Interview: Director Joanna Hogg On ‘Exhibition,’ Tom Hiddleston And The Challenges Of Staying “Indie”

Interview: Director Joanna Hogg On 'Exhibition,' Tom Hiddleston And The Challenges Of Staying “Indie”

Since her debut with 2007’s “Unrelated,” which is also regarded as the breakout for a certain Tom Hiddleston, British director Joanna Hogg has been quietly making a name for herself as a filmmaker of very distinctive and original style. Her third feature, “Exhibition,” which played at the Göteborg International Film Festival last week, sees her break somewhat with the previous two, both of which dealt more overtly with an analysis of the British middle-class family, to tell instead the story of a married, childless artist couple, H and D, who decide to move from their beloved, modernist home of 18 years. We had the pleasure of meeting Hogg in Göteborg, and having her talk us through “Exhibition” (which will be released stateside in March), and her creative outlook and process in general. It gave us an added insight into just how and why it is that she is being hailed as one of the most exciting talents in British cinema to have emerged in recent years.

You mentioned at the screening of “Exhibition” earlier that you are very open to hearing people’s reactions?
Yes, and there were some who really engaged with it. But I am also interested in those who do not engage with it, and why. I’m not afraid of that, I try to encourage a spectrum of opinion, and yes, I think as a filmmaker I can learn something from that.

Of all your films, “Exhibition” seems probably the least overtly accessible. How do you strike a balance between self-expression and accessibility for the audience?
That’s a very good question and it’s going to be hard to be articulate, but it’s about pushing yourself further as an artist, being more rigorous. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be more difficult for the audience, in fact, I’d like a wider audience for my films — but without compromising my ideas.

When I go to films, to something deemed “mainstream,” I really enjoy the release of laughing, for example. So I think there could be more comedy, there could be more laughter in my films which might bring in a bigger audience. But I don’t believe in designing a film for an audience. I think that’s [a] sort of death in a way.

So it’s really just following my own instincts which I’ve always done… and developing something in isolation and pushing myself into territories I haven’t been before. And that might mean going into genre. There’s a story at the moment that maybe skirts genre in some way.

Ah, which genre?
Horror. Which would be interesting and exciting for me…

I can see how elements of “Exhibition” could lend themselves to a horror. It’s almost a haunted house story, though whether she’s haunting it or it is haunting her is unclear. What kind of horror are you working on?
You said it actually! The idea of hauntings and the imprint we put on a space or a building that we’ve lived in over years. I feel we make an impression in these places we live in. And I’m very interested in ghosts. I also get scared very easily, so I won’t be doing a lot of research into that genre! So it’s really about tapping into one’s own fears.

You mention working on ideas in isolation, which is something D also says in the film. Is there a great deal of you in there?
I think so — you remind me how much there is, actually, of my feelings in the film. Because I don’t tend to look back on my work and sometimes I’m surprised. I stood at the back of the cinema to check the sound levels and I was struck by it even just at the start.

Soundscapes seem extraordinarily important to your filmmaking.
That’s right. The idea for “Exhibition,” of hearing sounds in everyday life and imagining scenarios that might be happening associated with those sounds, was one of the springboards and that is something I tend to do. I’ll hear something and I’ll imagine something that might be happening, and then often that thing hasn’t happened. But I was just very interested in how to depict that complexity of thought and feeling and hearing.

I’m so fascinated by sound I can almost imagine a point where I’m barely visualizing anything but it’s almost entirely through sound. I’m really interested in how that triggers the imagination, more than an image and I’m always inspired by what Bresson said: the ear is more creative than the eye.

To look at your three films as a progression, you seem to be going in an opposite direction to most, narrowing your focus and your canvas with each film. Is that deliberate?
It’s true there is a determination not to do that indie-film-to-Hollywood thing. So I’m not consciously swimming against the tide but there is something about wanting to keep my films at a certain scale and not leap to bigger budgets. I’m interested in creating a body of work that I can have some creative control over.

It’s quite difficult to do because people assume you’re going to go on to bigger things. But I worked in a more industrial way on TV, and a less personal way, so now I’m working very counter to that work. And so far the stories that I’ve written have worked with the scale of production that I like. Never say never though!

Do you view your three films as a continuum?
There are definitely linking factors. With each film I’ve taken something on from the previous. I find it very hard to say goodbye to my films, so one way of not having to deal with that was taking some themes from “Unrelated” and putting them into “Archipelago”–that was very much about getting to the heart of the family.

And then what I took [from “Archipelago”] was the feeling that I would have liked to have developed the character Edward’s [Tom Hiddleston] sexuality. But then I thought maybe I can explore sexuality from a female perspective. So in way I took from both “Unrelated” and “Archipelago” into the next one because I also wanted to go back to the story of a woman who hasn’t had children [as in “Unrelated”].

But I’m aware that people who’ve now seen all three films feel that “Exhibition” is very different from the other two. I don’t really see that.

One difference is that class seems more central to your previous films than here, perhaps because you are talking about artists?
That was very conscious, that I wanted to depict a story that wasn’t dealing with class. In some ways artists are sort of classless, hopefully outside of it. Except that now that people have seen my previous films — and I didn’t think those were about class either! — so people are seeing it through this filter of class. And I very much wanted to get away from that. I was very interested in looking at the roles we play in relationships. And as an artist of a sort myself I’m interested in that creative territory. And I think it’s quite rare in films to explore work and what people do in their workplaces.

Sometimes D is wife, daughter, mother, housekeeper and it’s a challenge for her to put aside those roles and concentrate on her creativity and work. And I think think that’s a challenge for women generally and certainly for me.

So I feel it’s got more of a feminist idea behind it than anything about class or even family. There is a certain nurturing instinct, speaking for myself, that can run counter to the idea of creating one’s own work. Which, especially not having children, I’m particularly aware of.

I thought, in a way, the house was their child. They’ve been there 18 years and it’s like when a child reaches majority, the parents have to move on…
That’s a nice way of looking at it.

So you’re often credited with “discovering” Tom Hiddleston, and he has featured in all your films, though here just in a cameo. Has he changed a great deal?
I think he inevitably has. He’s changed a lot… it’s easier to talk about the roles he plays in my films than him himself, because I feel that’s sort of presumptuous. I tend to see him not frequently, but for longer periods of time when we’re working together, and then he’ll go off, because obviously he’s very busy now and I’ll go off to write the next one.

It interests me to create roles for Tom that challenge him, that sometimes go against who he is. Or maybe just tap into one little facet of him. In “Exhibition” I’m concerned to stress that he has a cameo; he’s got a very small but very wonderfully played part. I enjoy finding new roles for him. And I will hopefully be working with him many more times in the future.

Here, as elsewhere, you cast non-professional actors alongside professionals.
Yes. I’m interested in how actors and non-actors can work together. I find the chemistry between the two approaches very interesting. And one of the pleasures is casting and discovering new people.

And for the non-professional leads here?
I do work with a casting director and she helped me find artists who might be interested in acting in a film. So we met a lot of artists and actors, but it took a long time to find Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick. Viv is a friend of mine, we met in 1984, but I’d never thought of casting her before, so that came about only ten days before the shoot. I hadn’t found my leading woman and then she was in front me the whole time! And Liam I didn’t know, and that was very last-minute too, again I saw lots of actors and artists for the role of H, and I found him by googling a couple of art websites.

And how did you ‘cast’ the house?
I ‘met’ the house in about the early ’90s, because I knew the architect — to whom the film is dedicated — and his wife. And it made a big impression on me and seemed the perfect setting. Something about the modernist architecture lends itself to drama.

At this stage of your career, how do you cope with increased expectations from one film to the next?
I try not to think about it! It’s not helpful. And I’m now in that situation again, working my way toward the next film, and the more work you do, the more it gets seen and the more difficult it becomes. What you’re fighting is some kind of self-consciousness about your work which I‘m sort of terrified of. I don’t know if you can stop that, and one can’t complain about exposure, but how to retain ones’s own authenticity with the noise outside… it’s very noisy now, isn’t it?

I understand your process since “Unrelated” has been not to script but to write a kind of short story or novella and work from that?
It’s trying to keep each part of the process very creative and open. Particularly the shooting, so I’m creating in the moment. And I’ll change my mind but I’m very much designing a process that allows me to change my mind as I go along, not fix things unless I absolutely have to.Which can be very frustrating for my collaborators. So that’s why I like to keep my films to a relatively small scale. It’s to give myself that freedom.

Finally, on a flippant note, tell us a film that, given your work people might not think you love, but you do.
Oh, ha! I have to think for a moment what that would be. Because I have got very eclectic tastes. I don’t know. “Zoolander”?

Joanna Hogg’s “Exhibition” will be released on March 28th in the U.S. through Kino Lorber, with an April U.K. release to follow.

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For me, Archipelago is much more interesting than Unrelated.

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