exit interview

Peter Strickland Wants in on the Hack Work, Too

Asa Butterfield, Fatma Mohamed, and Ariane Labed in Flux Gourmet. Photo: IFC Films

Peter Strickland describes his cinematic fixations as follows: “Tragedy, sonic psychosis, bondage, retail nightmares, and stomach problems.” All five feature in the writer-director’s latest movie, Flux Gourmet, which follows a splintering group of “sonic caterers” — they use food to create freaky, avant-garde soundscapes and performance-art pieces — who are participating in a “culinary and alimentary performance” residency run by an increasingly deranged director named Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie, fantastic in a series of matching silk-bonnet-and-nightgown combos). The group, which can’t decide on a name for itself, is headed up by the enigmatic Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), a control-obsessed narcissist who puts sentient shrug Billy (Asa Butterfield) and brooding, resentful Lamina (Ariane Labed) through all sorts of psychic and artistic wringers, sowing endless dysfunction as the trio attempt to refine their work (and stave off Jan’s involvement) for a much-anticipated final performance.

Our entry point into the chaos is the long-suffering Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), the institute’s “dossierge” — or, as he refers to himself, “hack writer” — who faithfully interviews and records all of the collective’s machinations, making the film feel at times like a sort of tongue-in-cheek episode of Behind the Music for a band that has never actually existed. By day, Stones listens patiently to the artists complain about one another and reveal each other’s secrets; by night, he suffers in attempted silence as he deals with a mysterious and ever-worsening stomach condition that prevents him from eating much of the delicious food on offer, keeps him from sleeping, and, eventually, turns him into the reluctant subject of the collective’s performances. (All of which, it should be noted, end with the audience participating in an unexplained backstage orgy.)

Flux Gourmet is classically Strickland: a self-contained world that’s mesmerizing, droll, weird as hell, and completely idiosyncratic. Like most of his earlier films — Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric — it’s a buffet of gorgeous sound and set design, each choice meticulous and evocative. And though the film is bone-dry funny, like most Strickland movies, it’s also spooky and quite sweet, an empathetic look at the cost of making good art and the perils of modern human digestion.

So you were actually in a culinary band called the Sonic Catering Band. What was that like?
Yeah, we started in about 1996. I’d just made a short film in New York with Holly Woodlawn and Nick Zedd called Bubblegum on 16mm, because that’s what you did back then before digital became an option. It was so expensive. I wanted to keep doing things, but I couldn’t afford film. So I switched to — I wouldn’t call it music, we were really coming off of what Alan Splet was doing with David Lynch in Eraserhead, using everyday sounds and heightening them and turning them into atmospheres, chopping stuff up. We were treating the tapes we were using the same way you treat food: layering it, mixing it, chopping it, processing it. We did that up until the early 2000s, and then I got back into film around then.

Did you perform? Or just record?
We performed. We did a whole mixture of things, from traditional rock-band stuff to galleries. We toured around Europe, we did a six-hour shift once in this restaurant in Geneva. Basically we were at the mercy of whatever the people in the restaurant would order. We piped it out at the same level as Muzak so it wasn’t intense or intrusive. But we stopped. For this film, we got back together. I needed their gear, basically. They have all the gear and we use that gear in the film. They were there on set to help me out with whirring things up, making sure the right buttons were pressed. They did some work on the soundtrack as well.

We were not the only ones back then. Matthew Herbert was performing a little bit as well with the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. They were slightly different; they were using vegetables as percussion. Whereas we were not playing anything as instruments. We were documenting cooking. We were not performing when we recorded. Cook a meal, record it, eat the meal; then in the weeks afterward, we’d work on the sound that came from that.

Flux Gourmet director Peter Strickland. Photo: Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images

Did you do anything as outré and dramatic as Elle and her band?
Oh no. Well … we did a few things, yeah. We were young then. I wouldn’t do those things now. It’s a bit undignified at my age. I think the stuff you saw in the film, a lot of that came from other people, such as the Viennese Actionists or even bands like Throbbing Gristle, White House, or Robert Ashley, in terms of using found recordings that are quite shocking or intense. I’m a big fan of bands that use very intense volume, like Swans or My Bloody Valentine. Very all-consuming. There’s a kind of submission you go through as an audience member that’s very satisfying. Being purged, somehow, by the sheer weight of sound.

It all feels intertwined with Berberian Sound Studio, another movie specifically about creating and mutating sound. When did you think: I’m going to turn this into a film, and how did you land on this story?
I wrote it at the end of 2018. I liked the idea of doing a very loose biopic — well, not really a biopic, but it mirrors what we were doing. People were making them about Queen and Elton John; Madonna was about to do something. I liked the idea of doing it with a band that nobody has heard of. That seemed quite perverse to me. Within that, something opened up in terms of this idea of a band that obsesses over shock value and comes across this character that they can use. It’s not good, what they’re doing to Stones; they’re kind of piggybacking onto his troubles. It opened a door to looking at the stomach in hopefully a sympathetic way. I hadn’t really seen that done; I’m not aware of it being done in films so much. Which is odd, because it’s such a common thing now. Those symptoms he has can be indicative of not just celiac but Crohn’s disease, IBS. But it’s often hidden out of the way or done as a sort of frat-boy comedy. There was space for something a bit more involving, not just as a joke.

Do you have it or know someone close to you who has celiac? I have stomach stuff, and it felt extremely relatable.
Everyone knows someone. But I just really wanted to go there. The question is, how do you do it in a dignified manner? Anything to do with wind, you run the risk of the audience laughing. But we tried. The character of Elle is obsessed with taboo and breaking taboos. I find it personally to be a bit of a cul-de-sac. Any of us can break a taboo. To me, it’s not so interesting. But the taboo of the body, and having to hide things that are quite natural — if somebody can walk away from the film and openly say, “I have stomach issues” without feeling embarrassed, that’s an achievement. Not that I’m trying to make some public-information film. But I was very touched when a woman said to me, “Yeah, I have these things and I can’t go out sometimes. I’m too embarrassed.” I don’t want to get too personal, but are you open about yours or do you feel you can talk about it with me?

I am, but it depends on the context. I’ve definitely been in Stones’s shoes.
I’m sorry you go through that. It’s weird. More and more people have stomach issues. I don’t know if it’s to do with food or the way it’s processed these days? I’m not a doctor. But there is the question of, how do you deal with it without being vulgar? Obviously there’s vulgarity in the film, with Elle and her smearing [human excrement — or is it? — on herself].

There are several shocking moments in this film, though I didn’t find them gross as much as I found them delightfully weird. Variety suggested otherwise and said it “may send audiences running for the loo or else reaching for the barf bag, coming about as close to triggering the gag reflex as a film can without actually jamming a finger down your throat.” How do you see those scenes functioning, specifically as they relate to your point about vulgarity and taboos?
Obviously, there’s a huge tradition of taboo breaking, especially within avant-garde music and filmmaking. For me personally, the taboos worth pursuing are the ones that are to do with the body or with pleasure. Everything I’ve done, the only time I’ve gotten into trouble with my films are when it has to do with sexual arousal. If somebody dies in my films, nobody cares. With In Fabric, the menstrual blood mannequin scene caused a lot of problems, especially in America, which is strange for me for something completely natural. Then you have R-ratings for women suffering all kinds of traumas. I guess I’m doing it in a small way, but part of me is interested in the hypocrisy around taboos. We tolerate so much violence — I’m not gonna judge people; there are violent films I love — but there’s a double standard for intimate bodily things. I guess the film is prodding at that.

Elle’s character is quite different from what I’m doing; she’ll do anything she can to shock an audience. And yeah, she goes too far. The dilemma I have as a filmmaker is that I have to follow what she does. I don’t want to end up like GG Allin, smearing himself in his own excrement. You watch something like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, and it’s never revealed that it’s chocolate, but you know it’s chocolate. To me it’s not that shocking. The nature of this kind of film is that it’s not for everyone. You just have to accept that people are going to hate it.

I don’t think people are hating it, but that they maybe misunderstand the provocation.
If you’re dealing with that part of the body, it is tricky. I tried to do most of it through voice-over and just talk about his anxiety and that awful thing of sleeping next to people and having to do courtesy flushes and so on. We spoke about it a lot, in terms of how to do it without it falling flat. It is risky. The risk of being laughed at is the scariest risk when you make a film. We were quite anxious about that. There is humor in the film, but for me the humor is the band’s bickering. But you hand it to an audience, and that’s it. You can’t control it.

This actually reminds me of my conversation with David Cronenberg about Crimes of the Future, which is similarly about the internal organs and the body as performance art and this idea of shock and taboo. It feels like these movies are in conversation with each other. Have you seen it?
I would love to see it. I’ve heard it’s really intense. It’s odd; when I was editing Flux, I had an evening off to meet the guy who did some of the prosthetics and we ended up on Brandon Cronenberg’s hotel balcony. Not that I’m name-dropping. [Laughs.] We were just moaning about making films. But we didn’t talk about his dad at all.

There a few different ways to be an artist, as represented in this film: You’re delusional and narcissistic and out to provoke, like Elle, or you’re self-doubting and tortured like Stones, or you’re sort of stumbling and detached like Billy, or brooding like Lamina. Is that how you see the reality of making art? Which of these do you most identify with when you make films?
I think all of them, to be honest. Even beyond the band. There’s part of me in [the gleefully malevolent medical professional] Dr. Glock. There is a sadist and a masochist in filmmakers. That bit at the end, when he’s truly horrible to Stones as he holds back the diagnosis — that’s what we do to an audience with film. I like embracing the idea of deceit and being devious. I think it’s a part of filmmaking that really attracts me: to feel like you know the filmmaker but don’t know the filmmaker.

As someone who writes and directs, I go through euphoric moments of confidence to extreme self-doubt. You don’t take your confidence too seriously or your self-doubt too seriously. You just plow ahead somehow. The two lines that resonate the most with me are Stones saying, “Something so private, sacrificed for the sake of art.” To expose yourself physically and emotionally to strangers, it’s like, why do we do that? We all do it, not just filmmakers. People on Twitter and social media. I’m not judging it. I am just fascinated by that conundrum. And then Lamina talking about catharsis and purging, which is this unknowable thing you can’t put into words. I get that from certain filmmakers or bands, where I do feel purged. I really chase that almost religiously. It’s religious guilt.

What do you mean?
I grew up as an Orthodox. I’m half-Greek. It’s instilled in you from an early age, sin. But I’m at peace with my sins.

I know you edit your films in Hungary, and I read that it was because people from London can’t be bothered to fly over there and bother you and weigh in on your choices. Jan Stevens and Elle have a protracted creative struggle over the use of a flanger in the film, and I wonder what your flanger is, whether patrons have tried to exercise influence over your art.
Oh, all the time. Every filmmaker has those grueling conversations. But it would be too easy just to turn Gwendoline Christie’s character into the bad, interfering financier. The flanger is a MacGuffin that explores their egos. But I am fascinated by it. Partly because I actually mistook the flanger myself when I was in the band. When I got to know what a flanger was, suddenly all these moments in music: “Oh my God, that’s why I love it so much.” As far as I know, it’s an instant flanger in David Bowie’s “V-2 Schneider.” He has that sucking sound like an airplane taking off. It transports you. We used it a lot in the film. What I didn’t realize until literally the last minute was that “flanger” has a double slang meaning for a part of the body. I was like, [throws up hands]. If I had known I might have changed it.

Sound has always been a significant element in your movies. It’s incredibly specific and usually really trancelike and hypnotic. I’m curious if you set out to create a sort of ASMR experience with your sound.
It’s interesting you mention ASMR. On my third film, someone asked me if I was into it, and I didn’t know what it was. I had to look it up, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is me!” So I was using those types of sounds in all my films without knowing I was doing it. It goes back to a lot of the music I was listening to, like Robert Ashley and Nurse With Wound. I never had an intellectual response to it, and I always wondered, “What’s wrong with me? I adore this music but can’t be theoretical about it.” I realized it’s a visceral response, a calm response. In Fabric was the first film I consciously made with an ASMR approach. In a selfish way, I try to make films that I would enjoy. I don’t always succeed, but the aim is to do the sort of sound I’d get off on — those moments of reverie and intense volume and texture. We use analog a lot, and it really pays off.

Those little moments in music that are subliminal but that really open a door — there’s a zoviet*france album called Assault and Mirage, and in the second track, you just hear a girl’s voice. You half-hear it, submerged in the mix. It’s like you’re half-asleep. We did that a lot in this film: Taking bits of Fatma’s voice and burying it in the mix, like an imprint. Did you hear it?

I can’t remember if I did.
I think only we’d notice it. It’s there but not there. The shooting was difficult. We had 14 days; sometimes we got something and sometimes we had no time. “Here’s the camera, shoot this, shoot that, done.” But with the sound we had time. Pardon my lack of modesty, but I’m very happy with the sound. With the film? Yeah, I can see parts where it just doesn’t quite get there. But that’s always the way.

This reminds of me the moment when Stones is just like, “I’m a hack writer.” It seems like you have a lot of self-doubt, which can be healthy, but I think the film succeeds on many levels. What would you do differently if you had more time?
Just better camera placement sometimes. When you have 14 days, you have to pick and choose what you can choreograph. The scene with Fatma and the tomato soup, we only had two takes. So literally, Tim, who was shooting it, would just follow Fatma around. It worked because she’s so on fire and he did a great job, but none of us have had that short of a schedule before. Seventeen days was the shortest for my first film. It’s funny, I do relate to that hack line. On the side, I write for other people. Most of us do other jobs. You can’t live off the job you love. The cost of living is insane these days. You do what you have to do.

I got a taste of it when I did a concert film with Björk. Initially, I was very much into doing my own thing, but then I really enjoyed it. She was so great to work with. I kind of liked the idea of serving someone’s vision. It’s opened up something inside me that I didn’t think I had before. When I make my films, I get quite protective and I guess I do get into arguments. But if I’m working for someone else, I just let go. I do whatever they want. So I relate to Stones a lot. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a hack or see hack as a dirty word. People who are not hacks tend to just be very rich. [Laughs.] Let’s be honest about it.

I’d put myself in that category as well then.
I’m trying to do hack jobs in film! I never get the jobs. But I have tried.

Do you feel like you’re losing out on jobs because people think you can only do things “the Peter Strickland way”?
It is a real problem. I was trying to get pretty standard British TV work, but it’s always this thing of, “Oh, you’re too weird.” No! I will do what you tell me to do! I’m not gonna try and usurp your vision. It’s practice for me, and it’s money. The issue is when you’ve made three-plus films, I guess people want you to showrun something or do something “prestige.” The things I have been offered have always been prestige TV, which comes with a whole load of baggage. It takes over your life. I’d love to just do episode seven of something. Or a soap opera.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Peter Strickland Wants the Work That Hacks Are Getting