When Joanna Hogg’s three films played at NYFF this past week in the Emerging Artists series, U.S. audiences got their first look at a markedly original talent. A British filmmaker with a long history in television direction, Hogg pulled a complete one-eighty with her minimal freshman film “Unrelated” in 2008; perhaps most notable for launching the career of one Tom Hiddleston ("The Avengers"), who has appeared in all of her work since. She followed that film up 2010’s quietly tense “Archipelago,” and her newest film, “Exhibition,” premiered at this year’s Locarno Film Festival before heading stateside.
At NYFF, “Exhibition” was one of the first films to have its distribution rights snatched up. Kino Lorber will be releasing the film, with an option on the rest of Hogg’s work. While Richard Lorber described the film as Bergman's “Scenes of a Marriage” crossed with Akerman's “Jeanne Dielmann,” “Exhibition” is decidedly stranger: an anxious, claustrophobic portrayal of a married couple (musician Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gilick) dealing with selling their longtime, fortress-like home. You can read Eric Kohn’s highly favorable review from Locarno here.
We sat down with the filmmaker at NYFF to discuss her American reception, the differences between film and television, and how she discovered Hiddleston.
I know you have a screening of “Archipelago” in like thirty minutes, so I’ll definitely try to keep it short.
It’s fine. The only thing I want to do is a bit of a technical check because I’ve had some bad experiences. Actually the projection here is really good. It’s more for the sound, because the sound is very particular in a way. It’s very specific. I hate it if it’s played either too loud or too quiet.
I had another question, but actually let’s talk about that first; that’s really interesting. What about the sound design is so particular to the film? It’s funny, because in American low budget films that are sort of in the same genre that you work in, the sound is the last thing on their minds.
Right, it’s something that’s really important to me that I’m really interested in. I’m kind of obsessed with sound. Just in everyday life I’m noticing sounds more than what I see. I find that it can trigger thought in a very powerful way. It can communicate something in a very specific way.
All three of the movies take place almost in one location, and are in a way about the spaces. I think the sound kind of heightens that, too.
The sound in my films is very manipulated and designed. We did record very good sound while we were shooting, but I knew I would be adding a lot afterwards. Sound, and my impressions of sound was one of the triggers for making “Exhibition” in the first place. I was really interested in that idea that sometimes when I’m really anxious about something it’s often the sounds that I’m hearing that are making me anxious. There are occasions where I’ll imagine whole scenarios based off of sequences of sounds that I’m listening to. Usually those scenarios that I imagine might occur don’t occur, but it’s the sound adding meaning to the story apart from the visuals. I wanted to try and replicate those stories that I would create in my head.
These screenings are kind of your first exposure as an artist to an American audience. Is that something that you were conscious of when you came to NYFF? Did you think about how these films would play outside of England?
I was anxious about how the films would be perceived, but I didn’t think too much about that. I was considering in my introduction yesterday saying something about cultural differences or preparing to enter a different world, and then just thought, “well, I’m not going to say anything. I’ll just let the film speak for itself.” I feel I could’ve said that and it might help people enter into it and not try and make sense of everything or have to see it as something that’s necessarily connected to their own lives. I guess I don’t know enough about American culture, but with some of the responses afterwards – and it’s not just here; in other places I’ve found this – people often want the blanks filled in for them. They feel very disorientated and uncomfortable with being given so much space to imagine themselves. So all of those question marks that I’ve placed through the film can be discomforting. Not that I’m setting out to make people feel uncomfortable. But I don’t like easy solutions to things. I don’t think life is like that.
It wasn’t even the cultural differences so much – I don’t think I noticed anything too major there that an American audience wouldn’t understand – but it’s sort of an interesting situation where for whatever reason your films haven’t gotten distribution over here. So this audience is being introduced to all of your work at once, which is a pretty unique way to do it.
Right, well, I suppose ideally they’d be watching them chronologically from the first one to the most recent one. But it’s actually happening in reverse. Maybe that’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about the other two and what I think about them. And what happens when I make a film is that I’m thinking very much in the moment and giving a lot of myself. It’s so intense, the experience, that I sort of in a way have to shed it afterwards. And now I’m having to remember what my mental state was like when I made those films [for the NYFF Q&As], and what I even think of them. Because I don’t look at my work after I’ve made it. It’s like a relationship where I’ve broken up. I’m not necessarily going to develop it too much because I’ve moved on to a new relationship, and new ideas.
One last point about American audiences though, is that they love Tom Hiddleston. He’s becoming a bit of a phenomenon here. You sort of discovered him; how did you meet and cast him originally?
Right. I met him when he had just graduated from drama school. I was told about him by a casting director, who had seen him in his graduation performance and was really impressed with him. So I met him, and was also very impressed with him obviously. He had very little screen experience. He had done one television series but he hadn’t made a feature film. So it was his really early days. He was very young when he began, but he already had his feet on the ground. So I don’t think he’s been swept away by all of this. He’s very grounded. He hasn’t changed, in a really good way, since when I first worked with him.