Peter Strickland is an English filmmaker whose genre films include Katalin Varga (2009) and the critically acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Peter joined us at our studio space in CineCycle during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where his latest film, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), had its world premiere. We discussed the structural aspect of the film, its relationship to music, the unique way in which Peter edits, and whether the film replicates its S&M content.
How did you arrive at the concept or the structure for the film you wanted to make with The Duke of Burgundy?
Peter Strickland: I guess it came from a number of places: the idea of being caught in this sexual role-play lends itself to ideas that I already like in music and cinema in terms of repetition, modulation and the context changing each time you hear the same words. In a way it was quite easy to structure. What I like about that repetition is that you’re not sure if it’s a continuation of the characters’ games or is it a flashback to an earlier time. At the end of the film there’s this hope that maybe they can reach some kind of harmony, Evelyn can suppress her desires and deal with it, but is the end just a flashback or a relapse? Andy Starke, the producer, was keen on doing this remake of Jess Franco’s Lorna, the Exorcist (1974) and I was quite into it at the time, but remaking just didn’t work out. I then got into the idea of taking these core elements of Franco’s films, such as the sadomasochism, the female lovers, and maybe just make it more – not human, but collide with everyday pragmatics. When these films embody a fantasy, it’s never punctured by reality. Even if this is not a realistic film, I’m trying to bring realistic emotions and realistic pragmatics into the situation.
Is there also an element with Jess Franco where in those films there’s an overt sexuality that’s not present and I’m wondering if that’s something you’re engaging in with the spectator? The position they inhabit is almost an S&M role with the movie where they’re denied what they may think they’re going to get.
That’s very nice of you to say that. I can see that in hindsight, but that wasn’t so thought out in advance. I mean, I was very aware – it’s very hard in this day with the internet, it’s hard to not know what you’re going to see. But if you came into it cold, I was hoping you would think the film was one of these Barbed Wire Dolls (1976) or Olga’s House of Shame (1964) type films with a stern boss. Obviously you would think Evelyn is the housemaid and the rug is pulled by [the relationship] being consensual. But the rug is pulled again by having this fantasy figure in baggy pajamas, snoring at night. The idea that [the sadist figure] is reluctant, she’s not into doing this, but she’s doing it to please her lover – which is fine, it’s just that give and take in a relationship. It’s a hard one to do because there’s the element of not wanting to make fun of someone’s… as long as it’s consensual, you should never make fun of something or judge it. So it’s finding that tone. Also, anything to do with sexual role-play usually falls into two camps… pardon the pun… it’s either done in great earnest and too serious, which becomes ridiculous, or it’s sent-up. It’s hard to find that tone, but it helps with actors that are really good and I think Sidse [Babett Knudsen] and Chiara [D’Anna] really fleshed it out somehow.
I wanted to talk about some of the close-ups that happen and the motif of happening or seeing things in the film. It gets back to something you said about Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I think it was an Eddie Prévost (from the band AMM) quote…
Oh, “No sound is innocent.”
In this case it’s taking innocent objects and making them guilty by how you look at them. The way a chest can become something completely different for someone who is looking at it in a different way.
Oh yeah, that’s the interesting thing when you fetishize an object, it has this alchemical power. It’s all about association and I’m not trying to bring it to any sort of psychology, but the power of the object – you associate it with a power dynamic or with a certain person. I was trying to give it a filmic language, but it’s hard to put into words. I focus on details and it can bring out something almost magical sometimes. I was really into – and it’s probably an obvious thing – Kenneth Anger’s films, but also this film called Szindbád (1971) by Zoltán Huszárik. It’s very interesting because he had these extreme close-ups of Hungarian food and I didn’t even like Hungarian food, but he made it look so hypnotic and magical. These repetitive zoom-ins really put you into this kind of trance. For me, because the whole film is trying to convey this sense of being under this sexual spell, so you’re trying to get this slightly psychedelic, hypnotic quality to it.
It’s kind of like the Kuleshov Effect with your shots of the suds, the effect that the viewer has with those suds changing each time.
Yeah, we actually had to re-shoot the suds. There was extra money just for the soap suds because it’s something we really wanted to get right and when you’re doing a shoot you mainly had to focus on the actors because they’re there for a limited amount of time. We went back a month later just for the pants in the sink, it was a bit like Steve Martin and John Candy’s underwear in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987).
What about the avant-garde interstitial moments that you have, what was the inspiration behind those? One seems like it’s almost a quote of [Stan Brakhage’s] Mothlight (1963)-
-It is. I always wanted to pay tribute to that because I think it’s such a great film. It’s like a digital version of it.
How did you do the digital version because you’re obviously not using celluloid and physically putting a moth on it?
Yeah, well, I think at least we weren’t killing moths [laughs]. Animal cruelty put aside, thank god. That was a [VFX] company called Jellyfish, they did all that. I chose the moths. I tried to go for quite dull colours. Some of their names are quite interesting, like ‘True Lovers Knot’ and ‘Old Lady’. They’re in-jokes, nothing more. I think for me that was trying to get inside this collective anxiety that they both have – this anguish that they’re reaching with both of them feeling corners in very different ways. Evelyn feeling cornered because she feels guilty for having Cynthia indulge her all the time. Cynthia has just had enough, she’s performed-out [laughs], this fatigue from being someone she isn’t. Obviously the whole infidelity – which is a weird one, maybe I’ll come back to it. I just wanted to create this sequence that’s very heady, starting with going into Cynthia’s skirt and the idea of the person you desire and going through their legs… it’s kind of comical, but it’s a great magnetism that draws you in. There’s a kind of darkness to it, as well, when your desires are not aligned somehow. So, I just wanted to male something incredibly frenzied, but I was a fan of Brakhage and I think part of what I love about other filmmakers – even Tarantino – is that they make an audience aware of maybe something that hasn’t been so well known. The American underground cinema was such a huge part of my upbringing – Jordan Belson, Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, I could go on forever… the Whitney brothers – so I guess I sneaked it in somehow.
What is the association you have with that kind of magnetism? To you, what does that symbolize in that way?
It’s hard to know what it symbolizes exactly, it’s just something very intuitive. You’re going to laugh, but you know that scene in Star Wars where the Millennium Falcon is sucked into the Death Star – it just can’t go back, it’s pulled in. It’s that thing with Evelyn’s intense sexual appetite for Cynthia.
And that has a corollary in cinema itself, I guess, you’re saying?
It must do somewhere. In cinema, I don’t know specifically, but that just seemed like a very potent image to begin a dream sequence – going into someone’s legs. You feel a bit guilty for filming it, but when you do these things, it’s so matter-of-fact anyway. The actors read the script, they know what they’re getting involved in.
When you were saying you enjoyed the temporal jumps and viewers not knowing when scenes were occurring chronologically, did you enjoy the [festival] program note that said something like, “A girl arrives to help out as a maid.” It seems like it almost doesn’t get it or there’s a confusion in how the film’s being presented in the festival.
I don’t mind that confusion, that’s fine. It’s good to leave it open. I mean, I have my ideas of what it should be, which sometimes I think, “Should I say it? Should I not say it?” The ending, for example, that could be any number of things. As I said earlier, it could be a flashback, a relapse, even if it is a relapse, do we even know if Cynthia’s going to answer the door? She might just run out ’round the back and leave. It’s tricky as a filmmaker; you don’t want to cop-out and say nothing, but there’s a fine line between… I don’t mind if people think whatever. It could be… a housemaid that’s employed… It could also be that they’ve been lovers for a long time. I like the idea that everything is scripted [between them], the mechanics is shown. I think that’s the one thing it has in common with Berberian, where you see the mechanics of the whole process somehow.
The trajectory of your three films seems like the tension or violence is becoming more and more internalized and less visual. It’s something the viewer feels exists at some level, but does not see it as much as before.
Yeah, I think it’s always more fun, more exciting to restrict yourself [laughs]. The idea of restriction again, the whole film is about restriction. Because the audience has seen everything, there’s nothing – especially in the last year with Nymphomaniac (2013) and Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) – so I didn’t want to compete. There’s no point, it becomes… I’m not saying those directors are competing, but it’s been done. Why don’t we just try something else? Try and find another way to express that.
When you were describing the repetitions, it made me think of classic Structuralist film, where you have specific parameters – it’s almost like an experiment to create a movie with this as the structure. Is that how you’re approaching these films?
Yeah, I mean there’s maybe a lazy aspect of it, as well, where you can just copy and paste chunks of the script. It saves you from writing an extra ten pages. I was obsessed with repetitive music: Stereolab, Loop, Spacemen 3, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine. I loved the idea of accumulation, how things build and build and build. It’s not just repetition, the context is changing, the modulation is changing and the idea that I’m not actually changing anything, you’re the one changing with your knowledge. We have the same camera set-ups, the same dialogue – maybe a few things are different – but what’s changing is you as a member of the audience. Your knowledge is transforming the dynamic of the whole thing. For Evelyn, the dynamic hasn’t changed for her – the beginning or the middle part of the film – because it’s her role-play, but you don’t know that at the beginning. Well, you do know that if you read the internet.
Have you ever considered making a film that’s more like the improv music that you’ve cited before, where you’re introducing things that you don’t have control over and just seeing what transpires?
I don’t know, never say never. It’s tricky with film because it’s a weird balance between extreme planning and spontaneity and finding that balance. If you have 24 days, it’s pretty nerve-wracking. But I think you learn with each film to be more spontaneous. In the beginning with my first film, I was very controlled. You kind of realize that you should open yourself up – not to things you don’t want to do, absolutely not, but accidents can happen or people suggest things that really enhance it. It’s just knowing that this is going this is going to work better than what you planned. Improv? Yeah, who knows.
Like a Keith Rowe radio or something you’re putting in…
Keith Rowe radio… I think he’s left AMM, hasn’t he?
Yeah, I heard. But yeah, a Keith Rowe guitar – who knows?
What were some of those moments in Berberian or Burgundy where you hadn’t planned something and it came out looking good?
Good question. Quite a bit. That I need to think about. There are other elements, as well, in the edit where you’ve written the script in a certain way and the nature of one scene not working out means that you’ve just taken a huge chunk out of the building and everything else has to be rearranged. So you kind of surprise yourself that way in the edit and you can find these little passages that you didn’t think would be there. What I tend to do is give myself some freedom when we shoot – to go into something black, start with something black and that gives you entry and exit points where you can join other parts together. I think in both Berberian and Duke of Burgundy you find these black bits that can link up with another black bit elsewhere. You do find, “Oh, this is really interesting – it goes somewhere else completely.” In terms of being on set, I’m sure there is – I just cannot think at the moment.