The British filmmaker reveals how she honed her bold and distinctive creative process on her second feature, Archipelago.
A few years back, Joanna Hogg, a middle-aged, single woman, seemed like just another reasonably successful director plodding along on the TV circuit. She’d done well at film school, casting a then unknown Tilda Swinton in her final short film, but the highlights of her career from then on were Casualty, an Eastenders special and London’s Burning.
Then she went on a self-imposed hiatus and came back with Unrelated, an independently funded, low-budget film with an unknown cast. The film world was soon falling over itself with adulation, and she won the Critic's Circle Breakthrough Filmmaker award in 2009. At last year's London Film Festival, everyone was talking about Joanna Hogg, and her new film, Archipelago, was duly nominated in the Best Film category.
Hogg’s films challenge the silent etiquette of Britain's middle classes but also explore how we perceive and expect from womanhood, particularly in middle-age. From nowhere, she’s established herself as one of the most truly distinctive, and piercingly clear, voices in the British film industry. LWLies sat down with Hogg recently to find out more about her bold creative process.
LWLies: Archipelago is expressed with a similar vocabulary to your first film, Unrelated. How instinctive did the second film feel?
Hogg: I would say I was even more instinctive the second time around. Inevitably I felt a little bit of pressure, but that soon dissipated, and then I found I had more confidence, and therefore more confidence to allow my instinct to take hold of the process. So actually it was freer and easier in some ways once I’d focused on what my subject and what my story was. Then I was off and it happened very quickly.
Once you get to a certain point in the directorial process, was there a momentum that built that made the film almost direct itself?
To a degree, yeah. Much more so than with Unrelated. With Unrelated I felt much more aware of each stage of the process. Each stage had its own challenges and I was swimming in new territory first time around, but this time I just allowed myself to take more risks, whatever that means. There was an unconscious level in the process that I didn’t have the confidence to trust, I think, the first time round.
You seem to possess the ability to express tension and potency and drama from incidental situations. Where did that come from?
That’s just my tendency to observe situations. I’ve always been good at observing, but for many years of my life I didn’t do anything with those observations. I didn’t really know what to do with them. I’m even going back really to when I was much, much younger, when I was still at school and hadn’t ever created my own work I would always watch people. I was quite shy, so my ability to observe was my attempt to control a situation I guess. I haven’t really thought about it like that before actually.
I was very much in my own world. I would watch people talking because I wasn’t participating much myself. I was always a little bit of an outsider looking in at situations, little interactions between people. I think at the time I never really questioned that – that was just how I was as a person. It's not something I think about, but I suppose I’ve now learnt to use that in my work, and my work is very much about those tiny little subtle situations. I get inspiration from that. I found myself sat on a train sometimes and I have to be careful actually, because I find myself observing so closely sometimes that I think I’m probably interfering a little bit. I’ll be listening in to a conversation between two people and then sometimes one of them might look at me because they’re aware I’m listening.
When you filmed Archipelago you kept the actors on location in the house you used and filmed in script order. Did you have to direct the actors a lot to achieve the subtly you’ve talked about, or was it just about creating an environment?
It’s so difficult to break the process down and be able to answer that clearly. The most important thing is setting the scene. And part of that is getting the right people involved – casting the right people to play those characters. That’s such a huge part of it, because they understand the process to a degree, but they are also willing to put quite a lot of themselves into that process, because I won’t get those subtle little situations from actors or none actors who are not quite aware or quite willing to surrender themselves in some way. Once you have the right people, then I put them in a situation that tries to mirror the reality of that story as much as possible, so they’re living in the house that is depicted in the film. So I’ve created a situation that is part fictional and part real, and it’s that point where the two cross over that I think creates some of those very real moments, I suppose.