Retail therapy has never been such a horrifying proposition than it is in British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s fourth feature In Fabric. It concerns an enchanted, “artery red” dress that curses all who wear it. Set in 1993, it’s both earnest and off-the-wall, a story about the mundanity of middle age (Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, the film’s sincere emotional center who puts up with a host of casual injustices while working at a bank and looking for love via personal ads) and the cultlike operations of the fictional Dentley & Soper’s department store. Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed, in particular, delivers a raving mad performance as Miss Luckmoore, who after hours removes her giant wig to reveal a Mr. Clean-bald head, performs sex rituals with mannequins, and disappears into the dumbwaiter shafts. During business hours, she says deliciously stilted things to customers like, “The hesitation of your voice soon to be an echo in the recesses of the sphere of retail,” and, “In apprehensions lie the crevices of clarity.”
It’s the latest wild ride from the mind of Strickland, whose last film, 2014's The Duke of Burgundy, explored bottoming from the top and other power dynamics in a BDSM relationship. When I interviewed Strickland about that movie upon its U.S. release, we discussed the notion that a movie depicting a romance between two women is more user-friendly than that of one between two men. “What will be really interesting is with this other film [about a male/male relationship], how quickly I can get the money for that. That will determine whether that’s true or not,” he told me. Now almost five years later, he’s yet to secure money for that movie, a period piece about gay men and hi-NRG music set in 1980 New York, in the period of sexual liberation that immediately preceded public awareness of AIDS.
Strickland discussed the difficulties of getting that project off the ground, his general obstacles for executing his artistic vision in film, and In Fabric’s rather affectionate satire of consumerism with Jezebel. A condensed and edited transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: In terms of your aesthetic inspiration here, a lot of reviews have mentioned gialli, but I didn’t see that at all.
PETER STRICKLAND: I didn’t see that, no.
Did you have specific aesthetic influences you were playing with?
Department stores, real life-department stores that I grew up with, which were very strange places. Not like Macy’s: small, family-run places. Very mysterious, very flamboyant. They had this weird mixture of Edwardian Victorian Britain but also ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and never [progressed] beyond the ’70s. That was the number one thing. There were a few influences here and there, but not many…
No movies outright, though?
Elements, small bits here and there. There’s even a bit from Lethal Weapon with [a depicted] leg lock. I stole that.
It seems like your preceding movies were far more indebted to existing forms in cinema.
Absolutely, yeah. That was a conscious decision. When I made The Duke of Burgundy, I could feel a pattern, especially when you’re doing Q&A’s and press: “What reference is here? What reference is there?” It felt I was losing the film somewhat, that people were kind of looking for references rather than getting into the characters. I wanted to cleanse myself in a sense. There are still influences, but I wanted to tone it down somewhat.
In the process, you’re creating your own sort of one-man tropes: As in The Duke of Burgundy, you have here mannequins, depictions of women receiving oral sex while seated...
Yeah, well, we’ll see if I can get in those shots if I ever make another film. I’ll keep it in mind.
I’m curious about this. When I interviewed you about The Duke of Burgundy, you said your next film was going to be set in the pre-AIDS, liberation-era social world of gay men...
Ah, don’t even go there.
What happened? When we talked, you said Duke of Burgundy could have been about two men just as easily, but you went with women. I suggested that two women as a couple would be at least slightly more palatable for audiences revolted by gay sex, and you said whether you got funding for this movie you had in mind would be a true test. It seems like the results are in.
It’s failed. Bizarrely enough, I’m meeting Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa to talk about it. So they’re producing it; Killer Films are doing it.
So you’re doing it then?
Well, no, because we can’t get funding. Killer Films are involved. It’s Tristan Goligher in the U.K. with Bureau, Christine and David are the American part of this. It’s been eight years now for that film. We just cannot get it funded.
Because it’s sexual and gay?
That’s got a lot to do with it. It’s a combination of that [featuring] men and a big budget, because we’re recreating New York. Had we made a film like Weekend, because that’s a much smaller scale, I think we could have done it by now. We had an amazing lead, who auditioned and blew everyone away. He’s not worth any money, basically. We just could not get people to put money on the table. So we got a Hollywood actor; I’m not going to name him. He agreed to do it, but he pulled out. Until we get a star, we’re stuck. But yeah, it proved my point. I don’t want to be proven right. But if I’m really honest, it’s not homophobia here. It’s not about that. It’s about: they need to get their money back. So a lot of it is, you just can’t sell it in certain territories.
But that’s homophobia by proxy, right?
True, but I would never say the financiers are homophobic. It’s purely financial. It always is. But it’s a film I would love to make.
Is it genre? All I know is pre-AIDS, gay…
I don’t want to say because every time I talk about it, I say more and more and there’s no point in making it after a point because I’ve said so much about it already. It’s called Night Voltage. It’s set in New York, 1980. The aesthetic, a lot of it comes from gay pornography of the 1970s, Wakefield Poole, Peter de Rome, Fred Halsted, Jim Bidgood to some degree. Hi-NRG music, as well. I can’t really say, otherwise I just give everything away. But the script has gone around so much that someone I know got it from someone else. It’s just nuts. That’s what happens. When you spend eight years trying to make a film, the script just travels. It’s not because I haven’t been trying.
When In Fabric was announced, I was initially surprised that it wasn’t your movie about gay men in 1980, but then I thought about it and I wasn’t surprised after all.
This was my backup film. And I have another backup film that I wrote. I have two more backup films. So they’ll probably go instead of Night Voltage. I’ve gotta keep working, so I always write backup scripts in case something falls through. I honestly, honestly don’t know.
In the In Fabric press book, of all places, you talk about making films not being easy now. “I’ve kind of reached that mid-career point now where filmmakers have to fend for themselves,” you say. Do you feel at all dispirited? Discouraged?
Yes and no. I’ve been through it before. I’m so lucky to have made four films that I’m grateful. I feel so privileged about that, that I’d feel like a bit of a dick to say I feel dispirited. There’s some directors out there who are really sour, and it’s like, “Come on, look at yourself. You’ve made films.” Just to make one film is such a privilege.
In an ideal world, in an ideal time, directors would not have to prove themselves. As long as they’re artistically committed to something, they’d get funding for film after film after film. But that doesn’t happen anymore. People want a commercial return. Critical success doesn’t mean that much. They’re looking at the box office figures. In terms of state funding, they have an obligation to new filmmakers. They can’t keep funding the same filmmakers again and again. It’s brutal, but you have to respect it. Had I been a newcomer now, I would resent someone like me getting the funding again and again and again. You can’t be angry about it. It’s just a tough profession. There are too many people trying to work with the same amount of money. It’s just not enough money, too many people, as simple as that. I’m not going to cry over it, I just keep trying to do stuff.
Would you ever do a commercial project?
Of course, I would.
A superhero movie?
I’d do anything. Well, no I wouldn’t… If I’m honest with myself, I don’t have those skills. It’s such an advanced thing to do, those films. If I had the skills, of course, I would. I’m sick to death. What I am angry about is the shaming that goes on in the industry. That, I really hate. I know producers who are ridiculed for doing reality TV as their day job. There’s a real bourgeois snobbery there, because usually if people can do this stuff, either they’re incredibly lucky or they’re rich anyway. I would never, ever judge anyone for doing something for the money. It’s not as if you’re ripping someone off. You’re doing an honest job. You’re practicing as well.
The problem I’ve had, I guess I pushed myself into a corner. I’ve made what some people consider weird films, and therefore I’m that weird guy that probably shouldn’t do a TV show. They think I’m going to try to make it weird. It’s like, no, I would do what I’m told. I’d see it as an excuse to make money and to practice. The problem is I had such a long gap between Duke of Burgundy and In Fabric; it was four years, trying to get Night Voltage made and that a collapsing again and another film collapsing that I was out of practice during In Fabric. I forgot so many things. We struggled. It was not an easy film to make. A lot of it was to do with me. If the timing was right and money was there, I would do it. It’s just nobody calls me.
There are two types of snobbery. There’s snobbery within the industry where they look down on you if you do commercial work, and there’s a snobbery in the outside world when actors or directors do regular jobs. There’s an actor who was in Fish Tank, Katie Jarvis, she did some work as a security guard in a shopping mall. Someone photographed her, put her in this British tabloid, and they were laughing at her. It’s like, “Come on, give her a break.”
She’s gotta eat.
She’s got to eat. Show some respect.
Do you like mainstream movies? It’s surprising to hear you decry snobbery. I figured your taste was refined.
I don’t watch them. It’s two different things. One is just working. Working, practicing, and earning money without being ridiculed. I don’t know. There are some mainstream films I like of course, but in general, I grew up with Bergman, Buñuel, Bresson, Ozu. The usual diet. I would never judge anyone for enjoying a Marvel film. A lot of these arguments have been distorted. I think the argument about that type of cinema is that it’s become too dominant. It hasn’t allowed other types of more personal cinema to flourish. I don’t think anyone’s saying those films shouldn’t exist. Of course, they should exist.
They’re going to no matter what.
All we want is variety.
You wrote In Fabric before you cast Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Did casting a black woman in a movie about shopping change the way you looked at this movie?
Not at all. I didn’t really think about it. She was just a character. When I wrote it, I didn’t know who it was going to be. All I knew was a woman in her 50s, British. It was Toby Jones who suggested Marianne. I didn’t know her work that much, to be honest. I bought Secrets and Lies on DVD. I’m not a Mike Leigh fan. I don’t normally watch his films, but I thought she was great in it. That was very early on, way before the BFI came on board. Again, I couldn’t go to the BFI, because I had another film with them. Not Night Voltage, but another film, which collapsed. You can’t go in with two projects. So I had a package of my script and Marianne in the lead, going to private financiers and not getting anywhere. Just couldn’t get the money. Bankside was the first private company that said, “Yes, let’s do it.” When they came aboard, I figured my other film at the BFI wasn’t going anywhere, so I asked if I could swap that with In Fabric. They came on board, the BBC came on board, and then it kind of happened really quickly.
Did you write the store clerk role with Fatma Mohamed in mind?
Yes, that’s the only role I wrote for someone. Every other part, I didn’t know who was going to be in it. That was very much coming off of The Duke of Burgundy. She delivered a very different performance from what I imagined when I wrote that Bondage Carpenter part. She played very vulnerable or sincere characters in my first films, and she really brought this flamboyance to that character, which I was not expecting. She did it in the rehearsals, and I thought, “Well I really like, that actually.” It was different from what I imagined, but I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much, I thought, Okay, let’s go even further for In Fabric.
It was a mixture of that and I guess thinking about how the British use language, especially euphemisms. We’re famous for it. Now we’ve got Iain Duncan Smith who wants to increase the retirement age to 75, calling it “Ageing Confidently.” Years before I made films, I had a night-shift job stocking shelves. The job title was “Twilight Replenishment Operative.” Her dialogue, I’m exaggerating it wildly of course, but I don’t see it as some kind of absurd or surreal tactic. It’s still stretching the elastic of what I’ve seen working in shops or that kind of retail world. That was always important to have a connection to my experiences working those jobs.
I don’t feel that this movie is didactic in its critique of capitalism…
Not at all.
But it does seem to probe its values all the same.
I really want viewers to feel they would do the same as Marianne. You’ve got your bank managers being assholes, your son’s girlfriend giving you hell, your husband’s left you for a younger woman, of course, why wouldn’t you go out and buy something nice to wear? I think that’s a very valid emotion. Not just for humans but for animals as well: plumage. To escape yourself. To transform. I really wanted to explore that.
But I wanted to explore other things. I wanted to explore fetishism. I wanted to explore body dysmorphia. You have Babs and Reg. They love each other, but she has a dysmorphia he can’t understand. He has a fetishism for hosiery. She can’t understand that. For me, it was a human thing. I enjoy that these are very private obsessions. That’s why I love Buñuel so much. He’d look into very private, intimate human obsessions, which I enjoy giving a voice to with no judgment at all. I hope it comes from a place of affection.
In Fabric is now in theaters and will be available On Demand on Tuesday, December 10.