The Duke of Hazard:
An Interview with Peter Strickland
by Ashley Clark

At the age of 41, Berkshire-born Peter Strickland has established himself as one of Britain’s most intriguing, unpredictable filmmakers. His five-year feature film career has thus far included a low-budget revenge thriller (Transylvania-shot debut Katalin Varga), a giallo-inflected mystery (Berberian Sound Studio), and a concert movie capturing an extravagant Björk concert (Biophilia). His latest offering, The Duke of Burgundy—named, enigmatically, after a rare breed of butterfly—is the sensuous, lived-in tale of an embattled sadomasochistic relationship between lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her apprentice, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). I sat down with Strickland the morning after the film’s world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival to discuss S&M, Euro-sleaze, and serial music, among other things.

Reverse Shot: How do you find the experience of traveling around the world with a film?

Peter Strickland: The difference in responses between countries is incredible. My first film (Katalin Varga) was a revenge film—we shot it in Romania with ethnic Hungarians. The Germanic audiences, all the way down to Slovenia, they didn’t like it: “What is the point? Why is she taking revenge after all these years? Just move on, rebuild your life.” But the Balkan countries, like Serbia, Greece, they were like, “Yes! Revenge! Destiny! Even if it ends in tears, just go for it!” Being half-Balkan myself, that’s interesting. It’s so funny that a film can say so much about its audience. And this one, especially with all of its kink, well, I certainly know which countries will not like it… though I won’t name them.

RS: The Duke of Burgundy is not a prescriptive work, with regard to how the viewer should react. You’re thrown in with no exposition…

Strickland: That was so important to me—probably the most important thing. Many films I’d seen would try to explain why a character was a certain way, and I didn’t want to go there. People are the way they are. The point was not why this woman has these desires, it’s how you work that into a relationship with someone who doesn’t have those desires. It doesn’t matter that she’s into niche activity. It could be very conventional sex acts that someone finds repellent. What do you do when you have a need that your partner finds repellent? Who is compromising? You giving into that person and performing these acts for them? Or you not performing them and the other person suppressing their own desires to make you happy? Who’s suffering the most? That’s what I find fascinating. I imagine many people in the audience will not be into this stuff. I knew that. I expect them to laugh, but I certainly don’t want to laugh at people who have those desires. I have the greatest respect. I’m laughing at the situations that arrive.

RS: And these situations are not always necessary explosive or explicit…

Strickland: When you enter a sexual relationship with someone, saying “no” is absolute, but when you know someone’s desires and you’ve gone along with them for a certain period, you have this fatigue, and it can be quite difficult. I was quite mindful of not being “for” sadomasochism or “against" it. I’m just observing it. I was interested in the practicalities of enacting a fantasy; any fantasy, as much as the practicalities of [Toby Jones’s character] Gilderoy doing Foley work in Berberian Sound Studio. It’s kind of ridiculous, but most human activities behind closed doors are ridiculous. These poor celebrities… I feel so sorry for them when they’re “exposed,” with all their nude shots and so on. I find it incredibly mean and hypocritical when people laugh. It’s human nature to have these private things that can only work in a private situation. If you put a magnifying glass on that it becomes funny. I wanted to make a tender film that has a lot of affection for both characters. I was fascinated by the shifts in power.

What I find fascinating specifically about sadomasochism is the performance aspect of it. This leads into parallels between directors and actors; directors being controlling. We tried to explore that in the film: “I’m sticking to my lines.” In a masochist’s perception of a line, it’s all about the delivery. If there’s no conviction in the voice . . . well, it’s the same for a director.

RS: You’re careful to increasingly inject these mundane details into the relationship, like Cynthia simply wanting to relax and wear pajamas, much to Evelyn’s chagrin.

Strickland: Well . . . if someone asks you to dress up as a fireman every night, eventually you just want to take the uniform off, get in your tracksuit bottoms. It’s that idea of performance, and wanting to get out of putting on a persona; it goes out of the sexual realm and into every element of life. The two of us speaking now are putting on a kind of persona; I think we all have different personas. I’m stating the obvious, but there is a pressure for us to do it all the time.

RS: In terms of personae being played out ad infinitum, your film reminded me of Carax’s Holy Motors. It has Denis Lavant as a guy who, in each scene, plays a different character, a role, and as the day wears on he becomes more and more exhausted. The role-playing seems to just wear him down.

Strickland: You know what, I haven’t seen it! I bought it, but have not watched it yet.

RS: So who were your key influences when making this film?

Strickland: Fassbinder, definitely. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a big, big influence. Jess Franco too. What was interesting about Franco was that in my initial meeting with [production company] Rook Films we said, “Let’s remake his film Lorna The Exorcist.”That was a very different time. Berberian was in the flea market—rejected at Berlin, rejected at Cannes, so I thought, “That’s it. I’m finished. I’m washed up.” Especially for a second film, I thought, “Okay, I blew it.” And they came in with this offer and said, “Let’s do it for £20k.” I thought, “Why the hell not?” And then we got to thinking we could do a low-budget Franco tribute. Over that period, as always, the budget went up and the script changed. It was quite explicit at first. We wanted to take these core elements of the masochism, the women lovers, but somehow as a human being you bring an emotional aspect to it, which genre cinema sometimes shuts out. It was about letting a bit of sunlight into that boxed world, and letting those characters come to life. In that type of genre cinema—the sex film, Euro-sleaze, whatever you want to call it—those dominant women and men are inherently dominant. I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, but I assume that Christian Grey is inherently dominant. He’s not putting on an act for his lover. But for the vast majority of cases where these scenarios are happening, the masochist wouldn’t want a genuine dominant, that would be too scary: a dominant is someone who’s just being used as a puppet. Just peeling off that mask and showing a reluctant dominatrix was what I wanted to do.

RS: Where did you shoot the film?

Strickland: Hungary.

RS: The accents are all over the place.

Strickland: Euro-pudding . . . Euro-goulash!

RS: . . . but in a great way, in that you never know where you are. I was getting an Italian vibe.

Strickland: Well, Chiara’s Italian. This is the anti-UKIP [hard-right, anti-immigration UK political party] film! It’s got an Italian, a Romanian, a Belgian, a Hungarian, and a Danish woman. Five different nationalities, and not a single British person. I just didn’t want to make it specific. It’s the same as with the gender, the jobs—I didn’t want people to worry about where it is. I love Pinocchio, and there is this magical sense of a middle-European place and you’ve got no idea where it is, or when it is. Buñuel was another big reference: Belle de jour and Tristana in particular.

RS: There’s deliberately no technology, or signifiers of a time and place. Actually, the only technology is a human toilet . . .

Strickland: Handmade! It could be set in the future though, when oil has run out…

RS: Can you talk about the heavily stylized opening credits sequence? I found that particularly striking.

Strickland: Julian House [at creative house Intro] did that. My starting point was the credits sequence for Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General. It has these freeze frames, then it goes into a tint; I think that’s something that happened a fair bit in the sixties and seventies, and I hadn’t seen that done in a while. I guess I’m another tragically nostalgic director. I love that style, it’s very evocative, and it transports me, pulls me into the film. Alongside Matyas [Fekete], the editor, we gave Julian a template. We found the shots we wanted, we’d freeze them, and it was up to Julian to fill in the freezes. We wanted to go fairly simple with it. We didn’t want to go too crazy.

RS: I love the scenes in the lecture hall at the lepidopterist conference, where there’s a mannequin in the back, and everybody is extremely statuesque. It reminded me of Terence Donovan’s video for Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer.

Strickland: Oh! I know the video, interesting. That’s funny. That didn’t occur to me.

RS: And when did you decide to have an all-female cast? There are literally no men in it at all. It’s very unusual, even refreshing, for a feature film.

Strickland: It’s funny, you say “refreshing” as an audience member, but when you’re shooting it you crave male company in the evenings!

RS: I can picture you sat there in the corner, on your own, eating your steak…

Strickland: It’s not good to have one gender all day long, male or female. You crave a mix. We’d have boys’ nights out in the evenings, and the girls could just stay away! [laughs] We had a lot of women in the crew as well, and the intimate nature of it—being a male director—we wanted to make the actors as comfortable as possible. At least the first draft had men in it. It was set in a very different world; it was set in a city, they had jobs. But I wanted to strip everything away. I didn’t want to worry about where they got their money from; I wanted to make it like a fable.

RS: Have you anticipated criticism—perhaps for a perceived voyeurism or male fantasy?

Strickland: I was conscious, on some levelthat, as a male, I was going to be attacked. I felt having it all-female didn’t make it a lesbian film; not that I’m against that—but I didn’t want it to be about that. Aesthetically, I had issues with a male as a dominant and a submissive. That didn’t feel right. The purest thing would have been to have two men; I could have got away with that, but I’m doing that for another film. I don’t know when we’ll do it, but I have plans for an all-male film. I just got into it, in a way. You have to be careful here, because you could end up in a scenario like The Worm That Turned [a sketch from 1980 BBC show The Two Ronnies in which women rule England]. It could be a fetish thing. The trap would have been to have beautiful young women with long legs . . . this kind of heterosexual fantasy; that wouldn’t have worked.

RS: Abdellatif Kechiche recently came under fire for his portrayal of a lesbian relationship in Blue Is the Warmest Color.

Strickland: I haven’t seen the film yet. But . . . anyone would. I’m bound to be under fire as well. It just happens, it’s the way it is. But I want to tell that story. I’ve only done a few films, but I know from the last two that whatever you do someone’s going to slag you off. I was happier with an all-female world. It removes a sociological aspect from the film. It’s a counter to it; if there are males involved, it becomes “I am attracted to the same gender.”

RS: Sound is hugely important in your work. In Berberian it was embedded into the subject matter, but in this film too, sound design, and the musical score from Cat’s Eyes, are so important to the tone and feel. Can you talk about the importance you place on sound?

Strickland: It depends on the film. It’s all about serving the atmosphere of what you’re doing. I could easily envisage doing a film with minimal sound design and almost no music. I love Joanna Hogg’s films and they work perfectly without music. It’s just a question of when is that a gimmick or contrived? In Hogg’s films it completely serves what she’s putting out there. Burgundy absolutely needed music. I think we spent more time taking sounds away than putting them on. I think a lot of sound design is about eliminating things, making it less busy.

RS: I spoke to Johnnie Burn last year about his work as sound designer on Under the Skin, and he talked about peeling it back as much as possible.

Strickland: I’m glad you said that, because people don’t really talk about that much. A huge chunk of that work, which is very time-consuming, is to peel things away. It’s very gratifying; things breathe more and sounds work better when they’re in isolation. There was no intention to draw attention to ourselves. With Berberian there was, absolutely, given the subject matter. With this one we tried to make something evocative, moody, and pared back. A lot of the effort goes into tracking down field recordings. I get into arguments a lot about this because a field recording is still a live recording, but the difference is you’ve looked for it. You haven’t just gone through a fucking database and clicked on your mouse; you’ve actually gone out of your flat, to visit someone, you’ve made a phone call to hear recordings that haven’t been off the shelf. You feel it if something’s off the shelf. Well, I don’t know if the audience does, but the film has to please me. I really need original sound recordings. So we just contact people who’ve done great stuff. We just incorporate it into the mix.

With Cat’s Eyes, I was a big fan. I purchased their first [self-titled] album just after we started shooting, and I’d listen to it a lot in the evenings after work. I remember thinking they sounded very suitable for that world. A lot of the conversation was about the instruments they’d use. Rachel [Zeffira] has a background in classical music, and Faris [Badwan] has a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility and experimental stuff; he could warp those sounds. I really love what they’ve done.

RS: Are you generally a fan of repetition in music?

Strickland: I’m a big Spacemen 3 fan. Yeah, people like Steve Reich, and this band from the ‘80s called Loop—the name says it all really. I love repetition, I love it in cinema. A lot of my inspiration comes from musical structure when I’m writing. I remember when I first heard repetitive music and you think these guys are being lazy, but when you get into it, it has a very accumulative quality. It just transports you. And what I look for in film and music is to be transported. That’s just my personal taste; I love to be thrown into another world.

RS: And there’s this idea of modulation, too. Whether it’s krautrock or Fela Kuti or Arthur Russell, it loops, but then you’re extra attentive to when it does finally change. I thought of this in your film, where there is a base level and you keep coming back to the same themes, but there are tiny, startling modulations along the way. Actually in this respect your film reminded me in some ways of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Strickland: Oh! Joanna Hogg does these film nights in London, called A Nos Amours! I think she’s screened it there, though I’ve not seen it. But there was a great film series by Phil Niblock called The Movement of People Working. Niblock comes from this tradition of drone music. He’s recording a lot of close-ups of people doing hand work and agricultural work, set to these very intense drones. You feel a bit guilty watching it, as a middle-class person watching these people laboring, there’s a bit of guilt going on, but as a texture, as something which accumulates, it’s very powerful. Also, I’m gonna steal that word “modulation” from you!