By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Have you ever walked into a second-hand clothing store and wondered who previously wore those garments and what became of the people who owned them? Those musings inspired auteur filmmaker Peter Strickland (“Katalin Varga,” “The Duke of Burgundy”) to make his very dark comedy “In Fabric,” about a killer dress.
The film stars Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”) as Sheila, a middle-aged office worker who lives with her lazy adult son who often brings home his uncouth girlfriend (an almost unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones” fame, sporting a black wig and a bad attitude). Sheila’s husband has left her for a younger woman. Craving romance, she answers a classified ad. Though not specifically set in a particular year, it is definitely the pre-online dating era. To prepare for her dinner date, Sheila goes shopping at a department store with very peculiar-looking clerks, who speak in a most strange manner. She is delighted when she tries on a stunning wraparound red dress that fits her to a T. Unfortunately for Sheila, the date is a dud, but the dress has given her new confidence. It also has become a dangerous fixture in her apartment. People start turning up dead as the dress appears to be controlled by the behind-the-scenes wizard (or is he a warlock) back at the department store and his mannequin-like helpers.
“In Fabric” opens in select New York and Los Angeles theaters Friday Dec. 6, and will be available Tuesday on demand Dec. 10.
Speaking by phone from Budapest, Strickland discussed his inspiration from “In Fabric,” his lingering fear of mannequins, consumerism and what’s next.
Q: Why are you in Budapest?
Strickland: I just like it. I’m based here for now.
Q: What was your inspiration for “In Fabric?”
Strickland: A lot of it came from second-hand stores, where you’re aware of death all around you. You have a sense that the clothing there is from dead people. There are always these dead giveaways: stains, smells. There’s an intimacy with someone that you don’t know what they look like or what they did in life. Were they nice people or not? Going into these places, it activates the imagination.
I also was reading (British horror writer) M.R. James, whose stories were usually set in remote locations like misty beaches or country houses. I was thinking what if we took that sensibility to a crowded space, a very prosaic space, and looked for the unfamiliar within that. Watching shoppers of a crowded department store from a top floor is kind of silent and eerie.
Q: Mannequins are inherently pretty creepy. Did you always plan to have this mannequin element in your film? Are the store clerks actually mannequins?
Strickland: The question I always had in it was were the mannequins human or were they becoming human? They menstruate. So, you don’t know if they’re already human or what they are.
I was always terrified of mannequins when I was a kid. They weren’t as well made then as they are now. Even the hands—they always looked splayed. I used to call them cross dolls. There was a sculptor, Edward Kienholz, who made a lot of mannequin sculptures that were very nightmarish. They really captured the fear I had. Not only were they scary but they looked scared, like they’d been attacked. There was something tragic about them as well.
So, I wanted to make a nightmarish film about the dark side of clothing. All these various visceral reactions to clothing, whether it’s body dysmorphia, and put it into this context of a nightmare film, and the mannequins play their part in that.
Q: You start out with this sympathetic protagonist, Sheila, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and you lead the audience down a surprising path with her and others.
Strickland: The thing is I wanted the audience to spend enough time with her. Some horror films in the past, you didn’t get to spend enough time with the characters. They always felt very disposable. I wanted you to understand what she was about: her husband has left her, her son and his girlfriend are a pain so, of course, she wants to escape. You feel as though you’re going to continue with her, but you don’t. That’s what’s scary about life.
Q: Could you talk about casting Gwendoline Christie as Gwen?
Strickland: She read the script and we met up and it turned out we had mutual friends from 20 years ago. I don’t think she’d mind my saying that I didn’t really know her from “Game of Thrones.” I’d heard of it but hadn’t watched it. I had already written the part and named the character “Gwen,” and I thought she was perfect for the character. I loved writing that character. Writers love to provoke the lead characters with characters that make them uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to meet “Gwen” in real life but within the safety of cinema, I enjoyed watching that character.
Q: How did you decide on the design of the dress?
Strickland: I have to give credit to Jo Thompson, our costume designer. She’s brilliant. One of the first images I had was this dress floating through the air like an amoeba. Jo said, “You need silk or chiffon for that.” I remember my mom would drag me to these stores when I was a kid that had a middle-class aspirational bent to them. They always seemed like they were trying to compete with the (upper-class) stores on (London’s) Bond Street, but they were always slightly off. They aspired to be that, but they could never quite get it right. So, the dress had to be elegant, to a degree, but not quite there. She would show me various designs and I’d sort of pick and choose what worked and what didn’t work.
Q: Did the red dress dictate the color scheme of the film? In almost every scene, there’s a flash of red.
Strickland: When I was writing the script, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the look of the dress. I knew it was something we could come up with once we had someone to do the costumes. Once we decided on red, it was important to find the right shade of red. I was always afraid of the bright, garish red you’d see in old horror films. So, once we had that color, it informed the look of the film. It’s a vibrant, saturated red. Somehow, I found fake blood much scarier than realistic (color) blood. The fingernail (polish) had to match that as well. Everything was in that nail varnish red.
Q: Is your next film also going to be a dark humor satire like this?
Strickland: I’m doing a kids’ film. It’s very different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m working on two other screenplays. One is based on the nightclubs in New York in 1980, and the other is a dark film about food.
Q: Is this film anti-consumerist?
Strickland: We’re much more encouraged to mend our clothes. We’ve reached a saturation point with fast fashion.