Winner of the Fipresci award at the 2007 London Film Festival, Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated is a breath of fresh, Rohmer-ian air into the usually stuffy, genre-oriented British cinema. The film centres around Anna (Kathryn Worth), a 40-something undergoing a mid-life crisis during a sojourn with wealthy friends in an Italian villa. The former photographer and TV director talks to Kamera about her debut film and the joys of filmmaking.
You said in the press statement that Unrelated started off with autobiographical material but then it took a life of its own. Could you describe this process of creation?
I begin with a desire to express something intensely felt. But this is not a precise chronology of events that happened in my life. It is an internal map rather than an external one. And the crucial thing for me is to depict that core of emotion in as clear and true a way as possible. So after this ‘soul searching’ the ideas gradually expand and my imagination starts to kick in. But throughout the writing process my imagination is constantly challenged by a need to be emotionally true.
Unrelated shows a fine balance between stylised, almost painterly scenes, and more naturalistic moments. How did it take shape in terms of visuals?
I knew early on that I wanted the camera to be very still. But into this stillness I wanted to throw a lot of life and chaos. That the two seemingly opposing styles would rub against each other and the frame could burst out beyond what you actually see. I wanted to encourage the audience to imagine what might be just around the perimeter of the frame.
Anna – where did you ‘find’ her character?
I didn’t have to look very far as she was already there – as a part of myself. But quite soon after pulling her out and away from myself, she became an individual, someone in her own right and then she developed further when I cast Kathryn Worth as she bought many details to Anna’s character, which I of course encouraged her to do.
Some people might say the film is melancholy, sad even. I’d say it’s just realistic. I liked it for having a real heart, pulsing with all sorts of feelings. What would you say about that?
Throughout the whole process I am doing a type of heart monitoring. To make sure I am keeping within that core of emotion I described earlier. But I am not the only one monitoring in this way, almost every member of the cast and crew were bringing to the film a lot more than their job description!
Time Out magazine complimented the film for not ‘feeling’ British. What do you think of that as a British director?
I think I can understand why it was described in that way. And I am flattered. I believe it has something to do with the long takes and the static frame. Yet I feel my subject matter is inherently British and I notice that people are starting to reference British films such as Sunday Bloody Sunday in relation to the film.
The actor’s performances look very naturalistic and spontaneous, although the film seems quite tightly scripted. How did you approach the direction of the actors?
I began the filming process with a fully developed script in my hands but knew I wanted the film to grow and not confine it to the limits of my life or my imagination. As a director I feel it is the only intelligent approach to take. Naturally ideas occur as you go along and I wanted to embrace those possibilities and to absolutely allow for spontaneity as you say. With the actors I wanted to create an environment in which they would feel nurtured and contained. So they could tread the line between being themselves yet also be playing a part. I didn’t over analyse an approach with them but let them be within very clear parameters. There was no rehearsal in order to keep it alive.
What impact has the FIPRESCI award had on the trajectory of the film so far?
Enormous. The award came about because the film was shown in the London Film Festival and the organisers were wonderful in their support of the film. Then the film was seen by Pam Engel and Robert Beeson who were setting up their new distribution company New Wave Films. They took on the film and now it is their first release. It is the best home we could possibly have found for Unrelated. Pam and Robert are an amazing duo and they are acquiring an extraordinary list of films.
You come from a television background, which is where so much of the best narrative works are being done these days. What drew you to film? And what is the greatest thing about the medium from a creator’s point of view?
I was attracted to film long before I became involved in television. It was in the early 80s when I was working as a photographer. At that time there was a very healthy rep cinema in London and I sat through endless late night double bills. But I also felt constrained by still photography and wanted to tell stories. The photographers I admired like Duane Michels and Guy Bourdin were telling stories in their images but I wanted to take this further and so I started making Super 8 films. To answer the second part of question I find I am continually re-evaluating what is so exciting about making films. There are so many facets to it. It is a way of creating a kind of concentrated life experience. But that is only a part of it…
I’ve seen Ozu, Rohmer and Renoir popping up in texts about your film and you mention Renoir in the press statement. Who are your influences and the directors you look up to?
Tsai Ming-Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Nuri Bilge Ceylan are all contemporary directors I love. And of course the three directors you have already mentioned to which I would also add Rossellini. Viaggo in Italia was a film I watched before making Unrelated but I would say it was not only films that influenced me. While I was writing I was inspired by reading the novels of Death in Venice and The Go-Between. Finally an example of something British which fed into the film! But often the influence of a particular filmmaker is felt through something they have said. A book I dip into constantly is Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography.
Are you working on a follow-up feature? If so, can you say anything about it yet?
I am beyond the point of turning back so I can now say something about it. The process I mentioned earlier is true all over again! It has been and continues to be, a similar voyage of discovery. The story revolves around a character much like Anna. A woman in her forties who is married with no children. But I am interested in the effect this has on her own immediate family. That her ‘fate’ reverberates through an older generation – in this case her mother who will not become a grandmother. But the daughter bears this as if it were her responsibility and it is this process of unburdening and a desperate need for personal freedom, that becomes the motor for the story.
What were the most obstructing difficulties you came across when you decided to make your first film?
Unrelated opens in the UK tomorrow, 19 September 2008.