This wide-ranging conversation with Peter Strickland is centred around work, as theme of his films, and his theory and practice of it as filmmaker. The interview was conducted over Skype in June 2019, and then edited and condensed for clarity.
One under-discussed elements of your films is the importance of work to them. Not only is Berberian Sound Studio a look at a sound engineer, but also what it means to be amateur or professional – and the film ends with a literal merger of domestic and workspace. The Duke of Burgundy has ritual recitations of hyper-specific occupational language. In Fabric has both the store employees and the jobs of the people who shop there. Like Duke it features the incantations of specialists, albeit of washing machine mechanics. Even Katalin Varga, which is less explicitly about work, you’ve talked about the influence of Phill Niblock and his composition film The Movement of People Working which presents workers in fields, filmed in close-up, the sheer repetition of their movement and labour made apparent.
In a way, I kind of wish I did it more; especially in Varga. Even though this overall pattern hadn’t occurred to me, In Fabric is explicitly about work. It’s how I remember the 1990s when the film is set. I had a range of white collar to blue collar jobs, never washing machines I should add. I only lasted a month digging tunnels in the London Underground…but it’s about the memory of managing work. Wanting to escape, going into shops during your lunch break. People objected to the bank scenes in In Fabric because it didn’t enhance the plot. But it’s not about plot; it’s about wanting to be with this character and her need to escape this English-style passive aggressive control at work.
The mantra-like dialogues are a link to ASMR. I see In Fabric as an ASMR film. The repetitive jobs I did were data entry jobs. You’d sit in an office and type codes until you were bored out of your mind. But you could go into a trance because you didn’t need to think. And yet a lot of ideas come out of that tedium… And though I get that the dialogue is not normal, I don’t see it as weird. The supernatural elements with the dress are weird, but as they’re conventionally weird within genre cinema, they become almost normalised. Everything in the film beyond the supernatural; is just an exaggeration of normal life. If you’ve had one of these jobs: they’re performative, they’re using euphemisms, they’re using corporate speak. I used to work at TGI Fridays and every Saturday morning, all of the staff had to stand in one huge frieze by the front door to greet the first customers. Which never worked in the UK because everyone was just shy and embarrassed. All the stuff from In Fabric is simply exaggerating that language. So I’m not satirising the lead characters. I’m not treating them with disdain, but I’m satirising the worlds they have to endure.
The one I don’t consider concerned with work is The Duke of Burgundy, because the insects are a hobby for them.
Yes. Maybe work is not the right word, and I’ll try and figure out what the word should be. But there is an expertise, a practised expertise. It seems like another way of re-arranging the amateur/professional divide. If Berberian sets them off against one another, The Duke of Burgundy presents a community abstracted from society, exhibiting their knowledge of insects. In some ways it’s the purest version of amateurism. Or what amateurism would look like if there was no concept of its opposite work.
Ahh yes. Well I’ve always had this disdain for the distinction between amateurism and professionalism. I have always clung onto the idea of being an amateur. I was part of an amateur movie making club in the early 1990s, and I never wanted to lose that. Partly because people who kept defining themselves as professionals, usually weren’t. And there is a great joy in amateurism.
A great recent book is Ian Helliwell’s Tape Leaders (2015) on early experimental tape composition. It includes a few well-known people like Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, but it’s mostly completely obscure amateur tape composers from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and it’s just wonderful. There was so much great work done, and Berberian was a nod to that movement. You can’t really call it a movement, but rather a few individuals in the UK like Basil Kirchin and Desmond Leslie, people who worked in their garden sheds. And I wanted to link it to formalist Italian avant garde music – people like Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderno – by moving the garden shed to the studio. Though Berberian is also a fantasy studio, a mixture of foley plus valve technology.
How do you structure your own work? Do you have a studio space?
I have an office, which is a ten, fifteen-minute walk away. In the beginning I didn’t have wi-fi which was really good, but now with a 4G iPhone I can do emails and check the news which slows me down. But I really force myself to do a nine to five day. Then when you’re finished for the day, most of the ideas come while walking home – so I always carry a little notebook.
London was my least productive time, despite the whole myth of it being a place to be creative. You have to do regular work to pay the rent, commute within London, which can easily take an hour each way, you’re exhausted and there are so many temptations in London. So I had two years of not doing any writing whatsoever, not a single sentence, nothing. It also takes a long time to get back in the habit of writing after such a long break. I had a great time in London, and I actually did most of my film viewing when I lived in London. Now I’ve only seen one film this year. There’s either an output and there’s no mental space for input, or there’s input but there’s not much appetite for output. It’s quite rare to have both flowing at the same time. I can’t flip between projects, so when I write something I have to see it through, then I’ll do something else. It takes time to get into something and it takes time to get out of something, so when I finish a script I can’t just snap into another one.
There is a speculative happiness to writing. It’s seen as something passive and sedentary but actually it’s a really active visceral thing, because you’re living through the film and you don’t know where it’ll take you. I don’t like treatments. Sometimes they’re needed. But I discover the film as I write, then do a treatment based on the script.
What do your scripts look like? Are they specific? Do you storyboard or try to keep it flexible? Do you over-write for more options…
Storyboarding, no. I don’t even do shot lists to be honest. Except for the more complicated stunt or special effects for In Fabric, then I had to do them. But usually I discover things on set sometimes with the director of photography and sometimes alone. I tried to storyboard once and it just…I guess I want to be spontaneous.
How do you see shooting then? The jump from the studio to set?
My favourite process is writing. I love the lifestyle. I love walking to work. I like being on my own, if I’m honest. But then I reach a point, “Oh I need some company, I need social interaction.” So then I really crave the shoot. (Laughs) By the end of the shoot I’ve had enough.
Shooting is clearly a collaboration, but it’s a fine line between consulting people and drawing on their knowledge and the risk of them running away with ideas, which are not what you wanted. Shooting is tough. It’s the anxiety, the fear that you’ve only got so many hours in the day to do this. In writing, or editing, or sound mixing… if I get it wrong, we can pick it up the next day. In shooting there is always the fear that what you get is what you’re going to have to use. I find that terrifying. Technically, I’m not very confident. A lot of it is dealing with your own insecurities, which I’m quite open about. I say at the beginning, “I need help with eye lines, with lighting, whatever.” You want somebody who will help you, and not use it as a license to overtake what you want or see it as carte blanche to say “Right, I’m going to stamp my ideas on this.”
So what I usually do is go on set on my own. A lot is done prior with the production designer, thinking about where the camera is going, the actors, what’s going to be in the foreground? And then going through the set on my own, followed by the DOP. With collaborators, if I get on with somebody it would be crazy not to work with them again. Working on a film is such an intimate relationship. You have to get on with them. It think that comes first. It even goes beyond talent. But they might not be available, or financiers might occasionally want a say in the hiring of people.
Elsewhere you’ve talked about giving cast and crew time. That the first take will be the best, but then you go through multiple takes, trying options, letting them work it out of their system.
It varies from day to day, film to film. There have been occasions when we got it in one. No more takes required. And other days you need more. However, I actively reject the notion of retake after retake to achieve ‘perfection’, which some directors are or were known for. There’s a lot to be said for just getting on with it. I remember with Stereolab; Tim (Gane) and Lætitia (Sadier) had a completely different notion of ‘perfection’. They were like a factory. Keep pushing stuff out. Keep going and going. It was just incredible. The whole attitude was so different. I find it so inspiring. I remember Hal Hartley saying this is about practice. We’re practicing and practicing. You’re never going to get the perfect film. It’s impossible. So, I try my best to have that attitude, of just keeping going. You don’t always get it right, but that’s it.
In some ways, you’re an actor’s director: you reliably get strong performances from your actors, and you’re interested in the idea of performance. But being highly invested in acting is not part of your public perception. I suspect it’s because their roles are not front and centre, because ultimately you’re thinking of artifice and the total effect of the film. So I was wondering what your thoughts were on this?
I haven’t quite worked out my approach to this. Clearly, I do have an approach, but I never properly analysed it. Objects are a big part of the whole picture, particularly objects in relation to characters or objects revealing a state of mind. Objects were a huge part of cinema for me with the directors I love, like (Sergei) Parajanov or (Walerian) Borowczyk. There’s this alchemy to an object. It’s the association of an object with memories, with humans. That’s what’s fascinating.
But directing for me has a lot to do with feeling comfortable with an actor and hopefully vice versa. The best example of that would be with Fatma Mohamed who has been in all my features and I hope it will continue that way.
I saw a photograph of Fatma looking lost and mysterious in this Transylvanian theatre foyer in 2006. A mutual friend introduced us and I offered her a small part in Katalin Varga. The intensity of her performance coupled with her hardiness (sleeping in a friend’s car until we shot the scene at 5am) and good nature led to a long-term working relationship. I didn’t know at the time that we’d always work together and I only figured that would be the case after The Duke of Burgundy in which she completely transformed a scene which some people found vulgar and smutty on paper. We seldom spend time together purely because we live in different countries. If there’s a film to do, I ask her if she’s interested and if it’s a yes, then we talk, but sometimes her theatre schedule gets in the way. She flew between London and Transylvania three times during In Fabric, which was exhausting for her and the language in the script wasn’t easy, but she found a way through it even though it was very stressful. She’s a remarkable actor and has so many qualities she can tap into. There’s always that tension between playfulness and seriousness with her and I think that’s what makes her so unique. I never gave it any thought until recently and maybe it’s not relevant, but she’s a Romanian who is not Romanian. Romanian is her mother tongue and she grew up as a Romanian in the Transylvanian part of the country, but with a Hungarian mother and Sudanese father.
Ideally, I like working with the same actors. I always loved these acting troupes associated with John Waters or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. Fassbinder especially – Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla – there’s this idea of you’re making your own world. The danger of bringing in famous people is it dilutes this world somehow.
I agree. They’re totems of other worlds, possibly our world. While Fatma, to me, is like, “We are in Strickland now.” Conversely with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hayley Squires with In Fabric, this is why I felt there were two worlds. Fatma marking the department store and your territory, and Marianne and Hayley, who are associated with Mike Leigh and Ken Loach’s films and this idea of ‘real’ England.
I’m not a fan of those directors. If I were a film financier I would fund them of course. There is a very important place for them in cinema, but those films are not to my taste. I bought the DVD to Secrets and Lies because Toby recommended Marianne to me. Both Marianne and Hayley are wonderful actors. Hayley is easy going and funny. Very perceptive, very sharp. She just gets it in one. With actors, it depends what they need. Some actors don’t need any help. Some need a lot of talking. Others need a huge amount of reassurance, others don’t. Marianne is independent. She gets it really quickly.
Actors can have very different ways of arriving at a scene. The beauty of Katalin Varga was that all the actors had trained in the same network of theatres, so there was a shorthand between those actors and a harmonious style as they were already their own troupe.
What I find interesting about In Fabric is its demarcation of two worlds. There is the artificial Stricklandian, almost Quay Brothers like, department store, reaching upstairs. And then a ‘real’ England, its streets, engagement with everyday working lives, and actors from Leigh and Loach’s films – the dress threading these two worlds together.
With In Fabric, we tried to make it more like The Duke of Burgundy, artificial and sealed. I worship the Quays, but we never got to that level. My favourite scene was the masturbation scene. Not because of anything lurid, but because it took place in a small space and we could control it better. The lighting was there, the atmosphere was there, it was more contained.
See I like the organisation of the different tiers of artifice. One of my favourite moments is of Fatma in the lift, changing levels.
Well this was my frustration, but people seem to enjoy it. Someone said it’s like reality grappling with this artificial world. But I would have liked it be more artificial.
Even if this is a compromise solution, it works within that constraint. I was wondering if you had anything to say about Julian House and his design work? It seems so essential to how your films evoke worlds, and then promotionally how your films and their worlds infiltrate reality.
I first came across Julian House’s work when buying records by Stereolab and Broadcast. Then his Ghost Box label came along several years later and the whole aesthetic blew me away and tapped into something from my childhood. He really understood the haunting power of so many remnants from the ‘70s such as school text books, paperbacks, public information films and so on. It goes way beyond pastiche and evokes an uncanny, half-forgotten world with its own recollections. Again, here was someone creating a whole world that was unique, but spoke to so many people of my generation. I met Roj Stevens from Broadcast by accident on a stag night in 2004 and then several years into our friendship he introduced me to Trish Keenan and James Cargill and then they introduced me to Julian. Initially, I approached him about designing some tape boxes, fake Italian posters and so on for Berberian Sound Studio. My first feature script (from 1997) was called The Jackdaw Handbook and influenced by the atmosphere of Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Since I never made the film, Julian translated the title into Italian and did a poster for it. But it went much further than that when Julian suggested doing a fake title sequence for The Equestrian Vortex, the film within Berberian. I hadn’t thought of that, but it made perfect sense and we both shared a fondness for the title sequence for Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and it went from there.
Since Julian was an influence on me, I trust him a lot. Of course, there is a dialogue, especially about small details, but he takes full credit for coming up with initial ideas such as the torn catalogue model for the UK In Fabric poster. It’s a working relationship that continues to this day. I think his work is extraordinary and it’s important to give him a degree of freedom to get the most effective result. With posters, you want something that works on its own terms and not just something functional. You can still sell a film by conveying its spirit and not showing the actors in a really generic manner. Berberian promotion ended on a sour note when someone did a terrible sleeve for a UK supermarket DVD, which had nothing to do with Julian. I still don’t know who did it, but it all ended in arguments that resulted in fall-outs that still haven’t been resolved. All that was so unpleasant that we thought we’d be nice for The Duke of Burgundy, but by being agreeable I felt the poster was not what it could’ve been. I still like it, but I feel his other designs for the film were stronger and had his stamp on, which is important.
With In Fabric, there was a much better dialogue with everyone. Curzon initially wanted the actors on the poster, but they quickly saw that Julian’s other design was much stronger and I fully encouraged him to go with it. Again, that was Julian on his own trying things out and by giving him that space, bar a few small details, resulted in a great poster.
Jumping back to Tim of Stereolab, you’re now working with and his new band Cavern of Anti-Matter for In Fabric. And the score was recorded prior to the film as – something to edit to and avoid temp tracks?
Yes, we edited to it. I felt with Broadcast (who scored Berberian Sound Studio), that I was not a good director. I’d never worked with a band before: I was getting out classic giallo scores and asking them to “sound like this, like that,” and not giving them space. Trish was great, driving me to people like Nicola Piovani, but also it was important for both Trish and James to sound like Broadcast, which is why I asked them to score the film in the first place. You can easily forget why you first approached people. Temp music is a trap. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it takes experience to learn how to discard it and thereby not hinder composers. The whole experience of working with Broadcast is hard to get a grip on, as Trish died just before the shoot. James wanted to keep busy, which is very understandable, but the shock of what happened still makes it difficult to look back.
With Cat’s Eyes, I learnt to unglue myself from temp music to some degree. We spoke about the timbre and texture of the sound, the mood and instruments. And this worked great. So with Tim, I wanted to go one step further and have him produce music for me, before I even had an idea. Because the danger is you listen to music to get into a script-writing mood, and then you become glued to that music.
Tim wrote a lot of drones and other long tracks. Some were 18- minutes long, and it was a case of finding points in these pieces. “Let’s use this section, and this section.” References did come up, but the idea was to mutate them into something else. Tim wanted to cover Mick Jagger’s soundtrack to Invocation of My Demon Brother (Kenneth Anger, 1969). I didn’t see the point, but went along with it. But there was something there that triggered the fire sequence at the end of the film. Tim turned this Jagger cover version into a fire alarm, but you can still hear the vestiges or at least the mood of the original. What I like about it is that it sounds like sound design and not music even though it very clearly is ‘played’ music.
There were other musical parts that would move from scene to scene. Tim wrote music for the love scene between Marianne and Barry (Adamson), but I thought it was too emotive. I’ve always been shy of doing that kind of thing. But then I realised this love theme could work really well for the mannequin masturbation scene. Romantic images to emotive music didn’t work for me, but lurid images to emotive music definitely did.
What about your actual sound mix?
It’s amazing how a sound mix can lift some things. I never felt we captured the department store with In Fabric. Martin Pavey wanted some background sound for the store. So he got seven women, just to stand in a semi circle in the sound studio to adlib shop talk. I remember falling asleep to it, thinking, “my god, this completely connects to the YouTube videos I was watching.” Martin had already spent timing putting foley on, and different bits of atmos, but after hearing the women muttering I asked him to take all the foley off, all the atmos off, so that the sound mix is just these voices, which we used like score. We’d put a crescendo on it or mute it here and there. The mix was just the voices, dialogue and Muzak. Even seen sounds, like with clothing rails, we mostly cut out, so the department store feels like it’s in suspension. It becomes different because of the sound mix. The sound mix is vital. Likewise with The Duke of Burgundy, it originally had a busy sound, but most of the time we spent taking sound off the film. You don’t need a bombastic mix, if the sounds have space to breath.
How do you see post-production more broadly? Do you see it as a second creative phase equal to writing or filming? The deleted scenes on your home releases show different pathways for each film. And with Katalin Varga, previous interviews make it sound like a wordy script that was ‘cleansed’ streamlined in postproduction?
With Varga the earlier drafts were much more wordy. Once I spent time with the actors I knew I could pare it down, apart from the boat scene. Berberian was a lot more complex. I really loved working with Chris Dickens, but the edit was fraught with arguments that came from higher up. I got the cut I wanted, even if it’s a different cut from what I wrote on paper, but I felt I lost energy fighting my corner. There were intense arguments over small things such as voice-overs for the letter sequences. It’s something I didn’t want as it broke the diegetic rule of the sound mix. It’s hard to know what kind of edit we would’ve had without such friction. Maybe better, worse or the same. Regardless, I don’t thrive off such tension and my best work usually comes from stability and routine.
With a lot of editing, it starts with finding a mistake in a scene or just realising that it’s not working. One scene doesn’t work; so you take it out. But by taking that one scene out, you take a block out and everything collapses. So you’ve got to recalibrate, you have to restructure stuff around it, but then interesting stuff can happen when circumstances force you to piece parts of the film back together differently. But overall, when I write the script, I’m editing in my head. So my intention is to edit to the script. There’s this mythology that you should throw the script in the bin when you edit. Which I don’t subscribe to.
It feels like there are two myths: start afresh and pre-arranged execution.
I think it’s in the middle. Varga was closest to the script apart from the flash-forward at the beginning. There was no beginning intrigue to suck you in. So we took the middle section with the police at the door and put it at the beginning.
I now edit in Hungary, partly because I know nobody can be bothered to come over here from London. When you edit in SoHo, money people can pop over on their lunch breaks and babysit the whole process. There can be a grey area where you’re not forced to do something, but there’s such an atmosphere of tension that you’re too timid to try something, or you’re so exhausted from arguing that you cannot be bothered to try other directions. I don’t mind notes and sometimes they can be useful, but the notes should not be prescriptive.
I should say Andy Starke is very much a director’s producer. He’ll fight in the director’s corner. Some producers will sit on the financier’s side of the table, not the director’s. With In Fabric there were edit notes in which he agreed with the financiers. Not because he was scared of them, but because he thought they were right. But he respected my decision not to do these changes, even though he wanted them. I thought it was amazing of him to get up in a room and say “I stand by him” even though privately he wanted me to make those changes.
I meant to ask, is the closing shot in Varga, when it flashes back to her in the cart, an editing decision or scripted?
Oh yes, that’s a good point. That wasn’t in the script. I was disguising a bad shot at the end. The final shot was going to have the camera tilt up as Sebastian was beating her to death. We see the treetops and that’s the end. But it was a bad tilt and we only had one take of it, so the actual hit felt too hard. But in hindsight I wish we ended on the hit. But that’s the way with films, you wonder, why did we do this?
You’d never go back and do a Michael Mann and slowly tinker with your…
You could. But then five years later you’d say “well I should do this again, and that again.” I get why people like Michael Mann and George Lucas want to go back. But I would only go back if I had been forced to change something, to turn it into the director’s cut. But I think that when you make a piece of work, it’s not just you, it’s a piece of history, of time. And if you change history, it all gets a bit messy, honestly.
I’ve got three scripts which I see as my next films: the New York one, which is called Night Voltage; a kid’s film and something more low budget. Funding usually dictates which script (if any) goes into production first.
A kid’s film?
It’s actually a very personal film. I found something really personal to me that could work on a completely innocent level. It could also work on a psychedelic level, to some degree, but without any innuendo, without any sex or anything dark. But this script is only half finished.
It’s a very loose adaptation of The Magic Porridge Pot by the Brothers Grimm. There’s enough space in the original to go into other areas and I wanted to explore current attitudes towards food allergies and autoimmune responses. It’s something that hasn’t been tackled so much in film and it felt that something such as coeliac disease was crying out for its own film. The trick is in making something entertaining, funny and strange without turning the pity or didactic dial up too much.
And your New York film, Night Voltage? I was going through your old interviews and saw that this is a project you’ve been trying to get up since Berberian.
Yes. With a film with two women lovers, it’s easy to get the money. With male lovers, my god it’s impossible, but maybe that’s more to do with the relatively high budget. The film is set in these New York nightclubs from 1980, so just the amount of people involved, the actual construction of the sets, which have to be made. It’s also hard to sell because films about people having a good time don’t sell. There’s no real conflict.
No, that’s why you have music. This is your Patrick Cowley, Wakefield Poole film, right? Sound and vision.
The film came out of listening to Cowley and I discovered Poole later and his work definitely gave some colouring to certain scenes in the script.
The film is set in the period between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, though there’s no mention of Stonewall and AIDS is at the very end but it’s never explicitly stated. I wanted to focus on the sweet spot between Stonewall and AIDS where there was complete freedom.
One other influence is Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (1981), which contrasts so sharply to Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978). Both have similar plots, but Britain was very homophobic at the time. In comparison, there was an utter joie de vivre in Berlin.
I like that again with the artificial queer pornographers like Wakefield, that again there’s this little period, nearly the same period but instead of English garden sheds, it’s New York attic studios. What do you think of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus?
It’s incredible. A really strong film. There’s a rare book of his photos which I’d love to track down.
David Richard who is also writing on In Fabric is keenly interested in these films. For him, the difference is that ultimately heterosexual pornography of that period, something screened is functional; attending to a lack since half the party typically isn’t there. While with queer pornography of this time is more about demarcating a space. Whatever is projected into becomes a queer space, so that other things can then happen around it. Because all the required participants are there, the film doesn’t need to carry the same onscreen pornographic weight.
Right, and you could probably say the same about Jack Smith’s films in terms of opening up that space. I remember seeing Flaming Creatures and that opened up this whole world of, not just Jack Smith, but also La Monte Young, because Marian Zazeela was acting in it, Tony Conrad was doing the soundtrack. And again it was all done in his loft and it was this cold arabesque semi-porno bacchanalian whatever you want to call it seizure.
I’m interested in the blurring where it didn’t matter about boundaries: the linkage between the art world, straight world, and so on. It’s something we could explore, but it’s also impossible to be authentic because I was a five-year old at the time, I was at school in Reading. In the early nineties I had a Greek family in Queens I could stay with, so it was an off-peak flight away, £200. I was doing fine art at university, so I sold Bubblegum as an art project. My first visit to America was in late 1994 to prepare for that film even though I didn’t know anyone apart from my Greek relatives. Back then there was the power of phone book. You could get the New York Film-makers’ Co-op phone number. There was MM Serra working there, who was working with Maria Beatty at the time and John Zorn. I met the film writer and programmer, Johannes Schönherr who introduced me to Todd Phillips (who at that time was promoting his GG Allin documentary), which is kind of bizarre to think of now. He introduced me to Richard Kern, who introduced me to Nick Zedd who ended up acting in my film. This was all done from starting with the phone book. It’s just remarkable.
What I look for in pornography is this otherworldy intensity, which is unlike anything in mainstream or art cinema. I’ve never seen internet porn, as my hunch is that it’s very functional, lacking the headiness and atmosphere of ‘70s efforts. You had directors such as Roberta Findlay, Wakefield Poole, Fred Halsted, Peter De Rome, Jim Bidgood, Jess Franco, Radley Metzger and Shaun Costello turning cinema inside out at times. Of course, the films are often functional to a degree, but the atmosphere, camerawork, editing and so many other elements can be incredibly inspiring. They are hit and miss and you have to wade through a lot of the usual money shots, but when you find those moments of magic or insanity, they’re unlike anything else.
Shaun Costello was an influence on In Fabric. Water Power is this extremely toxic, misogynistic, thuggish, heterosexual porn – it was funded by the New York mafia and shot in 42nd Street. The atmosphere is so, I can’t describe it, it’s like a descent into hell. Normally I’d run a mile from that kind of film, but there are moments when you can’t believe what you are watching, such as Gillis having an orgasm behind a clinic screen. If Munch had to paint The Scream again in ‘70s 42nd St, the Jamie Gillis orgasm is what you might end up with. I stole that Gillis orgasm behind the screen shot and the whole credit sequence from Water Power for In Fabric. It’s just all these stills of money shots at the beginning of the film. I love how crude it is. The credits are saying, ‘this is what you’re going to get in the next 80 minutes.’ Julian House had done very elaborate credit sequences with my previous films, and this one was very rough and ready with a mafia feel. I was very apprehensive about confessing to the influence of Water Power given how disturbing it is.
So your biggest budget film has the roughest feel?
Oh I forgot, those films are called ‘roughies’? The only other person I can think of who likes Shaun Costello is Gasper Noé, which is not a big surprise. I saw a Noé quote on a Costello DVD, which made me laugh, purely because most filmmakers wouldn’t even admit to having seen his work.
No, that’s not a surprise. I have to say, in terms of makers of heterosexual pornography, I’m kinda weak. I know Radley Metzger…
Oh he’s good!
Water Power is an amazing title.
It has this feral energy. Like with Tommy Turner, working with David Wojnarowicz or with Tessa Hughes-Freeland; these films felt like they were beyond the law, almost like you were watching something criminal. I’m not referring to the sex or violence. You can find more extreme examples in mainstream cinema and I was never interested in extremes. What you get with those films is a different language of filmmaking. Maybe through skill or lack of skill, there is something uncanny, a rawness and an askew quality that makes you feel you’re in for a very unpredictable ride into someone’s mind,
With the films I love, it’s the energy, the atmosphere that I key into. Like with giallo, I don’t particularly enjoy watching people suffer, everything I love is down to atmosphere. The Quay Brothers, Eraserhead, it’s entering somebody else’s world, someone’s head. That’s what I want.
Would you ever take a job for hire? Somebody says we have a script that we think your style and strengths would work for?
That came up a lot after my first feature; I get fewer offers now because I kept saying no. I took one for hire job, which put me off trying this kind of thing again. It was six years of development, constant rewrites from me, for little money, like 3000 pounds. Then it took so long to raise money that people started to move on.
But if it’s a script with money in the bank, and it’s really a case of, “let’s do it next week,” then that would be a different conversation. I have no issue with doing work, which isn’t mine. I resent the myth of being pure. With Björk it went really well. The money was in the bank; off we went. There was something really refreshing about servicing someone else’s vision. Not because it’s Björk, but because it’s her vision. Even if she was an unknown, I wouldn’t dare tell her what to do, but yes, it does help that it’s Björk, as she’s a genius and knows exactly what she wants. I really enjoyed making the concert film for Biophilia with her and co-director, Nick Fenton. There’s something very satisfying about servicing someone else’s vision and it’s a welcome break from all the arguments I constantly have on my films.
My pragmatic problem with standard ‘for hire’ jobs, is that I need to be enthusiastic about the work over a long period of time. Even if the money is there, it’s two years of your life doing these things. I have a certain amount of obsessions I want to get on screen, and I want to do them. So yes, it doesn’t really work out often when it comes to ‘for hire’ work, but I don’t have any purist notions whatsoever. I feel it’s a job and we’ve all got to live. I’d happily do a TV movie and I wouldn’t have any issue whatsoever. I’ve actually, weirdly, tried to get TV work, and I’ve always been rejected, because they always think I’m going to run away with it. I tried to do a soap opera episode in England, and they think I’m going to make it weird, and I’m like, “I would do exactly what I’m told.” It’s good practise as well and I think you can learn a lot. But they don’t trust me; I’ve kind of cornered myself.
I imagine they see you treating it as an ‘auteur’ exercise in how to alter a commercial film to your vision.
Yes. And some directors try and do that, and some are encouraged to do that. But you get mixed messages. When I get offers, it’s always “we want authored stuff.” They want a John Edmond film, but they want their idea of a John Edmond film. But I don’t mind doing someone’s idea of my films if I’m for hire. If it’s something I’ve written then I want full control, but that’s always a battle.
It’s very weird, knowing Lucile Hadžihalilović, knowing Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and their European productions where directors always get final cut, as a given. Whereas in England you’re seen as a pain in the ass for arguing for it.
Pardon my ignorance, why can’t you go the European route?
Yes, well, that’s my ignorance as well to be honest. That’s my ignorance in not knowing the European system. Britain is an island and I feel the British know the British way, but yes. I should look for more money in Europe. Especially with Brexit happening and I feel my time is up with soft money in the U.K. It’s either very low budget, like half a million pound budgets, or giant budgets. This in-between world, which I was living in quite nicely, of one million, one and a half million budget films, is probably a thing of the past. So European funding is something I want to look into more.
With getting scripts up, have you ever thought about writing a book?
I tried to a couple of years ago. It’s just time getting in the way. I’d feel that I should be making a film instead. With film, there’s always a sense you’ve got limited time and that time will be snatched from you. I made my first short in 1992, so from 1992 to 2009 was the time it took to make my first feature. When it takes that long, you feel how precious and unpredictable making films is and you don’t want to mess it up by getting distracted with a book, even though I’d love to write one. It’s worth noting that I’m far from unique when it comes to struggling for years. I’m middle class and one of the lucky ones. At least I got there in the end and luck played its part in that. But there is this sense of urgency just to get everything going, get ideas out of my head. Ideas will dry up eventually, they might even dry up after these three films, assuming I’m lucky enough to make them. And then when it’s dried up, I can do other stuff. I can write a book, but a book can always wait.