Director Peter Strickland makes incredibly textured movies—alive not just with visual splendor but aural and olfactory wonders, too. Like his previous works, In Fabric, Berberian Sound Studio, and Duke Of Burgundy, his latest, Flux Gourmet, tickles the inner canals of the ears and nose as much as the eyes.
Also like those previous films, Flux Gourmet takes place in a world that looks like our own, though entirely from Strickland’s perspective. It’s a world where rock bands document and manipulate the cooking of food for music and where gastrointestinal problems inspire great works of art.
Flux Gourmet follows an unnamed experimental noise outfit (played by Fatma Mohamed, Asa Butterfield, and Ariane Labed), the recipients of an illustrious residency at the Sonic Catering Institute, run by eccentric benefactor Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) and observed by a flatulophobic, self-described “hack journalist” named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou). The band goes through ups and downs familiar to many more traditional music biopics, but instead of a guitar, they play a blender; instead of writing a masterpiece of operatic rock, Sonic Caterers turn a colonoscopy into performance art.
This is a style of experimental music that Strickland helped pioneer as a member of the very real noise outfit, The Sonic Catering Band, which like the band in Flux Gourmet recorded “recipes” on stage and on vinyl. Strangely, the politics of being in a band are the same, no matter the genre.
The A.V. Club talked to Strickland about his new film, turning food into music, and taking stomach issues seriously.
A.V. Club: Flux Gourmet is set at the Sonic Catering Institute. Before making movies, you were in the Sonic Catering Band, an experimental noise outfit, where you and your bandmates would record the preparation of food and manipulate it. How did the band inspire the movie?
Peter Strickland: Maybe I needed to sell the records. I’ve got so many records under my bed that we never sold.
I think a lot of people were doing biopics, you know, the Queen and Elton John biopics. It just seemed kind of perverse to do one about a band that nobody’s heard of. I mean, it’s not really a biopic. They’re so different from us.
[The band] became a device to explore stomach issues. This band in the film, too, is a bit short of ideas, and suddenly, they pounce on this character, Stones, the journalist. They can use his suffering for their art. I think that was like a starting point for me.
AVC: When you were in the band, were you inspired by gastrointestinal issues to inspire your music?
PS: To be honest, when I was in the band in the 1990s, I was so ignorant. I was aware of peanut allergies, but I knew nothing about celiac disease or some of the other things. No, no. When the band existed, we’d record the cooking of food. We would document the cooking of food. We wouldn’t perform with pots and pans. We would just cook a meal and record that. And then afterward, we would treat the sound the same way you treat food. We would chop it up, we would layer it, we would mix it, process it, and so on.
AVC: Do you see the film as an extension of that work?
PS: It’s in the same family. This definitely connects. But, you know, I wouldn’t call it a literal extension. I think when you do these things, you’re playing a bit of a game of hide and seek. And part of the fun of it is to not be too obvious about what happened or what didn’t happen.
AVC: The film plays on band dynamics that you don’t just see in biopics but also in music documentaries. Have you seen the Metallica movie Some Kind Of Monster?
PS: No, I should see that. I really should. I’ve heard about that.
AVC: It’s a really fantastic film, and it dives into how bands communicate, how they operate. And this gets into that much more fully than a lot of biopics, which are usually just centered around one mythic figure. What about that dynamic did you find so inviting?
PS: Well, I’m a big fan of Spinal Tap. Having been in a band and knowing big bands, it’s interesting. I saw a band the other night. Actually, my first concert since the pandemic. Because I know the band, I read so much more from their faces than someone who doesn’t know them. Just seeing their little facial tics, I could tell who is annoyed with whom and so on. That makes good drama in a film, hopefully. I mean, politics, power games, rivalry. There’s always mileage in that.
AVC: All of your movies are very focused on sound. You made the short film Cold Meridian, which is about an ASMR YouTuber, and you made a movie about Foley sound, Berberian Sound Studio. Flux Gourmet is about creating live sound and a live sound as a performance. How did this change your technique?
PS: It’s a weird thing because when we shot it, it was a very short schedule. It was 14 days. When we did [Berberian Sound Studio] it was a very long schedule, like three months. Flux Gourmet was a tricky one because, obviously, the band is having to sort of press buttons, but we had no time to shoot. So you kind of get what you can, and then you look at it in post-production, and then then you kind of piece it together as a sound piece. But that’s very much dictated by what especially what [actors Asa Butterfield and Ariane Labed] are doing with the machinery and how we edit that together. We have to follow that when we’re doing the sound.
What we would do, we would do quite long improvisations. So that was the Sonic Catering Band, the original members, Tim Kirby and Colin Fletcher doing 20-minute workouts using the same recipes as in the film. You take that away, and you edit the best bits out or the most intense bits. Then you’re using other bits from Tim Harrison, the sound designer, who would come in and contribute.
So a lot of it is trial and error. There was no plan. I learned quite early on that, for me, it’s best to go into a sound mix not knowing what you’re doing. You come in with the right gear. But so much of it is the process of “try this out. It doesn’t work. Try something else.”A lot of talking about how it’s going to work, and it kind of comes together that way.
AVC: Was the band in the movie like the actors creating the music?
PS: Well. It’s both. They are creating music. When we shot those scenes, we often play music for them to kind of react off, which is not the music we used in the final edit, but we just needed something to get them going. But they were given this kind of guideline. Tim and Colin from the band were there to tell them how to operate these things and what buttons to press. So within that, they had a fair amount of freedom. It’s down to us afterward to look at what’s being pressed and try and be as faithful to that as possible. We’re not always that way. Sometimes the dramatic effect was more important.
AVC: This is the first movie of yours that I’ve seen where it’s actually about true-blue performers who are performing for an audience. But performance comes up in all of your movies. What is it about performance as an idea that fascinates you?
PS: It does fascinate me. There’s no question about it. It was there, not only in Berberian but in Duke Of Burgundy in a very intimate way. There are just so many layers to it really, especially in Duke Of Burgundy because it’s a private performance. That was really fascinating for me.
This is more face value in Flux Gourmet. But also, it’s not at face value because, obviously, you have the secondary performance of the impression that the characters want to give of themselves. That’s probably why I don’t want to go on social media, because you’re performing all the time. It must be exhausting. I mean, fair enough, people do it. I couldn’t do it. But especially the Fatma Mohamed character, where she creates this mythology about herself, which is fake. Half the things she says are her own narrative twisting the truth.
It’s hard to say why these things fascinate me. A lot of things I find hard to put into words. This idea of catharsis is very strong for me in this film, and maybe in the other films I’ve made, and you have the characters talking about this. That she’s purging. She’s in pursuit of purging something but doesn’t know what it is she’s purging. I can relate to that.
AVC: Creating mythology is very common in pop music and in rock music. Why do musicians feel the need to create that kind of persona?
PS: I would say directors are just as prone to this as musicians. I’ve seen it a lot in the film industry. A lot of it comes out of a mixture of insecurity and vanity, and obviously, those two are linked together. We all want to look good. But if there’s one cautionary tale here, the more you try to look good, the riskier it gets in terms of falling flat on your face.
It’s fed to us through the media, especially in filmmaking. It’s coming up a lot at the moment with the Sarah Polley book about working with Terry Gilliam, and she talks about the cult of the “genius” and the “legends” that are around them. We’ve seen that with movies like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo. So much emphasis is placed on these shoots that sound like nightmares and were nightmares for a lot of people. The Kubrick thing of doing God-knows-how-many takes to get to get a shot.
I saw a filmmaker who spoke about this. She was saying, “You know, if a male director would do, let’s say, 100 takes, that director was seen as a genius. But if she did more than two takes, she was seen as indecisive,” which is what was so revealing and telling about attitudes to gender and filmmaking back then.
AVC: Do you think Fatma’s character derives a lot of strength from that persona? In contrast, Butterfield’s character can just be kind of aloof and still maintain his power. The Fatma character has to actually build on who she is. She has to like do outrageous things to command respect.
PS: With Fatma’s character, this is specific to music, this idea of taboo and excess, and the idea of going further each time. Whether it’s in your work or in your lifestyle. There is this pressure to be extreme, and it can become addictive, especially when you taste people’s shock or adulation sometimes.
Asa, I know he’s kind of egoless. I know people who are just happy to be in a band because they just want to make things. They genuinely have no desire to be center stage. So you have all these different characters and their different needs. With Fatma’s character, I think a lot of her mythology comes from guilt from when she was a child and laughed at this character having anaphylactic shock. The adult way to deal with that would be to admit it, to somehow come to terms with that. She tries to kind of twist that into being the victim who’s traumatized and cries for help, which is a very dark thing to do. But again, twisting things that happen in your life to come out looking better than you would normally.
AVC: Is there anything that you are hoping to say in this marathon of interviews that you didn’t get a chance to say about the movie?
PS: Looking at the stomach in a serious way was very much on my mind. Stomach issues are normally reserved for humor in the film, and I just wanted to try to have another perspective on it.