With her new film Exhibition showing this week in the IFI and selected cinemas, I thought I’d throw this Joanna Hogg interview I did a couple of years ago up on to this blog. Just cuz.
At the bottom of the staircase in the Merrion Hotel foyer hangs Paul Henry’s Dawn, Killary Harbour, one of the finest examples of 20th Century Irish landscape art. Examining its violet mountains and bleached misty waterscape closely, Joanna Hogg seems transfixed. “That. Is. Wonderful,” she mutters.
Rewind half an hour, and the filmmaker and I are discussing the role of landscapes in her latest release. A feature event of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Archipelago is a slow-burning drama about a fraught family reunion set against the stunning backdrop of the Isles of Scilly. It was there, she tells me, that her own family would holiday when she was a child. “The actual setting has very personal resonances,” she says, “and that only adds to it for me, to the intensity of it. I cast the place like I cast the actors; I’ll only cast an actor if I feel some connection with them or I feel they understand what I want to do. I don’t just choose a location because it’s pretty. It’s got a lot more layers to it than that.”
“In fact we had really lovely happy holidays so I don’t know where the anxiety came from,” she laughs. “Well I do sort of know…” The anxiety she refers to is palpable throughout Archipelago. Pregnant silences and bottled-up emotions inhabit most scenes, sometimes to amusing effect. As in the films of kindred spirit Mike Leigh, the dinner table and kitchen sink become emotional battlegrounds.
We’re sitting in an upstairs room. Through the window behind her, the sky is a rare blue while the evening sun illuminates the granite of government buildings opposite. The shy and highly observant child she professes to have been is somehow visible in there still; dressed in jeans a lose-necked jumper, Hogg’s eyes are oddly expressionless and she has a disorienting habit of shaking her head when saying “yes”. Often, a clear and serious tone fizzles into a whisper only to swoop up loudly again.
She is gracious and agreeable and seemingly unaware of her standing as one of UK cinema’s most celebrated newcomers. The release of Unrelated, her 2007 debut, saw the then 47-year-old arrive as a mature and fully-formed talent, wowing critics and plundering awards ceremonies. It came following a spell directing music videos before moving on to shoot TV shows such as Casualty and EastEnders.
“I just stopped thinking about it and became quite bloody minded,” she smiles, “and felt that if I wasn’t going to do it at that point in time then I never was. I find myself appreciating the idea that I can express myself creatively. It’s still a new sensation as I’ve only made two films, and I had many more years of making television. I definitely see it as a liberation.”
Was television that confining for her? “At the time, I probably enjoyed it in practical ways – it’s quite fun working with actors – but in terms of my own personal creative ideas, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do I think,” she trills. “I’ve got a lot of ideas!”
She’s certainly made up for this previous dearth in artistic freedom. Stylistically, Hogg is already regarded as something of an auteur thanks to her spacious, still-camera compositions and incorporation of non-actors into her scenes. “Hopefully it makes the audience just forget that it’s fiction,” she explains. “I’m very clear on what I want but at the same time I leave those gaps, and that to me is what is exciting about filmmaking. If it was just about executing a plan I really would have no interest in that. I think most films, even if they are very tightly scripted, need to leave room for things to happen. Then these nice accidents occur.”
As the writer of her films, she exercises her need to grapple with “personal but not autobiographical” themes. She has said that there is a little bit of her in each of the characters in Archipelago, something I ask her to elaborate on. “Yesss,” she begins uneasily, “and that doesn’t have to be taken totally literally. I’m not a mother so I don’t have experience of being a mother. But some of the issues that Patricia, the mother in Archipelago, is dealing with I can relate to – I can relate to her state of anxiety, and that’s what I was taking from that character for myself. And then with Cynthia, the sister, I think it’s more the desire or the need to control everything, also the indecisive, very sensitive son. So there are little hints of my own issues in each of them. These traits that I have are quite contradictory, so it felt good to spread out some of them among the different characters.”
She cackles loudly at the suggestion that Archipelago is like an autumnal and particularly hellish family Christmas. “I think it’s only a matter of time before Christmas becomes one of my settings! I find family an endless source of ideas.”
She goes on to talk about also drawing inspiration through literature, contemporary art and even eavesdropping on train journeys (“I have to be careful sometimes,” she guffaws.). Suddenly a light bulb goes off in her head. “I’ve just remembered another filmmaker who I love and that’s Lenny Abrahamson,” she says in reference to a previous question. “I thought Garage was a really beautiful film. Very moving. Deeply moving.”
In 2001, Hogg married the sculptor Nick Hurvey, a relationship that hasn’t hurt her quest for creative stimuli. “I really like it. I’m sure there are downsides too. We work in different disciplines but one thing can feed another. One of the reasons I go to a lot of exhibitions is because he’s an artist, but I see that as an advantage for me, and then maybe he sees certain films because of me. It sort of works both ways, in terms of feedback. It’s really positive.”
Surely this must lead to some heated exchanges of opinion or bruised egos, I wonder aloud. “There’s always those moments, and I hate criticism!” she roars laughing. “I choose my moments very carefully when I show him something because he makes very, very good comments but he’ll be very honest about what he thinks about something – in a very un-English way actually! And vice versa.”
In a short while, Hogg will politely but sincerely thank me for my questions and descend the hotel staircase. As if predicting that the Paul Henry will be pointed out to her, she will first tell me about casting the English landscape artist Christopher Baker as himself in Archipelago, and that the discipline of painting infects both her directing and the film’s plot.
“You were asking me what I was like as a child,” she considers. “The other thing I did apart from observing was I drew quite a lot. I now really love painting. I’m not saying I’m any good at it but I find the process important actually. It’s very different from filmmaking; you don’t need any money to do it but it’s something that’s very involving. I haven’t really changed; I still observe things all the time.”