It is the night after the Flux Gourmet screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Sitting in one of the conference suites, I am questioning my decision not to have breakfast but knowing the film’s gastronomic theatrics are on the menu for discussion, it was arguably the right call.
I am there to interview Fatma Mohamed, who plays the leader of the film’s sound collective Elle di Elle. Before I see her, I hear her talking to Curzon’s PR rep as she walks down the hallway. Hearing her dulcet Hungarian tones, I am transported back to watching In Fabric and her scene-stealing role as the department store’s saleswoman Miss Luckmoore.
Sitting down to talk, she explains how the character was influenced by her own shopping experiences. “Shopping in a fancy department store, you cannot not be attentive of how they deliver their merchandise. I know she is trying to convince me to take this coat. Even if I see myself in the mirror and I don’t like it, I don’t look good. It is her job. And we have a similar job. It’s my job to convince the audience as an actor. So with this, I was thinking of certain women I had encountered over the years. There were hints and clues as to her real nature in the script but once I saw myself in the mirror, really with the wig and the costume and the makeup, I felt Miss Luckmoore”.
I mention how the shop’s TV commercials showing the staff beckoning shoppers to enter, reminded me of visiting FAO Schwarz in New York and how when the store opened, all the staff lined up to clap the first customers of the day as they walked in.
“I think initially it was going to be more like how you see the online videos of people running and jumping over each other to get into the sales but Peter wanted something a bit more mesmerising so I said ‘why don’t we invite them in and clap and cheer them when they enter?’. There is something nice about the way we work. He is saying something and I come in with a new idea and it is completing the vision”.
Mohamed is very much an integral part of Peter Strickland’s vision. In fact, she is the only actor to have appeared in every single one of his feature films. However their cinematic streak began out of a happy accident. As she had explained at the Q&A at last night’s screening, a chat at the premiere of Katalin Varga led to a conversation about languages and an admission that she knew Italian. Peter was needing someone who spoke Italian for a couple of scenes in his next film Berberian Sound Studio and a new actor-director partnership was formed.
When one thinks of great pairings, you have the likes of Scorsese & De Niro, Tarantino & Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Coppola & Kirsten Dunst. A collaboration where there is a trust and respect that allows both to get the best out of each other.
Having worked with him now on five films, I am keen to know what their working relationship is like. Does he see her as a potential muse, or one of the secrets to his success?
“I don’t think he’s thinking about success. I think he sees it more as a meeting really between artists. Artist to artist. Him as the visionary and me as a tool to accomplish his vision. It’s nice because he only does a movie every two or three years. So even I’m curious as to what’s next. When one writes I guess you have the characters in your mind? Or at least the images, you know, and now, I realise, yes, he’s putting my face there. The working? It’s easy between us. The challenges of crossing the language barrier were the biggest, the harshest. The rest, for me, it’s like sinking into a wonderful swimming pool, you know. He’s given me many opportunities.Each time it is like an evolution of the character. I feel all the time he’s challenging me. Can you do this? Can you do this? Let’s try. Then what he is really saying is, can we do this? Let’s see. It’s very interesting. We are making the kind of osmosis, an artistical osmosis. We inspire one to each other. I’m grateful that I found that match in the artistic field, you know, because it’s rare. Meeting him and working with him has been the cherry on the cake as you would say.”
It is clearly a sentiment felt by others as well. Strickland feels akin to a modern day Orson Welles. Someone whose work blurs the lines between the theatrical and the theatrical. Welles had his Mercury Theatre company and many of the players made the transition to the silver screen with him. Similarly, Strickland is building up his own collective. A core group of actors he works with across multiple projects including the likes of Gwendolyne Christie, Richard Bremmer and Sidse Babbett Knudsen.
Fatma Mohamed has worked her way up from a single line in Katalin Varga to the de facto leader of the culinary collaborative in Flux Gourmet. Does she now feel like a leader herself within this collective of actors?
She laughs, “Oh goodness no. That is a question for Peter perhaps. What I feel like when I see people from the other movies, from my experience, it is nice to see us in another perspective, you know, in other situations proposed by Peter so it’s a new challenge. I like this, that he’s not forgetting with whom he was working in the past”.
Clearly there is something that makes him an appealing prospect to work with. As a filmmaker and storyteller, he has a unique style. With Flux Gourmet, you can tell within sixty seconds that this is a Peter Strickland film. I asked her how easy it was to buy into his vision for a film. Was it there on set through the production design, costume, lighting or is there an implicit trust on how it will all come together in the edit?
“At the beginning I can see the character from the outside. So you have the script, you learn the lines, you know the situations. You have a feeling of knowing what is it and where it is going but you don’t know exactly when it will arrive. Then comes the makeup, the wig, the costume, then you feel already your character, so he’s doing this, building you up from inside, not from outside, then you just have to live, to be. It is similar in many ways to the theatre for me for example, but it’s different because at the same time you don’t have to do the over acting. You are playing to the camera instead of an audience. Even if you look theatrical, which is part of his aesthetic, we’re playing with cinema. It’s a nice combination.”
As our time ran out I had time for one final question and for those wondering, don’t worry. She can still order and enjoy chocolate mousse when it’s on the menu!
Flux Gourmet Is In Cinemas & Exclusively On Curzon Home Cinema 30 September