asleep to this film that would be an achievement, it’s designed that way. I’m serious as well. All these things are trial and error. We invited seven women into the studio to do a live chorus, where they just talk about what they see on the racks, and I ended up falling asleep to it which is a good sign for me, and we used it a lot, and with no offence to the foley artist, we took a lot of the foley off. So if you look at the actual construction when we mixed the film, there’s not a lot of sound, just the chorus only. Then we treated it like music, that was very intuitive. When it needs to go up, we went up, when we mute it, we punch the sound out, that’s how we treated it with this one. We just wanted to convey character, convey atmosphere. We don’t always want to be showy with it, and I felt we were very restrained. Most of the work was taking sound away from the film. It’s always a lot of work and quite a long process when we do sound mixing, it can go on for months, but with very different ends in mind. With The Duke of Burgundy it was to keep it very minimal and restrained, whereas in Berberian it was very bombastic. But even then it was very logical. Every sound I could tell you where it’s physically placed, every sound is coming from a source, from a speaker or a mouth, a tape delay unit. What’s interesting in Berberian is the perspective of sound, how you’re hearing it. When Toby Jones hears the sounds of his headphones, we hear it at full volume as he would hear it. When other characters hear the sound on headphones, we hear it as if we were Toby’s character, being outside the room.
I didn’t – but if I said to you I fell asleep in your movie, you wouldn’t mind that?
No. I always fall asleep during film, it’s fine.
You mention your previous films – is there a continuing theme that you think ties them all together something that links all of your films?
Getting ignored in the street. I only realised with this one, that each film has a character getting ignored. They say hello and they get ignored. I’m shocked at that because it was not an intention.
That’s not deliberate?
No, not at all. Now I’m aware of it, it probably is, and will be for my fifth film if I ever make one. But is there an overriding theme? I don’t know, it’s hard to say really. I don’t think there is, no. They all come from me, that’s for sure, but they come from different parts of me. All of us have so many experiences, we all have so many quirks as human beings.
There’s always a sense of mystery attached to them, I always feel like I can’t quite understand what’s going through the character’s heads. I was wondering if you can? I interviewed Laszlo Nemes and he said though he creates and writes his own characters, yet sometimes they keep secrets from him, things only they know. Do you have a similar relationship with your creations?
There’s definitely an enigma to it. Writing is intuitive, and the nature of intuitive writing is that you don’t always know. Other filmmakers have spoken like this, that certain things only come later on. There’s a fine line between intuitive writing and forcing something, willing it out just for the sake of being strange. But the weird thing is, I don’t regard this film as strange at all, I find it my most logical in a sense. Apart from the dress moving from character to character, anyone who has worked in retail, or a bank or an office, it’s exaggerated of course, but only exaggerated. Even the dialogue, English retail dialogue is pretty euphemistic anyway, we’re famous for that. So again, I never thought about it on those explicit terms, but I don’t always know my characters through and through, absolutely not. Especially the more wayward ones.