Saturday, March 05, 2011

"They were really brave in agreeing to just go for the ride and experience the film from moment to moment" - An interview with Joanna Hogg

Joanna Hogg's debut film Unrelated suggested that she is a filmmaker with a distinctive sensibility, and her second feature Archipelago confirms that. It's another study of an unhappy family suffering through a tense holiday, with the director's striking compositions and acute grasp of family dynamics making for an absorbing and fascinating experience. I saw the film at last year's London Film Festival, and I met Joanna Hogg a few days after the screening.

How did the experience of making Unrelated affect the way you approached Archipelago?

Well, I think learned a lot from my first film. One of the main things I realised during the process of making Unrelated was that, while I wrote a pretty conventional script, when I was shooting the film I was resistant to referring to it too much. I had this big, 100-page script in my hands, but when words are on a page, it sort of becomes a bit dead for me. Something I really enjoyed, and was so different to when I was working in television, was to be much more spontaneous and open to what was going on in front of me. Obviously, it was brilliant to have written the script, but when it's under my skin, so to speak, I could work without it and develop things as I went along. I also shoot in story order so I have the freedom to do that. When I came to Archipelago, I thought I won't put myself through the writing of a 100-page script again, because I realised how much of that was useful and how much of it wasn't. I thought I would do a much more concentrated version of it, so I wrote something more like a short story, and I took photographs of the island where we filmed to illustrate the story with those photographs. In the story I'm describing a lot of the psychological levels of what's going on with the characters, what they're feeling, which I know that's not going to be visible when you make the film, but it works like a kind of map for me as I'm shooting. That's really important for me, actually, more important than describing the visual details of what you'll see. I think of it as an emotional map.

As you visited Tresco before shooting, did the location help you define what the story was going to be?

Very much, but then I knew the location already. I'd known it for many years and it was already very familiar to me, so while I visited again when I realised I wanted to make the film, so much of it was already in there.

It's a great location and it's surprising that we haven't really seen it on film before.

I know, I'm really surprised that it hasn't been used more, but I'm rather delighted to have discovered it, in a sense. I love the rather strange juxtaposition of landscape you get there. You've got a lot of palm trees and amazing sub-tropical gardens, and then you've got a bleaker, barren landscape coexisting with that, but they really are feet apart from each other. You can walk around the whole island in an hour and a half, I think, but it's brilliant for filming.

The one actor you've brought with you from Unrelated is Tom Hiddleston. Do you create the role of Edward with him in mind?

I did, actually, that was one of my early decisions, to create another part for Tom. I really liked working with him on Unrelated and I saw potential for him to play a different type of characters, so I took great pleasure in thinking of the almost antithesis of Oakley. Although I'm actually noticing that people are observing him as different sides of the same character, which is interesting.

I guess you can see it that way, as if Oakley has matured and grown out of the kind of shallow, narcissistic character he used to be and is wondering what to do with his life now.

It's interesting because I did think after Unrelated that I'd like to see what happens to Oakley ten years on. I think some of that fake confidence Oakley had would still be apparent, and he would have got into more difficulties in life than Edward, even though Edward does have his own difficulties and anxieties. I don't think Oakley quite has that sensitivity that Edward has, so while I there is potential for a look at Oakley ten years on, I think he'd be a very different character.

Alongside your professional actors, you have cast two non-professionals in the role of the cook and the painter. Why did you make that choice?

I was interested in the family being professional actors, but because I like working with non-actors as well, I decided to make everyone who's not in the family, every 'outsider', a non-actor. I also wanted to use people I had met there, so the fisherman and the gamekeeper both live on that island. The character of the cook and the painter both came about in different ways. I have been having painting lessons for seven years, so I'd known Christopher and I'd been observing him, wondering if his brilliant teaching ability could translate into a performance, because teaching is a sort of performance, in a way. When I first thought of the idea, I didn't think he would be in this precise story, but that gradually emerged and I wondered what would happen if I put him in this setting. With Rose, the cook, I knew I wanted to cast a professional cook rather than an actress, so I went out looking for cooks.

Do you have to direct people like that in a different way to the actors who are more experienced? How do you approach that?

I did have a different approach, actually, you're right. I didn't tell Christopher or Amy very much about the story, I didn't want them to know what was going to happen, and I didn't even tell them much about the setting either, really. So they were really brave in agreeing to just go for the ride and experience the film from moment to moment, because they were pretty much in the dark. They both had enough to work with because unlike the family, they were both occupied with something, the cook is cooking and the painter's painting, so that they have those things they're already familiar with, which makes it easier, in a sense. The family are away from home and completely out of their comfort zone.

How much of an impact have Christopher's painting lessons had on your visual sense as a filmmaker?

That has been an inspiration. I have certainly found that painting has forced me to look at filmmaking in a different way, and that was one of the starting points, actually. Christopher was talking about how it related to my filmmaking, and I wanted to put his comments into the film on a sort of Meta level, describing the filmmaking process. He's also commenting on the family too, so he has a dual role as an observer.

A number of scenes, particularly interiors, are shot in a very dim light. How did you develop that look for the film?

Well, talking about painting, one of the inspirations was a painter called Hammershøi, whose work was shown at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. His paintings are really extraordinary and quite dark, so that was a sort of visual influence. I also thought it would be interesting for the house to be in contrast, and to use shadows that have quite a rich feel to them. The cinematographer Ed Rutherford, whose first film this is, wasn't using many lights and was using a lot of available lights. I don't like to spend hours waiting around for lighting, I like to keep the momentum up, and we were also quite a lightweight crew. But it's surprising that in some scenes where you think it's natural light, he has actually lit the scene in a very subtle way.

One of the intriguing links between Unrelated and Archipelago is this idea of characters being on the other end of the phone and their absence being felt throughout the film. What's the thinking behind that?

It's interesting, because obviously those two films have that in common, but I don't think I consciously thought that I would have this character absent in the same way Alex was absent in Unrelated. Do you know, I haven't really analysed it. I think there must be something deep and dark in my past that has inspired it [laughs]. First of all, I don't like having phone conversations in films when you hear the person on the other end of the phone, because that always seems fake to me, and I'm interested in suggesting things rather than spelling them out. I just like that air of mystery.

I thought it was much more potent in Archipelago because while it was only the main character who had to deal with her husband being away in Unrelated, in this case the father's absence seems to hang over the whole family and is the catalyst for a lot of the subsequent tension.

You're absolutely right, because his absence forces his family to look at their relationship with each other, which is obviously very fraught. Absence is one of the main themes, I suppose, because it also connects to Rose, who has lost her father. In a way, she has the biggest absence of them all, but she's able to articulate it a lot better than they are.

Edward is the only family member who attempts to listen to her and understand her feelings.

Well, I just thought that was very Edward, to have those concerns. I wanted him to always have those concerns about other people but to be at a loss himself. I thought it was a key part of his character and I really liked the tension in that.

Finally, do you know what your next film is going to be?

Nothing fully formed yet. I'm playing around with the idea of setting something in London for my next film.

That will be nice, to be working on home turf for a change.

Absolutely, and it's about time, actually. I've lived here more than thirty years.