Peter Strickland has made some of the most distinctive and daring independent films of the 20th century. From his self-financed debut Katalin Varga, filmed in the remote heights of the Carpathian Mountains, to the Giallo horror Berberian Sound Studio, the unconventional period romance The Duke of Burgundy and his tale of a haunted dress In Fabric, Strickland’s genre-defying films have traversed many landscapes.
In this exclusive interview, the acclaimed British director sits down with us ahead of his ASFF 2021 masterclass to discuss shorts films, his new movie Flux Gourmet and the impact of the pandemic on the film industry.
ASFF: You started your career making short films. How easy / difficult was it to get those early shorts off the ground?
PS: It wasn’t easy due to the cost of film. Working with Super 8 was manageable as the cameras, cartridges and home editing kits were affordable. It’s strange to think that you could actually buy Super 8 splicing tape from Jessops in the early 1990s. 16mm was a huge jump in terms of costs and renting a room with a Steenbeck for editing was understandably not cheap even at the very supportive London Filmmaker’s Co-op. But the advantage of those costs was far less competition to get into film festivals. You could get into festivals such as Edinburgh and the Berlinale with relative ease in the 1990s. I had a very long hiatus doing mostly office jobs unrelated to film in order to pay off the debts from my short film and by the time I returned with a new short in 2004, technology was far cheaper and consequently there were more films out there, making it much harder to get into festivals.
ASFF: What advice would you give to young filmmakers starting out?
PS: I’m not sure there’s much advice a middle-aged man can give to someone starting out. The landscape has completely changed over the years, and it seems that younger people are much more aware of new technology and modes of dissemination that go hand in hand with that. They’re the ones who should be giving advice to older filmmakers like me.
What did help me with my short [Bubblegum, 1996] was the casting. Getting someone like Holly Woodlawn was definitely a coup back then due to her notoriety from the Warhol days in the early 1970s. It did help in terms of attracting everyone from crew to festivals. I saw a documentary on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side (a song I never liked) which featured Holly and I was already a big fan of her film, Trash. I bought a copy of the BFI Film & Television Handbook and called the BBC, who gave me the number of James Marsh. He gave me Holly’s agent’s number and that’s how it happened. All without the internet.
The bad surprise for me was after the film toured festivals, I went back to square one. You get a nice pat on the back and a festival goodie bag for making your first short, but then you’re shown the door. There was no interest in a follow-up short, feature, music videos or commercials. I did a long stint of day jobs, but I don’t regret it at all. In hindsight, those days had the advantage of stability and a guaranteed month off each year, which you could actually plan way in advance. I made some great and loyal friends (unlike the film industry) and I also got some great material that I could later use in my feature films. My advice would be that pushing paper in a badly lit office is not all doom and gloom.
ASFF: You’ve continued making shorts throughout your career. Do you feel it’s a good discipline, as a way of telling stories or keeping your filmmaking skills sharp?
PS: Shorts are mostly seen as a business card for that first feature, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There are not many other ways of gaining the trust of a financier or producer. I certainly had that mindset when I started out, but it’s a shame when filmmakers stop making shorts once they make a feature. It is a format that allows you to try things that you can’t always do in a feature, or it can be a springboard for other ideas. These days, I only make a feature once every four years despite having enough scripts in development. Things just take time to come together, no matter how hard one tries, and in that time it’s good to test other things or just practice – since nobody hires me for TV.
I sometimes curse the whole process of making a short film and the last two had agonisingly low budgets, which can drive me absolutely insane with frustration, but at the same time there is something very liberating about working that way, even if there is only enough money to shoot for eight hours in total and on another short, only four hours. Under that kind of pressure there is an intensity you can find in the finished result that you can’t always achieve on a feature, but I don’t want to say that too loudly, as low budgets are really not fair on the crew. I did the last two short films for free, as I make money from the fees on my features, writing-for-hire jobs or selling the shorts later on, but even without accepting a fee, the crew still don’t get enough even though they get something.
I’ve written a new short film that we’re planning to shoot in December after we finish post-production on Flux Gourmet, so there’s no sign of stopping there.
ASFF: You made Katalin Varga outside the British Film Industry. Do you feel there’s enough support in this country for young filmmakers? Anything that could be done better?
PS: The cult of London has to go. What’s the point of giving opportunities to economically disadvantaged filmmakers when they’re lulled into London and end up paying exorbitant rents? I was speaking to someone who is moving to London for an editing job this month and the cheapest one-bedroom flat he can find is £1,700 per month (or maybe he’s not looking hard enough). Regional centres are the answer. That is happening more and more with a lot of film activity in Nottingham, Yorkshire and other places. Also, in general, there is a marked improvement in diversity, so one can definitely see that the industry is on a path to make things better.
Beyond funding, what many filmmakers want is an end to all the backseat driving that goes on in the industry. You don’t get that level of interference in France or other European countries. A filmmaker’s voice shouldn’t be watered down by a committee of voices. Of course, if the budget is high and/or the director is hired on an existing project then I can understand why interference happens, but directors who write their own material on low budgets should be left alone. That really has to change, and every filmmaker I know agrees even if some of them are probably wise enough not to say it out loud.
ASFF: You recently shot Flux Gourmet with Asa Butterfield in York, the home of ASFF! How was the experience of working there?
PS: I loved working in York. Serena Armitage and Pietro Greppi (who produced the film) really put in a huge effort in finding locations and putting it all together, and it wasn’t easy. We already had a few failed attempts behind us. The shoot was far from easy, but that was mostly down to the pandemic and the painfully low budget and tight 15-day schedule, even though that has gone up to 17 days, as we just finished a weekend of pick-ups. York itself and Screen Yorkshire were all a dream. For me, it was just great to sleep with the window open at night and hear owls hooting rather than drunk blokes pissing in the street, as I did when we made In Fabric.
ASFF: How do you feel the industry has changed since the pandemic? Are you concerned for the big screen experience?
PS: I’m more concerned about DVDs and Blu-rays than the big screen. I went into HMV the other day and it’s more like a tuck shop now, with all the sweets they have on sale to compensate for the dwindling market in physical media. I prefer physical media and I don’t want to feel beholden to what streaming companies decide to put on or take off later. Also, all those hard drives whirring away somewhere for streaming companies aren’t much better for the environment than the plastics used in manufacturing discs and their pointless wrapping. I’m cautiously optimistic, however, about the big screen. A new independent cinema called The Biscuit Factory has just opened in Reading. That’s a very encouraging sign for a town outside London to do something like that.
As for making films during a pandemic; it’s an absolute pain. I hate it. Everything is a pain in the backside, or more precisely, the back of the mouth and the nostrils what with the amount of coronavirus tests you have to do. There’s a bottleneck of productions, which means you just can’t get the people you normally work with and even heads of department can’t get their teams. Even getting equipment is very difficult. Hardly anyone knew each other when we shot Flux Gourmet back in June, but (almost) everyone got on really well, which is rare. But because of the intensity of production post-lockdown, people are overworked and things you take for granted such as a technical order get bodged and things are missing from the truck or something you’ve ordered isn’t made to the normal standard. We’ve also had one or two key people suddenly jump ship onto a production that pays more, which means we have to come crying back to the one other person who was available but we turned down, only he/she has already been snapped up by another production, so I’m not in a rush to make another feature. Saying that, it’s never been a better time to be a crew member. You can suddenly make the same ridiculous demands that some actors get away with.
Peter Strickland In Conversation is on 3 November at 13:30-14:30. Watch in-person at the Yorkshire Museum, York, UK, and stream on Live Channel 2. Available to watch on our online platform until 30 November.
The 2021 Aesthetica Short Film Festival runs from 2-30 November. Tickets start from £25. For further details, visit: https://www.asff.co.uk/tickets