A routine trip to the launderette turns into a surreal soul-searching journey in Richard Paris Wilson’s Clean – a bizarre metaphysical exploration of cleanliness and moral guilt that is alternately probing and entertaining. Conceived initially as a music video pitch, Wilson developed the material beyond its aesthetic origins into a fascinating look at a man coming-to-terms with the sins of his past. Wilson joined us to talk about working through the rejection, using kitsch music to balance darkness with levity, deploying VFX in the most unexpected places, finding the perfect location right under his nose and his wider plans to turn Clean into a feature.
Tell me about the launderette?
That launderette is dead! It’s part of the reason we shot there. I walked past it and could see twenty letters piled up on the floor. I went home that day and wrote a letter to the launderette to ask: “Are you closing down? I’m sorry if you are. Could I film there and I’ll pay you a little bit of money.” They got back to me the next day and then two weeks later the launderette was closed down. It’s a Paddy Power now, unfortunately.
Where is it?
Two minutes from my house Friern Barnet! I’ve walked past it many times before. I’ve always had a story of a launderette in my head and I’ve visited them all around London, looking for the perfect one, overlooking completely the perfect launderette existing two minutes from my house.
Why did you want to tell this story that isn’t your conventional launderette slice-of-life drama but uses it to move us through a more metaphysical plane?
It started as a music video concept. It always struck me as a really interesting visual conceit that you could go into a washing machine and it could transport you somewhere else, making it kind of like Alice in Laundryland. It always struck me that you could keep on doing it. But nobody wanted to make it as a music video.
Every now and then you have a story that outlasts the rejections. I wanted to make this one way or another.
It’s the nature of music videos I guess. They see so many concepts that you really have to strike a chord with the song. The good thing was that as it was rejected I kept on developing it and honing it. I thought I had made this invincible pitch that somebody would choose but no artist wanted to make it. Maybe ultimately it was a bit too detached from the material. But every now and then you have a story that outlasts the rejections. I wanted to make this one way or another. The opportunity to make it as a short film purely presented itself when I saw the perfect launderette before me. I just had to make it a narrative story rather than simply an opportunity for interesting visuals.
Did you have to rekit the run-down, closed launderette?
None of the washing machines worked! It’s a minor thing, but every time you see a washing machine working it’s a visual effect. The VFX task wasn’t to make it surreal and dynamic, but to make it look functional and alive, which was the bigger challenge in a weird way. The place was also kind of falling apart, so we painted the walls and added lighting to the ceiling.
Every time you see a washing machine working it’s a visual effect.
There’s a strong metaphor of cleanliness. Not only literal but a cleanliness of the soul and the conscience. And at the end the gatekeeper says: “Why don’t you look in the dryer?” The dryer could mean hell here, which means what we’re experiencing is a kind of purgatory. Is there some kind of Christian dimension here?
That’s an interesting reading. I was interested in exploring the idea of cleanliness for sure. It’s almost like a baptism or a rebirth. The idea of guilt is the seed where everything grew from. For instance, the stages of guilt start with shock. You’re in a honeymoon phase where you’re kind of surprised in yourself. That’s when he’s in the white room where it’s all kind of abstract and weird. The second phase is denial when he’s walking past these three figures shouting how dirty they are. He doesn’t even interact with those three. Then there’s the bargaining phase as he sees a version of his girlfriend and starts talking to her. In stage four, the guilt comes in. That’s in the tunnel as he’s crying into those dirty socks he comes across and he slowly starts to fathom what he’s done. Then there’s anger as he finds the clothes and they keep reappearing, followed by depression as he gives up, throws the clothes down and no longer resists; he’s just kind of along for the journey. Finally, there’s acceptance as he willingly walks towards the dryer, which might be his final punishment, we don’t really know. It was always envisaged as a symbolic representation of guilt while also being a hopefully interesting and fun experience.
This sense of fun comes through in the opening, with the 70s US-style titles, the music and the man running away at the start. Then it goes into darker spaces. What is the challenge of moving between these tones and making sure it remains stylistically coherent?
The music does a lot of the legwork in providing levity. Part of the danger of making a film so quickly — as in I didn’t have a story, and then we were filming the next week — is that you can lose control of tone. I could feel that at some points the tone was something that I had to shepherd quite strictly, as there’s dark comedy at play while also something quite sinister. The music you hear inside a launderette is typically going to be quite kitsch. That just felt so fitting for our world that there is this sinisterness to it, and we can laugh at this guy who has messed up. As soon as we discovered there’s permission, it felt like the music was our way of nodding to that. It’s like Willy Wonka and the Guilt Factory: he’s going through these different rooms that are punishing him in some way and these rooms could sound different and have a very different texture. The music helped fill into that idea.
It was always envisaged as a symbolic representation of guilt.
One of the triumphs of Clean is the production design, especially the room covered completely in white linen! What was it like creating these spaces when you only had a couple of weeks to shoot?
That reveals another part of the process. We shot initially in October 2017 for two days inside this launderette. Due to various circumstances, we didn’t finish the edit until late 2018. So much time had passed, but I didn’t completely like it. We did quite a lot of work on it; it just felt quite claustrophobic because it was all filmed inside the launderette. It always felt important to me that the beginning feels small and constrained in some way, so you’re in quite a small space before literally falling through the tunnel.
I felt like the film needed to breathe as it opened up. We made the decision to do one extra day where we would film in a much grander space. We did one day in a warehouse in 2019 in the summer. It allowed us to do that big white room set up. We also did some extensions in post to make it look bit bigger than it actually was. It was a good job by the production designer to stretch the small amount of money we had. It allows you to believe that it can go anywhere.
What are you working on next?
There are a few things. I’ve written out a feature version of Clean that would explore a greater question about who decides on punishment and how we know if the punishment is working. There is a story to be told that has some parallels with prison reform. I’ve also written six episodes of a spec sitcom called Community Theatre and am developing a short film about a serious theatre actor who has gotten into motion capture. I want to make a comedy. I’ve been skirting around the edges of comedy my whole life and now just want to make something full-on stupid.