Killer Couture: Peter Strickland Goes ASMR with In Fabric

Don’t go into a Peter Strickland movie expecting a mainstream tentpole. With In Fabric, out in North America from A24 on December 6, the director of Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio, and The Duke of Burgundy returns to the world of the weird with an atmospheric tale of’90s British department store culture; capitalism and corporate malaise; washing machine repair; sexual fetishes; and a dress that kills people. 

Holding these potentially disparate elements together is a soundscape that the director compares to an ASMR video—a popular if niche form of online filmmaking that seeks to evoke a physical response in the viewer through the use of sound. (Look it up on YouTube. There are a lot of them.) 

I’ve read in a previous interview that you don’t usually do storyboards, or even shot lists. Is that correct?

With In Fabric, it was different. In Duke of Burgundy, it was two people in a house. With In Fabric, we had dogs, we had washing machines. That did need planning—certainly shot lists. Sometimes we would do video rehearsals. Storyboards occasionally. There was no way we could just leave it to spontaneity on the day. The fighting, that was all rehearsed and videoed beforehand. The dog, as well, that was done in advance. [Editor’s note: A dog attacks Sheila, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, which is why you don’t buy a dress with weird murderous powers.] So the dog knew on the day what to do. He was more prepared than we were, by the way.

At what point in the process are you thinking about sound design? It’s a huge element in all your films.

I’ve always been a big believer in spontaneity. I think with sound design, there’s always time for that. When you shoot things, it’s a very tricky beast. A lot of the sound from In Fabric is actually the music. When you hear that fire alarm at the end, that’s actually Tim Gane using a Moog [synthesizer]. You do get a sense, “It might be a Moog; I’m not sure.” But it sounds like it isn’t an alarm—it’s obviously going through distortion, as if the speakers are being melted. That was done in advance. 

A lot of that was done even before I wrote the script. Other things came very late. All the murmuring in the store, that came from the final weeks of sound mixing. Martin Paydes, who was doing the sound mix, wanted to get a bit of ambience, just a bit of background noise. So [people] just stood in the studio in a semicircle, improvising. But I loved the sound of it. It was really hypnotic and brought to mind all these ASMR videos, which I was watching. Then we decided to use it in a very different way. We tried to use it as score, where we would use crescendos or suddenly do hard cuts to it. Take out a lot of the Foley, a lot of the Atmos, and give it this level of artifice that makes the sound feel almost as if it’s in suspension. It’s a mixture, really. I was watching a lot of ASMR videos when I was writing the script. I always knew I wanted the film to feel like an extended YouTube video to some degree.

Sound design is so interesting to me—it affects the audience in such a visceral way, but it’s not necessarily a way most people can articulate.

My first epiphany with that would be Alan Splet’s work with David Lynch on Eraserhead (1977). That was in 1990. I was 16 then. And I’d never seen that kind of film before. I was a regular kid; I’d watched Cocktail, stuff like that. Tom Cruise movies. I loved those films. I still do. But here was something so insular in using sound to convey a state of mind. Sound as something very expressive, not functional. A lot of action films have amazing sound design, but it’s still functional sound. They’re illustrating an explosion or illustrating a spaceship. But what Splet and Lynch were doing was not illustrating at all. It was going in a very different direction. It opened up a whole world for me. It got under my skin.

You definitely share a more impressionistic approach to sound design.

Yes, I would say that. I was never into being particularly bombastic. I think a lot of the sounds we do in In Fabric are fairly low-key sounds. But still, sound has this immense power. A lot of it is about the context of sound. Where the sound is. It’s not so much being the loudest or the harshest frequencies. It’s the juxtapositions of image and sound that people wouldn’t normally expect.

It contributes so much to the mood of the film. It’s set in the world of these ’90s British department stores, right?

Yes. I would’ve set it now. A lot of those stores are dying. Each year another one of those unique stores disappears. The one that the store [in In Fabric] was based on was called Jacksons, in Reading, and that closed in 2013. But even then it was pretty much the same as I remember it when I was a kid. In the film, we use Muzak. But those stores didn’t have Muzak. They were very silent. Very different from chain stores where you would almost feel as if you were in a nightclub. There was silence. So you’d really key into certain sounds. 

The thick catalog [that several characters interact with], with very thin paper, this kind of high-gloss, 80 GSM paper weight—this very thin paper. The sound of those pages turning. The carpet was thick, so the sound was quite muffled. There was this very heightened feel. It was like theater. The stores would also have these money chutes, a pneumatic piping system, so you’d have these agonizingly long waits for your money to come back. Time would seem to do strange things. I tried to be true to how I remembered that store as a kid. When you’re a kid, there’s no language for certain things. If you’re a young boy, you see a suspender [garter] belt, you haven’t got a clue what it is. You see a dumbwaiter going up and down, you haven’t got a clue where it leads to.

That scene where Fatma Mohamed’s character is in the dumbwaiter is so chilling. It taps into this sort of childhood fear, where you imagine they go straight down to hell.

Exactly. This is clearly not a film for kids, but I wanted to employ this childhood perspective, which can often be quite dark. It’s using that kind of M.R. James sensibility. Usually, M.R. James, you’d associate his work with a misty beach or a haunted house. But [I took] it to a very prosaic setting, which is the High Street shops. People don’t normally associate that with something haunted. The sound of the High Street is the sound of the past, so that’s been quite interesting for me.

Your films are so meticulous in how they’re constructed—I wonder if you’re equally picky about how they’re screened.

I don’t bother, because I would get an ulcer. You can’t! I know some directors who really police their screenings, but I’d rather just write a new script, to be honest. When it’s done, it’s done. You have no control over how people watch your films. The first screening we had last year, I turned up to that. We did some sound tests, and we had to go back and remix certain parts of the film. [There was one scene where] the frequencies sounded very aggressive, but to a manageable degree, in the studio. But when we heard it in the cinema, it was just painful. And I’m not really into doing that to an audience. We turned it down, making everything else too quiet, to save people’s ears from being terrorized. With certain things, it’s good that I was there to test things. But yeah, you get to a certain point and you just have to let it go.

Streaming is increasingly a distribution option for midrange films like these. The narrative among some people is that if you’re going to shell out for a ticket in a movie theater, it should be an Avengers or something equally huge.

This whole topic is very prescient at the moment among people who watch films and people who like films. I’m a big believer in streaming, because I think it’s made film available for people who couldn’t afford it normally or who couldn’t even get to certain places. In the U.K., if you don’t live in London, it’s very difficult to see certain films. So I think it’s great in that regard. 

With all these things, when it becomes too dominant and shuts down cinema, that’s not a good thing. We haven’t reached that equilibrium where we can keep repertory cinema or smaller independent cinemas but also allow people who don’t have the money to go to the cinema to see it. I want them to stream it. For me, personally, I make films for a big screen. As long as I know it’s in some cinemas. So that would be my wish. If there’s a day when all cinemas are gone, that would be quite tragic.

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