For two weeks in May 2016, renowned British filmmaker Joanna Hogg was the first Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Cambridge. She presented a series of talks, a sequence of film masterclasses for students at the University and she also attended Q&As following screenings of all her feature releases as well as a programme of her early shorts at the Arts Picturehouse.
Joanna began as a photographer but soon became fascinated by the moving image and making her own Super 8 films, initially on a camera lent to her by none other than Derek Jarman. She attended the National Film School and her graduation short, CAPRICE, starred a then unknown Tilda Swinton. She went on to work in television for some years, directing episodes of programmes such as Casualty, London’s Burning, and East Enders.
She directed her first feature UNRELATED which was released in 2008. It immediately attracted critical attention, described by Derem Malcolm as “without doubt…one of the best, and most original, British films of the year. It received a number of awards including the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize.
Her second feature, ARCHIPELAGO, was released in 2010 and was described by Dave Calhoun as confirming “Hogg as a daring and mischievous artist, and a major British talent whose next move will be intriguing.”
EXHIBITION was her third feature and released in 2013 and was described by Kate Muir as a “brilliantly austere and intimate portrait of a marriage”.
Along with Adam Roberts, Joanna setup A Nos Amours, a “screening collective…dedicated to programming over-looked, under-exposed or especially potent cinema.” From 2013-2015 they screened a complete retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films.
Joanna kindly agreed to give an interview before a Q&A which was given after a screening of EXHIBITION at the Arts Picturehouse.
The interviewer was Mike O’Brien, with a supplementary question asked by Toby Miller, who also recorded the interview.
We would like to thank Joanna for talking at such length and with such enthusiasm after a long day teaching at the University.
Mike O’Brien: I read somewhere that you had an early interest in Hollywood musicals and European fairy tales.
JH: (laughing) I don’t remember talking about European fairy tales (though I’ve always liked them) but when I was 12/13 I loved Frank Sinatra – he was my pin-up rather than Donny Osmond – and I also loved Gene Kelly and tap dancing. I used to tap dance as a child. So I did have a background of loving the Hollywood musical but that went away when I was 19/20.
My tastes changed a lot – I became a photographer for a brief time, a couple of years or so before film school, and I started to discover filmmakers, particularly British ones in London. Derek Jarman’s films, for instance – very different from the Hollywood musical! – his Super 8 films particularly, made me think there was a possibility that I could make films too. The idea of just picking up a Super 8 camera and trying to make a home movie, but with a different eye. There was also Chris Petit – I was particularly inspired by RADIO ON which I think came out in 1979, I think I saw it in 1980.
At that time I was taking photographs in the North East, Sunderland, mostly black and white photographs, and also starting to conceive a film that would have been in black and white set in that very depressed part of the world. I was fascinated by the dying shipbuilding industry – after Thatcher got in in ‘79 that part of the country was very depressed. What took me up there was an artist called Ron Haselden and another called Bill Culbert, they invited me to take photographs of an exhibition they were having in a gallery in Sunderland. We stayed up there for a couple of weeks and I looked around and was really inspired. I took a lot of photographs and talked to many people; I went to a lot of working men’s clubs and immersed myself in the place. In fact, after the exhibition opened and I was no longer needed to record the show I stayed up there longer and also made a number of trips from London. I was very interested in this place and started to write a story.
I think it was probably that project that got me into film school because they liked the social realism aspect – I was very inspired by Ken Loach, particularly KES – I think they liked the approach and the idea that I was interested in that kind of filmmaking, and also my photographs. I didn’t really have much to show in terms of finished films – I think now when people get into film school they are showing really professional level, very competent films, while all I had was a rather scrappy Super 8 film [by the artist Ron Haselden – Hogg will be showing this at the Picturehouse – his “Brothers and Sisters” installation is pictured below]. So that’s what I was into at that point in time, but then, once at the film school, I revived my interest in the Hollywood musical and also discovered Powell and Pressburger. So I went off in a different direction.
MO’B: How was it for you at film school? Did you feel comfortable there? Was it the sort of place you were looking for to learn your craft?
JH: I was very excited to go there, very happy to get a place. I think I probably would have had a much easier time if my tastes hadn’t changed once I arrived. If I’d stuck with the social realism and the black and white project, and done other projects like that, I think the tutors would have understood that approach. When my ideas started to change they didn’t come on the journey with me. I don’t think they understood that I could hop from one approach to another. I remember I had a number of meetings with the Heads of Department at film school. It would always be a struggle after that point, when the ideas started to change.
But there were always one or two tutors who I found understood me a bit better and there were very good things about that time, but it was also challenging, and I remember sometimes I’d think I might have fared better in an art school atmosphere, where you could freely experiment more. I think they felt that once I’d embarked on the journey of ideas I was already pursuing before I went to film school, that I should stay on that path. They always wanted to be sure of how something was going to work out. For me, that didn’t seem to be the point of being at film school or art school; it’s about experimenting, failing… There’s nothing wrong with failing or making a mistake; actually that’s a really good time to do it, rather than pretend you are somehow already in the film industry. There was this idea that you were put through quite a tough time in film school in order to help you survive in the industry outside. I don’t think I really understood that. It depends on what kind of films you want to make, anyway.
MO’B: When you came out of film school were you disillusioned with that industry? Did you have a clearer idea of where you wanted to go?
JH: Having successfully rebelled while at film school and made the films that I wanted to make, there was a point after leaving film school where those voices – saying you need more experience in certain areas, or these ideas are too frivolous, or whatever it was – these finally got to me and I remember thinking I should go and get some experience in television. That I should work on the ground and be a jobbing director for a bit. Get more experience working with actors and working with somebody else’s script, and all of that. So I had this idea that I had to prove myself somehow – I don’t know what happened to the rebellious streak at that point. And once I started working in television it was very difficult to hop off, because it’s nice work and you’re getting paid regularly. It has its small pleasures.
MO’B: How long were you working in television?
JH: They finally let me graduate in about 1987, because they didn’t like the film I made as my graduation film –
MO’B: – Is that the film with Tilda Swinton in?
JH: – Yes, I’m also showing that at the Picturehouse… It was a long time before I was able to graduate, and then from that point I worked in the industry up until about 2003. Quite a long time. When I see an interview with Tarantino, or somebody, and he’s saying he’s thinking of retiring after making 10 films, or whatever, I think I can understand that. I haven’t made 10 feature films – and I’m not about to retire by the way –
MO’B: – Good!
JH: – but I feel like I’ve been directing all my adult life.
MO’B: How did you find directing in television?
JH: I fitted in OK. Sometimes I enjoyed it. In a way, I forgot about self expression, so I got into delivering what was asked of me, working well with the crew I was given. Sometimes I was given the cast and had to work with them, or sometimes I had to convince a cast that I could cut the mustard, so to speak. I remember doing London’s Burning and they hadn’t had a woman director doing that before, and it was a cast that had been doing it for years, so I knew I was going to go into this situation and have to prove myself, prove that I could do it. I actually enjoyed that challenge. Having to go into a new job and having to make things work, that was fun in a way.
MO’B: Your rebellious spirit was channelled into dealing with these challenges, then?
JH: Unfortunately, they were maybe challenging at the time, but not really interesting from an ideas point of view. They weren’t furthering my own approach and developing my own voice as a filmmaker. Maybe it made me more determined to do that, afterwards.
MO’B: So during this television period were you still watching and being inspired by films?
JH: It’s hard to remember the details, but when I sometimes look back at a diary from during that time I’m surprised that I was still passionate about cinema. Actually, during that time, on and off – because you don’t always go from one job into another one – I was developing films alongside work whenever I could. Crucially they weren’t films that I was writing myself, I was working with other writers, and sometimes collaborating with another writer, but I wasn’t yet – before UNRELATED came about – writing my own work.
MO’B: I’m interested in film culture at that time… There’s said to have been a much healthier, film repertory cinema, and greater opportunity to see, on the big screen, more obscure, more eclectic films. Is that what it was like?
JH: Yes…the golden time, as far as I remember, was the early/mid Eighties. That was when I experienced repertory cinema in London at its absolute height, it was fantastic. There were so many cinemas which have since disappeared: there was The Academy on Oxford Street, of course there was The Scala, there was The Paris Pullman, there was The Minima…they were all over the place. You had such a choice of where to go and what to see. You could go to an all night screening of 1900 at The Gate in Notting Hill…Double bills, triple bills, all nighters were a regular, normal thing back then.
Jumping forward just briefly, that was what inspired Adam Roberts and I to set up A Nos Amours in 2011. We were thinking back to that wonderful golden time of repertory cinema, and felt that now it’s very difficult if you’re a young film student or you are just interested in cinema, it’s very difficult to go and see certain films in the cinema. Students now are not experiencing films in that way any more, they’re watching them on their laptops or even their phones, so we felt, as filmmakers, we could do something; not try and revive how it was back then but do our own little bit to try and put cinema back where it should be.
MO’B: What’s the response been to A Nos Amours?
JH: It’s been really positive.
MO’B: Good audiences?
JH: Yes, and for films that are very little known and films that are not considered easy to get an audience for.
MO’B: What have been the highlights?
JH: I suppose our most ambitious project so far has been showing the entire works of Chantal Akerman over two years. We decided that rather than pick a few of her films and show them over a weekend – a typical retrospective – that we would actually mark each month with another film. She made a lot of films, which people don’t realise, and some really wonderful things that are never seen. So it was the idea of doing a retrospective in a very slow way, in a way that you could actually digest the work as it was shown, in chronological order.
At the same time it made us aware, and it also made Chantal herself aware, of the state of her archive. There were films that we showed where the print wasn’t very good. We would put English subtitles on some things that didn’t have them already.… I think, hopefully, that we’ve done a bit to help the state of things in terms of what she has now sadly left behind, since she died at the end of last year. It was a big work and now we’re taking a bit of a pause after that. Prior to that we showed a lot of other films, a lot of Tarkovsky, we were showing a lot of male directors actually, so we thought we would redress the balance.
MO’B: There has been much talk recently about the under-representation of women directors. What do you feel about that situation? Have you found it a difficult industry for women filmmakers?
JH: For me personally I had more difficulty when I was working in television, in terms of male attitudes, male crews; the challenges of being a woman director and having a lot of guys around and experiencing some difficult moments with that. Since I’ve been making my own films, I’m able to choose who I work with. So I choose the crews very carefully and I avoid scrupulously that very male, very macho industry attitude that I experienced in television. But I know, particularly for women with bigger budgets where they don’t have so much control, I’m sure that industry attitude can easily show up. And aside from that it’s the percentage of women who are directors – they’ve been doing a lot of research recently – in a way it’s not surprising, but it’s shocking that the percentages aren’t better. So, there are probably many things to be done… More young women have to be encouraged into the industry.
MO’B: And more films by women shown?
JH: Yes, more films shown and then more people in powerful positions hiring women and not having a prejudice about women not being able to handle certain subjects.
MO’B: A theme that has come out of this interesting retrospective of your films at the Arts Picturehouse, is that your filmmaking style is very particular and very unusual in many ways – certainly very different from television. So how did that transition from television to film come about? Was there anything that sparked the decision to finally make a feature film?
JH: There were definitely a number of things. One of them was the last television job that I did, which was directing an East Enders Easter special. It wasn’t like a regular episode, it was an hour long or something, which we shot in Wales and where one of the characters was explored in greater depth. During this production, which had a lot of positive things about it, I remember being on set and thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could be working on something that I had written, that was about personal ideas and feelings. That was one thing. There was also a tiredness at the end of all the television that I’d done, with me thinking maybe I won’t do any more directing or maybe I won’t make films. And various personal things – I did a creative writing course, I started painting… There was a lot of creativity reignited at that point, around 2003.
MO’B: Did that experience in television directly affect the way in which you decided to make your first film, UNRELATED?
JH: It’s never that simple – not that you are suggesting it’s simple – there were so many factors that went into why that film was shot in that particular way. Some of it was discovered during the making of UNRELATED… I discovered through the shoot certain things that I liked doing, which I didn’t know that I liked doing. How I liked working with actors, how I didn’t like having a script that was too set in stone, that I liked a certain fluid way of working, that I wanted to shoot in chronological order. The fixed camera, that came out of being interested in gesture and how people move….it probably goes back to my love of watching Gene Kelly tap dance, you’d have a wide shot and you’d see a full figure moving about in the frame. I don’t think I thought about it too much, it just happened that way. I suppose, yes, it was in some ways a reaction to what I’d been doing in television.
MO’B: Did UNRELATED start out as a script or a treatment?
JH: It started off as a script, as a pretty conventional looking 100 page script. Heartfelt but conventional. Then it quickly changed as we were shooting. I realised I wanted to rewrite things. I also wanted the actors to say things in their own words. By the end of the process I realised that next time around I didn’t need to go in with this volume, I could actually write something different, that I could tailor it to what I knew I would need when I was shooting.
MO’B: You’ve talked elsewhere about how your characters are conceived by yourself but change as a result of what the actors, professional and non-professional, bring to the table.
JH: Yes, very much. I realise the limitations now of what you write on the page. Unless you already have an actor or non-actor in mind when you’re writing, it’s really a process of letting go in a way. You have a particular idea on paper and then gradually they have to take a different form, and I believe the cast bring an awful lot to it and by choosing them you are saying I would like you to put some of yourself into this.
MO’B: In view of this fluid approach, how do you keep a shape and arc to the film?
JH: That’s a really hard thing to describe but it just happens. It’s having a plan but then being quite free within that plan somehow. I don’t know how it happens… I write as I go along, so I’ll notice things and I’m always working in the evenings or weekends (if we’re lucky enough to have a weekend off), so I’m constantly adapting to what I observe. Afterwards, I sometimes talk with my editor Helle [le Fevre] about this, and she’s remarked that all the films somehow end up being quite like the document we started off with, the original plan. Even though it seems that we veer off in so many different directions along the way, there is a clear map.
MO’B: I think it was in relation to ARCHIPELAGO that you said the film came together in the edit. Part of your style is to shoot a lot and keep the camera running. Are you comfortable with this because you have confidence that you can shape things in the editing?
JH: Yes, but just to say it’s not always like that. The process isn’t so clear and repetitive. There are scenes where the take doesn’t last very long and then there are scenes where the camera rolls for much longer. I want to resist defining how I work, it’s not the same for every scene. Particularly from an actor’s perception it’s challenging for them, because they are sometimes in front of the camera for much longer than is comfortable. With certain scenes that duration means something and then other scenes it doesn’t. Each scene, like each film, I develop in a different way depending on what it is, but there are some things where it’s one take and it’s three minutes. Other times its half an hour and in the time I’m looking for something that I haven’t yet found. I’m confident that rather than cutting and starting again that it will go through a stage of maybe being very awkward, or maybe I want that awkwardness, and then become something else.
With ARCHIPELAGO what I did quite a bit …. I don’t like rehearsing before we shoot, we’ll start shooting straight away, so the rehearsal is being shot. This is very common, a lot of filmmakers do this, I’m not unique in that. So the first take will be very loose, they can walk wherever they want to walk. Then gradually I’ll refine it. It might also start off with the characters saying a lot… I remember a number of scenes, particularly a couple I’m thinking of that were with Edward, played by Tom Hiddleston, and Edward’s mother, played by Kate Fahy, where they were talking a lot to begin with and by the last takes it was being done silently. Sometimes I’ll go too far, it will become almost stylised from where it began, which was very loose and spontaneous. It’s interesting to make that journey.
MO’B: What surprises me about the process of developing the scenes as you go along is that the framing is so precise. Is the frame refined along the way?
JH: Again, it varies, but it will be more likely that the frame starts out that way. The actors aren’t aware enough of the frame so have to be reined in; I’ll say if you go past that point you’re out of shot. So then the whole thing gets contained. Sometimes that edge thing can be quite nice, which is why I don’t want to say to begin with that you can only go so far, and I don’t like that thing of putting marks down because everyone becomes a bit rigid. With certain shots you have to do that, but with those group scenes I don’t. They’ll learn over the first couple of takes where they can be to be contained in that frame. I would say that the frame is pretty much set early on. Ed Rutherford [cinematographer on ARCHIPELAGO and EXHIBITION] and I will have discussed it beforehand, about the architecture of the room and about containing as much as possible in one image. We were going for a particular aesthetic in that film.
MO’B: The sense of place seems very important in all the films and perhaps most so in EXHIBITION. Is the place itself part of the inspiration for a film, as much as the characters?
JH: Yes, to begin with almost more. Where I’m going to shoot a film is almost the first thing that is decided. Not even where I’m going to shoot it but where and what I’m going to write a film about. The place is absolutely key. I can’t analyse why that is, but I feel a sense of place, I get attached to places very easily. If I’m somewhere for just a few days… I’ve been in Cambridge for nearly 2 weeks and I’ve got used to my room. I feel every time I leave a place that I’ve got to know, there’s a little sadness. I’m very aware of place in terms of memory, places I was happy as a child, those places remain.
Actually, with ARCHIPELAGO, that was a place I knew as a child and had strong connections with. Having that familiarity with the place is really important. I don’t just choose places that I like the look of, that I objectify, that are locations. They’re not locations to me, they really are places with a lot of feeling and memory attached.
MO’B: Will that spark the story then? Or is it the other way around, there are stories you want to tell and you find the place that resonates with you?
JH: That’s interesting. I think with UNRELATED I’m very clear that the place was the first thing. I had a number of different stories set in that place in Italy before the story of Anna came about, so I was looking for something in that place. With ARCHIPELAGO the place came first as well. I’d been developing another idea in another part of the UK and then I knew that the story I was developing in this other place I didn’t want to do for certain reasons. I was thinking of something else and I’m pretty sure the Scilly Isles came to mind before this island came to mind, before the family. Probably quickly, hand in hand. And then EXHIBITION, the idea, the sense of place, leaving a place after a long time, I was playing with those ideas anyway, but I also got to know the house through knowing the architect. I think in all three cases, the place has come first.
MO’B: Do you already have the place in mind for your next film?
JH: It’s more difficult with the next film because it’s set over a much longer time span, it’s set over 5 years. So there are a number of places but I’ve got some ideas of how to create some sort of coherence in terms of place.
MO’B: In all of your films, the offscreen presence is very important, both action outside the frame, but also voices, telephone calls, the rich sound design. What has led to that approach being so distinctive a part of your filmmaking?
JH: That’s a harder one to answer. Actually, with ARCHIPELAGO I tried to film the big argument that takes place upstairs. I realised that there is something too precise and on the nose about seeing it and also something alienating about seeing an argument which doesn’t give you the sense of potential violence. It’s about imagination I suppose, that’s what I’m interested in, letting the audience fill in some of the gaps I create – not saying everything and not seeing everything – there’s some power in that.
All the time there are sounds going on, like we just had people talking out there, we didn’t see them, but I could imagine them, I think I like that. I don’t want to paint every leaf… (Laughing) That’s a terrible analogy!
MO’B: We just watched the beginning of EXHIBITION and the sound tells so much of the story – the chair moving in the room above… Do you have that sound design in mind when you are filming those scenes or is the sound design a later process of further development?
JH: With that particular sound of the thunderous chair above D’s office, I had the idea already when I was writing the film. I was interested in all the sounds you hear, and what you can imagine, when you are working in an office near to someone. That idea was already there and I was already thinking about what one remembers of a place. In places I have lived through my life I can remember sounds; I remember a flat I lived in at one point and the lift that went up through the whole block made a particular noise. I can hear that noise, I can tune into it right now, so those things make a big impression. For me, memory is a lot about sound.
MO’B: You’ve described the soundtrack as like a musical score. Does it feel like you are producing a musical score?
JH: It did with EXHIBITION, less so with the others. With ARCHIPELAGO it felt like we were one step away from that. Jovan Ajder – who’s the sound designer I work with – and I had a lot of fun with EXHIBITION. Actually, watching it with you just now, standing at the back of cinema listening to the beginning of it – I don’t sit and watch my films after I’ve finished them – brought back the pleasure of creating that sound track. We had a number of weeks mixing. Sometimes, if you are lucky, certainly with lower budget films, you might get a week or possibly 10 days. We kept pushing it and pushing it – we needed so much time because it became so complex. My justification to the producer, who was saying we can’t extend it anymore, was that actually what we’re doing is making music here. It’s not just doing the usual sound mixing; there’s a musical factor and that’s why it’s taking so long, the detail of it. Jovan and I felt that each time we got it to one stage we just kept wanting to push it and refine it. In the end we were both pretty happy with it but there were stages along the way where we weren’t. I can remember we screened it and listened to it in a particular theatre and it would just sound wrong. We would be constantly writing notes of the changes I wanted to make, aware that at any moment time would be up. Luckily it worked out.
MO’B: Why don’t you watch your films?
JH: Because they’re exhausting to make and so much goes into them. When you’re editing you have to watch it over and over again and you get tired of it really. I’d rather just put energy into the next thing. Crucially, I find it very difficult watching one of my films with an audience. Someone only has to rustle a crisp bag for me to feel anxious that they’re not enjoying it or bored. It’s fraught with all that, so I can’t sit and enjoy it with an audience unless it’s somebody else’s film.
MO’B: Part of the joy of this retrospective is seeing how the films are similar in some ways but also very different. They seem to moving in a certain direction: there seems to be a greater use of dream elements in EXHIBITION; there have always been ellipses in the narrative but much more so with each film. Do you see that direction of travel yourself? Is that something you are interested in exploring?
JH: It was something I really wanted to push, actually. I felt with EXHIBITION, given it was about selling a house and the memory of a place you’ve lived in, I thought this is a film in which I can start to work with different levels of reality. I quite consciously wanted to work with dreams, memory, and so-called reality; kind of mix them up and create a story that’s less linear. I felt the other two films were incredibly linear. I was pushing myself into an uncomfortable zone because it comes more naturally to me to be more chronological and logical – you start at the beginning and you end at the end. In this I forced myself to explore more and it’s made me want to take some of those ideas further.
MO’B: The dreamlike elements are interesting because they’re not a dream as such, it’s very ambiguous as to what they are, which is somehow more potent than a conventional dream scene.
JH: That was really thought about and thought through; not to have the comfort or discomfort of a dream sequence, exactly as you say, not quite knowing where you are and what’s happening and what isn’t happening, and what’s in someone’s mind. It was fun to play with that.
MO’B: You say you worry about watching your films with audiences. Do you think about that when you are making the film, because they seem so clear in what you want to achieve and the particular way in which you are going to get there? Do you worry about what the audience is going to think of what you are doing when you are creating it?
JH: No I don’t, thats the lucky thing. It’s not that I don’t care, of course I care, but I know I’m not going to make a better film as a result of worrying about the audience. It’s better if I’m more single-minded about it and not distracted by that. Of course sometimes when I’m writing I think, oh the critics will get their knives out. You have these thoughts but I try and disperse them because they’re not helpful.
MO’B: An interesting thing which I noted when listening to the Q&A’s, which have been fascinating, is that there seems to be a growing confidence in letting the ‘chaos’ happen – those problems, uncertainties, and changing directions that happen in making a film – and actually enjoying the chaos and finding a creative stimulus in it. And knowing that you can deal with it, that it’s not a problem. Do you find that to be the case?
JH: If we compare it with when I made UNRELATED, definitely. Also, at the same time, I remember when I went from UNRELATED to ARCHIPELAGO I felt a certain pressure, I thought about what’s expected of me for the next film. You’ve got something to live up to, possibly, and that can become difficult.
It’s not just me on my own, it’s a collaboration with everyone else, and what’s great is that a lot of my collaborators have travelled with me, so we’ve gone on the same journey – and that gives everyone confidence, and it’s wonderful because we all understand each other much better. I’m sure there will be some day when, for instance, I can’t have Stefan, the wonderful production designer I work with, because he’s busy on something else, but so far we’ve gone on this journey all together. I feel it’s important not to forget that it’s not me on my own.
MO’B: Do you find you have a kind of shorthand with these collaborators?
JH: Yes, definitely. What changes more than the crew is obviously the cast, I’m not always working with the same cast. I find there is always at least a week, or maybe two weeks, of a new member of the cast who hasn’t worked in this way before, there’s always a little bit of a challenge to convince them that it’s going to work, that I’m going to be there for them and support them and I’m not going to make a fool of them. You’ve got to gain each other’s trust, so it’s not that it’s always that comfortable each time with the same people because there are always new people. As I say, particularly with cast members, if they’ve been working in a different discipline – maybe working in theatre where they’re used to a lot of preparation, a lot of rehearsal – to be thrown into the pit, so to speak, with none of that support of rehearsal, I’m sure it’s very intimidating. But then it usually works out.
MO’B: Does the training in television help with technical aspects of directing such as having to deal with short shooting times if you have to?
JH: Yes, I can definitely pull that out of the bag if I need to. And I was used to working with a lot of different personalities in television and sometimes I had an actor say I’m not going to do this scene or I’m not going to do this programme – there’s a lot of convincing one has to do. I learnt a lot of people skills when I was directing television, but also if I’m told by a producer that you’ve got half an hour to shoot this scene, I can pull it out of the bag.
MO’B: Looking at themes in your work, we’ve already talked about the importance of place, but your films also have a thread about family units and outsiders. Is that something that’s always been interesting to you?
JH: I find it harder to talk about themes because those sort of interests and ideas come naturally somehow and I don’t think about them objectively. If I’m asked what kind of films I make, if I’m meeting someone who’s never seen any of my films before, I always find it very hard to describe.
Often the perception is that because I’m a woman that I make documentaries, and they are always a little bit surprised when I say it’s fiction. That happens so often.
JH: I find it very difficult to respond, and my recent response has been around family, and that I’m interested in family dynamics, but I don’t think that really reveals very much. Any tips are welcome on how to talk about my work! This encapsulating what I’m interested in and the kind of films I make, I find almost impossible.
MO’B: They always seem very English to me, but I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s something about the sense of anxieties around social conventions, which are at the heart of those great scenes you create.
JH: I don’t think that’s surprising, but it’s difficult for me to see that or see what it is. You have your interpretation of it, it doesn’t surprise me that there’s a Britishness about it, but that’s not what I’m striving for.
MO’B: So, what are you looking for when you are shaping the film in the last edit stage?
JH: Extremely good question. That last edit stage is very difficult, I hate it because you’ve got to fix the film at a certain point. I always dream when I’m editing, and Helle and I both feel this, we’d like to both take a long break and come back to the film and see what we’ve done. You always have to finish very quickly and you can’t ever stand back and look at what you are doing.
Again, it’s without thinking about the audience in a sense, I don’t do lots of screenings for friends and I don’t want lots of opinions. It’s not because I don’t care what other people think. It’s the opposite in a way, I don’t want to get confused myself, I want to keep a very clear instinct about what it is. So it’s about being very instinctive and trying not to force the story too much, let the thing breath a bit but then not too much. It’s such a balance of things, so I don’t think I could sum up what that is, it’s very complex at that point because there are so many things going on.
And then one’s seen the film so many times its hard to trust oneself. At the same time you have to, and that’s why I don’t want to show too many people, I don’t want lots of chatter in my head. I just want to be able to see it and feel like it’s got a life of its own and that there’s something there that people will get caught up in.
MO’B: When you’ve got the finished film, you don’t want to over analyse it?
JH: No, I think that’s for other people to do that.
MO’B: Do you get frustrated if other people have radically different views of your film than you intended?
JH: No, actually, I don’t mind that, and it can be interesting, it can be surprising sometimes because I’ve had responses that I don’t recognise, that are really very different to what I intended. I’m not judgemental about that, I expect that to happen, particularly when I’m encouraging the audience to use their imagination. They will create a shape for themselves and it will be very personal to them.
MO’B: I read about you saying that you always check to see if the emotional heart of the film is still there. Is that part of this instinctual side, that there is some sort of emotional heart running through the film?
JH: Yes, and I think sometimes I’m more successful with that than other times and I’m aware, in terms of emotional response, that it varies from person to person. But also I can see the different emotional maps of each film.
MO’B: What drives you to make the next film?
JH: Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll finish a film and I actually don’t know what the next thing is going to be. There’s a funny thing that’s happened with each film, that while I’m finishing off that film – it happened with UNRELATED, ARCHIPELAGO, and EXHIBITION – and I’m still working with Helle on the edit, or might be starting to work with the sound design, that I’ve already formed what I’m going to do next. I think that’s some kind of safety mechanism where I don’t want to let go of the film that I’m working on, that’s coming to an end, so I want to grip on to what the next thing’s going to be.
I haven’t really thought about it but I think in every case I’ve gripped on to something that hasn’t then materialised. Then what happens is I go into a bit of a downer after a film because it’s such an intense thing. I find it very difficult trying to let go of the project and I’m trying to live my life, but I don’t like that time afterwards, because there’s been so much going on and now my brain’s got too much time to think. Then after this false phase -I don’t know what you call it, maybe it’s like a phantom pregnancy – then gradually, but it might take months, I’ll start to get the beginnings of the next thing. That takes a while and I don’t know the point at which it takes hold. It might be the place, the sense of place that we talked about, that I think, yes, I’m going to set the next film in this place, and then the story comes about from that.
I don’t want to talk too much about the new project, but it’s come about just thinking about being a filmmaker, what it was like when I first started being a filmmaker, and then developing an idea for a relationship between a young woman and an older man. That’s all I’ll say at the moment, but that hasn’t happened quickly. That’s where I’m really trying to find the heart of what it is and the motor of the story. I have found that now with this new project but it’s still got a way to go.
MO’B: And you’ll look to keep true to that heart, that inspiration as you go through the film, no matter what the changes are? That’s the impetus?
JH: Yes, that’s the impetus and I have to keep reminding myself what that heart is. I write a lot in notebooks and sometimes I find myself writing the same sentence, it might be a couple of months on, it’s almost like an affirmation that this is what this next film is about, this is the underlying idea.
It’s true to say that it has taken me some time developing this new one since EXHIBITION, it’s been the longest gap between films and it’s very frustrating on one level, on the other hand this new film is more complex so it needs more time to develop.
MO’B: Is all the funding set up?
JH: Quite a bit of it is. The BFI have been very supportive and I’ve been developing it with them. And the BBC are really supportive as well. We still need to find more money but it’s looking OK.
MO’B: It fascinates me, the instinctual part of the filmmaker. Critics will talk about what is intended by the filmmaker, but when you hear filmmakers talk they often say they don’t exactly know why they may have done something in a particular way, that sometimes the film is a process of finding out what they intended. Do you find you’ve discovered more by the end of the process?
JH: Definitely. Lots of things materialise and it can be in the form of casting, so an actor or non-actor takes on the character or brings in ideas which hadn’t occurred to me. There are so many things that happen, some be chance, some by design. It’s so interesting that a piece of work, and it’s not just my work, can be analysed by someone else, and there can be ideas found or connections made by that person who’s viewed the film and some of that is intended by the filmmaker, some of it’s by chance. I think in a way it is about some kind of channelling you do as a filmmaker and your collaborators with you, you’re channelling an idea and once you’re fully in the groove of that idea then all sorts of things float around and associate and connect. That’s how magic happens and that’s how all sorts of associations are made.
MO’B: You’ve edited all you films with Helle. What is that process like? Do you sit down together and work on the material? Do you already have an idea of how you are going to edit it at the start, or are the decisions made as you work through the film?
JH: Sometimes we have ideas of what we do but the reason I like working with Helle is that she’s very instinctive herself, has fantastic instincts, and she’s not judgemental at all. I’ve worked with editors in my tele days who will criticise actors, say terrible things that are really unhelpful. Judgement just shuts a door immediately, whereas Helle and I both like leaving doors open and being more receptive. It doesn’t mean we are open to anything but it means that we will let the thing breath. Then we might rein it in later on.
But to begin with she’s just taking in the performances, the situations, and the story, and what’s really nice is that Helle doesn’t start editing on set when we’re shooting. Actually she and I both like it that she starts working on her own, starts looking at the material on her own, and then we’ll look at it together as well later on. She doesn’t become part of the gossip of the shoot, so she doesn’t see the actors off set or having a fag, whatever, she sees them for the first time as fictional beings. So she’s not part of that messy stuff that’s not really about the film itself.
MO’B: Does that help you to step away from all the memories of what happened around the filming?
JH: It helps me that she hasn’t been part of that, I really like that. So we’re in a completely new space and I don’t really refer to the shoot, we just talk about what’s in front of us.
MO’B: Do you talk mainly about technical issues, or is it more about the emotional journey of the film?
JH: We talk on all sorts of different levels and what I try to do – I’m not very good at this – I try to give Helle space without me, but that’s always difficult, it’s very difficult for me to keep away.
Sometimes there’s a geographical thing, because Helle is now living in Copenhagen. When we were editing EXHIBITION she was living in Berlin, so sometimes we’d be communicating from afar. Then we’d have chunks of time together. In a way I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing that sometimes she was able to be in her own space for the material. And then it helped me also because I wasn’t looking at the material all the time, so one of us could be a bit more objective.
MO’B: You’re the first ‘filmmaker in residence’ at the University of Cambridge, how has that experience been for you?
JH: This is going to sound like some publicity for the University of Cambridge, but it’s been an incredibly exciting opportunity, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s had so many different aspects to it: I’ve taught two master classes, one last week for a couple of hours and one this morning, talking to mostly PhD students and MPhil students, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve talked a lot about my process and it’s hopefully been good for the students. It’s also been interesting for me to hear some of their thoughts and also to be thinking about what I’m doing in relation to this new project. Then the screenings here at the Picturehouse in Cambridge – I haven’t watched the films, as I said, but the Q&As have been interesting.
It’s just been really inspiring to be in Cambridge and meeting a lot of different people, obviously people interested in film but also interested in lots of different disciplines. I feel very settled in, I’m really enjoying it and I don’t really want to leave.
And it’s going to be very positive for my new film, it’s having an impact being here, I’ve been discovering things that actually connect with my story. So it’s a great thing to do before I make a new film.
MO’B: Has it been strange talking about your films? Have you learnt things yourself that you hadn’t realised about your films?
JH: I have a little bit… I just want to mention John David Rhodes who runs the Centre for Film and Screen here, it was fantastic that he invited me and he’s been a really wonderful host and I’ve had really interesting conversations with him and talking about my process has been interesting.
However, I’m a bit frustrated because I want to a make my next film and I worry the more I talk about my process that somehow all that will be left is me talking about my process and I won’t make any more films. It’s hard not to be a bit self conscious about it and it’s hard not to think, am I talking more about what I do than actually doing it.?”
But I do say, and I really mean this, being here I’ve had some really interesting conversations, and students, fellows, academics pointing out a book that I could read or a film that I haven’t seen, just all sorts of things that have been really inspiring… There have been some really valuable interactions which will positively feed into the new project.
Toby Miller: Going back to something earlier, I picked up on something you said, that you had seasons of very many male directors before you’d had the Akerman screenings. I was just curious as to whether you think there was a reason for that. There was a lot of fuss recently with the Criterion Collection and people realising what a tiny minority of female directors they had on their lists. Where there is a lot of criticism of how Hollywood works, or how movie studios work, in terms of male / female dominance, is that true with the way the critics have treated film history in that a lot of female directors – some, obviously Akerman and others have their place – but is it unfairly balanced?
JH: Definitely. I’m not congratulating ourselves on doing the Akerman season but in the UK a lot of people who are interested and knowledgeable about film were not aware of her huge body of work. So it is about increasing awareness. I can’t answer all the reasons why we chose certain films by male directors.
Our name A Nos Amour comes from the Maurice Pialat film of that name because that was the first film we screened. We then got very interested in Soviet cinema, there were and are female directors in Russia that we tried and failed to get a couple of films of. We got into a bit of a Tarkovsky groove, because we wanted to show MIRROR, STALKER, SOLARIS… One of the reasons we showed STALKER was because Geoff Dyer had written a book called ZONA about the film. This book had come out and no one in London or the UK were showing STALKER. Geoff brings out this book and no one’s showing it – Adam and I thought this is an obvious thing we should do. We had a sell-out screening at The Curzon Bloomsbury and that galvanised us for other events and they just happened to be male directors.
There are a lot of amazing films by women, and wanting to represent women filmmakers was one reason why we wanted to focus on Akerman for two years.
MO’B: Finally, where do you see A Nos Amour going? Are you thinking of more complete retrospectives or picking individual films?
JH: We just need a rest right now! Both of us have got films to make. A Nos Amours can eat up a lot of time, particularly for Adam who’s been shouldering a lot of the responsibility. It’s just important to have a pause – I think that’s a good thing – and then only show things that we’re really passionate about and where we’ve got a really good, interesting idea.