Rhapsody in red

Peter Strickland on dreaming through films and In Fabric

by Amber Wilkinson

In Fabric
In Fabric

Peter Strickland's In Fabric - which has its UK première at the London Film Festival tonight - is a heady mix of horror and ink black comedy. A brace of tales linked together by a cursed red dress and an unsettling department store operated under the watchful eye of a decidedly odd sales assistant (Fatma Mohamed). In the first story bank clerk and single mum Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) finds her life taking an odd turn after buying the dress for a Lonely Hearts blind date. In the second, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), a washing machine repair man who turns out to have a particular way with words - has the dress foisted on him on his stag night, only for it to bring trouble to him and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires).

Strickland, catching up after the film had its European première at San Sebastian, describes filmmaking as "a compulsion" and, perhaps surprisingly, says he doesn't mind if audiences drop off in the middle of his latest.

Of filmmaking, he says: "I've tried to give it up many times. From 1997 or 96 until 2009, I made a few short films but it was a very long period of not making films - over 10 years. But it's a compulsion, it's something I go back to again and again.

"I guess the big influence was seeing Eraserhead in 1990 when I was 16. It blew my mind. I fell asleep through it and there was this wonderful collision of the real tone of the film coming into me and a dream at the same time, melding dream and film and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to make a film that people can fall asleep to?' Because it's just such a unique thing for each person.

"If you're watching a whodunnit film then, obviously, you need a plot and it's not good. But if it's a film that requires an atmosphere it can be very beautiful to fall asleep because it enters you in a different way and stays with you. There's not a big plot in this film, you could easily fall asleep and wake up 10 minutes later. I fall asleep a lot and I usually like the effect of that. The sounds resonate differently."

He talks about the importance of "sonic texture" in his latest film.

It's not just sounds - crucial also to his previous film Berberian Sound Studio - but words that are important. From the way that the sales assistant embellishes her patter to the point of near-incomprehension to the special power that Reg seems to hold when he talks and even the slightly odd way that different characters repeatedly refer things, such as to having "a sleeping dream".

"That came from this autonomous sensory meridian response thing which exists around the whole film. It's basically an extended ASMR video," says Strickland, referring to the physical response some people have to certain sounds - for example whispering - often characterised as a tingling sensation on the skin.

"The way a human voice can lull you into a trance. It's all part of that well of texture," he adds, "I realised that all my films have this but I didn't know about this ASMR thing until a couple of years ago when someone asked me if I have this thing."

So, when it comes to filmmaking, is it worse knowing this and being able to label it?

"It is worse," he says "It's like every kink, once you've got a name for it, the mystery is gone. It's weird when you're asked these things, because especially after four films you're asked to find links. There was a freedom to writing, you don't know what you're going to come up with next. I think it's dangerous sometimes to link the work consciously, that's when you can get in trouble.

"I realised that all my films have a scene where someone gets ignored, whether it's in a corridor or on the street and I, honestly, only realised during the edit of this film. What's going on there? The only thing that I've consciously done that links them is that I've had the same suitcases in all the films, but that's just me. All directors have one little object that they put in each film."

He adds: "Every director... we all kind of root out our obsessions and our anxieties or whatever. We write about out what we're interested in. I wouldn't say that makes it autobiographical but personal? Absolutely. To me, there's no point in making a film otherwise. It's such a pain in the arse to make a film. To me, it has to be something that resonates. To lead people, you have to lead by enthusiasm and if you're not into it, it would be very different."

While he says he has "great concerns" about how his ornate language might be translated when the film shows in other countries, he adds that the English "love a euphemism".

He says: "The last time I went to the Jobcentre, it was quite a while ago now, but there was a night shift job of shelf stacking and they called it 'twilight replenishment operative'. It's a mixture of that and writing for Fatma Mohamed, I like to write for her. It seemed to work for that character."

Strickland has been fielding a lot of questions regarding the influence of Giallo on the film, to the point where a note of frustration crept in at the press conference. While he acknowledges he may have subconsciously referenced the genre, he insists his inspiration less much closer to home - to the department stores of his childhood in Redditch.

"They're wonderful, aren't they?" he says "Just very theatrical strange worlds. Out of time. They have their own logic, they have their own money system sometimes - these strange pipes.

"I just like to cast my mind back to when I was a kid. The nature of childhood perception - everything has a different feel, a different sound and I was just trying to be true to that somehow.

"All the muttering of the women, the movement of people shopping. But also this idea of transformation - when you go into a changing room, how you can feel empowered or how you can hate yourself when you try something on. So really exploring these ideas and clothing with a human presence - death and charity shops, selling dead people's clothes but you're not aware of it. There's a whole story going on there."

The film is a mixture of the decidedly odd and the everyday, with the collision between the two generating chills as well as a lot of laughter.

"The only strange thing about it to me was the most commercial thing - which is the killer dress," says Strickland. "Everything else had a logic to it. Those jobs, those discussions. I can relate them all back to real life, with a slight exaggeration.

"Everything I thought of, when I spoke to the actors, was all on a dial. Zero was reality, ten was extreme, whacked out whatever. The department store was number eight or number nine, Sheila's house was number one and the bank was maybe number four, so it was really just pushing the elastic of reality. With the store, of course, I'm pushing as much as possible."

He's says incorporating humour can be "tricky" and "doesn't always work."

He adds: "My favourite example of that is John Landis' An American Werewolf In London, it's a great marriage of humour and terror. When I started it, I had themes in my mind but I didn't really know about the tonal aspect. I think it just kind of comes through in a way.

"I kind of feel I can laugh at a character and still give the character some dignity and take them. The hardest one to do was Babs, with body dysmorphia, which is a very serious thing. It's being serious about these characters but also not being too heavy about it. I think laughter's quite cathartic. One of the big influences on this was The Office - it was quite revolutionary."

Like Ricky Gervais' comedy, Strickland's film is set in the Nineties - although it retains a definite Seventies air thanks to the department store.

"I set it in 1993," he says. "I wanted to set it as close to this date as possible but I wanted to keep the Lonely Hearts adverts because of the expectation of who it's going to be - with Tindr, you can see everything. So 1993 was as far as I was the closest I could push it because after that you get the internet going mainstream. I don't mind if people say the Seventies because it feels like the Seventies.

"I think it's my childhood. It's interesting in the Eighties, how many filmmakers were quoting the Fifties - Dante, Spielberg, Zemeckis. I think, as a filmmaker, it makes sense, you just respond and try to be true to that idea."

Some critics have suggested Strickland's film, in part, offers a critique of consumerism, but he doesn't agree.

"I'd feel like a hypocrite because I'm sure I'm wearing something that's made in a sweatshop," he says. "Our Smartphones, there's child exploitation. I don't want to be a dickhead."

He adds: "It's a satirical backdrop to the film. I would buy five dresses if I was Sheila. The very important thing is that she needs that dress. She needs to escape. What's really important in the dress is that we're not judging Sheila, it's a random death, like cancer.

"If I'm making them consumerist and the dress is judging them, it loses its power because it becomes logical and it's not so scary. so the thing was to give Sheila some dignity."

In Fabric screens at London Film Festival tonight and tomorrow. A UK release date has not yet been set.

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