The director reveals how a cum stain inspired the horror-comedy, talks ASMR and working with Björk
It started with an unexpected cum stain. The director Peter Strickland, whose films include Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, purchased a second-hand pair of corduroy trousers from a charity shop before noticing dried semen on the material. That white imprint would later prove to be the seed for In Fabric, a phantasmagorical horror-comedy that examines the perverse relationship humans have with their clothes.
“It was a big grim,” Strickland admits about his fourth feature’s unlikely inspiration. We’re in the café of Curzon Mayfair cinema, speaking shortly before the UK release. “I’ve bought second-hand shirts that stink of body odour. If you smell the armpits, you can still smell the person that had it before you. But it’s also fascinating that someone else’s presence is bleeding into my presence.”
In Fabric, then, is a film where ordinary outfits can have backstories. In this case, the protagonist is a haunted red dress that’s capable of violently murdering its owners. Described in the shop catalogue as “Artery Red”, the ever-cursed item of clothing first singes the skin of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptise from Secrets & Lies) and then turns elaborate with its methods of torture. As the possessed dress embarks on a rampage, it evolves into a ghostly metaphor for capitalism, sweatshop labour, and the various impulses that drive our wardrobe selection. Once the death toll rises, a semen stain doesn’t seem so grim in comparison.
Nevertheless, as Strickland’s fans will know, the pleasures of In Fabric lie in the kinky idiosyncrasies and deadpan humour threaded throughout each scene. Who else would include “Mannequin Pubic Hair” in their end credits? But in the Reading-born director’s first film set in the UK, he also delights in juxtaposing surreal sequences with mundane snapshots of suburbia. At times, it can resemble the Eyes Wide Shut orgy if it took place inside a Marks & Spencer clothing aisle.
“We used library recordings from the 70s to give it this generic quality. I know it’s very fashionable to say this, but the high street is like a haunted space now. Everything’s going online” - Peter Strickland
“A lot of it goes back to the sound of my childhood,” Strickland explains. “We used library recordings from the 70s to give it this generic quality. I know it’s very fashionable to say this, but the high street is like a haunted space now. Everything’s going online. So it was this idea of having an M.R. James sensibility, not on a misty beach or in a haunted house, but on a high street. It’s a place you normally associate as something very prosaic, vey bland, very uncanny.”
Ever since his Romania-set revenge-thriller Katalin Varga in 2009, Strickland has demonstrated an affinity for B-movies and genre cinema. 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio was a love letter to giallo slashers of the 70s, while 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy originated as a proposed remake of a 1974 Jess Franco sexploitation horror. As for In Fabric, the white-haired, cigarette-smoking doctor who delivers a baby is a possible reference to Eraserhead, and there’s a shade of Don’t Look Now to the redness of the killer outfit. But otherwise, the homages are less obvious, to the extent that Strickland insists his biggest influence was Ricky Gervais. (Don’t worry, just The Office – the dress doesn’t rant about political correctness.)
“Music has been a huge influence on me in terms of the highs and the lows and the intensity and the repetitions and the modulations.”
“The Office was my life,” Strickland recalls of his early 20s. “A lot of us would do those white-collar office jobs. We had no choice. We had to do them, and I saw it as a waste of time. But when I saw The Office, I thought, ‘My God, this is not a waste of time. If you train your mind to tap into any experience, you can get stories out of it.’ The way he used humour could have descended into something very earnest and self-pitying, but he used humour in a very cathartic way.” He pauses. “I know that impetus is not as glamorous as saying Suspiria. But Suspiria was not an influence.”
The mention of Dario Argento is unprompted. Does that mean giallo regularly gets brought up in In Fabric-related conversations? “Constantly,” he sighs. “Constantly! It’s fine. I’ve seen those films and I’m not offended. I made Berberian Sound Studio, so I’ve only got myself to blame.”
For the uninitiated, Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones as a foley artist who’s hired for an Italian giallo called The Equestrian Vortex. So we watch Jones as he slices vegetables in a recording booth to recreate the squelchy sound effects. The character, of course, loses his mind, and his work/life balance descends into a spellbinding nightmare. In a 2012 interview with Dazed, Strickland advised readers to “approach the film not as a narrative, but as you would a piece of music… it’s just something sensual.” Does that recommendation apply to In Fabric?
“Not as much,” he says. “But, again, we put a lot of effort into the rhythm of the film. If the dialogue in the store does your head in, you can always focus on the muttering in the background, because we’re treating it like a score – with the crescendos, punching it in and punching it out. Music has been a huge influence on me in terms of the highs and the lows and the intensity and the repetitions and the modulations.”
Strickland’s not kidding. In the second half of In Fabric, the focus turns to Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), a washing machine repairman whose monotone explanation of his job sends men and women into a trance. Although the four letters aren’t mentioned, ASMR is evidently at play here: when Reg spouts jargon about washing machines, it literally hypnotises his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires from I, Daniel Blake). Is the gag here that Reg is an ordinary-looking, ordinary-sounding man, unlike the majority of ASMRtists?
“It wasn’t conscious. I remember seeing the The Bohman Brothers do this mantra at The Bonnington Café in 2002. They were reading from DIY manuals, and there was a very enjoyable ASMR element to it.” Similar tingles are present throughout Strickland’s filmography, particularly in The Duke of Burgundy and its butterfly-related fantasies. However, the director only learned of ASMR a few years ago. “This is the first film I’ve done where I’m conscious of it, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I preferred it before when I didn’t know what I was doing. When you put a name to a kink, it loses its mystery.
“It’s not just the films I made. The music I listened to, like Luc Ferrari, Costin Miereanu, Robert Ashley and Nurse With Wound, they all had those elements. I didn’t have an intellectual response to it, and I wondered: ‘What is wrong with me?’ But ASMR validated my reaction to that kind of music. Then for the film, I was watching YouTube videos – some are done by cowboys and aren’t convincing, and others really understand the tactile nature of it. I saw Sunset, the László Nemes film, and to me that feels like pure ASMR.”
The sound design of In Fabric will, for those willing to admit it, send pleasurable chills down your spine and excite your nerve endings. Usually, it’s the quieter, The Office-y scenes where everyday objects are aurally amplified for maximum tingly gratification. “There’s a physical element to that sound,” he explains. “The pages of the catalogues, the gloss, how thin the paper is, the design of the paper. I see it as one big ASMR film.”
Along with their ASMR-ness, Strickland’s movies boast original soundtracks from indie icons. The music for Berberian Sound Studio was Broadcast’s final album with Trish Keenan, while The Duke of Burgundy was scored by electronic duo Cat’s Eyes. For In Fabric, Strickland hired the group Cavern of Anti-Matter – their leader, Tim Gane, is otherwise known as the co-founder of the recently reformed Stereolab.
“Tim did some demos way before I even had an idea,” Strickland elaborates. “He’s so incredibly industrious, as you would expect from his work. He can knock them out. Every day, there’s new stuff coming in, and lots of it – long, long tracks. He’s very thick-skinned. If something’s not working, you don’t have to tread on eggshells around him.” Still, In Fabric’s score is sonically different from, say, Emperor Tomato Ketchup. “Tim wanted to get away from the sounds he’s normally associated with. So he uses things like the celeste.”
Early on, Gane recorded a cover of Mick Jagger’s soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother. “We knew we couldn’t use it, so Tim kept changing it, and it ended up sounding like a fire alarm. That informed the script. I was like: ‘Right, there should be a fight in the store, with a fire alarm going off.’ Then Tim’s drones fed into the washing machine mantras. I’d say that was my favourite experience of the film.”
Strickland’s already lined up musicians for what he hopes will be his next movie, Night Voltage. “That film’s been going for seven years, and it’s a nightmare to get funded,” he says. “It just had a massive knockback again, so won’t be happening this year.” When I ask a question related to the profession of the protagonist, he stops me mid-sentence, utterly gobsmacked. “That’s disturbing. I can’t believe there’s a plot synopsis online. Jesus Christ.”
On the page, Night Voltage sounds like Eden or the Zac Efron DJ movie We Are Your Friends, but Strickland assures me that it’s misleading. Like In Fabric, he explains, a “synopsis doesn’t give the flavour”, and that his screenplay for Night Voltage was inspired by watching DVDs of gay pornography: James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, Peter de Rome, Bob Mizer, and so on. “Wakefield Poole was an incredible filmmaker. You should see Bijou. It’s the way he used mirrors, dry ice, prisms, lighting gels and superimpositions. To me, that’s pure psychedelia.”
An alternative is the film offers that land in his inbox – they usually mirror his most recent movie. So Berberian Sound Studio led to horror-related propositions; The Duke of Burgundy, a lesbian love story about a dom who tires of watersports and S&M, was followed by “well, you can guess”. Not that he often takes those meetings. “I would rather do my own stuff. I took the bait once. There was a film I said yes to because of an actor I liked, but that was a trap, because it was years of development hell, with very little money. It’s just not worth it.”
Due to my research, I’m able to name the project, the Oscar-nominated actor who dropped out (hint: they’re an A-lister who I can’t imagine watching a Strickland movie, let alone starring in one), and the cult band lined up for the soundtrack. That information wasn’t meant to be public. “Are you on the dark web? How did you find that out? I am stunned.” He shakes his head. “The internet is a fucked-up place.” On the other hand, if he was paid upfront, he would happily shoot a movie at a week’s notice. “I’d do an episode of Casualty or The Bill. I’d do anything. I have no shame whatsoever. It’s money in the bank. It’s practice. I just don’t get offered those things.”
One commission Strickland did happily receive was from Björk to direct 2014’s Biophilia Live. “Björk was just an absolute joy to work with,” he enthuses. “It’s her baby. You’re working with someone who’s created their whole world, and you’ve got to respect that. It’s really nice to get away from my own obsessions. When you make your own films, you’re always getting into arguments and fights. There’s always someone challenging you. It’s great not having to worry about my own nonsense and just serve someone else’s vision. I see it as a really wonderful memory.”
“Björk was just an absolute joy to work with. It’s her baby. You’re working with someone who’s created their whole world” – Peter Strickland
What musicians has Strickland turn down? “Björk’s the only one who’s offered me a concert film,” he says. “I’ve done pop videos, but I’m going to stop – the budgets are down to just over £1,000 now. Once you’ve factored in fees, which are like £100 for us each, it’s a minimum of a week’s work. My last pop video, I’m really proud of, but it takes time away from my regular work. You wouldn’t work behind a bar for £100 a week. Doing a pop video is more glamorous, of course, but you reach a glamour saturation where you think: ‘I need to make a living.’”
Could there be an In Fabric 2? Never say never. Strickland’s original screenplay featured three extra stories. “If this does really well, and if someone offers me money, I would seriously consider it. It would need re-contextualising, but there are many ways you could do it.” So far, the film’s been a hit on the festival circuit, including the famed Midnight Madness slot at TIFF. After the imminent UK release, it’ll be rolled out in America by tastemakers A24. In a weird way, does Strickland ever wish his boundary-pushing movies pissed off more audiences?
“Not at all,” he says. “I never set out to annoy people. Provoke, yes. Be mischievous, yes. The films I loved growing up were mischievous – Thundercrack!, the Morrissey/Warhol films like Heat, Trash and Flesh. But I’m incredibly grateful. Without them, I can’t work. But at the same time, it’s dangerous to second-guess an audience. I have to just go into myself.
“I think, as a filmmaker, if you go into yourself, you will find an audience. The irony is that you do films for yourself, and then you never watch them again, because they’re so painful and caught up in hassles. But that’s why you keep going. You’re chasing this dream: ‘I’m going to make the ultimate film for myself.’” He laughs. “But I know I’ll never watch it again.’”
In Fabric is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon On Demand on June 28