Bright Lights Film Journal

A Product of Their Space: Interview with Joanna Hogg on Her Film Exhibition (2014)

British filmmaker Joanna Hogg pushes her brave, stripped-back and honest style further with her latest film, Exhibition. Having made a successful debut in 2007 with Unrelated, she continued to focus on middle-class familial tensions in Archipelago (2010), both starring Tom Hiddleston. Exhibition, starring punk-rock star Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gillick, is her first film not set in a holiday home, with a childless couple rather than a large family – as well as being the first to examine sexual desire.

Joanna Hogg

Exhibition explores the raw, unglamorized dance of marriage. It is a deeply intelligent and intimate study of the interactions between two artists, D and H, who inhabit a modernist steel and glass house designed by the architect James Melvin. The house seems to define their relationship, it’s as if they are a product of their space; they work in separate offices one above the other, talking via intercoms, but for H this relationship with the house is stifling and they decide to sell. Hogg draws out the tensions that evolve as a result of this decision and the fact that H is considerably more successful than D. Her trademarks of long, fixed camera shots, lack of soundtrack and mixture of nonprofessional and professional actors are precisely what give her viewers that strange feeling of intrusion, as if we are hidden observers watching – almost with a voyeuristic pleasure – the nuances of a relationship. Hogg’s unconventional take on narrative structure gives space for a much closer analysis of the complex intricacies of desire, both expressed and concealed.

Hogg is confident and eloquent yet charmingly modest. We talked about how she achieves such strikingly realist cinematography on the big screen, the importance of sounds, Martin Scorsese’s support, Tom Hiddleston and her future projects.

What’s new about Exhibition? Were you targeting a particular audience?

When I start a new film, I’m not thinking of the audience and how they are going to respond. With Exhibition I was pushing ideas about memory and dreams much further and creating a more fragmented, less linear narrative. I was purposefully creating an ambiguity between what was dream and what was reality, and sometimes when D’s working, the question is raised: is she really working, or is she getting turned on? I was interested in that area between dream and reality.

It’s interesting that you often cast nonprofessional actors. How did you come across Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick?

The casting took a long time. I didn’t know whether they were going to be actors or nonactors. But I knew I should find them early on so they could get to know each other and also get to know the house and live in the house before the filming began. I hadn’t anticipated it would take me so long to find the right people. I met many actors, artists, dancers, real life couples – but no one was right and it was eventually getting very close to filming. Then I was talking to Viv Albertine on the telephone – she’s been a friend since 1984 – I was desperate by that point to find my couple and I was asking her for ideas. She suggested musicians and had some interesting ideas. Anyway, I put down the phone and my husband said, “What about Viv herself?”, and because she has been a friend of mine for so long I had never considered her for the part. I immediately knew she was right and luckily she agreed.

Liam Gillick

Now there was only ten days to go before the filming – and I still didn’t have a husband. I was looking on the ICA website and saw Liam Gillick was doing a talk there. One thing led to another and I was watching interviews of him and thought he had a really interesting presence; he seemed very unselfconscious in front of the camera and also had a beautiful voice. We contacted his gallery Maureen Paley, and the next thing I know, I’m talking to him on the telephone. It just seemed impossible that he would drop everything he was doing (he lives in New York) and come and film with us for six weeks. But it happened to be perfect timing for Liam. He often works with other artists – so this was another form of collaboration for him. He had been thinking about the problems of cinema and how some of his contemporaries were making feature films. But this was his way of answering those questions – it was an experiment for him.

Was it important for you to see how they interacted together before making the final decision, considering the whole film revolves around the nuances of their relationship?

It was, except we didn’t have time for that. Viv and Liam met in a pub on the Friday and by Monday we were shooting! There was no time to see if the chemistry was right. Fortunately, it seemed good as far as I could see. There’s obviously a lot of risk involved, but I find that risk exciting. The relationship unfolds as the film progresses, and I shoot in story-order so by starting at the beginning of the story it allows for things to start not so smoothly and develop and build. Their relationship built as the shooting went on.

Liam Gillick and Viv Albertine

Do you think the fact that many of your actors have never acted before leads to the “fly-on-the-wall” effect of your films?

Yes, definitely. That is one of the reasons why I like casting nonactors. Viv and Liam have never acted before in a film, so they’re taking each moment as it comes. There’s a reality to it – almost as if it’s happening in real time. There are moments that I’m depicting, which are planned – with the story worked out – but Viv and Liam don’t know that story because I don’t show them my screenplay. They’re being guided and they’re only able to react in a particular moment, and I think that’s where the sparks start to fly. That’s when we feel as if we are looking in on something that’s really happening.

The interactions and tensions are somehow more real than what we are used to seeing on the big screen and almost improvised. How much improvisation goes on?

That is always difficult to answer because it changes from day to day. I write a document that looks more like a novella – it’s not a conventional screenplay. My document is written to help me, and I don’t show it to anyone in the cast. Viv and Liam bravely agreed to do the film without seeing anything written down on paper. However, as we proceeded, maybe a week or two into the shoot, I thought it would be helpful to show them some scenes written down – more as a guide, not for them to learn lines, so they could get a sense of what I wanted. I would write a scene for the next day and then before shooting that scene – maybe only half an hour before – I would show it to them, so that they could get a sense of the dialogue, but without enough time for them to learn the lines. I wanted the ideas to get under their skin in some way.

There’s a thank you to Martin Scorsese at the end of your film. Has he been a source of inspiration or is he an acquaintance?

He saw my previous film Archipelago and reacted very positively towards it and was very encouraging about that film. I showed him a cut of Exhibition just before we locked the picture, and he made some very helpful and encouraging comments. He is a generous man who is genuinely interested in younger filmmakers and their films. I believe this also keeps him young and keeps his films entirely contemporary and relevant.

You both make very different films. Have any films had a particular impact on you?

Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood musicals, New York New York, has inspired me over the years. I first saw it at film school in the early ’80s. It is a dark and complex film that captures the realities of a relationship between two artists. I watched it again before making Exhibition and it reminded me to express the competitiveness between two artists sharing a life together.

Tom Hiddleston

You gave Tom Hiddleston his debut in Unrelated, he was also a lead in Archipelago  and here he has a cameo role. Is he a key part of your films?

Tom is an important member the family; the troupe! We are a small group of cast and crew who enjoy working together. Tom is unique and involves himself in a character in a very interesting way. In the best and most flattering sense – working with Tom is like working with a nonactor, because of the way that he embodies a character so realistically.

How did you first find him?

It was Lucy Bevan, a wonderful casting director, who had seen him in his graduation play at RADA and had been incredibly impressed by him. Lucy was helping me cast Unrelated and she suggested I meet Tom. I was convinced as soon as he walked into the room.

He’s now gone on to do films like Thor, The Avengers, War Horse and Midnight in Paris. Do you feel a sense of motherly pride in discovering him?

(Laughs) No, because that sounds like I have some sort of ownership over him! He was always going to do great things. I can’t take any personal credit; he’s simply a brilliant actor.

Often you choose a particular house that seems central to your films – in Exhibition more so than ever. Does the modern “artist’s house” have any personal significance for you?

I knew James Melvin, the architect who built the house in 1969. I met him with his wife Elsa in the early nineties and their house made a big impression on me. Some years later I thought there was something about that mid-century modernism that would make a very good setting – or stage – for my story. It’s a place for encounter and emotion. Some theatrical elements were added later by Sauerbruch Hutton, an architectural practice from Berlin. They designed some of the newer elements like the pink sliding doors. All these elements of the house just seemed so perfect for my story. It was like a sponge or container for all the ideas I was exploring about dream and memory.

The spiral staircase gets a lot of screen-time. What’s its significance?

The spiral staircase is very much the spine of the house and the story. I think it goes without saying that the house functions very much as another character in the film, and I developed the house as I would a human character in a story. This house/person has mood changes – sometimes it’s quite threatening, when the idea of selling the house comes into the story, and I feel the house reacts and changes mood. Other times it is warm or sad. The spiral staircase seemed like the spine of this cubic person.

Another striking element of your films is the lack of a soundtrack. Yet sounds seem to have a lot of importance in Exhibition, those coming from just outside, from across the street or from upstairs.

Yes, that was something else that struck me about the house – the way you could hear a sound like a door closing or a telephone ringing and it seemed to come from within the house, but in reality was coming from outside. I was interested in the way the house absorbed sound, again the sponge-like quality, and I wanted to depict that in the sound design. I’m really interested in sound, and this story seemed like an opportunity to push my ideas much further and to create soundscapes or sound-stories. In D’s head she’s imagining all sorts of scenarios and I’m depicting those purely through sound and reflecting her feelings of anxiety. I like the idea that we took the sound design and pushed it so far that it almost becomes musical – with car horns and sirens making up some sort of orchestral sense of London.

Do you see your films as a progression?

I think there are connections between all of the films because what happens is I make a film, and then I’m always still hanging on to some element – some theme or idea – that still interests me, and it’s almost like I find it difficult to say goodbye to a film. Those elements that still interest me then find a way into the next film, and so I can almost say what elements have been carried on from one to another. I do feel that they are on a sort of continuum, as different as they may seem to someone from the outside, to me they are on a continuing line.

Are you working on a new project?

I am – actually a couple of different projects, and I’m not sure which one is going to happen next. One is a story set in the early 1980s, which again has connections with my other films – in particular with Exhibition. It takes some of themes further but also goes back in time. I’ve also become quite interested in ghosts, so another project that I’m in the process of developing is a ghost story.