Peter Strickland on the High Street Terror of 'In Fabric'

We chat with the filmmaker about the magic of retail and the haunting graveyard that stores have become.

In Fabric Screenshot
A24

You deserve it. Seriously. The world is a hellscape, and the fire only seems to increase in size and dimension with every passing day. You must find your joys where you can. Splurge. Forget your bank account and treat yourself to that cute little number propped on the mannequin upfront. If you don’t purchase it for yourself, then nobody else will.

A dress holds a great deal of power. All of our favorite objects do. We either imbue them with such strength or their makers put their souls into them. In Fabric is a haunting pursuit of the pleasures and pains of objectification. Inspired by the ghostly works of M.R. James, director Peter Strickland saw no oddity in detailing the journey of a haunted dress making contact with multiple broken beings. We are a planet of consumers, giving are all to find escape within nicknack delights. Retail is but armor from invading reality.

I spoke to Strickland over the phone, a week before In Fabric‘s release in theaters and VOD. Our conversation begins with his concerns (or lack thereof) over consumerism and the eradication of London’s High Street shops. We discuss the imagination and design of constructing the most ghostly of haunted red dresses, and why our terror should be reserved for other, harsher actualities. Strickland is concerned for the state of capitalist culture, but maybe not for the reason you think.

Here is our conversation in full:

In Fabric is a hell of a movie to watch right before the holiday gift-buying season.

Yeah, it’s good timing. Good timing to be released.

I once heard you refer to the film as a consumerist nightmare, but with a little C. Why the little C?

I actually changed that to “retail nightmare” in the end.

Ok. Why?

I didn’t want to make a message film for a whole bunch of reasons. I’d feel like a hypocrite, for instance, because I am a consumerist as well, and I don’t regard the main characters as consumerists. The background of the film, of course, it’s satirizing consumerism. You know, with the fighting, the looting, the queues of people, the adverts. I think Marianne [Jean-Baptiste]’s character with all her frustrations in life, with all her frustrations at work, why wouldn’t she try a nice dress on at the end? She’s going to go on a date! We’re all human. To dress up is just a human need. I think it’s an animalistic need as well. I didn’t want to go in too heavy-handed on the consumerism, really.

And your true inspirations for the film were the stories of M.R. James. That’s really the mood you were trying to evoke.

Yeah. I got into M.R. James really late. They re-released these old BBC adaptations of his work in the last six, seven years. I love the stillness of them, I love this eeriness. I love the objects in stories like “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” There will be inscriptions written on the objects. They’ll be activated by humans. It’s taking that sensibility and translating into a very, very different world. Taking it away from the haunted house and putting it in the most prosaic setting possible, which is the busy High Street, which you wouldn’t normally associate with something like M.R. James.

Then you start to look for the unfamiliar within the familiar. These images come to mind. The mannequins. Gradually something comes together. Then it starts reflects on the now, in terms of online shopping versus the High Street, and how the High Street is gradually dying out in Britain. Many, many stores are closing. That particular sound of High Street in the ’70s is becoming more distant.

So, why set the film in the early ’90s?

There’s a very, very simple reason. I wanted to keep the mystery of the lonely heart adverts. I wanted to introduce the main character with those adverts, and leave you guessing. Who is this woman? That’s really it. What else could I say? 1993 felt like the cut-off year, because after that online dating started to take over the personal ads. If it hadn’t been for that device, that introduction to the character, I would have set it now. It was interesting that the stores – even in the last few years when they were closing – the stores hadn’t moved on from the seventies. They are this weird, weird patchwork of Edwardian Britain, Victorian Britain, fifties, sixties, seventies. But they never really progressed onwards. In real life, they have this very organic, holistic quality. Where you would step into a store and go back in time.

How did you find your object? How did you find the dress that was going to be right for the film?

That’s down to Jo Thompson, who did the costumes, and to [costume cutter] Kasia Chojnowski. They worked together very, very closely. I mean, I couldn’t design a dress. No chance in hell! All I can do is describe two things. One is the movement of the dress, how I would like it to move, especially when these nightmare images are coming from the sky. So moving like an amoeba or a jellyfish. Then Jo would suggest silk and chiffon.

The other thing was the type of aspiration associated with the dress. I remember in Reading, where I grew up, there was a kind of middle-class store. They had this aspirational bent to it. It was never high fashion. The dresses were always slightly off, and they never were quite elegant enough, but they always aspired to be something elegant. There was an element of fantasy to them. That was their function if you put the dress on. So really, it was just capturing that spirit. There is a very, very British aspirational spirit that is so embedded in class, as everything is in our country.

Cinema seems extremely concerned with class right now. Not just in your country. Jordan Peel’s Us and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite – 

Two films I haven’t seen. I really want to see Parasite. I really do.

Oh, man.

I should do that.

Yes, you should. Why is 2019 the year of movies confronting class?

It’s so prevalent. It seeps into everything, and I think with Britain – I can’t speak for other countries, but it’s a very, very, very complex thing. Because you have a lot of class denial, as well. A lot of class shame. A lot of snobbery. A lot of the aspirational. If you did a Venn diagram of attitudes towards class it would be all over the place. It’s a very, very complex thing.

I’m middle-class. I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed of it, that’s just the facts. I see In Fabric as a middle-class film, but within the middle-class, you can still have blue-collar jobs. The kinds that Babs (Hayley Squires) – I guess you could call them lower middle-class.

Class is there in In Fabric, but it’s not streamlined. Again, I’m not putting it to the forefront. Especially with someone like Hayley, who came from Ken Loach, who came from I, Daniel Blake. That’s a class movie. When I wrote the part, I didn’t have anyone who could play Babs. Hayley was interested, and she’s wonderful, but Babs is a very different character from her role in I, Daniel Blake. I’m not saying one is better, one is worse. They go in different directions. The impetus for In Fabric was initially around those stores, which existed in the middle-class but had an aspirational element to them.

Does the dwindling of those stores on High Street seriously concern you? It does me. Where are we going to go in fifty years? Will we see the outdoors? Will we bother with it?

I think it’s quite tragic, to be honest. Things like shopping, things like Netflix. It’s about having the choice. That’s all it is. You go to the shops and you shop online. That’s all you can ask for. I think that’s amazing. It’s amazing for people who can’t afford this as well, who don’t live close enough to a city that’s just showing older films. Online shopping is great on similar levels.

The problem with a lot of these things is they tend to dominate. I’m not against online shopping, but there’s something I love about shops. Especially old shops. I love the feel of them, I love the atmosphere. The human interaction. Even if the person serving you is an asshole, at least you have interaction with someone. I was recently in Spain, and I went into a DVD store and it was full of people. That was – wow! In London, they’re ghost towns.

Yeah. For sure. There are none around me.

You just don’t see them.

And it’s crucial to capture that appeal on film here. How did you and your cinematographer Ari Wegner achieve this very specific look?

A little bit came from the department stores themselves, and department store catalogs. That was a huge part of it. That level of artifice, that’s what I was looking for. The stores had very bashful lighting, very slow colors. A lot of it was just being true to that. There are a few good movie references, but not that much. Maybe some Douglas Sirk, some [MichaelPowell and [EmericPressburger, and even Asakazu Nakai whose colors are wonderfully strong. And then off we go.

I think my only regret is that I wish we had shot it on film. I’ve started to miss film quite a bit. If I could alter one thing, it would be that, but our situation in London has changed quite a bit. I’m not really familiar with it anymore, but yeah, if I could go back, I probably would have done that.

How much regret do you have over that? Is it just an “Oh, well” situation?

Oh, everything’s an “Oh, well” [laughter]. You know, but it’s interesting. I was speaking to some colorists the other day, who deal with directors that are restoring their films. The filmmakers all come to the colorists with regrets from the 70s, and after forty years they want to change things. There is a real struggle between these colorists who have to act as historians, preserving the essence of the films, and the director who wants to be a revisionist.

I understand both points of view, but I think once something is made public, you owe it to history to, no matter how flawed the film is, to preserve it in terms of what it is. If you can’t get your ideas into a particular film, then you just have to put them into another one. All of my films have things where I say, “Why did I do that?”, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But you have to let go.


In Fabric opens today in whatever select theaters we have left, and will arrive on Digital HD and VOD on December, 10th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.