From the sounds of Berberian Sound Studio to the textures of In Fabric, Peter Strickland’s cinema has always been one of sensory immersion. The British writer-director’s latest feature, Flux Gourmet, takes this fascination one step further by exploring how the senses and their related sensibilities collide.
At an institute for performance, a trio of multimedia experimental performers (played by Ariane Labed, Asa Butterfield, and Fatma Mohamed), who cannot decide on so much as their culinary collective name, attempt to push the boundaries of so-called “sonic catering.” The group’s internal divisions as they clash among themselves and institute head Jan Stevens (Gwendolyn Christie) have all the trappings of a blistering art-world satire.
Yet underneath Flux Gourmet’s sardonic surface of lies something entirely sincere. As journalist Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) documents the group’s external noises, he’s more focused on the internal noises of his own grumbling stomach. Strickland finds compassion rather than comedy in the character’s food intolerance and flatulence. This digestive drama proves the key ingredient tying together the disparate plates of Strickland’s story together into a filmic feast that defies easy genre categorization.
I spoke to Strickland prior to Flux Gourmet’s theatrical and on-demand release in the United States. Our conversation covered how he approached the depiction of allergies and autoimmune issues, why his Greek heritage features prominently in the project, and how he hopes to continue building out the film’s world in related works for children.
Given the similarities between the two films, I have to ask: Have you seen David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future yet?
I actually copied loads from the film. I saw an early version of it! No, I’d love to see it. I do love Cronenberg, so I really can’t wait to see it.
Do you think there’s something about this moment that would inspire each of you in your own siloed development to make films scrutinizing the ways that we think about health and wellness in our culture?
I think it’s something in the air. There’s another film coming out called The Menu. Just so many people are, from my perspective, having food allergies or autoimmune issues around the stomach. We don’t know why this is. Is it to do with an overly clean household? Is it to do with the processing of food? It was just something I was very aware of, and I felt cinema was somehow lagging behind that. It wasn’t catching up with what’s going on with people and how they feel. It was kind of interesting for me to take something that’s normally dealt with in vulgarity and humor, such as flatulence, and just seeing if we could try to give it some dignity. Whether we achieve it, I don’t know, but that was the aim: to give it a different context.
Hopefully one is with that character [Stones] and seeing all that social anxiety. I think normally in a film, you’ll hear the fart, but do you go into that person’s mindset? Do you feel that person walking a few meters behind the others? There was the idea of noise as catharsis, but also noise at a very pragmatic level to disguise this person’s flatulence. Noise was quite a big thing with this film, but a lot it was coming from my love of noise as a listener. Some of the bands I used to watch, like Swans or My Bloody Valentine, and that feeling of submission when it’s such a pounding volume…it’s something much more almost religious, perhaps. There was a kind of purging going on there. I think there was an element of looking at these characters through the idea of catharsis and purging. I think all of them are purging different things.
While Berberian Sound Studio was obviously attuned to the noises of food, Flux Gourmet takes it a step further with explicit connections between sound and taste, two senses that are less frequently associated with each other. Was the ability to explore this something that drew you to tell this kind of story?
Well, it’s been there for a long time with me. I started the Sonic Catering Band in 1996, a long time ago now, which was exploring cooking as a soundscape. I’d just made a short film, with Holly Woodlawn and Nick Zedd, which burnt me out financially. I wanted to keep trying things, but I knew I couldn’t afford film; it was before we could use digital. I treated sound the same way you treat film. We were editing with sound, and that became what I did for six or so years. And then, somehow, it just kind of came back. I mean, you have these biopics: Queen, Elton John, Madonna’s got one coming up. There’s something quite interesting about doing a biopic of a band that nobody’s heard of. But again, with biopics, the nature of them is to deodorize and sanitize and look as good as possible. I wanted to do the opposite. They’re not nice characters, you know? I was into that, the idea of deceit.
Does sound guide you and editor Matyas Fekete as you cut the film?
You’re letting sound as much as sight guide the rhythm of the work. Well, with Matt, we do mostly temp stuff. We had a lot of stuff as a band which we could throw into the edit, but we mostly discarded it. It was just a guide track. So the real work came afterwards. I got together with the original band members from the Sonic Catering Band, and we did a lot of work using the same equipment you see in the film. That’s stuff that the band owns. That was a visual synchronicity, that we’re using the same gear that you see. It wasn’t just a band. It was Tim Harrison, the sound designer. It was Raoul Brand, the sound mixer. A whole team of people.
It was very long, enjoyable process. A lot of it’s trial and error, getting an Eventide Flanger out. I think each sound has its own little story. Even the cockerel in the morning. I don’t know if you have this in America, but you get these vouchers in the back of the cereal box which you send off to redeem for gimmicks. We had this alarm clock that came free with a cereal packet that we got off eBay. It was a very rusty alarm clock, and it doesn’t really sound like a cockerel. You take the batteries out, and it feeds back on itself. Just little things like that, embracing the artifice. Most of it was new sound, but there’s even an old piece of MiniDisc stuff I did from years ago in someone’s kitchen. And then, of course, we have the music of Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes from Albuquerque, Gene Pitney for the end, Roj with “Trip to the Shops.” It’s a whole mixture of things. It was quite different from what we’ve done in the past because usually it was quite unified, and we’d have one set of composers doing the whole thing.
How would you describe your relationship to genre at the moment and with Flux Gourmet? You seem to have grown more eager to define your work on its own terms rather than within those frameworks.
I remember having to do some kind of application for funding, and we had to state what it was. I suggested that we just say it’s a drama. I have a great fondness for genre, so I’m not trying to be chauvinistic in any way. I just feel like we’re selling people short if we say it’s horror or comedy because it doesn’t really deliver on those terms. It has some traces of those in there. It’s a very character-driven piece of work looking at the whole creative impulse but, obviously, married to the idea of shock value and using someone’s suffering as some kind of bandwagon to jump on. And you have this character who’s desperately looking for her next taboo-breaking performance, and this poor guy who wants to stay out of it. But that’s artists for you, they have a charm to make you wish you hadn’t said yes.
You’ve mentioned making a film about allergies and autoimmune responses that was also a kid’s film with its roots in a Grimm fairy tale. Is that what became Flux Gourmet?
That’s a separate film I’m working on that’s taking longer to do. I’m doing two films about this. One is this one, which is not for kids. This is for adults pre-diagnosis, but the next one is for kids post-diagnosis. It’s almost like an unofficial sequel, but with different characters. Hopefully, it will have some of some of the same actors, but it’s a very different world dealing with the social side of where you can’t eat the same food other people eat. Again, I just haven’t seen that done before, and there’s a whole world in there that you can explore.
You’ve said that the process of envisioning the film initiated more as satire but that it ended up perhaps more sincere. How did the story organically evolve into what we see?
That’s always difficult. Much of it has to do with the actors and how they play it. I mean, everything’s played straight. But in my mind, if there’s humor, the humor is all the bickering between the band members and Jan Stevens [the institute head, played by Gwendolyn Christie]. What you would normally find funny in a film with flatulence I’m hoping plays as something quite mournful and melancholic. Just the idea of someone who just can’t really participate in just letting himself go somehow, always having to excuse himself. Whether you suffer from stomach issues or not, I think most people grasp the idea of bodily discomfort and hiding things. In terms of the tone, with Makis, we spoke a lot about this. We don’t know how we can do it, but we aimed to have some dignity for something which is normally vulgar or comic. That’s the aim. Whether we achieve it or not, it’s not for me to say, really.
Was the casting of Makis Papadimitriou and Ariane Labed inspired by their association with Greek Weird Wave directors like Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos?
Well, yes, only because I’ve seen Makis in those films. I really love Chevalier and Suntan. To me, he was the guy. There was something there because I’m half-Greek, and I’ve never really dealt with that side of myself. I wrote a script about a Greek character in Woodhaven, Queens. I’ve been trying to get it off the ground for 10 years, and that’s just going nowhere.
Is that Night Voltage?
Yeah, the film that just won’t get made. But it was very personal for me to connect with that Greek side of myself. It wasn’t, though, so much the Greek Weird Wave, it’s just contemporary Greek actors who happened to do all those films. I’ve known Ariane socially, so it was very simple thing to just call her up. Makis, I didn’t know, but I approached him.
Where those characters written as Greek, or is that how it played out in the casting?
It’s pandemic-related. Most actors in this film, I think apart from Ariane, all fell out of it because of the pandemic. We had so many false starts. At one point, [Stones was to be played by] Tibor [Palffy], who was in my first film, Katalin Varga, as the assailant. I’d always wanted to work with him again, and I was going to switch it to Hungarian because he’s a Hungarian in Romania. But then he got into theater, and then Makis was available again.
It was like this revolving door of who’s available and who’s not. Fatma [Mohamed] wasn’t available at one point. We literally had the money to go two years ago, so we had a year-and-a-half of false starts. In terms of Greek, I think Makis was just the person, but I felt very good that he was Greek. It was very important for me to have the monologues in Greek. Part of it is very cheeky. It was a surreptitious way of me actually learning Greek without paying; I had forgotten a lot of Greek. It’s something very personal to me. I don’t want to make too big a thing of it because I don’t want to politicize it, but in the post-Brexit world we live in, I felt my nails were digging into Europe more than they normally would.
You designed the film to not be tethered to any moment in time. Is the blended cast longing for the past or hope that isolationism will evaporate in the future?
[laughs] I personally feel very bad about the way we’re going in Britain. Well, I guess the whole world is going in that direction. For all of the EU’s faults—they’re no angels—I think that staying in was a much better idea than leaving for a whole bunch of reasons. I grew up watching European films, and I also like the idea of people having their own accents, which you don’t see that much. It’s something we don’t hear that much.
Beyond the casting challenges, did Covid have any effect on the tone or plot?
I was just so caught up in just trying to get it done. We had a very stressful shoot. It was very short, 14 days, and then [we had] all these regulations. It’s very tough with the crowd scenes. Because of the whole distancing thing, we couldn’t get so many people in there. We had to get older people in because they had been vaccinated, whereas younger people hadn’t been vaccinated then. Whatever, it is what it is. It was just a very different way of working.
You’ve laughed off the urge to do Odorama or scratch-and-sniff for total sensory immersion with previous films. But given how many movie theaters now have a dine-in component, have you had a hand in any Flux Gourmet menus?
I have yet to hear anything. God knows what they would put on there, to be honest. It would not be the most appetizing. There [are] some really great food films out there—Babette’s Feast, Tampopo—but in my mind, it’s more about the body and kitchen politics than it is about food.
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