A Place in the World:
An interview with Joanna Hogg
by Ela Bittencourt

Though she’s virtually unknown in the United States, Joanna Hogg is not exactly an up-and-coming director. Having made her directorial debut at the age of 47, she was described by the Guardian as having had “a tardy arrival.” This is partly because Hogg first worked in photography and television before turning to film. A late arrival, but a dazzlingly assured one: ever since Unrelated (2008), and particularly with the coolly orchestrated and beautifully acted Archipelago (2010), she has become a British filmmaker to watch. Hogg confirms her high artistic standing with her third film Exhibition (2013).

Hogg’s films, particularly the latter two, place as much emphasis on environment as they do on people. In Archipelago, which is yet to have an American release, we may be struck by the blue, alienating light of the interiors, by the claustrophobia of a room, or the precarious placement of a painting, even more than the plight of the characters. In Exhibition, Hogg accentuates her keen observation of the surroundings: the two protagonists, who are known only as D and H, are an artist couple so enmeshed with the modernist house they inhabit that their existence appears to be threatened when they are outside of it. Hogg situates the middle-aged couple in a space that breathes energy, between walls that are porous with secrets and fantasies, but also with latent insecurities and competitiveness. We watch their relationship evolve, as they slowly, subtly reveal and share in each other’s fragilities, continuously changing roles of caretaker, critic, and lover, and eventually let go of the house as the locus of their creative practice.

Reverse Shot: How did you come to feature James Melvin’s house in Exhibition?

Joanna Hogg: I knew it through James Melvin himself, who was an architect with a practice called Gollins Melvin Ward, where they did mostly commercial architecture and a couple of private dwellings. Melvin designed and built the house for himself and his wife in 1969 and lived there for at least 25 years. I found the design and atmosphere of the house really inspiring. I was interested in depicting a couple in a modernist space and how that space becomes a stage for their emotions to play themselves out.

RS: The importance of place is a recurring theme in your films.

Hogg: Place has always been the starting point. My connection with a particular place comes across in the story. For the audience this may not be that apparent, but it’s something that inspires me on a very deep level. My first feature film, Unrelated, was shot in Italy, and I still have an enduring relationship with that southern tip of Tuscany, which is lesser known, more open and bleak. I’d been there for the first time when I was twelve and had made the decision to return and have a relationship with that part of the country. I ended up knowing it very well, and then got to know the people. I like to incorporate into the film not just the place but also the people in the landscape.

RS: Exhibition has been described as so many things, including a psychological horror, or an art house film. How useful do you find such labels?

Hogg: Labels are given by people in order to understand the work. It’s to help them and that’s fine by me. My interest is to find new ways of telling my stories and I’m always trying to resist fitting into a preconceived shape.

RS: There’s a stylistic leap from Unrelated to your second film, Archipelago, which is more controlled. Were you also seeking a new challenge in Exhibition?

Hogg: I was challenging myself with the idea of not just depicting a certain fictional reality, but trying to depict its different levels, in a more subconscious, dreamlike way. At the same time, I didn’t want to simply have dream sequences, but to give the whole film a different quality. These ideas interested me before I started making feature films, but I had somehow moved into something much more realist [in television]. And now I think I’m going to push that side of myself even more in my next film.

RS: How important were the different layers of reality to the story?

Hogg: I wanted to get inside the head of the female character, D, to have a sense of what she’s feeling, what she’s experiencing, without being too literal. Those extra levels were necessary to mine the depths of that character, because she’s juggling a lot of different things, balancing her creative life and her relationship. I think in our lives things aren’t in simple compartments, they overlap. So I was just trying to get closer to how I experience life, to depict more precisely how I see things, and interpreting that with a certain character.

RS: The creative process is difficult to show on film, but it’s such a big part of Exhibition. How did you work the idea of creativity into the story?

Hogg: I think a lot about the challenges of creating work. Particularly with D, I didn’t just want to present the work that she was doing, or for her even to just be talking about it—I wanted to involve the audience in her creative process. It took me a while to make the decision that she should be a performance artist. I even hesitate to use the words “performance artist,” because I don’t want to define her. People watching the film, particularly in the art world, reference Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann, or even Lygia Clark. Of course, they were on my mind, but it wasn’t about representing a specific artist. It was about finding a creative vehicle, a way to explore the themes that I was interested in, and sexuality was a big part of that. She could have been a writer or a painter but it wouldn’t have taken the story into that territory. There’s an ambiguity between whether she’s actually working and whether she’s exploring her sexuality. I think that sometimes it’s all a performance. Life is a performance. But I was also interested in objectum sexuals, particularly women who have attached themselves to buildings. This idea of somebody deeply loving a piece of architecture was very interesting to me.

RS: Speaking of attachment, D and H have a very different relationship to the house. The idea of selling it comes from H, whereas D is ambivalent.

Hogg: I think D comes to terms with the idea, but yes, I was interested in how we can become attached to a building, in the way we can get attached to a relationship. In order to find a balance D has to separate herself from everything around her, and for a time even from her husband. H represents so many different things for her, and plays so many different roles, and vice versa. They bounce off each other in different ways. Sometimes she’s worried about him as if he were her child, and other times he’s more of a father figure, in a way that she doesn’t want to be criticized by him. I wanted to depict the complexity of their relationship.

RS: You had a lengthy script for Unrelated, and then what you called a “novella” with pictures for Archipelago. What was the process like for Exhibition?

Hogg: I like to visualize my story, so I started to draw maps of the space and the characters. They became almost like paintings, not for other people to look at, but for me to explore how I wanted to place these characters within this particular modernist house. I could plot out my structure in a very clear way, whereas just writing things down alone doesn’t help me to find what I’m looking for. Alongside these maps and paintings, I was also writing a lot. I don’t always look back through my notebooks, but they’re a way to work through my ideas.

RS: You cast conceptual artist Liam Gillick in the leading role of H. Gillick often talks about the importance of not being categorized, a line he delivers in the film. Was this something you discussed?

Hogg: That it something that Liam is concerned with, because he doesn’t like to be described as a particular kind of artist. But in the film he’s not playing himself, he’s acting a role, and he’s interested in that distinction. He’s a collaborator, which struck me even before I met him. I was aware that he liked collaborating with other artists, so I thought maybe he could see this as another form of collaboration. But he’s collaborating as an actor, which is something he hadn’t thought of being before, so it was a revelation that he proved himself so good at interpreting in that way. I was initially attracted to him because of his voice. The quality and tone of a voice in cinema is very important to how a character or an actor comes across on screen. But he’s also got a confidence and an ease in front of the camera, which I noted watching him in interviews before I cast him.

RS: How did you come to cast singer Viviane Albertine as D?

Hogg: I’d known Viv since about 1984. She’s been a friend for a very long time, but I never thought of her as an actress until about ten days before my shoot. I was on the telephone asking Viv for some ideas for musicians to play D, and then my husband, Nick [Turvey], who’s also an artist, said, “What about Viv?”

RS: Did the two actors know the story beforehand, or were scenes improvised?

Hogg: I cast Viv and Liam very late in the process, three days [before shooting] for Liam. They both agreed to do the film without seeing anything on paper. I just told them in broad strokes what I was trying to do, and they trusted me. I fed them bits of the story as we went along. I would write the scene for the following day and show it to them ten, fifteen minutes before shooting, just to give them a sense of the structure. They picked out certain phrases, but it was less about them remembering lines, and more about them seeing where we were going. In general, I find that “improvisation” isn’t a satisfying enough word for what I do, because it suggests not having a plan, and actually my process is much more thought-out than that.

RS: In terms of rhythm, there is certain expansiveness to your scenes. How do you know when to say, “Cut”?

Hogg: It’s never the same. What would sometimes happen is that there’s this precise plan for the scene, and there’s an expected stopping point. The crew is not working from the script exactly, which makes it harder for me, because the shoot becomes very intense. There would sometimes come a point where the story of a scene had ended and then something else was beginning to happen. I’m very concerned that the camera keeps running in that instance, because I find very often that some magic happens in that unplanned moment. For the performers, that can be sometimes a little unnerving, because they’re thinking, “We don’t know what we’re going to be doing now,” and I’m sort of waiting, but out of that awkwardness and difficulty comes something interesting. I’m really interested in something that just happens in that spontaneous moment, and you can’t plan that, but you can set the scene for it.

RS: During your retrospective at the 51st New York Film Festival, your work was characterized as a completely different kind of filmmaking coming out of England. To what extent are you conscious of carving out a new ground?

Hogg: Hard to answer. I don’t know how I fit into other traditions. I just know that I have an instinct for doing a particular kind of thing and that I’m completely uncompromising. The fact that I’m managing to make the films in that uncompromising way says something, because it’s very difficult. I tend to keep my stories quite contained. It’s about retaining that creative space for myself.

RS: In terms of your influences, you’ve mentioned Bresson and Ozu.

Hogg: When I was making Unrelated, Rohmer was hovering over me. I was inspired by a particular film he made, Le rayon vert (1986). I showed this film to my actress Kathryn Worth who plays the main character, Anna, in Unrelated. With Archipelago, there was no one filmmaker, but right from the beginning I was interested in developing a style that had to with standing back from events or scenes. It’s more about how I experience life and less to do with a particular filmic reference, although there are plenty of filmmakers who are really brilliant at this, like Jacques Tati or Tsai Ming-liang. As a child, I was always quiet, watching and observing, and so that experience of seeing life from the outside has got something to do with it. Whereas some filmmakers get right in there with their characters, I tend to see them from a distance.

RS: You did photography and television before venturing into film.

Hogg: I got into television for the wrong reasons, really. I had some belief that I needed to prove myself. It was like a second film school, although I then had to unlearn everything I’d learned in television in order to make my films. I remember doing the last piece of television work, an hour-long story set in Wales, being on location and trying to imagine what it would be like if I could do everything I wanted to do with that story. It seemed very far away somehow; I couldn’t see it happening. During the editing I started to think that maybe I wasn’t going to do any more television, or filmmaking, actually. It was the first time since I’d been a student when I thought that maybe I wasn’t going to be making films or television all my life. It shocked me into actually pushing ahead. That shock that I might never fulfill my dream of making feature films encouraged me to make Unrelated. There was a big dip, in a way, and then I reconstructed myself.

RS: You object to critics saying your films are strictly about class, by saying that they’re more broadly about social codes, family dynamics, and outsiders.

Hogg: I do fight that label of people seeing all my films as being about class. It doesn’t quite fit with how I see my work or create it. I’m interested in codes of behavior, and of course that does connect with class, but I’m not thinking about it from that perspective. I’m thinking about sitting with you now and how the interaction of two people who don’t know each other might work, the awkward gestures that someone might have, or little habits, or what’s underlying a communication between two people who don’t know each other. I sometimes find myself in a situation that, for some reason, is awkward, and I’m always interested in looking at why that situation feels like that, and depicting it in a story.

RS: In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also a curator. In London, you’ve cofounded A Nos Amours, a pop-art cinema collective.

Hogg: It’s a really exciting project, which came out of a conversation with a filmmaker friend of mine, [Adam Roberts]. We were just having a drink and were talking about some films that we hadn’t been able to see in the cinema, such as British director Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974). We spontaneously came up with the idea of trying to present those films ourselves. It was one of those late night conversations. I thought maybe we’d forget about it the next day, but then we made it happen, partly because we met the owner of a small cinema in London called The Lexi. She really liked the idea, so we started to project films, initially in a bookshop in a shopping center that was closing down. Now we’ve done over twenty-five events. We’ve shown everything from Tarkovsky and Straub-Huillet to a complete retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s single screen work. It’s taking us a couple of years to show all her films.