“Why can’t you be more like Stephen Frears?”: Peter Strickland on Flux Gourmet and outsider artistry first published in a much shorter version by Little White Lies.
While our national cinema is dominated by ‘heritage’ stories, plucky underdog comedies and urban miserabilism, the films of writer/director Peter Strickland are eccentric outliers. His 2009 feature debut Katalin Varga was a Hungarian-/Romanian-language rape revenge saga set (and shot) in Transylvania. Berberian Sound Studio (2012) sees an English sound engineer coming unstuck in Seventies Italy as he works on the post-production of a misogynistic horror. In The Duke Of Burgundy (2014), lesbian entomophiles in an all-female village are caught in a sadomasochistic cycle of inevitable decline. In Fabric (2018) exposes the foibles and fetishes of little Britain via a cursed dress and a cult of consumerism. And now Strickland’s latest, Flux Gourmet (2022), merges creative and digestive processes at an artists’ retreat for food-focused musicians. Idiosyncratic, obscure and also often absurdly funny, Strickland’s filmography offers an alternative model of what a more adventurous British cinema might and should be.
Martin Scorsese has Robert DeNiro, John Waters had Divine, Sofia Coppola has Kirsten Dunst, the Coen brothers have John Turturro (and John Goodman, and George Clooney), Pedro Almodóvar has Penelope Cruz, and you have Fatma Mohamed, who has appeared in every single one of your features. How did you first cross paths with her, and what is it about her as an actress that keeps drawing you back?
Fatma Mohamed is a theatre actor with Sudanese and Hungarian parents, who grew up in Romania. I saw a photograph of her in a theatre foyer in Transylvania around sixteen years ago and she looked so mysterious and unapproachable, which immediately attracted me, of course. It was very easy to meet people there and I asked her if she’d consider playing a small part in Katalin Varga. I didn’t think much beyond that, but she was so intense in the film. I remember we shot that scene when her husband is beaten by these rogue officers around five in the morning. Fatma and Florin (who played the husband) slept in their car until they were called just before dawn and they never once complained. I asked her to be in Berberian Sound Studio and we gradually became friends. By the third film, I think we found a shared sensibility that we felt had some mileage. I couldn’t analyse what that sensibility is, as we’re very different people and have opposite tastes in so many things, but that’s probably why we get on so well even though we hardly see each other in between films. Fatma can be so many things and with every film, I’m discovering a different side to her, but what I love about her the most is her intensity, which is the one quality I value the most in an actor.
Your features might be described as eccentric, odd, outré. They are difficult to define. What, if anything, do you think unifies them?
I really don’t know. I guess anyone who writes and directs their own material will have their own stamp whether it’s willed or not, but it is hard to put into words and there’s also a danger of becoming too aware of one’s own traits, as a degree of innocence is vital to a film’s atmosphere. I felt that when I became aware of my hitherto unclassified predilection for ASMR in 2015, its use became too conscientious in the subsequent film, In Fabric, so maybe it’s best not to know too much about what unifies the five films I’ve made beyond a handful of tropes and motifs here and there.
And how do you go about securing funding for them? Is it easy? A constant uphill struggle?
It went from very difficult to very easy to very difficult again. I had a sweet spot around the time of The Duke of Burgundy when I could get a project into production with relative ease, but things change: fall-outs, the nature of understandably having to make way for newer blood (when it comes to public funding) and more inescapably, the fact that my films don’t make much money for anyone. I pretty much have myself to blame when it comes to lousy box office, but I don’t regret anything. For all their flaws, I’m very OK with the fact that I made a few films that exist on their own terms even if that whole way of working is unsustainable in the long term. There was a price to pay for making those films and out of exasperation, someone once cried at me, “Why can’t you be more like Stephen Frears?”
A running gag in Flux Gourmet is that, within its fictive world, ‘sonic catering’ has been mainstreamed for decades, but you yourself are in fact one of the few real-life practitioners of this rarefied musical form. What is The Sonic Catering Band, and to what degree have your own experiences in it influenced the film?
The Sonic Catering Band were pretty much what you see in the film.
Colin Fletcher, Tim Kirby and I cooked food whilst recording it and we then manipulated it into something new. Our main interest was in shifting the context of cooking away from the domestic space into the recorded space. I was obsessed with Zoviet France and wanted to make atmospheres like them, but with cooking. We existed from 1996 until around 2015, but we got back together briefly last year, so that Colin and Tim along with guest member Dan Hayhurst could work on the soundtrack to Flux Gourmet. I think it would ruin the show if we started to pinpoint what is and isn’t autobiographical in the film, but so much of what you see on screen is informed by the practices of other people such as Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, Robert Ashley, Schimpfluch and the Viennese Aktionists, of course.
Though unfolding in its own hermetic, hyperreal word, Flux Gourmet is a film about the creative process, as we watch its musicians grapple with, and fall apart under, the tensions between auteur and ensemble, between the figurative and the abstract, between the ‘pure’ and the commercial, and between independence and compromise, on their quest for art that is all at once their own, and palatable to others. Is this also you, as a filmmaker, working through your own recipe of issues and anxieties about your art and its production? Is Flux Gourmet a work about its own making?
Those meetings in Flux Gourmet are much more redolent of the film world than anything I’ve experienced in music. I have been in some tense film meetings when the biscuit plate was left untouched, and I think most filmmakers, producers and executives will recognise something in those scenes, but I certainly didn’t make the film for any of them, as nobody comes out of it looking good.
It’s more interesting to not take sides and see where the characters take me when I’m writing those scenes. Of course, even without sitting opposite a film executive, there are constant internal conflicts centred on a plethora of anxieties when one is writing. Control versus collaboration and how far that goes was certainly one of the things I wanted to explore in the film.
When I was in The Sonic Catering Band, we might’ve argued about who was going to do the washing-up after a recording or a gig, but we were mostly on the same trajectory when it came to making stuff, so it was very collaborative. We got things both right and wrong in unison and we very much learned things together in the creative sense. It was a million miles away from making films and we had the freedom to make whatever we wanted, which is probably why we couldn’t sell records. But again, we also see creative struggles both within and beyond the band in Flux Gourmet.
What is in your pipeline?
It’s hard to know. A lot has changed in the last few years and it’s so much harder to find crew when you’re competing with streamers who can offer them well-paid long-term work. Most people are struggling with bills, so it’s understandable that they’d take bigger projects, but this is one of the many obstacles facing independent productions.
I wrote two scripts, but they’re somewhat in the doldrums. One is very much about male sexuality in early ‘80s New York, but I’ve almost given up on it. I wrote it ten years ago, but it’s going nowhere and I think it’s better to try and publish it as an unrealised screenplay rather than allow it to fester on a hard drive. The other script is a kids’ fairy tale and almost a companion piece to Flux Gourmet, in that it also deals with stomach issues. I’d be surprised if either of those projects came to life in the near future and for the time being, I’m writing scripts on commission for other people to direct. It was initially a financial necessity to take on other work, but I grew to like it more than I thought I would. There are no arguments, as it’s clear from the beginning that I’m writing for other people and I also prefer the lifestyle. For all the razzmatazz of making films, it’s often a wretched, ulcer-inducing way to live and what makes it even worse is you can’t complain about it. When I worked in an off-licence in Reading town centre, I was at least allowed to complain that it was ulcer-inducing.
Interview by Anton Bitel