Interview: Joanna Hogg
One of the most important new voices to have emerged in British cinema in the last decade, Joanna Hogg (who was born in 1960) has so far written and directed three films in which the Forsterian imperative to “only connect” proves a Herculean task for their characteristically repressed protagonists.
In Unrelated (07), the strung-out, fortyish Anna (Kathryn Worth), fleeing a traumatic event in her long-term relationship, joins an old friend and her extended clan in a Tuscan villa. Her unwise attempt to seduce the friend’s teenage nephew Oakley, a troublemaking Adonis played by Tom Hiddleston in his feature debut, brings about her humiliation. In Archipelago (10), Hiddleston plays a much less confident young man whose plan to become an AIDS-prevention worker in Africa is threatened by his well-to-do family’s disastrous holiday on Tresco in the Scilly Isles. His attempt to include the working-class housekeeper in their meals prompts an excruciating display of brattishness in his older sister. The non-appearance of the patriarch ignites the slow-burning rage of the mother.
Exhibition (13), Hogg’s latest, depicts an ending. Married artists D (onetime Slits guitarist Viv Albertine) and H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) have put on the market the modernist townhouse in Kensington where they’ve lived for 20 years. The decision has filled D with anxiety and triggered a sexual reaction in her. As the dread day approaches, she works on her solo feminist performance routines before the house’s windows; she also wraps herself around the house’s contours as she might have done the baby she’s never had. (Hiddleston has a small role in the film as a solicitous real-estate agent.)
Correlating landscape and interior space with the emotional distances between people, Hogg’s movies can seem reminiscent of Antonioni’s, while their cool, non-judgmental presentation of morally complex behavior suggests Rohmer’s influence. That doesn’t dilute their originality as the work of a vital independent filmmaker who, rare among the Brits, instantly conjures up such arcane terms as “art house” and “auteur.” (All three features are receiving their U.S. theatrical premieres at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
Why have your films so far been set in the English upper-middle-class milieu? There are working people in them—the Italian servants in Unrelated, the housekeeper [Amy Lloyd] in Archipelago. Clearly, neither Anna in Unrelated nor D in Exhibition are bourgeois types, yet most of your characters are.
My first thought when you say that is: “Is it more in the eye of the beholder than what’s in my own mind?” But, as much as I don’t like to be defined as someone who would depict a particular class of people, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s true of Unrelated. I made it after a long time of working in other spheres. I worked in television for about 12 years and felt increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t expressing my own ideas and experience of life. So when I came to write it, I knew I wanted to talk about something personal that came directly from me and occupied a particular landscape, which is middle class. I was aware while writing it that I might be criticized for this. So that was on my mind, though the thought of chronicling a particular class wasn’t.
It carried through into Archipelago, but with Exhibition I felt I wanted to move away from [the middle class] because I was a bit frustrated by being labeled, certainly in the U.K. It’s more apparent there than when I show the films in other countries. We’re particularly class-obsessed, as you know. I thought: “If I take two artists, they don’t fit into any class really.” Except obviously they live in this particular house so they also get described as middle class. It’s not a theme I’m interested in, but I can’t deny it has occurred through going deeply into my own experience.
Why did you choose, in Exhibition, to explore an interior space so intensively?
I’ve spent a long time in each place I’ve lived in and have always had difficulty moving out. That was the starting point. I wanted to put the fear of change into the story. The need for security is the heart of it. As I get older, I find it more and more difficult to change and try to fight it, but it’s reality.
You chose this particular house because you knew the architect?
Yes. I’d met James Melvin in the early Nineties and become friends with him and his wife, Elsa. The house struck me as an almost perfect cube that seemed like a wonderful container for my ideas. I liked the angularity of it and the idea that this postmodern setting was a good stage for a story exploring anxiety around change and memory and dream, all the things that get poured into a house over time. I was inspired by the architecture. There’s a theatricality about it somehow. It’s like a modernist doll’s house and the spiral staircase is its spine. It was built in 1969, but Sauerbruch Hutton [Berlin-based Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton] redesigned it in the mid-Nineties. They added elements like the pink sliding doors and a lot of the color that you see; the original house was very monochrome. I think the additions they made increased that sense of theatricality.
It seems some kind of disturbance has prompted D and H to sell. It’s as if there’s a ghost in the house that D is haunted by when she’s alone there at night. Is it, as is usually the case, a psychic projection?
I was using the house as another character, so it has different moods. But, yes, a lot of that is in D’s head. She projects onto the house the idea that it has become quite ghostly, a frightening place to be. The anxieties she has when H suddenly leaves the house, and her suddenly losing control, comes from her perception. I was also interested in the idea of H and D projecting ideas onto each other, which causes some of their misunderstandings. I saw the house as a house of projections, almost like a cinema. I often filmed looking outside into the garden, but projected back is the interior of the house. I saw this inside-out quality as literally cinematic.
Although D and H’s relationship is stable, there are tensions between them, partly attributable to his patronizing attitude to her work, that are manifested in their sexual difficulties. D’s work as a feminist performance artist carries over: when she masturbates while H is sleeping beside her, she can possibly be seen from outside the house, as she is when she dresses up and poses in her clothes room and H watches her from the street. It’s as if the house has become an exhibition space for calculated exhibitionism.
I think D perceives that H is criticizing her and her work, but again that’s in her head. I see him as quite supportive. She’s unable to share her creativity with him because she believes he’s going to be against whatever she’s doing, although he isn’t. I was interested in exploring if it’s her creativity or her life that turns her on and if, when she’s masturbating in that scene, it’s some kind of performance.
I wondered if her masturbating was a form of rebellion against H.
Leading up that scene, she’s been getting very anxious and worrying a lot about what H is doing and losing control of him. Yes, it could be seen as rebellion, but it’s also her way of gaining control while letting go, which seems like a contradiction. I think the crucial point is that she’s unable to let go with him. Sharing her sexuality with him is too much of a challenge for her, so she has to confront that. I think the fact that she allows him to watch her while she’s working feels like a very positive step toward making a connection with him.
Toward the end, D looks out of a window and sees an elderly man holding a baby in the street, which draws attention to her not having children of her own. Is her need to feel sexual related to her childlessness, as is Anna’s desire for Oakley in Unrelated?
Yes, definitely, though they show it in slightly different ways. One of my aims with D was to sort of take Anna further because there was more I wanted to express about childlessness. For me, D’s developing creativity is so important to her because she doesn’t have children. Possibly, if she had had children, she would have become obsessed with them and put all her creative feelings into them. This creative zone connects with her sexuality. I think she probably has some kind of animal need or desire to create something sexual with somebody else. It’s true in both cases. Anna in Unrelated desires somebody she can’t have, and I suggest that with D in a couple of scenes in which she records her dreams and imagines another man that may not be her husband.
This is the first film in which you’ve broken the naturalistic flow. D has memories of her and H returning to the house after their wedding and of sneaking off somewhere to make love. She also has a fantasy in which she sits in an audience watching H interview her on stage. Did you feel it was time to play with narrative?
Yes, I consciously pushed myself to create a more fragmented way of telling the story. I was aware that the other two films had been very linear in their storytelling and I wanted to go into more dreamlike territory and ambiguity, as well.
In all your films, you use extended shots that often linger on the setting after the characters have left the frame. You also favor static medium and middle-distance shots. How did this style evolve—I’m sure it wasn’t when you were working in television.
It was very much not possible in television. Without wishing to sound reactionary, I started trying out ideas I wasn’t allowed to use working on conventional television series because I was always forced to be succinct and not linger on a shot too long and had to move the camera—all those things we see in television. I found it very frustrating because there would always be an executive producer looking over my shoulder and saying: “Well, you know we need to cut away from that quicker.” I knew on some level that when I made my own work I was going to hold scenes for longer, but I wasn’t thinking about developing a style specifically. Making Unrelated, which I had written very conventionally, I discovered for the first time since film school that I was really able to do what I wanted. I would sometimes plan a scene and instinctively let the camera keep running—and find the most interesting part of the scene came long after what was planned. Something would happen that was more interesting, but you had to wait for that moment to arrive.
On Exhibition, I felt I wanted the camera to be more mobile, just as I had the desire to create a more fragmented story structure. I shot a lot of sequences with a Steadicam and did some tracking shots that I ended up cutting during editing because they didn’t feel right for one reason or another, although some survived. I think I will move the camera more in the next film because I don’t like to be defined as a filmmaker who has a certain style. It’s very important as an artist to keep pushing yourself. I want to keep experimenting, even if I don’t always succeed.
Some of your shots are closer than others—for example, when Anna and Oakley are talking in the piazza in Unrelated—but you avoid tight close-ups. Why is that?
It’s for a number of reasons. One is relatively practical, which is that I don’t like to repeat a scene from different angles. I’ll do a primary master shot, so to speak, but then I don’t want to then re-create artificially with a close-up what I’ve just managed to capture very naturally. In television, you’d do a wide shot, a medium shot, and then close-ups, and it would all become very mechanical. So I was moving away from that. But it’s also about my interest in body language. The movement of a body in space often tells you more about a person and what they’re feeling than a close-up. I think you feel more by seeing things from a certain distance. I like seeing dance filmed when it’s in wide shot because I want to see the movement of the feet and the whole body in the space, not cut up. I saw Exhibition as a kind of dance in that house. But I’m not against close-ups and that might be something I’ll play with more in another film.
Are your scripts very tightly written or do you allow for improvisation?
I write scripts—though they’re more like documents—that are very precise. They tell the story, but I don’t write all the dialogue as in a conventional screenplay. I’ll suggest dialogue, but it just gives a sense of the scene. But then I did something new on Exhibition because I was responding to Viv and Liam, neither of whom had performed in a film before. They agreed to do the film without seeing my document, but I felt they needed to see something on paper. On some evenings, after we’d finished shooting, I would write the scenes for the next day, then I would show them that scene half an hour before we started shooting just to give them a sense of what I wanted, but not long enough for them to learn the lines. I didn’t want them to have to worry about getting the lines right. I wanted them just to see a map of what I wanted and that seemed to work really well. I think that’s something I might carry through into the next film, certainly when working with non-actors anyway.
Are you conscious of drawing on the personalities of your actors?
Yes. I’m always interested in creating a character that has something of the person in it, whether it’s an actor or non-actor. It’s one of the reasons I like working with performers who haven’t previously been in any films. I had the privilege of knowing Viv for about 24 years before I made Exhibition, and because of that I was able to draw things out of her. And Kathryn Worth lived and breathed Unrelated. What also helps is that in all three of the films the performers have lived in the places where we were filming. I think that allows me to take things from reality, or things that I observe through the filming, and make them part of the story. I shoot in sequence, which gives me the freedom to add things in and change the course of the story as we proceed.
You often use dissonance in your sound design. For example, the disturbing noises that greet Anna’s arrival in darkness at the villa in Tuscany. It’s just teenagers making a commotion, but it warns her not to tangle with them, which, of course, she does. The street sounds in Exhibition are threatening to D—so, too, the sounds of the house at night.
Sound is really important to me. I’ve worked with the sound designer Jovan Ajder on all three films and we have a very good working relationship. On Exhibition, we pushed the design much further to create almost a kind of music out of the natural sounds around the house. It also reflects how the house itself soaks in sounds from the environment around it. You can be standing in the house and hear sounds like a door shutting or someone walking or shouting, and it feels like that door or that voice is actually within the house. It’s very sponge-like. I was very excited, too, to express D’s anxiety through what I call stories in sound. She’ll hear something quite dramatic happening, but I feel it’s in her head.
How easy or hard is it for you to get financing for your films at this point?
It was very difficult on Unrelated and Archipelago, but then both the British Film Institute and the BBC supported Exhibition. I’m hopeful of getting finance from those two places again and other avenues, too. So I hesitate to say it’s getting easier, but something has definitely changed.
What are you doing next?
I’m traveling back in time. I’m writing a story set between 1980 and 1985. So it’ll be my first period film.