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ScreenTalks Archive: Joanna Hogg on Exhibition

a man in black staring into the distance
6 Feb 2017
20 min listen

In this ScreenTalk from 2003, Joanna Hogg talks to critic Catherine Bray about her film, Exhibition.

About Joanna Hogg

Filmmaker and artist Joanna Hogg has written and directed a trio of intimate and unsettling family dramas - Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition. All three films of Joanna's films (Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition.) focus on middle class anxieties, fractured families and simmering sexual tension and stand out in Hogg's uses of non-professional actors and improvised dialogue, to create a new type of cinematic social realism.

Exhibition (2013)

Set almost entirely in a magnificent modernist house in London, Exhibition stars ex-Slits musician Viv Albertine and conceptual artist Liam Gillick. The pair play long-married couple 'D' and 'H', who are facing disruption to their lives as they prepare to sell their home, for reasons unknown.




EEJ: Ellen E Jones
JH: Joanna Hogg
ER: Ed Rutherford
CB: Catherine Bray

EEJ: Hello and welcome to this, the latest in a new series of Barbican ScreenTalks. Each month we’re delving into the vaults, dusting off some old tapes and re-releasing exclusive interviews with some of the world’s leading filmmakers.
Our rich archive of ScreenTalk Q&As includes conversations with veteran political filmmaker Ken Loach, mind-expanding maverick Terry Gilliam and BAFTA-winning, barrier smashing director Amma Asante. 
But in this podcast, we hear from  one of the most important and radical new voices to have emerged in British cinema. Someone who's also responsible for bringing Tom Hiddleston to the big screen.
Filmmaker and artist Joanna Hogg has written and directed a trio of intimate and unsettling family dramas - Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition.
All three films feature Hiddleston and focus on middle class anxieties, fractured families and simmering sexual tension. Hogg also regularly uses non-professional actors and improvised dialogue, to create a new type of cinematic social realism.
In this ScreenTalk from 2014, Joanna Hogg talks to critic Catherine Bray about her film, Exhibition.
Set almost entirely in a magnificent modernist house in London, Exhibition stars ex-Slits musician Viv Albertine and conceptual artist Liam Gillick. The pair play long-married couple ‘D’ and ‘H’, who are facing disruption to their lives as they prepare to sell their home, for reasons unknown.
In the interview you’re about to hear, Hogg explains why the incidental sounds of locations are so important in her work. She discusses how casting Exhibition four days before shooting was a risk that paid off. And she reveals why she can never watch her films once she’s made them. 
But first, a note - this recording comes from our tape archive and this particular tape was a bit dustier than most. So be prepared for some authentic crackling and microphone rustling throughout.
I’m Ellen E Jones. Join me on the back row of Barbican Cinema 1 as we settle in for this ScreenTalk with Joanna Hogg.

CB: I'm going to open it up to questions from you guys in a moment but first, I'd just like to say that I think one of the things I love about this film, in fact all of your work, is that people are allowed to make small mistakes. In contrast to a lot of other filmmakers where people either make big mistakes or none at all, you know. And in your films, people they'll change their mind midsentence, they'll interrupt themselves, it's a very digressive style of dialogue. They'll lash out at a partner and then change their mind. It just really helps you feel that you're watching real people. Is that something that comes out of the style of part-improvisation, and you know, part script? Or is it something you need to encourage your actors to do? Where does that come from?

JH:  I mean, I think it's not accidental, it's just that I want to have a feeling of something that's alive. That's, I mean, as much like real life as possible in a way. And then I suppose from that idea of something that feels quite alive, then I create, or I shoot, accordingly. So then improvisation, I hesitate to call it improvisation, but the sort of way of working where I allow people to... I sort of give them an idea of what I want them to say, but then I want them to put it in their own words, so then that comes out of that desire to make it feel like it's sort of real speech, rather than something that's very clipped and very organised and sort of less real, I suppose. 

But at the same time, I feel I'm changing my mind about this as I go along. I recently adapted something for radio, written by Harold Pinter, and he's sort of the opposite of that and I find there's something very interesting and well, more real, about that style. I don't know. So I'm constantly, I kind of allow myself to sort of change and try things in different ways. 

CB: That's interesting, I think one of the things people said about Pinter is that he had a tape recorder for an ear. And while I think I understand why people say that, it does a disservice to what he did as an artist, in a sense. Because it suggests that it's not a craft, it's a mechanical, you know, taking down of what people say. I wanted to ask you about spaces because they are obviously very important in all your work, you know, in Unrelated you've got the Italian villa, in Archipelago you've got the holiday home and then here we have obviously a film where the house is a character. Have you always felt that way about the place that you've lived?

JH: I have. And I've been thinking about it recently, because in a sense I've been a bit of a fraud with this film because I made it before having sort of done a big move myself. I'm actually right now in the middle of moving home and it's made me think about how much I value the space that I live in, the kind of relationship with where I live is just so fundamental to me somehow. I mean, actually, I've only moved three times in my life and apparently I was reading something that the average number of times someone moves is around 8 times. So I'm kind of already kind of getting on in life and so I'm not doing very well! But it obviously says something that I become very attached to the places that I live in and that I grow to love and not even, maybe just the places that I live but also places where I've had holidays. I mean with Archipelago, it was based on a place that I went to as a child every Easter and we'd go and stay on this little island and so I, you know, I still remember that very fondly like it was somewhere I lived on some level. So, yes, I'm obviously very influenced by the places that I live in. 

CB: I was reading the other day, the British director Ben Wheatley saying that he puts things that scare him into his films and top of his list of things that absolutely terrifying, you know, pant-wettingly scary, is dinner parties. Your films always have a brilliant dinner party scene in that's incredibly uncomfortable to watch. I mean, is the experience of having a dinner party with you a scary one?

JH: I really hate dinner parties. Sorry if anyone is about to ask me to one...! But I really, I have a problem with them. There's something about 6 or 8 people sitting around a table really stultifying. You know, fine for maybe an hour and a half or something but a dinner party that goes on for maybe three or four hours is just my worst nightmare really. I mean, I like gatherings, but I prefer gatherings of a lot of people, where you're a bit more mobile and you can move around, you're not stuck sitting next to somebody or between two people. 

CB: An amazing grist to the mill of your eye for the unspoken social rules and the transgressions of those. Is that something you've always been interested in?

JH: I think so. I mean I think I've been in those situations but much more as an observer than a participator. 

CB: I think we should turn it over to you guys for some questions. Who is going to be brave and ask the first question? Front row - indeed!

Q1: I can't imagine you could make a film any better than it was but I'm just wondering, revisiting it, you know, two or three years later and watching it, do you find yourself wondering what you could have done differently? Does it feel like a complete film or are there things that have been niggling you?

JH: Well I think the problem is, I haven't watched it! And I can't watch it...

Q1: You didn't watch it?

JH: No I didn't watch it tonight! So I haven't really watched it since, I think when we were grading it and we have the sort of first screening. So I haven't really seen it since then. So I sort of, I neatly avoid that. I know myself too well, I would hate everything that I saw. And of course would have wanted to do everything differently. And as time goes by, yes, it becomes more difficult - more critical maybe. 

Q2: Do you ever wonder what happened to the characters after they sold the house? 

JH: I think, probably you as an audience think about that more than I think about it. As I was just saying earlier, I'm only right now sort of dealing with a move myself, so I think I probably if I watched the film, I'd have a different perspective on it. I just don't know. I can see how a move if you're in a couple, it does put a lot of pressure on that relationship, because somehow that relationship to the place is so important, it sort of competes in a way, with the relationship with the person. So, I would suspect they would continue to sort of have difficulties after the move, but people keep reassuring me, friends that I talk to, that once you move, you don't actually look back. It's sort of the final weeks in a place before you move that's the most painful. And I'm kind of hanging onto that. Some of you here might think that's absolute rubbish and you kind of carry on, sort of mourning a place once you've moved, but I'm sort of hoping that literally once the door closes, then pastures new really. 

Q3: Hi, how in terms of your process, obviously you spent a lot of time in the house, how much of the film was created in the house and how much was planned and scripted before? Because you've said there was improvisation. It seemed to me that you could only do that in situ. Is that the case?

JH: It's a really difficult one to answer. I don't know everything you can add to this, I mean I have a very precise plan before the shoot and it seems that there's a lot of deviation from that original plan when we're shooting. And then once we've sort of gone through the process of editing and finishing the film, certainly in the words of my editor, she felt that it was very true to my original plans. So you sort of go on a journey - you've got to go on a journey. I mean to me the pleasure of making films is about discovering things every day and taking risks and not knowing where you're going which is kind of a luxury with films because they are so much money invested in them. But I make sure I have that freedom so you feel like you're going far away from what you originally planned but actually in the end, yes, you end up creating something that's very true to where you originally set out. But, I don't know, it's just kind of an adventure. And there are some things that I couldn't, as you say, I couldn't have planned, and the performers will go in a direction I haven't thought about, and Viv and Liam were fantastically creative and were great collaborators. And likewise working with, you know, all the crew, there's lots of ideas that come up. I'm open to other ideas and then it just sort of shapes itself somehow. 

CB: I believe they were cast within a few days of the shoot starting. Is that right?

JH: Yes. Yes. Actually that's a good point. Because Liam and Viv hadn't met each other before. I mean, they'd met each other about four days before we started shooting, so in the process of shooting the film they were getting to know each other. So that, you couldn't, you sort of can't plan that sort of relationship that's developing as you're filming and they somehow, kind of, in not knowing each other, and getting to know each other, that sort of created the sort of intimacy, yet the sort of non-intimacy of a couple who've been together for a long time. It somehow strangely sort of fed into that. 

Yes, it was very risky, I mean it was very exciting but very risky, not having my cast until the last moment. 

CB:  That wonderful speech, dialogue sorry, between Tom Hiddleston and the lead about sexual relationships and whether it's possible to still have good sex after 12 years. And that's a lovely strand of your work that we don't see much of on screen. 

JH: Yeah, between people who've known each other for a long time. Yeah. 

CB: I think there was another question right there. 

Q4: Hi, there's a lovely series of static compositions throughout and I was wondering during the shoot whether you felt any kind of pressure to find the next frame to live up to what had come before? Or whether you just happen to create such interesting compositions throughout and there was not that concern to be doing it each time?

JH: I think, Ed, if you don't mind, I'm going to bring you in on this. I hope you don't mind. I'd really like to hear what Ed has to say about that. Ed's the cinematographer

CB: Ed Rutherford, cinematographer

ER: I was just wondering if you want to come round for dinner, sometime soon? 


JH: No. 

ER: No? Right. I think compositionally, we're lucky with the prep and the planning to have access to the location during that time so it's a very exciting place to photograph and I think the more time we spent in that, the more the shorthand became clearer and easier to grasp and as such we kept finding interesting compositions along the way. 

JH: Yeah. And I think sometimes we felt, you know, rather than trying to top a previous image with the next one, it was actually a case of, well this is looking too beautiful, maybe let's change the angle slightly. Or this is looking too much like an estate agents brochure or something. You know. We were sort of aware, because it's a very beautiful house, beauty can get boring after a while. 

ER: Yeah

JH: Or there's different types of beauty

CB: I completely see what you mean, I think there's a whole school of young cinematographers accidentally making things look like John Lewis ads because they admire Terrence Malik so much. That's prettification.

There's another question back there

Q5: I really like the film. I had the feeling that I was sort of in a fishtank with the house and that was sort of amplified by the sound in a way, which I thought was really interesting, because it sort of, like, sometimes characters wouldn't speak but they were speaking through what they decided to listen to and what they decided not to listen to. So I was just wondering if you could talk about sound design and how that affected the script whether it was something you thought about before or if it came afterwards? 

JH: It was one of the first things I thought about actually because the house itself, the sounds in the house, really struck me. There's a very particular character to the place and I think I'm often noticing sounds more than images sometimes and I'm sort of deeply sort of interested in sound and how much it influences us day to day and I'm constantly noticing things. Yeah, everyday sound is a really important thing for me but anyway, going back to the house, it sort of got me thinking about sounds and sounds that we get used to in a place and that how we can miss how somewhere looks but we can also miss the sounds of somewhere and one of the first places I lived in, where I shared a flat with somebody, and I can still remember now, I can hear in my head, that I'm sure many of you can do the same thing, I can hear the sounds of that place in my head and the sounds also from the family home that I grew up in. 

So, yeah the sort of ghosts of sounds that I really wanted to depict in this story but then also because anxiety is sort of very much part of the fabric of this film I was interested in also how anxiety, or becoming anxious about something, often that's based on sounds or sounds that we hear. Living in a city there's a lot of fear around and sounds of sirens and the sort of cacophony of these sort of sirens and screams and shouts and noises and yeah, I wanted to sort of make a kind of music out of those sounds as I really, those are the sort of sounds that I hear. So it was pushing the sound design a step further from the previous film with Archipelago I was in a more natural environment, I didn't have the sort of city to play with so the city was like having a new set of instruments to play. And that's something with my next film, I'll continue to sort of develop the soundscape. 

CB: So that is a good point to talk about your next film. Are you allowed to tell us anything about it or...?

JH: I mean I'm allowed to but my only problem is that if I talk too much about something that I'm going to do, the danger is that I might not do it or put myself off it, I don't know. I'm actually, right now,  struggling a little bit with it because I've got other projects going on in my life and I find that really difficult. I tend to be a sort of project by project person. I'm trying to get better at doing a number of things at the same time but it just doesn't seem to happen for me. And it's why, we were talking about Ben Wheatley earlier and how prolific he is, he seems to sort of, before he's even finished one film he's onto another. And I'm sort of in awe of that - I just can't do that myself. 

Maybe I put almost too much of myself into something, become so strongly identified with it and then I get exhausted because I put so much into it that it then takes me a while to recover before I can start another project. And life has its own projects as well - so there's a kind of life project going on as well. But then I do try and go into something very deeply but the film that I'm trying to write at the moment, and hoping to shoot next year, which seems kind of optimistic in a way, but I think it'll happen. I tend to decide when I'm going to shoot a film and then aim towards that. But it's something, it's slightly different, because it's not just set in one location, like the other three films. It's set, well it's set in the past, and over a number of different locations. It's set in the 1980s and so I'm exploring a lot about the past, about how London was in the early 1980s, how incredibly different it was. I mean it's so difficult, I find it frustrating in a way I want to just transport myself back to that time so I can look around and hear and see what's going on and actually sound I think has changed hugely. I mean in the early 80s, there were much fewer of us in the city, less traffic, less noise generally. None of this sort of obviously mobile phones, all those things, I mean communication was just so different. 

So I'm, it's quite a challenge to really try and express what that was like is really challenging my memory in a way. And I've realised it's not just about remembering, it's not a documentary that I'm making. But at the same time, I really want to, not in a sort of BBC period detail kind of way, but I want to get the sort of feeling, the sense of what I felt that time was like into the film. 

CB: You say you don't like managing multiple projects but I do have to give a shout out to your wonderful cinema collective, A Nos Amors. How did that come about?  

JH: Well, I founded it with Adam Roberts, whose also a filmmaker and curator and we were just having a conversation about the dearth of films that we really wanted to see and wouldn't it be interesting if filmmakers could choose what films were shown in cinemas. And then we just started in a very small way in 2011, showing films at a cinema called the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, kind of a long way from here, and then gradually then we started showing, I don't know for example, Tarkovsky's Stalker, at the Renoir, Curzon Renoir, and then now at the moment, we've got a relationship with the ICA where we're showing this two year retrospective of Chantal Akerman's film. 

And actually this afternoon, one of the things I had to do was to watch her most recent film that she's just finished, that hasn't been shown yet here, and we're hoping to premiere it towards the end of this year. And I have to say, I was in tears, practically the whole way through the film, I mean it's a really extraordinary piece. A lot about her mother, who died recently and it's incredibly moving. So that, it's really exciting to show the entire work of a filmmaker and then to finish with something kind of brand new, yet so connected with her other films. 

CB: That's wonderful. I can't wait. I think we have to close there - yes, I'm getting the nod! Thank you all so much for coming out and thanks to Joanna. 


EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Joanna Hogg. 


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