Since her debut with 2007’s “Unrelated,” which is also regarded as the breakout for a certain Tom Hiddleston, British director Joanna Hogg has been quietly making a name for herself as a filmmaker of very distinctive and original style. Her third feature, “Exhibition,” which played at the Göteborg International Film Festival last week, sees her break somewhat with the previous two, both of which dealt more overtly with an analysis of the British middle-class family, to tell instead the story of a married, childless artist couple, H and D, who decide to move from their beloved, modernist home of 18 years. We had the pleasure of meeting Hogg in Göteborg, and having her talk us through “Exhibition” (which will be released stateside in March), and her creative outlook and process in general. It gave us an added insight into just how and why it is that she is being hailed as one of the most exciting talents in British cinema to have emerged in recent years.
You mentioned at the screening of “Exhibition” earlier that you are very open to hearing people’s reactions?
Yes, and there were some who really engaged with it. But I am also interested in those who do not engage with it, and why. I'm not afraid of that, I try to encourage a spectrum of opinion, and yes, I think as a filmmaker I can learn something from that.
Of all your films, “Exhibition” seems probably the least overtly accessible. How do you strike a balance between self-expression and accessibility for the audience?
That's a very good question and it's going to be hard to be articulate, but it's about pushing yourself further as an artist, being more rigorous. Now that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be more difficult for the audience, in fact, I'd like a wider audience for my films — but without compromising my ideas.
When I go to films, to something deemed “mainstream,” I really enjoy the release of laughing, for example. So I think there could be more comedy, there could be more laughter in my films which might bring in a bigger audience. But I don’t believe in designing a film for an audience. I think that’s [a] sort of death in a way.
So it’s really just following my own instincts which I’ve always done... and developing something in isolation and pushing myself into territories I haven’t been before. And that might mean going into genre. There’s a story at the moment that maybe skirts genre in some way.
Ah, which genre?
Horror. Which would be interesting and exciting for me…
I can see how elements of “Exhibition” could lend themselves to a horror. It’s almost a haunted house story, though whether she’s haunting it or it is haunting her is unclear. What kind of horror are you working on?
You said it actually! The idea of hauntings and the imprint we put on a space or a building that we’ve lived in over years. I feel we make an impression in these places we live in. And I’m very interested in ghosts. I also get scared very easily, so I won’t be doing a lot of research into that genre! So it’s really about tapping into one’s own fears.
You mention working on ideas in isolation, which is something D also says in the film. Is there a great deal of you in there?
I think so — you remind me how much there is, actually, of my feelings in the film. Because I don’t tend to look back on my work and sometimes I’m surprised. I stood at the back of the cinema to check the sound levels and I was struck by it even just at the start.
Soundscapes seem extraordinarily important to your filmmaking.
That’s right. The idea for “Exhibition,” of hearing sounds in everyday life and imagining scenarios that might be happening associated with those sounds, was one of the springboards and that is something I tend to do. I’ll hear something and I’ll imagine something that might be happening, and then often that thing hasn’t happened. But I was just very interested in how to depict that complexity of thought and feeling and hearing.
I’m so fascinated by sound I can almost imagine a point where I’m barely visualizing anything but it’s almost entirely through sound. I’m really interested in how that triggers the imagination, more than an image and I’m always inspired by what Bresson said: the ear is more creative than the eye.
To look at your three films as a progression, you seem to be going in an opposite direction to most, narrowing your focus and your canvas with each film. Is that deliberate?
It’s true there is a determination not to do that indie-film-to-Hollywood thing. So I’m not consciously swimming against the tide but there is something about wanting to keep my films at a certain scale and not leap to bigger budgets. I’m interested in creating a body of work that I can have some creative control over.
It’s quite difficult to do because people assume you’re going to go on to bigger things. But I worked in a more industrial way on TV, and a less personal way, so now I’m working very counter to that work. And so far the stories that I’ve written have worked with the scale of production that I like. Never say never though!