When Kino Lorber opens Joanna Hogg’s new film “Exhibition” in select U.S. theaters this Friday, June 20, many audiences will get 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 last year’s Locarno Film Festival before heading stateside.
While Kino Lorber head Richard Lorber has 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.
We sat down with the filmmaker at the New York Film Festival last year 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.
I know a lot of your background was in TV as well, so I was really curious about some of your filmic influences on these three movies. At the same time your first two films were coming out there was a low budget movement over here where directors were making very similar types of films. Were you aware of these directors at all?
Yes, I’m very aware of those films. And I’m sure the filmmakers themselves probably don’t like the “mumblecore” kind of label.
For the most part they just kind of grew to accept it.
Yeah, I mean I’ve used the phrase myself.
Do you think you share influences with this type of filmmaking?
I’m sure with any of those guys Eric Rohmer comes up often. With Andrew Bujalski and whoever else.
In terms of influences, certainly with my first film, “Unrelated,” Rohmer was sort of hovering in the background as an influence. And then increasingly with time I found that it’s not just films or other filmmakers that are inspiring me, it’s other art forms. And more than that it’s just being observant about everyday life. That’s what’s really most inspiring to me.
In “Exhibition,” I’m curious about the progression, the sort of tonal shift away from your other work. Your first two films and the first half of “Exhibition” are very similar in the sense that they’re very objective and external from the characters, but then “Exhibition” gets very subconscious and in this one woman’s head. What was the impetus for that?
In fact, I hadn’t really conceived it as something that would develop increasingly as the film went on. I wanted this film to work on different levels of reality. That was something that I hadn’t really tackled. The other two are more realistic in a sense. This one has a more dreamlike reality, and isn’t a subjective film necessarily, but I wanted to convey the feeling of being inside someone’s head. And then in editing it takes on its own life, and structure changes a lot.
Stylistically, by the end of the film, it’s a lot different too. There are some big, noticeable camera moves, which is something that doesn’t happen in your other two films.
We actually shot more of the moving camera than what ended up in the film. I was just very aware that for the third film I didn’t want it to feel like it’s in the exact same packaging as the other two. I wanted to push myself into new territory. It’s stranger. It’s in some ways a more difficult film, even though it’s traveled more than the other two and is getting U.S. distribution. It’s interesting.
This is your first film actually set in London. Do you think that had anything to do with the changes in it?
I think that was sort of just me, in a way. For the first two films I didn’t want to explore that intimate territory. I wasn’t ready to. I had to go through those other stages to be able to look at a relationship like the one in this film.
I’m also curious about your directing process. How much of these films are improvised? Has that stayed consistent from film to film?
That’s really changed for each film as well. For the first one I was really sort of making up the rules for the first time. Despite having worked for a long time – maybe nearly twenty years – as a director before I made “Unrelated,” in film school and in television, I hadn’t developed my own personal rules for making a film. In television that’s dictated to you. It’s a fighting battle. For the first time I was set free and could do it any way I wanted to. I suppose I wanted to hold to some stability, to I wrote the screenplay for “Unrelated” in a very conventional way. But then when I started shooting I realized I wasn’t interested in the words on the page. I was interested in what was going on in front of me. It was much more interesting. So I didn’t carry the script around. I sort of discarded it and developed a much more interesting way of working, which was coming up with ideas in the moment and adapting lines.
So that was really exciting, so for the next one I though well, I’ll cut to the chase and not bother spending months on the screenplay. I wrote more of a novella or a short story. Strangely, even though it was much shorter, it was more detailed and more precise. So I used that as my blueprint. I would shoot chronologically so the actors and I would adapt things as we’d go along.
But then with “Exhibition,” I wanted to work in a different way. Again, I wrote my sort of novella. For a lot of the scenes I would write the dialogue the night before and the present the scene to the actors an hour or half an hour before the scene. So not enough time to memorize the line, but enough time for them to get the gist of what I wanted. It was an interesting way of working. A bit stressful because I’m working every night until the next day’s work. I found that quite satisfying. I fed them what I wanted to feed them.
Have you found a permanent calling in film, or would you ever go back to television?
I’m not going back to TV… Though, I guess television has changed a lot from what I was doing. It’s become more interesting, actually. Jane Campion is working on television now. So I guess I shouldn’t really say no to television at all. But nevertheless I do really like making films for the sacred space of the cinema. Those ideas just translate better than they do on television. I’m exploring new territory again on my next film. I feel it’ll be my first three films, and then this new one will go in a different direction.