The first time Martin Scorsese sat down to watch a Joanna Hogg movie, it didn’t go well. About 10 minutes into Archipelago, her second feature, the Taxi Driver director had had quite enough of posh people in crisis on the Isles of Scilly.
And then something unexpected happened. Days passed, and Scorsese couldn’t stop thinking about those same posh people and their crises. He went back to the movie and had a Damascene epiphany. “There was such a strong emotional impact that I experienced,” he told Vanity Fair recently. “The stories, the characters I deal with, they’re explosive. These were implosions.”
I tell Hogg that this is the most insightful assessment of her work that I’ve read. The close-ups in one of her films match $100 million of special effects in another. It’s big. It’s spectacle.
“In some ways Martin Scorsese has a much greater insight into what I’m doing than I do,” says Hogg of the director, who has served as a producer of her two most recent features. “It’s quite hard to articulate what I’m doing, because I’m making the work. I’m just following my instincts. I don’t have a greater understanding of the work, because I’m not thinking outside of it.”
I’m not that interested in class. I’m interested in something much deeper than our background
What also comes across in her semi-autobiographical drama is Hogg’s upper-middle-class background. She was, as every biography notes, privately educated at West Heath, a boarding school in southeast England, where, significantly, she became friends with Tilda Swinton and was in the class above Diana Spencer, the future princess of Wales.
Her characters belong to a social set that is typically represented as villainous or buffoonish. Yet Hogg’s complex characters are often heartbreaking to watch.
“I’m always surprised that people see the films that way,” says Hogg. “Of course, it’s not that you’re wrong. But I’m not that interested in class. I’m interested in something much deeper than our background or what class we are from. But because I am drawing from something that I know, I can’t escape that as much as I want to. I need to get to something authentic. And I hope my films aren’t limited.”
Hogg’s film-making career is rooted in an impossibly romantic moment in British film history. She started out in Soho in the 1980s, as the assistant to an advertising photographer; at weekends he let her use his studio for her own work. Then she met Derek Jarman in a local patisserie, and he ended up loaning her the Super 8 camera that would lead her to film school.
“It felt like a really exciting, creative time,” says Hogg. “It seemed like there was more freedom then and less judgment of what you were doing. You could invent yourself in the way you wanted to. Being in my early 20s in the early 1980s, even if someone said ‘You can’t do that,’ you felt that was a challenge. There wasn’t the fear of saying and doing the wrong thing like there is now.”
Hogg worked in music videos and then television, racking up credits on the likes of EastEnders and Casualty, before making Unrelated, her well-regarded feature debut. She was 47. That daringly personal film dovetailed with an emerging form of storytelling. From Karl Ove Knausgård to Rachel Cusk, autofiction has become the towering success story of the 21st century. Corresponding developments in cinema – Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, to name two – added another dimension.
Hogg’s new film, The Eternal Daughter, was inspired by the director’s relationship with her mother. “It was actually conceived some years before Souvenir,” says Hogg, referring to her gorgeous recent diptych. “After I made Unrelated I wanted to make Eternal Daughter. That was 2008. And then I realised it was too close to home. And I wasn’t ready for that with my relationship with my mother. But after Souvenir I was clicking my heels a bit, thinking, What next? And I thought, There’s something I’ve already written. In the end I decided not to read my original document and to challenge myself to write it again. I like looking forward, not back. It’s much more interesting what I think now. However, I did show the original to Tilda.”
Swinton, who as well as being a schoolfriend has become Hogg’s long-time collaborator, plays dual roles in the feature, as a film-maker named Julie and as Julie’s mother, Rosalind. The Eternal Daughter is about a fraught holiday during which the pair (and their dog) arrive at an eerily empty hotel, in the middle of nowhere, on a forbiddingly foggy night.
“With Eternal Daughter I was interested in mother-daughter relationships and the difficulty in detaching from a parent for a child,” says Hogg, whose mother died while she was editing it. “We’ve had some very emotional responses to the film.”
As Julie – Hogg’s alter-ego – reads spooky stories and attempts to work on a film based on her mother’s memories of the establishment, which once belonged to Rosalind’s aunt, odd events point towards a supernatural presence. It requires the interventions of a snappy receptionist and a kind-hearted groundskeeper to break the spell.
“I wanted to feel very contemporary and to only take the Gothic, spooky aspects so far,” Hogg says. “But I was very inspired by MR James, of course. And films like Night of the Demon. There is a particular short story by Rudyard Kipling which Julie is reading called They. And that was probably the single most influential piece of work to inspire the film. That was thanks to Martin Scorsese, who I was so lucky to have as an executive producer. Because I asked him, while I was writing, to suggest some ghost stories for me. That was one he particularly highlighted.”
It’s an intriguing entry in the Hoggiverse: Rosalind previously appeared in the Souvenir sequence, and Julie appears to be an older version of the character played by Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton-Byrne, in those films. This is Hogg’s fourth project with Swinton. They first collaborated on Caprice, Hogg’s graduation film – playfully referenced in The Souvenir – from the UK’s National Film and Television School.
“It’s a pretty joyful alliance,” says the director. “Eternal Daughter is really two old friends that have known each other since school telling a story about mothers and daughters and our connections with our own mothers. We’re archaeologists of our own lives. We couldn’t have done this 20 years ago. And we couldn’t have done this work without knowing each other as well as we do.
“And it’s interesting that, before The Souvenir, we hadn’t worked together for about 30 years. There’s something wonderful about that, because we haven’t created together but we’ve been friends. And we’re at a stage in our lives where we can let go and really be in the moment together. Despite the subject matter, we’re so interested in being creative together and looking at our family histories that it was completely enjoyable.”
Even Swinton’s dog reprises his earlier, award-winning role – in 2021 the actor’s springer spaniels, Snowbear, Dora and Rosy, won the Palme Dog in Cannes for their work on The Souvenir Part II. What’s Hogg’s secret for avoiding the pitfalls of working with animals? It turns out that, in the scenes when Louis the dog is alone, Swinton is crouched nearby, giving orders.
“It’s not my secret; it’s Tilda’s secret,” Hogg says. “Tilda has a great relationship with her dogs. And working with the mistress of a dog is a wonderful thing. There are professional dogs out there, but it’s not the same as that kind of partnership.”
The Eternal Daughter opens in cinemas on Friday, November 24th