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I Have to Love My Characters: Peter Strickland on Flux Gourmet

The films of English auteur Peter Strickland have always flown on a sharp comedic air. But his latest, told from the perspective of Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a quiet journalist battling celiac disease while he reports on an avant-garde musical collective who turn food into performance art and music, is probably his funniest yet.   

Similar to Strickland’s previous movies “Berberian Sound Studio,” “The Duke of Burgundy,” and “In Fabric,” "Flux Gourmet" concerns the slippages between the personal and professional, the sacrifices made for hobbies and work, at the very definition of decorum. It features his familiar use of arched characters: The Sonic Catering Institute is headed by the imposing Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) who’s invited a band composed of the draconian Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, Strickland’s best collaborative partner), the unfazed Billy (Asa Butterfield) and the unflinching Lamina (Ariane Labed) for a month-long residency. They fill a movie about flatulence that features very few fart jokes. 

You wouldn’t immediately know it, but Strickland is a deeply empathetic storyteller. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, Stones would be the proverbial butt of the joke. Strickland never allows that to happen. A mixture of unrelenting humors and sublime soundscape makes “Flux Gourmet” Strickland’s most approachable film, but no less contemplative or complex. spoke to Strickland to talk about collaborating with Mohamed, his complicated thoughts on Werner Herzog, and the unmade projects he still hopes to complete.   

You don’t typically use voiceover in your movies, so why here?

I’ve always liked it and I did it with my very first short film [“Bubblegum”], a long, long time ago with Holly Woodlawn. And I almost did it in a kind of girl pop Ronette song. I hadn't done it since 1995, but it really worked with this character. I think when you're dealing with something so private, such as these stomach issues, you want him to have some dignity. Otherwise it becomes another frat boy film. So there was a very valid reason for having it. He can describe these things, which are usually unspoken, while giving voice to all these anxieties. So it was more talking about these issues rather than actually hearing them. You only hear one fart in the whole film, that's it basically.

A couple months ago I was on the programming team for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and we programmed “Flux Gourmet” and I remember telling a few people about it. Everyone asked me how many fart jokes there were. I was like, there are surprisingly very few!

I've got nothing against fart jokes. It's all context. Isn't it? It's funny when you have a well-timed fart in school. That's great. But I think for someone who’s clearly been flattened by this autoimmune disease, and it's not just celiac, you know, talk about irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease and a whole myriad of things, and I don't wanna be the bad guy saying you're not supposed to find these things funny—it's just trying to find a different perspective. If you can liberate someone in the audience to actually just say afterwards to their friends, "Yeah. I got the same issues. I could never talk about them before," without the feeling of they're gonna be laughed at, that's not such a bad thing to aim for.

You’re English and Greek and spent significant time in Hungary. Each of those countries carry very unique senses of humor. In what ways have those places influenced your humor?

Actually my humor, to me, feels quite English. I was very much brought up on English comedies like classic seventies BBC comedy. With Hungarian humor ... They're quite serious to be honest in Hungary. Béla Tarr films are pretty heavy duty [laughs]. I have the other things that got into me from living in Hungary and other things that got into me from being half Greek, other sensibilities. But the humor, I'm not so sure, really.

You briefly mentioned your sensibilities, could you expound?

Well, it’s probably very hard to put into words, really. I love Hungarian cinema. I think just the way it’s shot: the framing, the lighting, it's very hard to put that into words. I like using actors from that region. Fatma, well, she’s Hungarian, but she doesn't speak Hungarian. Her mother's Hungarian; her dad is from Sudan. She grew up in Romania. I guess Fatma can describe herself better than I can, but I like working with those actors, especially Fatma. I think she's got something where I really feel like she's the sister that I never had. She really brings something out in my work.

As you’ve gotten to know Fatma as an actress, have you tried to write toward her strengths or are you always trying to explore her range?

Well [with] this one I really pushed her and I think there were times when she was like, "Really?" Um, obviously we spoke a lot about this one. She had to push herself before, and with this one we were having some very long conversations about can she do this? Can she not do this? Obviously I don't wanna force anyone to do something they don't wanna do. I do feel that we went as far as we both want to go with this film. I mean, she really went in there head first and she really went there. 

I think it would just start to feel a bit predictable if we started going further. I don't see any point in going further, and I don't have anything to say there. With this film, there was a point, you know, we were dealing with a character who loves shock value, who can use someone else's suffering as part of their shock value. So it all kind of tied in, in that sense.

I’m interested in the role of nature in this film. In “Duke of Burgundy” you of course had butterfly collectors, but here, when the band take their constitutionals, nature occupies a slightly different role. Could you talk more about that?

Well, with my first film, it was nature the way Herzog used to see it. It’s something that is against you; against itself. That was very much the tone of my first film. Even though I have mixed feelings about Herzog these days; but that's a whole 'nother thing. With “Berberian,” apart from one little moment, it’s very claustrophobic and internal. But again, nature kind of pokes through. You have the sounds of cicadas. With this one, it wasn't so strong. You had these thinking walks, of course, which was this chance to kind of get out of this space they're in. But otherwise, I feel like I've yet to kind of fully explore nature.

My thoughts on Herzog are also complicated. 

It's not for me to say really, but I mean, we all know what happened in “Fitzcarraldo.” I'm not saying cancel him, of course. It was an absolute tragedy. And I don't wanna single out one director 'cause there are countless stories of deaths on film, but it's hard to watch a film when some people have died making it.

I'd rather watch “Heart of Glass” where no one died. “Fitzcarraldo” is a tough one. And it's not so much Herzog himself. It's more the cult around that film that it inspires. I feel quite uncomfortable with that.

I was reading an interview you did a couple years ago where you mentioned The Magic Porridge Pot and how you wanted to do a kid’s film concerning celiac disease. And apart from Stones having that affliction, did any other components make it in?

It’s funny because I kind of regret mentioning that because that was gonna be the next film and stuff happened, and it didn't happen. I'm still working on it. It’s just a much bigger film because it’s a kid's fairy tale. So “Flux” is a pre-diagnosis for adults, of course. And the other film is post-diagnosis but for kids. There's a whole world of frustration and pain, when I say pain, I mean emotional pain, you can explore when it comes to the big bad world; when you've got one of these things and you’re dealing with people’s attitudes and a lot of ignorance. 

A friend of mine has a son who is allergic to peanuts and she was flying somewhere with her son and this guy just sat next to him, started eating peanuts. She explained to him the situation and he just completely ignored her. He just said, "It's my right to eat what I wanna eat." So you’re even dealing with someone's feelings, it's about life or death if someone goes into an Anaphylactic shock. So it's just extraordinary how much ignorance is out there. 

I'm not gonna go on this mission to make five or ten films about stomach issues. [laughs] I feel I'm not aware of this stuff being done and I feel there's stuff to explore. These are very human stories. Who knows what’s next? Because obviously you rely on funding. We live in a different world with the pandemic and God knows what else these days. But the will is there to make that other film. 

It sounded so interesting when I read about it. I thought: I wonder how he got from point A to point B on that one.

Yeah, they're two different points basically.

From what I understand you don’t often use a shot list. Did you use one this time around?

We have shot lists in terms of Tim Sidell, who shot the film, and you'll have this piece of paper with the eyelines, especially with the dinner scenes. And I wouldn't call it a shot list. It's more diagrams of arrows of where they're looking in terms of the camera and in relation to each other. But I've always been, and this is my downfall, cuz it's often bit me on the backside, but I'm into spontaneity. There's so much you discover onset. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are great filmmakers, and as far as I know, they storyboard every single shot. They're so precise and it works for them. It works really well. Everyone's different. I just can't can't work that way. I have to be there on set. You pay the price for it, of course. 'Cause you lose time and you don't always get to the shots you want to do.

And when you talk about spontaneity, what happy surprises occurred during filming?

I wouldn't call it spontaneity exactly. But things with Fatma, you know, 'cause English isn’t her mother tongue, so she would make mistakes, which I just left in, with the language. She wanted to accuse Asa’s character of having “wet dreams,” but she said “white dreams.” There's something quite poetic about that. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m ridiculing her. It's just something quite poetic about that. 

I mean there's other small things that no one else would see. When they burgle Gwendoline Christie's character’s bedroom and they come across this post-orgy with these policemen, because of the pandemic, we just couldn't get enough policemen in there. It’s not allowed to have that many people in there, so it was just missing something. So I thought: Oh wouldn't they have crisps on the floor? They all had crisps before they had sex. It just seemed kind of absurd, so I was just crushing all these crisps on the floor, but you just can't see them in that shot. So that was spontaneity.

And a lot of it was the actors. They would be spontaneous. There are many moments in that film where I see Fatma pulling a face or Asa doing a little change that really makes it. And you leave those things in, really.

Jan Stevens’ dislike of the flanger takes on a prominent role here. I know you used to be in a band, so what about the sonic quality of a flanger drew you to pick that effect? 

That's a long story really because that comes out of my own misunderstanding. When I was in a very similar band, there was an effect which I thought was a flanger, which I hated, and we always argued about it. And it was not a flanger. It was actually a pitch shifter. Then I got to learn what a flanger does and I kinda realized, there's so many moments in music where it really, really, really got to me. 

The best example, in music and film, would be “Christiane F.” That junky film about a kid in Berlin on drugs. It’s a scene at the beginning, where she takes the S-Bahn at night. And it's that point of view shot for me, with the S-Bahn in Berlin, when David Bowie’s “VT-Schneider” begins, where I'm pretty sure there is a flanger. It kinda sounds a bit like an airplane taking off. It's got that slight subsided, if you can say that word, sound. It's almost like a funnel or something being sucked in. In “Flux” it’s more like a MacGuffin to me because Fatma’s character doesn’t even know what a flanger is.

In the past, you’ve talked about the ways you’ve infused yourself into all of your characters. What character here did you put the most of yourself into? 

There’s a part of me in all of these characters. There’s a very devious part of me, which is in Dr. Glock. Part of it is a game of hide and seek with the audience. Part of it is very serious as well. You're dealing with things you see around you or you feel passionately about. The danger of when you put yourself into these things is to kind of sanitize yourself. It's important to use deceit and look at more unpalatable things like egos. That's quite interesting to me. 

You’ve mentioned in the past that you don’t like making fun of your characters, but making fun of their worlds.

I have to put them through a lot. That's different from laughing at them or making fun of them. I have to love my characters, but I also have to take advantage of them as well. I have to make them misbehave. I've always enjoyed those elements of deceit and mischief in cinema. I mean, it's not great in politics, but it's great in cinema.

And I just love Butterfield in this movie. I like that he gets a chance to be weird. What did you see in him that made him right for the part?

Well, in my mind I saw Billy's character as a mixture. Visually, I saw him as like a sort of Ralph Macchio character from “The Outsiders” with that denim jacket. I dunno why. Certain things kind of instantly stick to you. But in terms of his persona, it’s more modeled on Joe Dallesandro in those Warhol-Morrissey films where he was, what's the word? Not lethargic. But he had this kind of ennui about him that's kind of very passive. There's always chaos around him, but he's just not completely there. 

I guess I come back to those characters a lot. I mean Toby Jones' character in “Berberian” is a little bit different. But what makes them similar is they have a very narrow bandwidth. They don't emote too much either way. They don't get too high; they don't get too low. And Asa’s just a really great actor. He's got such a range to him. 

In the past you talked about making a film in New York set in between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. Is that still on the table?

Working on? It’s been doing my head in. It's been ten years now, and it’s just not going anywhere. The 10th anniversary was in February and I have been very vocally talking about turning it into a book, not like a novel, but like the screenplay published as an unfilmed book. 

It sounds like very bad taste to say this, but you know, I'm really into that script. It’s such a shame to have it lying around on a hard drive. I'd happily turn it into a book if it was not gonna get made, I just wanna get it out there. We just can't get the money to do it. It's gonna be even harder now, to be honest, because of the pandemic. It’s in nightclubs with lots of people. These are the worst types of films to make now. So I'm quite cynical.

If it's only a book, at least the writing is out there for people to read. It could always get made into a film in another ten years [laughs] But it's just been ridiculous. I've been talking about it for years and I just cannot, no one will give the money. No one seems to care basically. [laughs] Sorry if that sounds so brutal.

"Flux Gourmet" will be available in select theaters and on demand on June 24th.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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