Held at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, following the premiere of In Fabric at Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2019, this is a candid conversation between one of the industry’s most obsessively cinephilic modern filmmakers, Peter Strickland, AFTRS Head of Screen Studies Matthew Campora and Creative Practice lecturer Maija Howe.
Known for his love of Italian giallo and Spanish sexploitation in particular, and for his dedication to manipulating mood with lush but disturbing sound and visuals, Peter Strickland first came to international prominence with his 2009 multi-award-winning Katalin Varga, a rural film noir examining of the circular nature of violence. 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio and 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy cemented his growing reputation as a truly unique filmmaker, beloved for his deliciously fetishistic genre homages. His newest work of art, In Fabric, reinforces this.
Matthew Campora: All right, good evening. Peter, thanks again for joining us. We’ve compared notes, we’re all a little bit nervous, but, Peter, it’s awesome to have you here. Maija and I have a lot of questions prepared, we’re hoping we don’t have to ask in order, we’re hoping you’re just gonna speak away to us. We’re at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and as many of our students are here, one of the big questions I’m curious about, and I’m sure some of our students are curious about as well, is how did you become a filmmaker? And is it something you always wanted to do?
Peter Strickland: It’s not something that I wanna do now, but– From the age of 16. Yeah, I was – I come from Reading, it’s a middle-class suburban background. I watched pretty regular stuff, but I used to have these kinds of top tens in my head of fake films just because I was so bored at school. But after a while I thought, hang on, I’m making up all these stories, it was just for my own, to negate boredom, I wondered if there was something in that, maybe I could do it myself. And I don’t know, when I was 16, it just hit me that this is what I wanna do. I didn’t even know what a film director was until I was maybe in my mid-teens. I just thought the actors directed it, well, they still try to direct it. So, I really wanted to do it but I didn’t really have any kind of direction. So for half a year, I was still watching your Tom Cruise films and so on, and then I saw Razorhead in London, in this rundown cinema called the Scala, which felt like an extension of the film I was watching, so the space in which I watched it in was just as important as the film. I mean, I still don’t understand the film, completely threw me out. And I fell asleep as well, which kind of added to the intensity because I think things are just gonna enter your bloodstream when you fall asleep. So, just completely different. The use of sound, it was expressive use of sound, it was conveying a state of mind, it was all these sounds that other people were trying to eliminate that were just brought to the foreground. The sound of the water pipes and so on. So, that was the point where I thought okay, this is the type of film I wanna make. But the problem with that is once you know what kind of film you wanna make, you’re tryna make that film again and again, and you’re just ripping off Razorhead. So it took many years for me to just unchain myself from that influence. But that opened a door into Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Hertzog, Warhol, especially Warhol. But then, I bought my first – Stop me along the way because it’s quite long. So this is 1990, and I bought my first Brownie Nizo Super 8 camera for 15 pounds. And just filmed stuff, I didn’t make films, I just filmed things. Just got confident with the camera. Then in 1992, I did my own theatre play for an amateur theatre. I did a super 8 film, something I can actually put together, which I showed at Melbourne the other week. And then the London Film-Makers Co-op had these open screenings and I showed stuff there. And eventually, it led on to doing my first 60 mil film in 1995 with Holly Woodlawn from Andy Warhol’s films, and Nick Zedd, who was part of the Cinema of Transgression. The problem with that was 60 mil was so expensive back then, I mean, you’re all so lucky now, you have iPhones, it’s just incredible. We edited on a six-part steam bag, which costs the earth just to hire. So, it just crippled me financially. I’m not a poor kid, I’m a middle-class kid, but even the cost was so heavy that it was pretty much like a six-year gap of not making films. And in that time I was writing and writing, applying and so on. But it’s just a numbers game, you just cannot get to that next level. Rejection, rejection, rejection. I tried to get into film school. Oh, I didn’t say this, I tried to get into film school, I’m a film school reject. So, this was in 1992, I applied, to Reading University, Film and Drama Department. National Film School was not on the menu for me because my parents blew all their money sending me to a private school so that was my luck, it was done, finished. ‘Cause so you know, if I went to Reading from a drama, I could stay at home. So I wrote an essay on Jack Smith and Stan Brakhage are very passionate essay and didn’t get in and I was absolutely heartbroken. And I met someone who did get in, and I asked her what was your essay on? “Oh, it was Kevin Costner”, and I was just – I think it was that Kevin Costner sentence that still motivated me through all those difficult years of just all right. So, yeah, eventually money came back, because I had an inheritance, so that was in the early 2000s. So, I made my first film on 30,000 euro. I should add, only shot it and edited it. So, that was the misleading thing, because films like Small Time by Shane Meadows, or El Mariachi by Rodriguez, the press would always emphasise how little it cost, ignoring the post-production costs because it just sounded more glamorous that way. It was very misleading because post-production is what kills you. So the post-production was double what it cost to shoot. That took two and a half years to get from 17 days of shooting in Transylvania, to post-production, to finishing it. But we were incredibly lucky. A sales agent saw the film, liked it enough to send it to Berlin, they put us into competition, then it got remarkably, I’d say scarily easy after that. Now it’s difficult again. Having two sweet spot moments with my second and third films, of it being just a walk in the park to get them funded, and now I’m mid-career, it’s that awful phase, and now oh God, here we go again.
Maija Howe: So what are some of the differences in terms of why you found it easier to get funding for the second and third films, as opposed to now?
PS: Probably guilt. I think The Guardian did a good job of that because they used it as an excuse to slag off the UK Film Council for not supporting me. So I think they just felt guilty. But it’s not true because I never actually applied to them, I applied to other people. All my applications were before they were set up, like British Screen, the BFI, Seven Arts, Ten by Ten, that was a big film scheme back then where you could do 10-minute films and show them on BBC Two. So, Lynne Ramsay came from that as well. But, yeah, once they know someone exists, and especially being in Berlin, we got into competition, we got distribution, it was just remarkably easy, you could just walk in. And I was writing all these years, so it’s not as if I didn’t have scripts I could show. So, it was two years, I think, to find us, which was is quick. Then my other film was two years. Normally it’s like seven years and counting, that’s the normal way to get something funded. But yeah, I guess anyone who’s new, people are gossiping about it, they wanna get it on it, and now I’m not so new anymore, I’m a bit haggard. There are other new people around the corner, which is fair enough, of course, I’m not gonna begrudge them. But yeah, youth.
MC: Is it your full-time profession now?
PS: For now, I’m seriously considering doing something else on the side because – Well, actually no, I am, I’m writing for hire on the side. I can’t really make ends meet making films, so, writing for hire is a really good way of doing it, you’re still involved in the industry, I like writing, I like the lifestyle as well. I would do adverts if I could, but, I don’t know how it is here, but it’s insanely competitive in the UK. TV, I would do TV, but they kinda wrote me off as this weirdo, so I don’t get those jobs. Which is a real shame, because you know, I did this thing for Björk a few years ago, when I did a concert film for her, it’s her vision, you do what she wants. She was never militant about it, but even if she was militant, I would do what she wants. When it’s someone’s baby it should be. So when it’s my stuff, I think people should do what I want. When I’m a jobbing director for TV, if the camera stayed on a tripod the whole episode, I would do that. But they always think I’m gonna do a close up of the floor or something, I don’t know. So yeah, that’s another door which is closed.
MH: What about show-running? Have you considered that?
PS: I have, but nothing’s really come up. If this goes on YouTube, maybe someone, when they’re bored on their lunch break, might see that, I don’t know.
MH: Do you have projects that you think would be better suited to that long-form?
PS: I don’t, no. Everything I do is in the 90-minute, two-hour mark. I find it really difficult to have something continuous like that. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I couldn’t do short films very well, and I couldn’t do longer stuff – 90 minutes to two hours, that’s the ideal format for me. I mean who knows, in the future, something might come up, but at this point, nothing.
MH: Fingers crossed. Presumably, everyone that’s here is quite familiar with your work, but how would you describe your practice, and maybe particularly, your visual style to people who might not be familiar with it?
PS: I guess it’s personal filmmaking in the sense that anything is personal when it’s written by the same person as who directs it. I guess, for me, it’s kinda hard because they’re all quite different, and it’s hard to step outside the films. I think, without even trying, you just have your own style, you’re not even aware of it. I think now, after the fourth film, you’re aware of certain habits. But no, it’s just very difficult to answer, I’m afraid. I’m afraid, I know I should practice that one. Maybe when this is finished I could give it a go.
MH: I would definitely describe your work as moody and contemplative. How else would you describe his work? Because you’ve not had enough critics in your life probably, describing your work to you.
PS: That’s a fair assessment, really. I guess, they all come from things I’m influenced by, but even then that’s always changing. I was massively into Italian horror when I was doing my second film. But it’s weird when you have, I’m digressing slightly, but when you have one influence people kind of seem to just automatically assume that it’s gonna stay with you. This film, In Fabric, in my mind, had nothing to do with Italian horror or giallo. But it kept coming up again and again, and other things were going through my mind for that one. So I think the influences are changing. You’re always discovering new things. Especially when you get to meet – ‘cause when I was growing up I didn’t really know any other film fanatics, or cinephiles as we call them now, sorry, I’ll be more sophisticated and use the word cinephile. We were called film buffs back then, which I always prefer. But it was only ‘til I made films that I got to meet other people. And then I could open doors into all kinds of stuff. ‘Cause I think the whole menu back then was quite limited. I mean we had books on people like Kenneth Angus, Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson, and Beth B, and all those people, but you just couldn’t see those films, you’d have to wait years and years. But what was interesting about waiting years and years, this anticipation would activate your mind and you’d kind of imagine what they were like. So it’s great now with YouTube, especially if you don’t have the money to go to a big city and see retrospectives, or you live far away. It’s great to see a Beth B film. But that instantaneous nature kind of kills the mind somewhat in terms of imagining something. Anticipation was a huge part of becoming a filmmaker.
MH: Well, to follow up, because obviously from what I’ve read and from what you can see in your films, you do seem to be a huge cinephile. Do you have a strict regime, or are you just kind of anything I come across, I come across, or do you have a pattern to how you go about discovering new content?
PS: Not really, no. It just varies. I watch pornography one day, I watch Greek comedy the next day, but seriously, some of the best cinema is in pornography. If you ignore the money shots, like Bijou by Wakefield Poole, it’s psychedelic gay porn, and it’s just remarkable. It’s interesting because, starting off with the ’90s, there was a pantheon, and there still is a pantheon, so Bergman and Fassbinder, they were at the top of the National Film Theater, as it was called back then, which showed Italian horror, it was on the trash heap. And now, of course, it’s high up because of Mr Luca and his film. So I’m waiting for pornography to get to that, maybe he’ll do a remake of Bijou, I don’t know. I always enjoyed films which were seen as disreputable. There was always okay, this is interesting, let’s look for the trash. I think part of the filmmaker’s job is to be a bit like a vulture, a scavenger, to find things that people would turn their noses up at. So I think you can find great filmmaking anywhere. I bought a Greek comedy in Melbourne, one of these ’80s musicals which, again, would just be completely sniffed at. I’m gonna look at that when I get back, I might find something I can steal. But yeah, when I started, it was what I read. I bought cult movies by Danny Peary, it was the classic one of Tarkovsky, Bergman, but you know, you’d buy a book on Tarkovsky, by Mark Le Fanu, then you read about Parajanov, so you watch Parajanov. But no, it was never anything regimented, it was just whatever you find. And yeah, if one film works, then you’ll see another film by that director. It’s quite rare I see films by, it depends on the director, I could never see everything by Jess Franco. I don’t think even Franco has seen all films, so yeah, it varies really.
MH: Can I ask what you think the mistakes of your first film were?
PS: Well I didn’t even know about crossing the line. I didn’t go to film school so no one taught me that. I thought the dialogue was really corny sometimes. Not Varga, I’m talking about my first short film. I’m still really bad. I can do eyelines to save my life. I’m very open about it. When I worked in In Fabric, with Ari Wegner, who shot the film, he’s Australian, the first thing I said, I’m useless with eyelines, I’m almost dyslexic when it comes to that geometric aspect of it all. So you know, as a director, you are dependent on your crew to bring your ideas to life. You can leave me alone with a camera, you’re not gonna get very far.
MC: You’ve obviously worked with the same actors through many of your films, and how about the crew? Is it the same crew members as well, do you have a working relationship with them?
PS: No, I mean, it depends because sometimes we’re changing country, and they’re busy on other things, or sometimes we fall out. There’s a whole bunch of reasons, so it does change. In an ideal world, it would be great to have the same people, as long as you get on. It’s such an intense relationship when you make a film, sometimes you need a break from each other. It can be, I don’t know. But with actors, I always liked directors who had the same actors, especially unknown actors. When I think of John Waters, he made his own mythology with people like Edith Massey, and Divine and Mink Stole, Fassbinder with Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla. I resented this idea of the A-list star, even though it was constantly, there’s pressure on us. I love the idea of having the same people and trying different ways to explore character, and that shorthand that comes with it. Knowing someone, feeling comfortable with someone. Because actors are so different as people, at least when you got someone you know what you’re in for, even if it’s trouble.
MH: Your feature films, in particular, have quite distinct narrative premises, and reasonably unusual when you think of the landscape of generic films, where do your ideas come from, and how do you seize on those ideas, and then how do you go about the process of developing those ideas?
PS: Well a lot it is just the habit of writing, which I think ideas come from ideas. I always carry a notebook with me, it’s in the safe at the hotel, if anyone’s interested, I’ll give you the code afterwards, but, I always carry that with me. And I learnt to always write things down because you just forget otherwise. Ideas usually come from a cocktail of things, it’s usually a bunch of ideas colliding into one premise for a film. At different times, of course, Berberian, for instance, I was listening to Penderecki’s music, which is quite atonal sometimes, but also Kubrick used his music for The Shining. And this idea of when avant-garde music is on record, it’s un-listenable for many people. But if you put it to fantastical images, especially when it comes to genre, whether it’s horror or sci-fi, it really activates the mind. And so I just thought a lot about people like Cathy Berberian, Katalin Ladik, people like that who did this performance art, or with these sounds which sounded really perfect for a horror film, but they were always in the gallery context or the academic or art house context. So it’s all about switching associations. It’s the same with cabbages: if you stab a cabbage, the sound reminds you of a kitchen. But if you just change the wording, say for instance this isn’t a kitchen, it’s a woman being stabbed to death, we’re not changing the sound, we’re just changing the association. So, really, it’s the idea of the innocence of sounds and the corruption of sounds that led to this whole thing with Berberian. But for me it’s just having a routine, that’s my personal thing. I fell out of that routine, I moved to London in 2000. That was the great myth, to move to London, and you’d have your breakthrough. We were all led to believe that, but it was bullshit because you just come out with loads of debt because the rent is so high, it’s even more so now. I didn’t get anywhere. I had a day job, I had a very good day job, but it was not in the film. And you’re so bored at work that you wanna go out in the evening, have fun, so you watch a film, you go to a gig, and then you don’t get any work done. So I had two years, actually, London pushed me back, because I fell out of practice. Because in the ’90s I was always writing, because I lived at home with my parents so, I didn’t have to worry about the rent then. It took years to get back into it. Once you fall out of that thing, it’s very hard to generate ideas. What I find now, now I’m full of ideas. Which sounds very arrogant, but it’s true. I think what generates those ideas, it’s like language, when you know one language, you have the skillset to just quickly work out how to do another language. And it’s kinda like that with writing really, because you always have these splinter ideas that can go into something new. So again, it’s just routine. I have a very nine to five routine. I have an office I rent, I go there. Until recently, there was no wifi, but I got a smartphone so now I’m always reading what’s in the news which is distracting me. But originally the plan was no wifi, no fridge, ‘cause that’s always a temptation. Just a desk and work, get on with it, force me into it. But yeah, ideas just come from that habit, really.
MC: So, as you were talking about sound, I thought about the Sonic Catering Band, which I have listened to, which, if members of the audience don’t know, Peter’s a part of a group who’s released two albums. Can you say something about the Sonic Catering Band?
PS: Well that was something to do in between making films. So after my first short film in the mid-90s, I realized there was no money to do another film. But I wanted to do something, I wanted to keep active. So in a way, the band, the editing of the sounds, was a way of keeping alive the idea of making films, how we layered things, how we put things together, the juxtapositions. It was almost like a rehearsal for Katalin Varga in a way, it was more like sound design, it wasn’t music. We rarely had rhythm or anything like this, it was just cooking meals and recording the sound, and treating those raw sounds that we documented the same way we treat cooking the meal. But yeah, we did it for quite a few years. It was just to keep out of mischief in between films. But yeah, that led to, I guess, like a social life within music, where I got to know people like Steven Stapelton from Nurse with Wound, who’s music is in all my films. I got to hear many other pieces of music, which inspired my films. So again, it was a creative thing, but also, it was a social thing that I got to meet like-minded people.
MC: You talked about writing gigs that you’ve taken to make money in between making films as well, is that the radio plays that you’ve done, is that a part of the gigs that you’ve taken outside of your film making? How did those come out?
PS: Not quite. Because it doesn’t pay, it pays all right, but I just enjoyed doing it. I always enjoyed people who did side projects and smaller things. And there was just a chance to try ideas that maybe I couldn’t do in a film. No, I really got into actually, I’ve done four radio plays. It’s a chance to practice. For me, it’s practice, this is why I would never turn down a commercial or a TV thing because it can be the most boring TV show in the world, but you’re practising. You’re earning money. In this industry, I don’t know how it is in Australia, but in Britain, they love to call you all kinds of names if you take a commercial job or even an interview for a commercial job. And I just agree with all those names really, that’s the only way to deal with it. Yeah, I am a sellout, of course, I am. But I have no problem with that. We’ve gotta live. It’s such a bourgeois thing to say you’re a sellout, because the ones who usually call that, they’ve got their mortgage paid off, and so on. So I think it’s really important for directors to not feel inhibited. I think we’re so intimated by other people about being pure, I think it’s a great thing to do a TV show and learn something. Learn how to work with actors, learn new angles and so on. But yeah, radio is similar. I got to work with the actors more. You can never get enough practice there.
MH: In terms of some of the commonalities across your films, one of the things that really interesting and nice, I guess, is that you often have these narratives that are set in quite remote places. And in coordination with that, they’re kind of timeless and placeless films in some ways, particularly across, I would say, as much as they may be a ’70s aesthetic, or something, across Berberian, Katalin Varga, and Duke of Burgundy, the kind of narratives occur at a slight remove from the rest of society, I guess. Is there an appeal for you in focusing on narratives that sit outside of real-world society?
PS: Less research involved, that’s for sure. I guess I’m drawn to that. I suppose I’m drawn to stories which haven’t had enough exposure or haven’t been told. I’m trying to find something that can connect with an audience. With The Duke of Burgundy, I wanted to make a film about water sports, about somebody who loves to drink her lover’s wee. Which again, you see those reactions, that’s the reaction I want. So thank you for that. Because I guess, the majority of the audience will be a bit freaked out or find that uncomfortable. But then that’s when you can start working on it, and say right, how can I connect this confrontational aspect, or this alienating aspect, with an audience? So I guess you’re setting yourself a task. And again, Berberian, I remember when I said to, actually, the sound mixer, I’m gonna make a film that’s gonna be all set in a sound studio, and even he said no one would wanna see that it sounds boring as hell. And again, that was music to my ears, when someone says that. With In Fabric, I said I’m gonna make a film at the January sales, and someone just rolled their eyes at me. That’s exciting. You think all right, you have the chance to win someone over. I guess I love the artifice really. I think that answers your question, this slight remove, I mean, not to be ironic, but in a way to have the opposite effect. When you have these, hopefully, relatable emotions coming through a very artificial construct, then I think it’s like a counterpoint. I think it hits you more when it comes ’cause you don’t really expect it. Because it’s in this fake world, and if something true hits you within that, the contrast between that and the plasticity of it all, it somehow I think has a greater impact. But I always love that as a fan in film, I loved Powell and Pressburger, Lotte Reiniger, her silhouette films, Kenneth Anger. So again, for me artifice doesn’t have to be art, there can be some rawness to it somehow.
MH: And also then, following on from that, I guess you also seem to embrace, at times, devices that might confuse or confound audiences expectations. So, in Berberian, we were talking earlier about how often you cut from the studio to the apartment, but in a way that isn’t clearly signalled for the audience. So, there are moments–
PS: I regret doing that.
MH: Well, I think it’s quite interesting though. And then in Duke of Burgundy, there’s a great scene, and this is one of my all-time favourite moments in film history, where you pan across the audience, and just smattered throughout the audience, are mannequins in ’50s frocks, but nothing’s ever made of that. And you do it three times in the course of the film, that it’s enough just to really unnerve the audience, and question what is happening in this scene? That kinda play with surrealism, but also, are you interested in putting audiences on edge, and having them unclear about motivations or what’s happening at times? Is that kind of destabilization something that appeals to you?
PS: I guess. You’ll be pleased to know the mannequins cost more than extras. It says everything about the film industry, really. But yes and no. Because Berberian, I never wanted the audience to believe, some people thought the apartment was above the studio, because it was so seamless. So that’s actually the opposite. I was hoping the audience would get it, that it’s just an edit, it’s just a flashy edit which I copied from the Juraj Herz film, The Cremator. He had this wonderful thing where, this thing you’re holding, there’s a wide shot of you, there’s a closeup of that, then the next wide shot is you in a different space. I just loved that sense on disorientation. But yeah, I guess that it’s a feeling of being disorientated, but at the same time, knowing it’s a different space. So, it’s a tricky one. Again, I guess I try to make films, I try to imagine myself in the audience. I always liked directors who were manipulative, confounding, mean. Filmmakers who didn’t give you what you wanted, who put you on edge, who made you uncomfortable. Not didactic filmmakers, I don’t like didactic filmmakers. I can name all night, I can name didactic filmmakers. So really yeah, I guess you’re playing with the audience. You’re playing a game with them and that’s part of the thrill. It’s not always a thrill when they come back at you and say what an asshole you are, which happens a lot. But there you go, you know.
MC: Yeah, I was actually gonna ask that question, in making films like that, it does have a tendency to split the audiences, and I was gonna ask how the reception of your films has, how do you handle people who don’t like your films, and how do you handle the people who do maybe.
PS: Don’t go on Twitter, that’s the answer. But I don’t have to engage with it. There’s the fire exit over there. I’ve been aware, I think the nature of any human being doing something personal and writing their own material if you’re doing what is truly you, you’re gonna divide people, of course, you are. If you’re trying to second guess the audience, or listening to committees, then I guess you can have less extreme reactions on both sides, but you might not be walking away with a film you wanted to make. I’m aware that my work does annoy people sometimes. It’s not something I set out to do, I’m aware it happens, it’s just a consequence of what I do, really. If someone hates, nothing you can do about it. I guess, I’m obsessive about what I do, so I just focus on just getting it done. But only it happens all the way through, it’s not just in the audience, it happens all the way through from within the crew, within post-production, I’ve always been used to people not liking what I do. The divisions are set from very early on. So, I’m never surprised when audiences react in different ways because I’ve seen it all in post-production meetings.
MC: It’s interesting, earlier you said, yeah, I’m a sellout, which is the last thing I think most people in the audience would probably say about your work.
PS: I’m a failed sell out, there’s a difference. I should have said that. I never got the chance to sell out. I’ve attempted it, I just failed at it.
MC: But in that sense, you’re a privileged director in the sense that you’ve seen to be able, or you have done what you wanted. You’ve expressed a unique vision in cinema, which I think, isn’t the norm.
PS: I’m immensely privileged, of course, I am, I’m extremely lucky. Even to make one film is privileged, of course, it is. So, yeah, I hope it continues. I love privilege when it happens, who wouldn’t? I guess I’m very lucky because I moved out of the UK, I moved to Hungary, where the living costs, for a westerner, I should add, not for Hungarians, for a westerner with western money, you can live normally. I wouldn’t say anything beyond normal, but you can have a normal life and make your films which don’t make much money. Had I stayed in London, I would have to do anything which is offered to me. I have no issue with that, the problem is getting those jobs. If you don’t get them, and it’s terrifying. I know filmmakers who just are absolutely terrified of missing out on their rent. And to live with that stress, it’s stressful enough anyway, but to have the added stress of a landlord threatening to evict you, I just thought I don’t need that. I’d just rather live in a country which I can afford to live in. With Brexit that might change, I don’t know, I might end up back in London. I was aware that to get that privilege, I’d have to do certain tactical things to achieve it. I think the reality, I think, I might be wrong, is there might be a very small percentage of filmmakers who can do these films with funding and so on. But I think the vast majority, either they live somewhere cheaper, or they’re rich anyway. So yeah, it’s very tough. We were talking earlier about people who are in New York, people we knew like Taylor Mead, Nick Zedd, Alyce Wittenstein, she was a great filmmaker, she gave filmmaking up, really, she just had enough. Taylor Mead was living, he was almost destitute, so there was a huge price to pay for doing what you’re obsessed with.
MC: You’ve answered so many of my questions, but one of the things I was going ask is, again, for a group of film students here in the room, I’m gonna ask this question, and then the next step will be to show a trailer from In Fabric which Peter is actually, he’s come from the Melbourne Film Festival, where you curated some shorts and showed In Fabric, so we’ll show a trailer from that, and you can talk about that. But what I was gonna ask is, advise that you might have for the students in the audience who, I’m sure are listening to you very interestedly. Any advice for our aspiring filmmakers in the audience?
PS: So you’re all film directors, I guess. It’s really hard for me to, especially, I don’t know Australia, I don’t know the system. It’s really tricky because, even if I new the system, it’s always changing, every half year, the stakes are changing. Things have changed massively in the last 10 years for me. I would never wanna give advise, I would talk about what went wrong or right, what worked well for me, what didn’t. I think a day job was really important for me. Just keeping my foot in that, that kept me going. Having that financial security. I had a bunch of day jobs, I think the best one I had was teaching, actually. It’s a performance and you have no time to dwell on your own bullshit. ‘Cause I used to do data entry, and I think the data entry is mindless, but then you start to get into your I’m against the world mindset. I think there’s a lot of hope, put it that way. I think things are better than when I started because it’s so much cheaper to make films. So, I know film is labour intensive, so you can’t take shortcuts with that. I don’t think you should take shortcuts, I think it’s very important to pay everyone. Just keep making stuff. That’s what you’ll do anyway, it’s not as if you need me to tell you that. I think the only thing I would say is just don’t take it personally when you get rejected. It happens to all of us. Even happens to Mike Leigh, believe it or not. So, I think it’s part of the process. My job is to be rejected all the time by festivals, by financiers, by actors, and you just learn very quickly not to take it personally. It’s fine. Actors I know reject my work, and we’re still friends. As long as the rejection is. In the early days, I got very dissuaded by that, and then you realize it’s just the way it is, and it’s not personal. No one’s questioning your talent just because they reject you. There are a thousand reasons why this happens. I mean, Cannes reject all my films. I will still apply to Cannes with my next film if I make one. I think the advice I would have is just to have that belief in yourself, to not let things get you off course, because I know we’re all quite sensitive souls as filmmakers, and it’s easy to take things to heart. But I have no advice or pearl in terms of how to get something funded, I’m afraid. I would use it if I could.
MC: No, that’s excellent. I think you have been addressing probably, some of the questions that students may have had through your talk and addressing some of the issues, as well as one of the questions that Maija wanted to ask around failure, am I right?
MH: Yeah, it was gonna be the concluding question for me. We have, with the MA students, we do a thing called the failure CV, based on professors who’ve been doing this over the last few years, to try and make public your failures so, precisely, you don’t feel demoralized when you encounter failure. And particularly in this industry, you will encounter failure again and again. But you’ve spoken at length tonight about what you consider to be some of your failures, so it’s been quite a productive conversation from that standpoint. And I guess, ’cause the only other thing is, what do you learn from those failures? But in this instance, it keeps going despite the failure.
PS: Yeah, I would say that. There is a shame in the industry, of course, there are so many filmmakers who get rejected from Cannes, and they can never admit it. I remember meeting one filmmaker, and we both had films which were gonna go into Cannes, and I told him I got rejected, and I could see his teeth chattering. Shall I say it, shall I not say it? He just changed the subject. Then I saw a press release later on saying aw, his film wasn’t ready for Cannes. It’s like yeah right, come one. Whenever someone says it wasn’t ready for Cannes, you know exactly what that means. What’s the big deal? I mean, we’re all human beings. You get rejected, so what? I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of. Sometimes I can’t talk about rejection because maybe it implicates a certain actor, or whatever. They don’t want it to be known that they reject everyone. So they can stay as the yes people. I think without failure, must be kinda weird. I think you become a bit entitled. Obviously, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have had that long between my first Super 8 in 1992 and 2009. I would’ve shortened that time dramatically. But then again, when I was doing all those jobs, I used to get very resentful. But actually, they kinda work their way into “In Fabric”, a lot of the scenes from that film are going back over those years of those boring jobs. It’s like everything is a gift for writing, really. ‘Cause it had no relevance to me whatsoever. They were not in the film industry those jobs, but I could use them in why scripts later on. So I think that the thing to just, you might work in McDonald’s or whatever, but see it as experience for something you’re writing. I remember meeting a film school graduate, she was complaining she couldn’t get a job. And what she really meant was she couldn’t get a job in the industry. I said, well there are a thousand jobs you could get. I think you shouldn’t close yourself off. I think the harder thing is when you get older, and now as a filmmaker, I couldn’t go back to those jobs because I tried it 10 years ago after Varga collapsed, you have a huge gap in your CV. You can only lie so much. Because I know not to put film in there, because they always think you’re gonna jump ship. So I tried to you know, I worked in this shoe shop here, that was a lie, I worked in this place here. If you wanna get a job, now is the time to get it, fresh out of university. Cause it gets harder and harder the older you get.
MH: Would you ever consider teaching film?
PS: I don’t know really. It’s come up a lot recently in my head for various reasons. For the right reason, I think the danger is if my film career collapsed, that would be the wrong reason to teach. I guess there’d be some issues I’m still dealing with, which I wouldn’t wanna project to my students. I think it’s really important to teach because you want to teach, not because it’s the next step. ‘Cause I remember when I was younger, you could be so easily crushed by someone saying the wrong thing, and to give students, to feed them with hope and all this kind of thing. Mind you, sometimes hope is overrated, sometimes it’s good slack someone off. My best moments of motivation were when I was laughed at. That’s just me. So maybe you have a laughing hour, when everyone’s ridiculed, then they go back to the hope again. I don’t know, when I give these talks, I’ve done a few in London as well, I can only talk about what went well and what went badly. Again, to give advice, it’s such a case by case thing, it’s so individual. I always feel scared to give someone advice, because all your circumstances are so radically different. To give someone advise who’s got kids, someone who hasn’t got kids, someone who’s got their mortgage paid off, someone who hasn’t, it is just so so different.
MC: So just one final question before we go to the audience for some questions, you said that your latest film, In Fabric, is about the January sales. Can you say more about the film for those of us who haven’t seen it yet?
PS: Well, it’s a dress which is cursed. And it’s got, I can’t remember, it’s 60 or 70% off, I should know. It travels from person to person. Yeah. For me it’s about, I guess, shopping when I was a kid. Being dragged to the shops, and that childhoods perspective of these places which were very strange, theatrical spaces. When you’re a kid, you see a dumbwaiter over there but you don’t know where it leads to. So just trying to put myself back in that mindset. Really what I wanted to do was like an M.R. James Ghost Story. But instead of the misty beach or haunted house, pick the most prosaic space possible, which is the High Street, and look for the unfamiliar within that, the sound of the High Street, which is like a, it can feel haunted sometimes, especially when you know it’s dying. I never really pitched it, I’m very lucky, ’cause I just had a finished script and an actor attached to it, we had Marianne Jean-Baptiste, because I had another film I was developing with the BFI, which meant I couldn’t give them anything else. That film collapsed, by which point I already had the script and Marianne attached. So, I find pitching really really difficult. And actually, just quickly, treatments, I can’t write treatments. I don’t know about you, I write a script, then I write the treatment based on the script, and I pretend I haven’t written the script, so I can get their money. Because I think you have to find it, as you’re writing, that’s just the joy of it, to copy a script from a treatment, it’s like copyediting really. The excitement for me is being in that room and that first blank page. And it is a journey, you really are living through the film. You don’t know what your characters are gonna get up to. To know what they’re gonna do and write it to that is just kinda, it’s all right I suppose, I’ve had worse jobs. It’s not the ideal job, put it that way.
Audience Member: You were talking about the sound of Razorhead, and Nurse with Wound, and that climax of In Fabric as well in the film, I really like a director that just loves sound, and I wonder how much of caring about sound and music goes into your pre-production in films? Do you go in with an idea or is that built?
PS: It depends. With this one, I asked Tim Gane, from Cavern of Anti-Matter to write some demos for a film which I had no idea what it was gonna be. So I didn’t even know I was gonna write this film. The danger is, when I write, I listen to music to get me in the mood. And then I become very glued to that music which makes a lot of trouble later on for the composers, and I think it’s really unhealthy, actually. I really wanted to unglue myself, and just get something fresh and I could find ideas from that. So that was very early on. I try to give musicians as much freedom as possible, so he would come up with stuff, which kind of dictate the washing machine mantras and so on. It varies, sometimes I know not only what musician I want to work with, but also what samples I want to use. But it’s never too regimented. I did that on Berberian. When I started I was very very specific with all the samples and everything, and everything changed when you got to post-production because something as simple as one scene not working or you didn’t have time to shoot one scene, and then that comes out of the jigsaw. Or not, that’s the wrong word. Jenga, it comes out of the Jenga. Do you have Jenga here? Yeah, yeah, you know what I mean. So you have to completely reconstruct the whole thing. And then, those ideas you had for samples are not working. But yeah, the sound is, it’s always important. It doesn’t mean it always has to be bombastic of course, “The Duke of Burgundy” was a very, for me, it felt like a very paired down soundtrack. But it’s just as important though, and the time we spend is the same. But instead of putting sounds in, we’re taking sounds out, that’s the only difference.
Audience Member: So you were talking about technology a lot, or a few times. Did you find that technology was empowering or disruptive? And I suppose, also, in a sense of cost base, I suppose that also would’ve made a big impact? ‘Cause I mean, for myself, I was running a studio a few years ago, and I had probably 13 to 15 grand worth of gear, and now everyone can make records in their bedrooms, and put them straight on Spotify. So I figured, where’s the correlation between that and, I suppose, filmmaking?
PS: Well I hire everything. Apart from the computer. It’s weird you say that I remember someone just about saving up to buy his first 60 mil camera, which he was gonna rent out, and then, of course, the RED camera came along, then the Alexa. It was a disaster for him. Yeah, technology is always changing, isn’t it? I’m very lucky because my films get funded, we just say, all right, we need this piece, we need that piece, and we just get a rental house, and we get it really. I do lower budget things sometimes. I do music videos. That’s more relevant to what you’re asking because the budgets are so low. My last video was 1,100 pounds. What’s that, $2,000 I think? So you’re so mindful of the cost of hiring something. So we went cheaper, there’s no way we could hire an Alexa, which would be my default digital choice. So yeah, I think it depends from film to film. A big thing for me, I would love to go back to film. I’m not sure, I think it’s slightly more expensive than digital. But I really miss that process of getting dailies, and that photochemical process, you still can’t quite get that with digital, especially 60 mm.
Audience Member: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your collaboration with Fatma Mohamed, both in this film and generally, just because she’s so singular. I don’t know if you can talk about her without spoiling the film, but the whole cast is fantastic, she’s just such a singular presence. The vision that you’re trying to create can be an elusive one, but she seemed to really channel it.
PS: I’ll pass it on to her. Mind you, I passed on a compliment to her last week, and she hasn’t got back to me about that one, so maybe she’s on holiday, I don’t know. No, she’s wonderful. We know each other quite well, so there was this level of comfort that we can both say harsh things to each other and we won’t take it personally. With new actors, there’s always this process of getting to know each other, with Fatma you can just go straight in. So yeah, a lot of it is just she has those qualities, and I think with each role I offer to her, I’m tryna glean out a different side to her. With this one I thought, okay, she’s never played a bad person before, why don’t we try this? Which kind of ended with some accusations of why am I demonizing an eastern European. But then I say to her, well, should I just have the same actor play someone nice all the time? I met her in Transylvania. She’s half Sudanese, half Hungarian, but grew up as a Romanian. She was in my first film, I offered her a very small part, I didn’t know her then. I thought she was remarkable, it was just such a short scene, but she had this intensity which I really enjoyed. But then, later on, I discovered a much more playful side to her, in The Duke of Burgundy, when I wrote the part, it was bondage carpenter, it was not as playful as the way she played it, but I really loved that. And I think each film she does with me, I’m slightly riffing off what she did previously, but changing it slightly. So, the bondage carpenter definitely inspired the sales rep, even though there’s no bondage behind the cashier desk, but still, that tone, I could make it a bit flamboyant, a bit more elaborate. So yeah, and again, she’s in my new film, I’ve taken a bit of Miss Luckmore for that, but again, it’s quite radically different. Difficulty with eastern European actors is they tend to be in repertory theatre. I don’t know how it is in Australia, but they’ve signed up to the theatre. So, all year round, they’re involved, apart from the summer. And it’s so hard to make a film in the summer because all the producers are on holiday. So we always get her when she’s in theatre, and then for this film, she flew back and forth three times, back and forth to Transylvania. So she was exhausted, and then I gave her this script, and she was like, “What, don’t make me say this.” Even for a British person, it’s quite a struggle. She was utterly exhausted, which shows her tenacity, really, to just search through with this flamboyance, which is all a mask. She just wanted to sleep, I think.
Audience Member: A lot of your films have a lot of very bizarre things in them, very beautifully bizarre, but very bizarre.
PS: Beautifully bizarre, I thought you said briefly bizarre.
Audience Member: Sustainably bizarre. I was just wondering how you communicate your ideas and where you’re coming from to crew and actors in a way that gets them on the same page with what you’re going for? Just because the idea of having to describe the mannequin scene in In Fabric, to someone without it sounding, I don’t know, impossible, or something. What’s the best way to communicate where you’re coming from in about things that are a bit crazy, in a good way?
PS: The script. I write it down as explicit as possible, really. Everything is in the script. If they wanna talk about their limits, it’s all there in terms of levels of nudity, or whatever. And usually, I write it, it’s usually a bit more extreme on paper, which gives a bit of leeway for the actor to come back from it. And also, ’cause I think the worst thing you can do to an actor is to make them feel they gotta do more than they have to. So when you say you don’t have to do this bit, they say, aw thank God for that. So luckily they’re always pleasantly surprised rather than shocked. But there was one, it’s difficult, ’cause I think sometimes they don’t always read the script, so there was one, it wasn’t an actor, it was actually an extra who hadn’t read a scene which other intense stuff was going on, and they were a bit freaked out. I was like, please, read the script. That was a lesson for me as well, to not assume everyone has read everything in the script, and to just say everything upfront. Being direct with actors is done way in advance, so we talk about nudity, all the sexual content, it’s always a bit uncomfortable, but you have to do it. Get the boundaries worked out, then you just do it really. Everyone knows what’s involved. I think with financiers sometimes, they read it and it seems a bit extreme, but then, I think on film it’s usually, for some reason on paper it always reads harder than it is on film. I guess, I’m always fascinated by human desire, and I guess, some of the more wayward places it goes. A lot of my heroes were into that, people like Bunuel. I think it’s for me, it’s the one universal, it’s just something that all humans experience, whether you ever had sex or not, it doesn’t matter, we all experience desire. We all desire someone or something, we’ve all been desired. And that clash between this very animalistic side of our nature, versus this formal, polite side of us, social conditioning, and these two, when they’re together, these two, it’s very different aspects. I find that really interesting, which ends up with scenes like what you described. I think really, it’s just being, laying out everything in advance as much as possible. I think it gets easier with each film because everyone knows what to expect. If that was my first film and said I wanna have that scene, I guess it would be a lot harder to persuade people because people can see evidence of what you’ve done, and they kind of get it, in a way. So it does get easier. Actually, someone said to me with my new film, she said, “If I didn’t know it was you, I wouldn’t do it.” I didn’t quite know what to make of that one, but anyway. But I guess there was a level of trust there, which is comforting.
MC: While we’re waiting for the next question can we talk about your new film project at all?
PS: Well there’re three. The one I just described where this person said she wouldn’t do it. It was about to happen, we were gonna shoot it now. So I had this offer from Melbourne, and I cancelled it, and then the film collapsed, and then I came crying back to Melbourne, saying can you get me on a plane, please? So that one, I’ve been sworn to secrecy on that one, which is a bit annoying, because – no, I won’t even start on that film, actually. An endless source of angst. It’s probably the most irritating film I’ve ever worked on, actually. And that’s saying a lot. So, I’ve been working on a kids film as well. No seriously, seriously, a hundred per cent. But like totally innocent. There’s no innuendo, nothing like that, it’s just a hundred per cent innocent. No, no, no, no. We’re gonna play it completely, it’s gonna be universal rating, that kinda thing. And then, another film which is not for kids, it’s about the last days of hedonism in New York, which I’ve been quite open about, it’s called Night Voltage. That’s with Christine Vachon and Tristan Goligher. Seven years on that one, it’s been a long time. The problem with films these days, they just cost more than they’re worth. And you’re up against this problem again and again and again. And I don’t know how it is here, but in the UK you have, we have our fights, but these places like the BBC, the BFI, Film Four, they are remarkable, because they can take these, what do you call them, these blows from low box office. As much as you fight with them, they’re still supporting filmmakers who write their own material. I still think they’ve been incredible. They support new filmmakers as well, they don’t just stick with the same ones. But beyond that, it’s very very difficult because people want their money back. And I haven’t really mastered, I haven’t navigated how that works. Well I know how it works, they want their money back, but how to make something, which pretty goes back to casting. You hit a brick wall and it’s cast, cast, cast, get an A-lister. Which is fine if that A-lister fits, is right for that role, but sometimes they miscast, or there’s such a huge dance involved in getting that person it can really derail the whole film. I know good cases and I know bad cases. I know good cases where this actor who’s an A-list actor, loved a film by so-and-so, and it worked really well. There are other cases which have just been a disaster, the actor’s not right. What was the question, I forgot, I don’t know.
MH: Let’s go to the audience.
Audience Member: I’ve been really curious about the film in Berberian Sound Studio, the film that is at the centre of the film. Do you know the ending of the film yourself? Was that a script or something that had been floating around and your like oh, and you put that in, or did you just leave it open-ended intentionally to yourself for that reason?
PS: It’s not a script that existed, no, no, no. I wrote it parallel to Berberian, when I was writing Berberian. It’s a Suspiria knockoff, and now, Suspiria, it’s done, isn’t it? We’ll never make it into a film. It’s a difficult one because obviously, Toby Jones’s character enters that film so there are too many rabbit holes to find a coherent ending. I think there is an ending in there somewhere, maybe with Toby Jones actually.
Audience Member: I wondered if you edited your own films, and edited the trailers and things, or if someone else does it? And if someone else, what’s the relationship between you and your vision and then the editor?
PS: I pretty much don’t edit at all. I did my very first Super 8 stuff, I even counted, 18 frames a second, I’d count the frames to the music, which was very laborious. No, I don’t have that skill, really. I’m always there. I enjoy the process of sitting with someone. Again, it depends, it’s scene by scene really, you just go through what is needed. I think a lot of the time you just know instinctively. The hardest thing is when something just did not work. For whatever reason, it’s that Jenga syndrome again. That’s when it gets tricky. There’re two issues, one is the editing within the scene and the wider structure. Because my first film pretty much followed the script apart from the beginning. We took the middle out, put it at the beginning. But the other films have been fairly juggled around, actually. I don’t believe in this idea of throwing the script in the bin. I know some people subscribe to that, they very strongly think you have to have a different way of doing it. But not if the script is working. But yeah, if the script is not working, then of course. I tend to work with the same person, Matyas Fekete, Hungarian editor. And I think a lot of editing is also finding someone your comfortable with, someone you can just sit there eating a bag of crisps and not annoying them. ‘Cause it’s months, isn’t it? Sitting in the same room together, it’s an incredibly intimate relationship. I would have to go pick a specific scene, but really what we do, we go through the rushes, go page by page, from the script editor, not a script editor, sorry, the continuity person, go through the slates, and just pick what is good about each scene and very rarely, it’s just one whole take, it will just be one line here, one look there. Sometimes the way it’s pasted together is just purely because of the best takes, not because it means something, particularly. So it just varies. The easiest scenes to edit are the ones like the scene you mentioned with the mannequin, which is like a ritualist thing, where it’s purely about the energy of the scene, and nothing about information, nothing about did they get that dialogue right? So they’re my favourite scenes to edit, ’cause you can find this, it’s like a pure intensity, which is not corrupted by circumstance, usually.
Audience Member: What are your thoughts on streaming services? Are they any easier to develop more risky projects, or is it exactly the same as film? And if so, have you considered a career in pornography?
PS: Well my first film, the first one I worked on was actually pornography. I was an assistant. So yeah, I’ve done it before.
Audience Member: What was it called?
PS: It was originally called Gang of Foreskins. I’m serious. It’s called Skin Flick, it’s by Bruce LaBruce. That was 1998 I worked on that. So streaming, I’m very mixed. In terms of the audience, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Because again, not everyone lives in a city, not everyone can afford the cinema. So to someone who lives far away to watch a Godard film or whatever, it’s incredible, it’s really empowering. In terms of us as filmmakers, it’s too early to tell, really. As with everything, you’d want a happy balance, you’d want streaming and you’d want DVDs, you’d want cinema. In terms of making films, I’ve just been rejected by, I don’t need to tell you the name of the company, I’m not gonna say it. But, I got rejected by a streamer for one of my films. Again, there’s huge competition to get in with those companies. Everyone wants to work for those, everyone slags them off, but everyone wants to secretly work for those companies. ‘Cause I hear they give you a lot of freedom. Refn, I haven’t seen his new thing for Amazon, but it’s supposed to be amazing. Roma, again, which I haven’t seen, I hear it’s amazing. Just to have that level of freedom, I think a lot of private financiers just wouldn’t tolerate that. It’s just very complex. Again, I don’t speak from the inside, I speak from the outside, but just seeing what they do, it’s incredible. But how is this working, because with In Fabric was a total flop in the cinema. We actually had a worse opening weekend than my first film which was 10 years ago. Distributors are, it might be just my film, I don’t know, or it could be a wider question about– But you feel from everyone in the industry, in Britain that is, that you’re being pushed into a corner. And I honestly, I don’t think I’m qualified to say the reasons. As with all these things, I think it’s a cocktail. I think streaming might be within that cocktail, illegal downloading might be in there, or just in general. I honestly don’t know, but, it’s definitely, in terms of what I want, I would love to have options. Most of the time I watch films and I’m on the move, I’m on a train or whatever. I don’t wanna have that circle going round, it’s just kind of reconfiguring, the wifi in the train. That’s when I get a portable DVD player out, put my headphones on and watch something. I like to have the security of having a rare film and knowing I have it, rather than having a streaming service just take it off their library. I guess it’s an ongoing question. But I’m not against streaming as such, and I think Netflix has done great things. I’m sure they’ll continue to do so. And again, it’s just finding this balance, which I don’t know, I’d love to hear your thoughts if we have time. Seriously, I’m old, so what do you think? Because I haven’t grown up with it, you have, I haven’t.
Audience Member: I think it’s just harder to take risks on films these days, because they’re so expensive, I suppose, that’ll be my thinking. I think a lot of people will wait for it to go on a streaming service.
PS: It’s true, the cinema in London is like 12 pounds. You can buy a DVD for half the price of that sometimes. Streaming wins then, yeah.
MC: All right, well, I wanna say a big thank you to Peter Strickland. And please, a round of applause for Peter Strickland.