In Fabric, the latest effort from director Peter Strickland, arrives in theaters this weekend after finding acclaim on the festival circuit. Strickland, who has previously explored giallo films and erotic fantasy in his work, turns his artistic eye to haunted objects this time around. In Fabric follows a blood red dress that visits inexplicable terror on all those who wear it, and the film invites its audience to witness what befalls several of its victims. The director shared his impetus for such a tale with Screen Rant, as well as the process behind his themes and visual storytelling.
In Fabric was such a visual feast full of symbolic storytelling. What was the initial spark that led to all of that?
Peter Strickland: It was a mixture of shopping in secondhand stores, and just being very aware of the presence of the people who wore the clothes before I bought them. Whether it’s stains, whether it’s the smell of BO… It’s very uncomfortable proxy intimacy, which really activates the imagination. You never know what that person looked like; you’ll never know what they did in that clothing, which really gets you thinking. I think the structure, that idea of clothing passing from person to person, came from that.
I was watching these M.R. James adaptations for the BBC, which were these very uncanny ghost stories. They’re very still and silent, and I just wondered, what if we transferred that sensibility away from these traditionally haunted spaces, like the misty beach or the haunted house in the country? What if I picked one of the loudest, least haunted places, which is which is the High Street shops?
Then you start looking for the unfamiliar within the familiar, and certain images come into your head, like eerie cues of light. I was watching the news after Christmas in Britain, and people would be queuing all night long for the first day of the sales. When you’re watching on TV, it’s always very lively and loud. But what if you’re watching it from the window of the top floor as you’re stock-taking? It’s going to have a very different feel to it.
I love what you said about clothing having a history, and wondering what others have done in those shoes, literally speaking. I found the scenes of the shop workers incredibly eerie, especially with the mannequins, because it makes you wonder who these are the people are that are handling the clothes and what are they doing after hours. What was the thought process behind those scenes?
Peter Strickland: It’s a mixture of things. You wonder about those mannequins. Were they human once? Are they becoming human, since they menstruate? Fatma’s character looks like a mannequin when she takes her wig off, so there’s that crossover feel between the staff and the mannequins.
Obviously, there’s this sex magic ritual going on. Bodily fluids are inherently part of clothing, though it’s very much a taboo subject. There’s one vital section of that scene, which is missing from the film because we didn’t have time to shoot it. I really feel the film misses out on this, but when the boss ejaculates, the sperm lands on the dress which is for sale. The next morning, it’s formed this kind of silvery design that a customer thinks looks really stylish, so she buys it. It’s really an extension from the bodily fluids which are always on clothes anyway, but what if they actually become the main design?
Peter Strickland: Well, I have a very conflicted feeling towards it, because I am a consumer. I would feel like a hypocrite if I made an anti-consumerist film. I think the film is playfully satirizing in the background, not with the main characters. But at the same time, obviously we’re aware more and more these days about how high fashion is not sustainable. Not just in terms of how we treat workers, but also out of concern for the environment. But this is not the film to get into that.
I hope that, watching the film, the audience feels they would do the same as Sheila. All that frustration at work, that frustration at home with her son’s girlfriend and her husband leaving her – of course you would want to escape and buy something nice. I think that’s quite a valid emotion, the power we give clothing to transform ourselves and escape our problems. I wanted to explore both the euphoric side of making the purchase and the darker side, such as with Babs, who has body dysmorphia. She’s a prisoner to how she perceives her body.
Really, In Fabric is just exploring very haunted, visceral reactions to clothing. Reg has his hosiery fetish from his childhood, which he can’t really articulate to his fiancée. She has body dysmorphia, which he can’t really understand. Sheila’s dreams of her dead mother, and how she can’t throw her clothing away because she’s so attached to it.
I believe that Fatma Mohamed has been in all of your films, or at least several of your projects. What is it that you love about working with her and what does she bring to your work?
Peter Strickland: I mean, I did my first feature film with her 10 years ago. More than that, actually, since we shot it in 2006. She had a very small part, and I didn’t know her then. We became friends afterwards. But she had a very different energy about her, which I kind of picked up on.
Each film I did with her, I realized there were more and more sides to her. When she played the bondage carpenter in Duke of Burgundy, I discovered a very different side to her – a playful, flamboyant side. When you’ve worked with someone that much, you think, “Okay, let’s try different characters. I think it’s about time you played someone who was actually really unpleasant.” Which of course, as an actress, she relishes.
It was risky; it was a weird time because of Brexit. When I wrote it, Brexit hadn’t happened yet. But getting a Romanian to play a demonic shop worker when there was all this [anti-immigrant] rhetoric going on? I was a bit apprehensive at first. But ultimately, I thought actors should be free to explore different roles. We discussed it, and we decided, “Let’s just do it.”
I always liked directors who work with the same actors. I love the idea of going back to the same actors again and again. There’s something really exciting about that, both as a director and as someone who watches films.
The time period of In Fabric felt so specific, with the technology available contributing to the plot. Why did you choose to set it in the pre-internet era?
Peter Strickland: There was only one reason. When you write, you always want to find a dynamic way to introduce the opening character, and there’s something interesting about those Lonely Hearts adverts. You’ve got a little box to describe yourself in the most flattering way possible. Obviously, Tinder relies on images, so I can’t use that.
So, here’s this character, and this is how she wants herself to be seen by the world. And then you’ve got this shop with different women working behind the glass. Which one is that person? That was what I wanted to do. And I guess ‘93, when the film was set, was one of the last years that kind of thing was going on. Because online dating was starting to become more dominant.
That was the only reason; otherwise I would have said it now. I wanted the contrast between the stores which always feel stuck in a time that’s never beyond the 70s, so there’s a very anachronistic quality of being thrown back into the 1970s. But Lonely Hearts was the only thing keeping me from setting it now.
Peter Strickland: From the very beginning, it was always going to go from character to character. But the thing was to spend enough time with the characters that you care about them. I didn’t want the characters to feel disposable. If they’re disposable, then the film reads as this kind of angry, anti-consumerist message film. Like I’m punishing them.
I don’t see the dress as an avenging angel. Like most horrific things in life, it’s random. People die randomly; there’s no judgment to it. That’s much more nightmare-ish and much scarier. So, you spend time with each character to work out what their hopes, fears and desires are. Why does Sheila go to the store and buy the dress? I hope you never see her as a consumerist, or any of the lead characters. But it was always a sequence, brutally cutting a life short and going to the next one.
One sequence that I really loved was the sweatshop from Hell. How did that scene come to mind, and how solidly should it be interpreted?
Peter Strickland: At the very beginning, when I wrote the first draft, it was a very different structure. There was much more of an element of social realism, and the idea of exploitation. I felt very uncomfortable going in that direction – nothing against other people making those kinds of films, I just don’t feel I have the skills to do that kind of film. I’d feel like a hypocrite because, shamefully, I don’t always check where my clothes are made from.
I wanted to keep the idea out there for the audience, but I didn’t want to hammer them over the head with it. So, I decided to have it as a fantastical element rather than as a realistic one, which It felt safer in the context of the whole film.
Finally, what was the most challenging aspect of directing In Fabric, and what was the most rewarding one?
Peter Strickland: My last film was two people in a room, pretty much. Whereas this one had many more characters and many locations. There were many things I hadn’t done before. Usually, I make quite human dramas, and suddenly I’m having dog attacks and washing machines going nuts.
So, I really learned to rely on my team. You always have to rely on a team, but I had to get a lot of help. I felt out of my depth, because I knew what I wanted to show but not how to do it. That was tough, having 27 days to shoot that. It was not a relaxed shoot; it was constant stress. I can’t say there was a lot of laughter when we made the film.
The rewarding part? I guess just getting it made. I think for me it was the first screening in Toronto. Because when you edit a film, there’s always somebody who doesn’t like it, you know? And that really plays into your insecurities about what you do. I mean we’re all insecure as directors and as human beings. Of course, you’re scared to show it to someone. So, to hear that laughter was very reassuring. It was an amazing high, to be honest.
In Fabric opens in theaters December 6 and on demand December 10.
Arrow Is Using DC’s Worst Green Arrow Story