Joanna Hogg has been living in London for over three decades, but it has taken her three feature films to finally make a picture in the city she calls home. Her acclaimed debut Unrelated was set in Tuscany and her second film Archipelago took place on the small island of Tresco, but Exhibition is set almost entirely in and around a very unusual West London house designed by the late architect James Melvin, to whom her film is dedicated. Starring musician Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gillick, the film is a mysterious, fragmented and intimate examination of a married couple’s relationship with each other and the home they inhabit. I met Joanna Hogg recently to discuss it.
The house is so central to the film. Was that the starting point for this project, or did you come at it from a different angle?
There were a number of ideas I think I'd formed before finding the house. One of the themes or ideas I'd wanted to explore was an idea of seeing an artist creating a piece of work, actually seeing inspiration at work, and how that creativity or inspiration is also connected with sexuality, and out of that was formed the idea that D should be a performance artist. I hadn't started with that idea but it came out of looking at and thinking about creativity and sexuality and this idea that being very creatively engaged in something is on some level a kind of a turn-on. All these ideas change and develop over months and weeks, and having gone through thoughts of her being a painter or writer, I thought it had to be something visual, it had to visually express some of those ideas I'd been exploring. When I thought about the house....that's what's exciting about the early stages of creating a story, sometimes you'll have all these different ideas and they seem to be disconnected, but the glue became the house in the way. So many of the ideas came from just being in that house and observing the character of it.
It's fascinating to see how expressive D is when she's creating her art, compared to how she behaves with her husband.
That's right, yes. I was really interested in how she keeps those two things very separate, or tries to, because I think that's very difficult in a relationship. She is trying to create this work on the one hand but she is also trying to balance this with a relationship and I felt those pink sliding doors were a very theatrical division, between her world and her world with H.
Were those pink doors and the other striking design features already present when you found the house?
The house was designed in 1969 and I came to know it in the early '90s, but the architect hadn't changed it very much. It was much more monochrome and was more open-plan in fact. Those pink dividing doors weren't there. I think it was around 1994 when the house had a refit. We're getting architectural here, but an outfit called Sauerbruch Hutton based in Berlin did a redesign or update, so they added and changed some features, but the essentials of the house, like the spiral staircase, remained the same.
So you didn’t have to make many amendments in terms of production design?
What was great about Stéphane my production designer is that he recognised the gifts that the house was already handing us and he didn't feel the need to put his own stamp on the design, so he just did some subtle things within the house and the costume design was also very much part of his work, so the stripy nature of D's clothes that reflect the venetian blinds. These echoes were enhanced by the production design and costume design.
Did you immediately know how you were going to shoot in this space, or was that something you had to work out during the process of filming?
Some of that was worked out when I was writing because I took some photographs inside the house when I was conceiving the ideas, so some of those frames that I created in my still photography were mirrored within the film. A lot of the time we were finding those frames as we were shooting and it is quite a challenging house to shoot in, partly because it has this lift block all the way through, so you can't look easily from one side of the room to the other. But that's a kind of gift, in a way, so we used that, and quite often we built towers in the garden so the cameras were outside the house looking in and then reversing that, so you have an interesting inside/outside relationship. I really enjoyed looking out of the house and seeing chairs floating in the garden, you know, how when you're looking out you're sometimes seeing more of the inside than outside. I liked playing with that. But yes, from a practical point of view it was very challenging with just this cube with a spiral staircase as an access point. Ed Rutherford, the cinematographer, had to take his equipment up and down and everyone got very tired moving things around the house. But I made it very clear that we would only have the necessary people working when we were shooting or we'd go crazy, so you'd often have a whole group of people waiting outside for us to finish a scene.
On Archipelago you had Ed Rutherford shooting in a very low light, so it seems you always like to give him a fresh challenge.
It's true, it was the opposite. Sometimes there was too much light or it was a matter of balancing the reflections. I think he did that really beautifully.
You have said that your writing process changed a lot between Unrelated and Archipelago. Was there a similar progression here? Because it does feel like something different to your prior work.
In some ways I made some changes. I initially wrote a document that probably looked a little bit like the Archipelago document, which I'd describe as novella-like and illustrated with some photographs I'd taken. Prior to shooting I hadn't shown Viv and Liam my document, but after the first few days I thought I'd like to show them something but just feed them scenes gradually, not give them a whole document, because I didn't want them to know what was going to happen. The night before shooting a particular scene, I would write the dialogue for that scene in a relatively conventional way, but I'd only give that scene to Viv and Liam about half an hour before shooting, so they would get an impression of the kind of dialogue I wanted for that scene but put things in their own words. It's a very fine balance that, because I want things to be naturalistic but I also want to control what's being said, so it's something I'm continually playing with and for the next film I might try a different approach again.
You cast Viv and Liam at an extremely late stage. What are you looking for in a non-professional actor when you hire them? How do you know that they are going to be up to the task?
It's a total leap of faith. It's a kind of bolt of lightning realisation that this person is going to be right. With Viv, I had the advantage of having known her for many years, I'd met her in 1984, and when the idea came to me it was via my husband, because I'd been on the phone to Viv to ask her for ideas of musicians who might be good in a film, and I put the phone down and Nick said to me "What about Viv?" As soon as he said that I knew Viv was absolutely the right person. So I had the benefit of knowing Viv and knowing how she would inhabit that house, I knew she'd inhabit it very well, having lived in modern buildings herself and understanding the open-plan nature of it. What I didn't know was how good an actress she would turn out to be, and likewise with Liam, I knew he had some kind of performing gene in him but not to the extent that he did. They both became actors, they're not playing themselves they're both very much playing against type, and they do it brilliantly. That's the magic of casting and that's what I find so exciting about it.
Do you get anxious about leaving things unplanned and open to chance like that? Or are you confident by this stage that it will come together?
Well, there is a plan on the one hand, but within that plan there's a lot of room for the unknown and for me to change my mind. I'm creating a space for things to happen but I've still got my plan to fall back on. I've got a clear idea of what I want on some level but I'm not afraid of something unexpected happening, and that's a real interesting balance to try and maintain.
In the film D talks about being unwilling to open her art up to people and to questions or criticism. Does that reflect your own feelings about making a film?
I think I am a little bit like that, and I can relate to her in that way. I'm quite guarded at home and I don't talk about my ideas until they're formed enough to withstand any criticisms, until the ideas stand on their own. I'm possibly too guarded sometimes, so it was interesting for me to depict that.
One of the common themes in your work is what’s left unsaid. We are aware of some trauma in D and H’s past that informs their behaviour, but we are never told what it might be. Do you worry about striking that fine balance between being mysterious and intriguing or being too oblique and alienating an audience?
I suppose I do a little bit, but nevertheless I still can't guarantee that people aren't going to be frustrated with not having enough information, or with having too much information. I remember with Unrelated, afterwards some people said that it was a shame we had that scene in the hotel, we didn't need that information about Anna being unable to have children. I possibly listened to that on some level, because although I don't regret having that scene in Unrelated, it's an important scene and beautifully played by Kate and Mary, I do like audiences engaging their imagination, and sometimes I think if you've got too much information it's a hindrance to you putting something of yourself into what you're watching. It is a fine line, but with Exhibition I never even entertained the idea of what D is afraid of happening to H being explained.
It’s very effective, that sense of unexplained dread. It feels like a horror film at times.
Yes, which is something I'm interested in. I wanted to create something quite horrifying, but not in the traditional sense, and I was interested in the house having mood changes as we do as people, so that night the house becomes something quite threatening and ominous.
You obviously enjoy working with non-actors, but Tom Hiddleston is somebody who has become enormously famous since you first worked with him. Has that has an impact on how you use him in your films?
I don't think so. I think Tom is a special case because he manages to get the right balance of what he puts of himself into a role and what he invents, and he does it so convincingly, that I find working with him I get a similar satisfaction as I do when I'm working with non-actors. I think it's about letting go on some level, and I think Tom is able to let go into the character and create characteristics that are very tangible and real. I'm always looking for the truth in something and he is a truth-seeker, so I really do enjoy working with him. I don't think that contradicts working with non-actors as well and I think it was really interesting to watch Tom working with Liam and Viv.
It did take me a moment to recognise him when he showed up. It’s not like a movie star suddenly walking in and disrupting the film.
Well, he was apparently standing outside the house with Harry Kershaw, who plays the other estate agent, and they were mistaken for estate agents by some people walking past. I think that goes to show what skill Tom has at morphing himself into different characters.
Has the way you work with Helle le Fevre changed over the years? Editorially, this feels like a leap from Unrelated and Archipelago, which feel more like companion pieces.
I was definitely setting out explore depicting different levels of reality and creating a piece of work that was less linear, more fragmented and more dreamlike, and that was naturally going to affect the editing process. In fact, a lot of those different levels and the fragmentation was created in the editing. So that was the challenge from the outset, and I think Helle and I worked together and kind of pushed each other, and I was often trying to stop making sense, or at least to create other kinds of logic. That takes time to work out and we would work on a scene and look at it, and we were continually pushing further and experimenting more, and that got taken into the sound design as well. It was very exciting. Again, Johan the sound designer is someone who has worked on the other two films, and I think that really helps when you've got a working relationship with someone where you can push each other. By the third film you know each other very well, so you can just play around with things and have fun. In the end, we were almost creating a musical score. I don't think we realised that at the outset when we were mixing, but as the days went by I had to call up Gayle and say, hang on, we've barely just begun the process and we need a lot more time, so we extended our sound mix because it was going into the realms of music and involved some very intricate work.
Having made films in Italy and Tresco, this is your first time shooting in London. How was that experience for you, and will you make another film here?
To begin with, a lot of people who had shot in London before said it's an absolute nightmare shooting in London and warned me that it's not going to be like having your own island or farm in Italy. So I was slightly dreading it, but perhaps because we created our own island in London we managed to maintain control of it and we managed to get a blanket agreement for the area in which we were shooting so we didn't get stopped every time we put a tripod on the pavement. The scene was set before the shoot by the location manager and that made it a lot easier. And yes, this is my first film in London, my home town since 1979, and I'll definitely do more films in London. I've got another film that I'm developing, which is set in London, but I've got another that I'm not sure where it is set yet, and it's quite unusual for me to not know where the film is going to be set when the story is already coming together. So that's a bit of a mystery, and which film will happen first I'm not sure.
I was intrigued by the special thanks credit for Martin Scorsese at the end of the film. What is the story behind that?
That was because he was an admirer of Archipelago, and I was very flattered and very impressed by his support of other filmmakers. He's an incredibly generous man. I thought wouldn't it be wonderful if I could show him Exhibition and get some feedback from him, so I showed it to him at a relatively late stage, when we had almost finished editing and done some sound work. There's nothing more to say about that really, except that he dedicated some time to watching it and discussing it with me, and I was just so impressed with his generosity. I find that very humbling and it makes me feel that I should have the same kind of responsibility to other filmmakers coming up, and I try to do my bit to support and encourage younger voices making films.
On the subject of mentors, Derek Jarman was somebody who was a key figure in your early career. His work is now being celebrated at the BFI, so I just wanted to ask you about the influence he had on you.
Well, he was obviously another very generous spirit. He inspired me at a particular point in time, I think it was about 1980 when I first met him, and I am not unique in that respect. He was very generous to a lot of filmmakers, and I just happened to be there at a time when I needed encouragement and needed to get some confidence in my own filmmaking. He showed me that you can do it by just picking up a camera, you don't need to get permission from anyone. I think, as this season is obviously showing, he was completely unique in the landscape of British film, in creating his own environment to make films in a very uncompromising way and working with people he wanted to work with. He was an inspiration and is still an inspiration, and at that particular point in time he was certainly a fortuitous encounter for me.