Joanna Hogg in the hall of ghosts: “In the evenings, we’d sit there with the fire roaring and watch films”

Hogg tells us about her new film, The Eternal Daughter, a supernatural companion piece to her Souvenir movies in which Tilda Swinton plays the dual role of a mother and daughter staying together at an eerie country hotel.

Joanna Hogg

Joanna Hogg is on the train returning from Scotland where she’s just screened The Eternal Daughter at previews in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Ahead of its arrival in cinemas nationwide on 24 November, these were some of the final stops on the track for a gothic ghost story that premiered more than a year ago, at the Venice Film Festival in 2022.

Not that it’s unusual for a year to pass between a film’s first festival berth and its theatrical release, but the elapsed time seems to deepen the rear-view mirror effect of The Eternal Daughter – a movie made at the height of the pandemic, when its location, an 18th-century country hotel in Wales, was shuttered for lockdown.

Into this isolated setting in the run-up to Christmas come Julie, a middle-aged filmmaker, and her ageing mother Rosalind – characters carried over from Hogg’s semi-autobiographical Souvenir movies. In those two films, Honor Swinton Byrne was Julie and her real-life mother Tilda Swinton played Rosalind. In The Eternal Daughter, Tilda appears in both parts, at times wearing her actual mother’s clothes as Rosalind, which is to say that – as well as playing both her director’s alter ego and mother – she’s in some ways playing her own daughter and mother too.

It’s this hall of mirrors, and the resulting layers of autobiographical resonance (Hogg’s mother died shortly after shooting wrapped), that make the film far richer to think about than many spooky movies of similar cloth. Unexpectedly, this director of acutely calibrated studies of awkward family relationships, beginning with Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010), shows a sure hand in gothic atmosphere and bumps in the night. But it’s the unique way that the film tackles familial bonds and loss, its spectral tracing over real emotions and experience, that give it a haunting afterglow.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)A24

When The Eternal Daughter was first reported, it was said to have been filmed in secret. What were the reasons for that?

Joanna Hogg: Actually, I don’t know how that story got told in that way, because it wasn’t in secret. It was simply that we didn’t announce what we were doing or give away any details, because it’s nice for films to appear without any fanfare.

You first had the idea for this story back in 2008, but when you came back to the idea of properly making it, did you immediately envisage it as being connected to the Souvenir films? Was the mother always going to be the same character?

Yes, because she was close to my own mother, in my mind. She didn’t change, but then of course Tilda then came into the picture and embodies her, and a lot develops from there.

When you came back to this idea around 2020, how did the story change from your earlier concept?

I don’t know, because I didn’t read the document that I wrote in 2008. Tilda saw it, but I didn’t look at it myself, because I figured out with the rewriting I didn’t feel a need to. I had it in my head or in my body in some way. I thought the danger of rereading it is that I’m stuck with the ideas that I had in 2008 and I’m not seeing it anew.

Some of your previous films have been about ghosts in a more oblique way, but I feel this is the closest you’ve come to making a genre film. What was interesting or challenging for you about working in that mode?

It forced me to look at story in a different way and in a particular shape, not just to be finding my own rhythms and ideas without any guidance from other films. It made me think about the genre of the gothic, which I found really interesting and inspiring. I don’t go back and look at my films, but my memory of when I last watched it is that I felt I could have taken the genre further. So it’s left me with an appetite to do this again, not with the gothic necessarily, but maybe with another genre. It’s quite nice to have a shape that exists in a certain form and to then do one’s own thing with that.

That’s definitely what comes across. It felt to me that it started very much in the vein of something like a Ghost Story for Christmas, but whereas a lot of films that are working in that mode today are often quite disappointing in the way they resolve, this gets thematically deeper and richer as it goes on. I suppose because it is tied to these autobiographical elements.

I really like that you experienced it in that way. And I think even if I go and try to make another genre film, maybe it’ll always end up coming to the personal in some way, or it’ll turn out not in the way that I’m necessarily expecting. I am actually trying to write something in the moment that is going into that genre space again, and I don’t know what’s going to come out of the edit. It’s exciting because it’s going into the unknown.

While you were preparing The Eternal Daughter, Martin Scorsese – the film’s executive producer – gave you a book of Kipling short stories, including ‘They’, a copy of which we see on screen. What did you find in that story that inspired you?

It didn’t just inspire me, it showed me a way of creating the story. It showed me a direction to go in. It gave me confidence that I could join the gothic with the emotional. It felt like two different genres could come together. Because ‘They’ is so personal and so moving, but it’s also quite frightening, and I’d never thought of a ghost story in that way before.

I hear Scorsese was very consultative as an exec producer. What’s an example of the kind of feedback he’d be giving you on the edit?

Very detailed sometimes. That moment at the birthday dinner was very different early on, and I was grappling with whether to hold on to it or not. It became quite melodramatic and took the story in a different direction. He gave me the courage to let go of that and turn it into something else.

That scene leads to my next question, about the idea to keep the mother and daughter in separate shots throughout. Did that come about because Tilda came on board to play both parts, or was that always how you’d envisaged it?

No, I envisaged that because of Tilda playing both parts, because I didn’t want any trickery. I wanted to shoot it in the simplest way possible, to shoot Julia and Rosalind like portraiture. At the time, I wasn’t sure if that was going to work. Even after we finished the shoots, I wasn’t even sure it was going to work. Then you realise when we were editing that it did give a different understanding of the characters, that it showed Julie and Rosalind as individuals. There were times where I forgot that Tilda was playing both parts and would just get caught up in what was going on in the story and the conversations between them.

I felt that taking away the trickery or not having another person or shape there in the frame, whether you see the shoulder or the back of their head, allowed one to go deeper into Julie and Rosalind. I didn’t want to have a double for Tilda who was going to be around the set and who might be someone that Tilda didn’t know. And I didn’t think it was necessary to see them both in the frame at the same time in order to feel that they were together. In some ways, I think they feel more together because they are separated.

There’s so much intriguing layering going on in the film, a hall of mirrors effect – even down to the fact that Tilda was wearing her own mother’s clothes to play Rosalind.

Yes. Not exclusively, but she is sometimes. And sometimes she’s wearing her own clothes. For example, in the birthday dinner she’s wearing dresses that Julie and Rosalind wore in The Souvenir (2019) at Julie’s birthday where Honor [Swinton Byrne], her daughter, wore one of the dresses and she wore the other. And then Grace Snell, the wonderful costume designer I worked with, brought in other items.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)A24

You and Tilda were childhood friends at school. What do you recall about the first time you met?

I think we immediately recognised in each other something about landing in this place, in this school, which felt very strange; that we were somehow creatures from another planet, not from this school, that we needed to stick together. So there was some recognition, unspoken, that we were future comrades.

She got her breakthrough in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), but that same year she was in Caprice, your thesis film. I was wondering which of those came first and if you’d played a part in introducing her to Jarman?

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Caravaggio was shot before Caprice, but then Tilda and I had already made a film together, which was her first film, but it was an early film I made in film school, which was never finished and is sadly lost now.

Tilda Swinton in Joanna Hogg’s 1986 student film Caprice

But I met Derek directly in separate circumstances – I approached him because I’d heard about Caravaggio, though this is five years before it actually happened, around ‘79, ‘80. I was working in Soho as an assistant photographer, but I was increasingly interested in cinema, and I knew about Derek. I asked him if I could work on Caravaggio, but he didn’t do it for another five years. He said, “Come and see me in my studio on Charing Cross Road and bring me your work to see.” I took a portfolio of photographs and drawings that I’d done to show him, and he encouraged me to make my own work. That was such a generous gesture of his.

Your early features, beginning with Unrelated, were shot on digital video, but recently you’ve preferred 16mm. On The Eternal Daughter, it really captures the damp and chilly atmosphere. What’s the appeal of shooting on 16mm for you?

There are a number of reasons. I’m often shooting very long takes, and with digital you don’t have anything or anybody to say, “Stop now.” So I like the discipline of working on film; knowing there’s a finite amount of time that I can shoot for helps me and is exciting. Then there’s the aesthetic aspect – for a ghost story I wanted it to feel quite primitive, and to feel the grain of the film. Maybe if I’d had the money, we would’ve shot on 35mm, but actually there’s something wonderful about 16mm because you really do see the texture and the texture adds something to the story.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)

I loved the sustained shot near the end, which starts in darkness as the dawn breaks through the trees. It feels like the spell of the night is being lifted.

Yes, I was thinking about that when you asked why I shot on 16. That’s a really good example where the chemistry, where the feeling of the light coming up, would be caught in a very different way on a digital camera.

What can you tell me about capturing that moment?

It was [cinematographer] Ed Rutherford who went out and shot that. He really tunes in to what we’re trying to do, and I gave him the instruction to go and shoot around the house, and he would wake up very early in the morning. In that case, I don’t know what time he woke up, probably five in the morning, and we were having a full day shoot after that. And he captured that, and then I saw it and absolutely loved it.

Do you get any downtime to read or listen to music when you are writing or making a film like this? If so, what were you reading or listening to during Eternal Daughter?

I continued to read more ghost stories, and I was listening to a lot of Bartók. Obviously Bartók is in the film. The wonderful thing about shooting in story order is that I can read something or listen to something or see something, and there’s still a chance for it to go into the film. It’s not too late for that influence to find its way into the story. We’re all creating as we go along.

I was staying in the house along with some of the crew, so Ed was also in the house, which was wonderful because we could spot something in a corridor or the way the light was falling on a wall, and you could shoot it without gathering all the crew together. We were always there on the spot.

Then in the evenings, we’d light a fire in the sitting room; in that room where Julie and Rosalind have a conversation, where they’re writing Christmas cards. We’d sit there with the fire roaring and watch films. Very often ghost films, which didn’t make it easy to sleep. Staying in that house was quite a challenge, but it was really important because so many ideas and thoughts that occurred in the middle of the night would then be able to enter the film. There was a particular night of watching The Uninvited (1944), and that gets very spooky. Ed hadn’t seen it before.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)A24

Is Soughton Hall very spooky in real life then?

I thought so, and I found it very spooky to live there while we were shooting. But credit to Stéphane Collonge, the production designer, that when we went back to reshoot a shot of the taxi pulling up outside the hotel, I thought, “Oh, I’m slightly dreading going back there actually.” We were going to stay a night there, but I thought, “Don’t fancy it.” And we turned up and the hotel had been transformed back into what it was before, which is primarily a wedding venue. And it had such a happy, warm, light atmosphere. I couldn’t believe it. It had nothing of the darkness and the gloominess of when we were there. We all had ghost experiences while we were shooting, but I think we imagined it all probably.

It’s been more than a year since the film premiered now. Given those extraordinary circumstances of making this during the pandemic, which is receding into the past now too, have your feelings about the film changed in that time?

Because I haven’t watched it again since it premiered at Venice, it’s only thoughts that I have. It’s not actually based on rewatching it. Since making the film my mother died, and the light that shed on the film is that the experience I had was different to the one Julie has in the film and that the film wasn’t as cathartic as I thought it might’ve been, given what I then had to go through. I’m still processing that, so there is a bit of a muddle between the film and the reality that I experienced afterwards.

Given one of your recurring themes is filmmakers struggling towards the inspiration for the next project, is that something that’s becoming any easier now that you’ve got a number of features under your belt, or is it still as hard as it has ever been?

It’s as hard, if not more difficult. And that’s not because of pressure, because of the other films; it’s just because I’m constantly seeking out where I want to go next. I think it’s probably easier from a money-raising point of view, at the moment anyway. But creatively, I find it continually challenging in a way that it should be, I think.

The Eternal Daughter, made with the support of the BFI Filmmaking Fund, is in cinemas from 24 November.

It will be released on BFI Blu-ray on 22 January.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free