Create the expectation and subvert it. As the audience, if there's a framework that I cling onto that might get toppled, I get off on it.
Following the revenge odyssey Katalin Varga (2009) and the giallo-inspired horrors of Berberian Sound Studio (2012), emerging British auteur Peter Strickland returns with his third curious gem, The Duke of Burgundy, a visionary homage to the high-toned, Euro-sexploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s that goes far beyond pastiche to become its own singular cinematic treasure bound for cult status. Strickland’s portrayal of a sapphic, sadomasochistic love affair between two amateur entomologists tips its hat to such masters of costumed erotica as Jess Franco, Tinto Brass and Jean Rollin, but without ever cheapening its confounding and meticulously fashioned love story.
Every day, the two women play an elaborate game of domination and submission. Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) fills the role of the diminutive maid, while Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the endlessly stony mistress of a lavish estate, for whom nothing Evelyn does is quite right and doles out kinky, humiliating punishments accordingly. But it’s not long before Evelyn reveals herself as the true puppet master, literally scripting the action for Cynthia in which to play out her escalating BDSM fantasies. The Duke of Burgundy, for all its surface provocation, is devoid of judgement and proves a beautiful puzzle full of mysteries from a truly gifted director to keep on your radar.
The Duke of Burgundy opens in select theaters January 23.
To begin with Katalin Varga, I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it, except it would probably be decidedly your own. How did that become your first feature?
Well, I got this inheritance from my uncle back in 2002. I had been making films since 1992 on Super 8 and 16mm, but I was just going nowhere. You couldn’t get me into a festival. I thought, “It’s going to be easier to make that jump into feature films. No, forget it… It’s always going to be difficult.” I was just hitting my head against the wall every single time. I would always send off an application and think, “You’ll hear back in two weeks. It’ll be okay. I’ll get a good answer this time around.” I think I spent ten years waiting for that other two weeks to happen. Then I really wanted to take control of my life. I wasn’t going to wait for someone to deem me worthy anymore.
The cavalry’s not coming for you…
I wasn’t going to put myself in that position anymore. I had this inheritance, which wasn’t much. It was around £30,000 so the only way to make Katalin Varga was in Eastern Europe. I actually moved there for general reasons because it has cheaper rent—I still live there. I couldn’t make The Duke of Burgundy living in London. I purposefully make films on a small budget, knowing that I can keep control. Small budget means small fees. It’s not that small, but not enough to live in London. All this stuff was by design. If I live somewhere with cheaper rent and film out in the country where we don’t need production design or hair and makeup, and keep the crew as small as possible, I can still pay people. There was just the eleven of us on the whole crew for Katalin Varga: me, two assistants, a camera person, a camera loader, a focus puller, a sound recordist, a boom guy, two chefs, and someone taking stills. When there’s eleven of you, there’s more work to do, but less people to move around. We only had to hire three cars and slept in one house.
How do you feel about that experience now? Do you have mostly fond memories?
It was a lot of fun—in a way. There was a great sense of community. There was a lot of bickering, but when I look back on it, it was a really special time in my life. We had to shoot it really quickly in just 17 days, but I had a lot of fun with those people. I’m hoping to work with all the actors again on a new film. I always work with Fatma [Mohamed]. She had a very small part in Katalin Varga where the police beat up this guy and she’s screaming in the background, she plays the carpenter in The Duke of Burgundy, and she was also in Berberian Sound Studio.
Katalin Varga was a lot of hard work. Getting it seen was luck, which is the tricky part. No matter how much hard work you put in, you can’t force someone to watch your film. Being on the other side, I see how many films people actually have to watch. It’s a stack of DVDs that no one has time for. I used to get really angry about that, but what can you do? The more you push, the more you put people off. If you don’t do anything, maybe no one sees it. You approach as many people as possible, and there’s luck as well. I felt very lucky because there are many good filmmakers who aren’t lucky. There are many bad filmmakers who are—especially that! [Laughs]
The parameters—budget, crew size, and locations—are already there at the writing stage?
Roughly. Andy Starke, who produced The Duke of Burgundy, takes care of that now. I did it on Katalin Varga and said, “Never again.” He’ll tell me very quickly, “You can’t afford to do that.” I certainly have a rough idea and think low budget, but there are two things happening: the script and where we shoot the script. Shooting The Duke of Burgundy in Hungary keeps the budget lower. I hope I’m not exploiting people because we pay by good standards for Hungary. The rent is a lot lower in Hungary, although it’s not that much cheaper. Some things are cheaper like construction, but food is always kind of the same. And I live there so it made sense to work there. The crews are really good there as well. Plus, most importantly, Hungary has a fairytale quality that I needed. It’s the idea of creating this “nowhere” place: we’re not sure where it is, but it’s somewhere in Europe. Being in the center of Europe, you get a mixture of all these different things. The Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire were there, and that’s reflected in the architecture.
In the on-camera interviews that I’ve seen of you, the discussions often seemed to shift towards the subject of other filmmakers who might’ve influenced you and your stylistic choices, and you always looked a bit glum. Is it a nuisance?
[Laughs] No, not at all! Perhaps I’m becoming predictable. When I started writing scripts 25 years ago, it was a different time. This was before [Quentin] Tarantino even made his first film and I was living in a town where I wasn’t so much in the company of other filmmakers. It felt like something to be ashamed of if you copied something else. If you copied another film, you kind of pretended that you didn’t copy it, whereas now, the temptation is to pretend you copied a film that you haven’t even seen! [Laughs] It’s this postmodernist’s curse. It’s kind of required now to namecheck and that’s the danger. You don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it. You don’t want to do it as this self-referential, showing-off-your-record-collection kind of thing. If you put a reference in, why are you doing it? Are you just shoehorning something in? I hope everything I’ve done until now genuinely served the characters, their dilemmas, and the atmosphere of the film I’m making. And I’m a huge fan of musicians and filmmakers who reference other things. That built up my life and led me to discover new things. These were always the people I gravitated towards. So part of it is that I grew up with it. That was my habit of listening and my habit of watching films.
In 1989, Jim Jarmusch introduced Mystery Train and said, “I love [Yasujiro] Ozu, [Robert] Bresson, [Carl Theodor] Dreyer, but I also love B movies.” That was quite radical to say in those days. Then Tarantino came at the end of 1992 and that way of thinking was accepted on a much larger platform. I think it’s wonderful that he could say, “I love [Jean-Luc] Godard and grindhouse.” I think a lot of critics of his generation began to look at Italian horror, grindhouse, and even sexploitation films, and realize it’s not all trashy. It’s this idea of leaving a trail to other things. It’s a way of keeping the culture of film and music alive—we’re all part of it. I’m seeing a pattern now where it’s expected of me to have references. I’m wondering if I can quit cold turkey. I want to try a new film without any influences from the ground up. I don’t think I can, but I want to make a film on its own terms without propping it up with references. But it’s exciting for me to write within a framework, a genre that gives you rules to obey or to go against. In school they tell you, “Write 500 words on anything.” What do you do? If you have guidelines, there’s something to rebel against or to work around, and that’s exciting for me. Create the expectation and subvert it. As the audience, if there’s a framework that I cling onto that might get toppled, I get off on it.
Sound design is obviously an incredibly important storytelling device in your work and you’re quite obsessive about it. Did this fascination begin concurrently with movies?
It happened a little bit later, actually. The first film that really changed my life in terms of sound was Eraserhead. That was the film. When you’re 16, you’re so ready to be initiated. Alan Splet’s sound design on Eraserhead was not functional. Even the most amazing sound designers in film illustrate the action. If a spaceship goes by, the sound might be experimental, but it’s still illustrating something. On that film with Splet, they didn’t illustrate—they expressed this whole state of mind, an inner world. I thought it was incredible. I kind of got into noise through that, but it wasn’t so immediate. I saw My Bloody Valentine play live about a year later and, when they played “You Made Me Realise,” I was just blown away. That got me into The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Swans—anything that utilized noise in an active, creative manner. Later on, I got into the early French stuff like Luc Ferrari, people like Chris Watson, and bands like Spacemen 3. A whole world opened up for me. I can’t say why I enjoy it, but I just love listening to it.
Is it true that you listen to music when you write and play music for your actors on set?
You know, the hardest thing about writing is eliminating all your daily thoughts. Anyone in the modern world knows that you have to somehow cleanse your mind and music is very good at purging stuff out of you, as long as you choose the right stuff. I listen to music that won’t end up in the film, but still serve the atmosphere I’m looking for. On Katalin Varga I listened to Faith, The Cure, Scott Walker, Suicide, and sometimes Nurse with Wound. On set, I’ve found music very useful, especially on The Duke of Burgundy, because I don’t feel comfortable expressing myself verbally. I’m good with the page, but sometimes I can’t describe what I need from the actors. If I play a piece of music, they get it quite instantly. I’m much better at picking a mood from my record collection than expressing it with my mouth. The actors really enjoyed that, actually. Sidse [Babett Knudsen] really got into it. You just reminded me… I promised to make her a mixtape.
She’s waiting for that mixtape!
[Laughs] That’s a good point, you’re right. I need to do that for her.
While we’re on that, it feels important to note just how strong the performances are in all your films. What’s your casting process like? What are you looking for?
I rely a lot on Shaheen Baig, a casting agent I’ve worked with twice now. She’s very astute. She recommended people to me like Toby [Jones] and Sidse. I’ve only done three films so far and I’m always learning how to work with actors. I need actors who can just get on with it and find their way. Toby and Sidse, for example, are very good like that. They’re very self-sufficient. Of course, I have physical ideas in my head of what I need. Toby had to conform to a physical type, so we couldn’t have or would want someone like Ralph Fiennes. [Laughs] It’s not about an actor’s looks at all. It’s about what that character should be. The voice is very important to me as well as you can imagine, especially with The Duke of Burgundy to capture this “nowhere” feel. I couldn’t ask someone with a London accent to do it. Casting is highly, highly important, but there’s never enough time and you have to be quite quick about it. And the material I write isn’t for everyone, so we get rejections and that can be tough. Luckily, Toby and Sidse said, “Yes.”
For my next one, I’m writing for actors that I already know so it’s a bit different. It’s quite a luxury to be able to do that. Normally when you write, the hardest thing is getting that imaginary character you’ve created out of your head. An actor will come in and you can’t help but think, “You might look like the person I had in mind, but you’re not that person.” You have that weird resentment for a few days. If you’re a director-for-hire, I don’t think you have that problem.
How much do your previous films inform what you want to do next?
Up until now, it’s been very organic because I just want to do what’s interesting. But since I’ve been impulsive, subconsciously, I can see a pattern. But do I want to react against what came before? That’s a big question for me. Do I want to react against something or should I do something that comes naturally? I really don’t know. I’m aware that filmmakers can get too complacent once they know their pattern. It’s a danger to just press buttons for the sake of it. I didn’t realize filmmakers reach a midlife crisis after only their third film. [Laughs] I sort of just need to think or not think. That’s always the question: Should I think about it too much or just get on with it? And the next question is: Who will fund it? That’s always the next question.
And what is the next project?
The next thing is something with all men, which is actually already written. But I know it’s going to be a nightmare to fund because it’s set in the early ’80s and the subject matter is quite hardcore. I’m not expecting an easy ride.