Matthew Turner talked to filmmaker Joanna Hogg about her contemporary drama EXHIBITION that takes place in a modernist house in West London’s Kensington.
(MJT): Where did the idea come from, first of all?
Joanna Hogg (JH): The idea came from the house – well, the house was one of the places. I met the house in the early 90s, when I met the architect and his wife, James Melvin – he built the house for himself and his wife after his children had grown up in 1969. And then I met him years later, in the early 90s and the house really struck me as a very interesting and dynamic stage, in a way, to set my story in. I just thought this mid-century modernism, if you call it that, had a theatricality about it and I thought it would be a good place for my story of emotion and encounter.
MJT: Was it easy to get permission to use the house?
JH: That came later. What happens is I attach myself to a place when I’m writing and it’s not always certain – it’s a bit of a risk, actually – it’s not always certain that I’m going to get that place that I’ve based my story around for the filming, but anyway, it did work out, fortunately. Otherwise, yes, I might have decided to do something different, because my story was entirely wrapped round this particular space.
MJT: Whereabouts is the house, or shouldn’t we say for fear of rubber-neckers?
JH: Well, yes, I’m protecting the owners – they don’t really want people knocking on their door, I don’t think. But it’s West London in a relatively quiet (because it’s near a high street) area. The house is designed in a way that it soaks in sounds from the outside, so I think you’re very aware of the city around it.
MJT: How else did the house influence the story as you were writing it?
JH: Well, it was more about how one can get attached to a place that one’s lived in for many years and how that place ceases just to be a place or a pile of bricks and it becomes something that’s part of – well, in the case of this story, part of the relationship. What I was interested in was, if a relationship has grown up and developed within one place, what happens if you try and move away from that place. It’s almost become like a skin for the couple. And so, I was interested in this idea of will the relationship survive beyond this special place that they’ve made their home for so many years.
MJT: Almost like the house was a container of the relationship, in a strange way?
JH: Completely, yes. And vice versa, in a way – the house is a person as well. I mean, that’s how I saw my story – it’s a story with three characters. I really wanted to make that a reality within the story. I wanted it to be not just a location that one finds that you have not really any attachment to, but actually that the place is somehow key to the story. But that’s nothing new for me – I feel I’ve done that with my other two films too (Archipelago, Unrelated). All of them have come out of a very strong sense of a particular place or a place that I knew and had an attachment to.
MJT: How autobiographical is the story?
JH: Not autobiographical at all, but very personal. I think there’s a big difference: autobiography is something where all the elements, all the stages are true and this actual story isn’t true, isn’t true for me, but at the same time, I am pouring a lot of my own experience and my ideas into this vessel, if you like. So if one picks it apart, there are some things that are personal, there are some things that I’ve imagined and are total fantasy, but I hope, in a way, that it’s not easy to know what’s real and what isn’t. That was one of my ideas, actually, because having made the two other films, which I see as quite linear and the stories are relatively straightforward and all based in some kind of reality and what I wanted to do here was create something much more fragmented, much more reflective of how I see life in a way, or how I experience life. And sometimes life feels a bit like a dream and sometimes the dream is very real, so I wanted things to be much more mixed up and fragmented.
MJT: It feels very much like a heartfelt, personal story and there’s a strong sense of it being from a female perspective. Is that just the way the writing comes out, or was it something that was deliberate?
JH: I mean, the female perspective is not – I don’t think about that, I’m just expressing my ideas, I think I’m getting more confident in expressing my ideas, so I’m just pushing these ideas forward. And with Exhibition, I was using dreams that I’ve had – for the first time I was incorporating dreams but then also, yes, it might be an experience that I’ve had that goes in there. I mean, I think, in the end, I forget what’s really real, what I’ve experienced and what I’ve invented. And I quite like that. And I also don’t look back at my films after I’ve made them, I find that too difficult. So at this stage, when I’m talking about a work that I’ve just done, I forget, actually.
MJT: Is there a reason why D keeps locking doors and things?
JH: [Laughs] She’s very anxious. That was another starting point for the film, which is something personal, which is a feeling – I’ve lived in London for a long time now, but I find as I get older, I’m getting more and more anxious in a way. And it’s something about London, it’s something about the sounds, the sirens, the feeling that things can happen in a crowded place, so some of those anxieties and feelings I was putting [into the film], using D as my vehicle for those ideas. And I find, sometimes I can get very spooked in places, even a place that I know very well, that is home, can be spooky, so having developed the house as a character, I wanted this house to have different moods and to sometimes be a frightening place to be in. And I think that’s just D, she’s just a bit scared, it’s the first time it’s been mentioned that the house might be sold, so I think the house is reacting, it’s feeling threatened just after her husband’s gone away for the night and she feels a bit lonely and a bit frightened.
MJT: So it is more about practicality rather than being neurotic?
JH: Well, it’s a fine line [laughs].
MJT: You wouldn’t say she was OCD though?
JH: Well, again, I think we’re all a little bit OCD. I don’t know how I can answer that, except that I think it can be a bit of all of those things or maybe quite normal. Depends on one’s perspective!
MJT: There’s that famous line, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…”
JH: Yes! [laughs]
MJT: Can we talk about the casting? How did you come to cast Viv [Albertine] and Liam Gillick?
JH: The casting took a long time and Viv came to mind only about ten days before the shoot, although I’ve known her since 1984, but obviously, you don’t think of your friends as potential candidates for your cast. I wish I’d thought about it a bit earlier! [Laughs]. It was actually my husband who came up with the idea – I’d been talking to Viv on the phone and asking her her advice of musicians who might be able to act and I put down the phone and my husband said, ‘Well, what about Viv?’ And as soon as he said that, there was just no question, she was just the perfect person and I hadn’t thought of asking her before. So she was up for it, which was wonderful, but then I still didn’t have H, the husband, and then Liam came about just because I was talking to people, I was looking on the internet and I knew his work as an artist, but I’d never met him and then we got in contact with his gallery and I was talking to him on the telephone. And both of them were very brave, because they didn’t have any notice and they had to decide, ‘Am I doing this or not?’ and they both decided that they would. And both plunged into it with very little notice.
MJT: So they didn’t know each other? So did you work with them and rehearse them so that there was an intimacy between them?
JH: Well, I didn’t have time for that! My plan had been to find my couple very early on in the process so they would get to know each other. I thought that was the main thing, actually, when we were beginning pre-production, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to find my couple’, because, of course, they’ve got to know each other very well by the time we make the film and they’ve also got to get to know the house. So, best laid plans, that didn’t happen, obviously, so there was no time for them to get to know each other or the house. Fortunately, I shoot in story order, so it actually is okay that things are a little bit more uncertain at the beginning and yes, they got to know each other over the course of the shoot. I mean, with the house, they’ve both had relationships with modern spaces, so it didn’t take long for them to get to know the house and that was one of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about casting them, because I instinctively knew that they would respond well to the architecture and they did. And whether they were going to get on with each other or not was obviously a big risk and taking that risk is one of the exciting things.
MJT: And you have Tom Hiddleston in the film again, obviously. Did he demand to be a part of it?
JH: [Laughs] I can’t remember how it went, but he’s enthusiastic about working with me, fortunately and I’m very enthusiastic about working with him and it was just a question of working round his shooting schedule because he was shooting something else at the time and it turned out that we could only shoot his scenes on alternate Saturdays, so that alternate Saturday would become The Tom Day and everyone would get very excited. And yes, so it worked out very well in the end.
MJT: It must be extraordinary for you, having worked with him in Unrelated and Archipelago, to see his career now…
JH: I mean, I can’t keep up with it – he’s doing phenomenally well. But then, it’s also not surprising to me – from the moment I first met him, he seemed to be somebody who was definitely going to go places.
MJT: I saw the film at the LFF and I didn’t know he was going to be in it beforehand, so I had a big smile on my face when he appeared.
JH: Oh, that’s nice, because I worry that people think he’s going to have a bigger part than he actually has, so it’s actually quite nice. Yes, I think that probably would have been a good strategy, not to have billed him at all, actually, so that it was just a nice surprise.
MJT: You have to be careful the posters don’t say, “STARRING TOM HIDDLESTON” in big letters and then Viv and Liam in small letters…
MJT: So you don’t see Tom as a sort of good luck figure? Was it important for you to have him in it or was it just the way things worked out?
JH: I mean, you know, I don’t want to have Tom for the sake of having Tom in my films, I mean, obviously, when I’ve got the right part for him and this part seemed perfect, I thought it was something he could just do so easily and so well and also wasn’t hugely demanding on his schedule and his time. And the thing is, I love working with him, so I’ll invent a character for him if I have to.
MJT: I’m very much hoping he’ll be the lead in one of your films again, or at least one of the main actors. Are you planning to work together again in that way?
MJT: Do you have a specfic project in mind?
JH: I’ve got something in mind but it’s very early days.
MJT: Excellent. We’ll look forward to that then. Do you have a favourite scene or moment in the film?
JH: The trouble is I don’t watch the film after I’ve made it, so I sort of forget. I mean, I’m likely to say something that’s not even in the film – I sort of wipe it from my memory. It’s quite difficult to say, because there are things I like for different reasons. I mean, one of the scenes I enjoyed doing was the scene in the ICA, when H and D are talking to each other on the stage, when they’re interviewing each other. And that was fun to do because we had very little time to shoot that scene and I think there was half an hour, even twenty minutes and so I had to make up on the spot what I wanted them to do at different times. So it was fun, I mean some of it you don’t see in the finished film, but I wanted them to interact with each other in different ways, so sometimes H is interviewing D about her work in a professional way, sometimes they’re arguing as a couple, I mean, I just had to think of ideas on the spot very quickly and I find that very exciting.
MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
JH: The hardest thing was to try and have the film make less sense, it was about finding a different kind of reality for it, the sort of tension between the dream-like quality and the reality, getting that balance right and fragmenting it in a way that made sense emotionally, less consciously, and not be too linear. I’m not describing that very well, but it was about this balance between dream and reality, getting that right.
MJT: When I asked you about your favourite scene, you mentioned that there were some scenes that might not be in the film anymore. Does that mean you cut quite a lot out and were there any scenes that you were sorry to see go?
JH: I’m always quite happy to see things go, because I really enjoy getting down to what the nub of something is, so Helle [le Fevre] and I – Helle’s the Danish director I work with – so Helle and I will sort of happily pare things away and that’s really the fun of the process. I don’t think I’m a director who likes to hang onto things, I like to lose things, I like to get rid of things and then have those things that are left form the sort of core of what I’m doing.
MJT: Were there any particular influences on the film?
JH: A lot of different influences. When I’m writing, I’m reading a lot of books and a lot of those books are non-fiction, so there’s a book called Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, an extraordinary book that encouraged me to think of the house as a living being and just made me question lots of ideas about the places we live in, the memories and dreams that those places contain. So that was very inspiring. I also looked again at Godard’s Le Mépris – I wanted to see the way he filmed Casa Malaparte and also the relationship in the film, the sort of ideas about the male character representing the rational and the female character representing the instinctive and I sort of, in a way, embodied those ideas in H and D – I feel D is the more instinctive one and H is the more rational one, although sometimes I contradict that. So those ideas were floating around in the early stages. So I’m reading more than I’m seeing – I don’t watch many films when I’m writing. So, yes, there was Le Mépris, there were a few exceptions to that rule. Steppenwolf, the Hermann Hesse book that I quote in the film, I read that very early on and was sort of struck by the book coming out of a kind of mid-life crisis of the author – I think Hesse was turning 50 when he wrote that book, so I was interested in setting my film at that point, the characters are around 50 and what that brings up in your life, that stage.
MJT: Can you say some more about the influence of Casa Malaparte?
JH: It’s this house on Capri with these very dramatic steps and the house sits very dramatically on the edge of cliffs. I think the house was built in the 30s, so a very different period, but also a kind of modernist house and I was interested to see how he used the house in his story and literally how he filmed it. But like with all influences, I’ll be very inspired by seeing something but then that inspiration turns into something else, I’m then making my own piece of work, so sometimes you can’t – I don’t think you can necessarily see those influences in the finished work, but they’re like stages along which one is kind of defining a piece of work through other things that one experiences and sees.
MJT: What’s your next project?
JH: I’m not sure! [Laughs] I’m very interested in horror films at the moment and in a way I see Exhibition as a kind of a ghost story, so it’s sort of taking the idea of a ghost story further. But I’m not sure if I’ll make a horror story as my next film. I’m also very interested in setting something in the 1980s.
MJT: What’s lead to your interest in horror stories recently?
JH: Well, I think it’s going back to that anxiety we talked about earlier and why D likes looking in cupboards and I’m quite interested in fear and in exploring my own fears, getting to the bottom of my own fears and then constructing a story out of what I find terrifying.
MJT: You could combine the two and have a horror story in the 1980s!
JH: [Laughs] That would be easier, actually! My husband’s always saying, ‘Try and keep your projects separate”, because I think he thinks I always end up boiling everything down to one project and I think he thinks it’s much better to have a few, to have something in your back pocket, if one thing doesn’t happen.
MJT: Well, I very much look forward to your horror movie or your 80s movie, whichever happens first.
JH: Or it could be something else…
MJT: Or it could be something else. Thank you very much – it was really nice to talk to you again.
JOANNA HOGG’S LATEST FILM EXHIBITION IS OUT ON DVD FROM 23 JUNE 2014