The nights are drawing in. There’s frost underfoot. You can see your breath in the air. It’s the time of year for a chilly tale of the unexpected. And according to none other than Martin Scorsese, director Joanna Hogg is at the perfect point in her career to direct such a film. “He was trying to encourage me to make a ghost story with him,” Hogg recalls. “He just thought maybe it’s a direction I could go in. So I said: ‘Well, you know, give me some ghost stories to read.’” Scorsese was as good as his word – his suggestions included Rudyard Kipling’s They, Casting the Runes and The Mezzotint by MR James, some Robert Aickman, some Edith Wharton.
The result was Hogg’s evocative new film The Eternal Daughter. Executive produced by Scorsese, and starring Tilda Swinton, it is set in a remote and largely deserted hotel where a frail elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter have come for a birthday minibreak. It is the kind of old, mist-wreathed building where the floorboards creak mysteriously and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck for no known reason. Where you’re bound – surely – to spot at least one ghost …
But the supernatural atmosphere initially suggested by Scorsese is only a small part of the film’s origin story. As a film-maker, Hogg emerged later than most of her contemporaries, after cutting her teeth as a director in mainstream TV drama. She was in her late 40s when her 2007 film debut Unrelated surprised and delighted critics; here was a perfectly formed first feature that swerved the usual pitfalls of first-time film-making. A portrait of a child-free fortysomething woman holidaying with sprogged-up friends in Italy, it had confidence, wit and dramatic economy (as well as a breakout role for the young Tom Hiddleston).
After finishing Unrelated, Hogg intended to make The Eternal Daughter, “a film based on my relationship with my mother”. Instead, she made two more standalone films, also well received, also featuring Hiddleston: Archipelago (2010), about an unhappy family reunion on the Isles of Scilly, and Exhibition (2013), a relationship drama starring Viv Albertine, guitarist in the Slits. Those were followed by a beautiful and ambitious 1980s-set bildungsroman in two chapters, The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (2021), inspired by Hogg’s experiences at film school.
In both Souvenir films, she would work with Swinton. The pair have been friends since childhood and collaborated on Hogg’s first short, Caprice (1986). Via email, Swinton describes their decades-long connection as “the OG working relationship. It set the course for me … profoundly personal and unapologetically vulnerable attempts at unearthing the unsayable things. I realise looking back that so many of our shared interests and dialogues when we were young were about experiencing life from a similar position of somewhat removed, even alienated, observation. I think of this now as a conversation between film-makers.”
Scorsese, who discovered Hogg through watching Archipelago on DVD, and went on to executive produce both Souvenir films as well as The Eternal Daughter, once described her work as featuring “implosions” (in contrast to the explosive characters in which he specialises). This implosive cinema is characterised by precisely observed characters, often viewed in long, fixed takes, lit naturalistically, written with the psychological depth and perception of a novelist such as George Eliot, while enacting the kinds of ostensibly low-key plots that Japanese master director Yasujirō Ozu would favour.
While her films are very British in some ways – setting, characters, emotional restraint – her work has shone on the world stage, where critics and audiences seem more at ease with her nuanced and realistic portrayals of upper middle-class material comfort paired with emotional anxiety. Her films have played abroad at prestigious international film festivals, while bizarrely being snubbed by Bafta back home. Perhaps that is to do with Oscar Wilde’s theory about the rage of Caliban on seeing himself reflected in the looking glass.
So why did Hogg take so long to revive The Eternal Daughter? Hogg’s speech is hesitant in manner but forthright in content; you come away with the sense of someone always at pains to be as scrupulously honest and accurate as possible, even about things that might be uncomfortable to talk about. “Much like Julie in the eventual film, I got derailed by worries about upsetting my mother,” she says. “There were feelings of guilt – all those feelings that come up in the film, that I problematise in a way within the film. So I put it aside.”
None of this is to suggest that Hogg’s bond with her own mother, who died in 2021, was not a positive one; more that she felt an intense sense of responsibility around any portrait she might attempt to create. “We had a very good relationship, and I was very, very fond of her,” she says. “So I felt the responsibility as a daughter of wanting her to be as happy as possible, and in that process I would lose a sense of myself. It would take me a while to gather myself up after visiting her.”
It is a feeling to which many daughters (and sons), of all ages, will be able to relate: that you ought to look after someone without them realising they are being looked after. “I think that responsibility as a daughter can happen at a young age,” says Hogg. “It depends on the relationship and the situation but I felt that responsibility and that concern for my mother earlier than maybe was healthy in a way.”
More than a decade after first devising it, Hogg was ready to make the film: “At that point, I felt maybe I could find a way of making it where I’m not feeling like I’m treading on my mother’s footsteps.”
Such periods of enforced creative fermentation can be fruitful, and so it proved. The gothic fiction angle notwithstanding, the most dramatic alteration to the original concept came from the film’s star: what if, in addition to playing the daughter, Julie, Swinton also played the mother role? “We hadn’t thought about Tilda playing Rosalind, and that was an idea of Tilda’s that just got dropped into conversation one day, when she said: ‘You know, why don’t I play both?’”
It is not the kind of suggestion you would take seriously from every actor, especially given Hogg’s unusual film-making process is not a traditional one. She doesn’t write a script, but instead puts together a 30-page document that gives a broad outline of what is to happen in the film. Hogg’s actors aren’t given lines to learn in the usual way, but have a sense of their character and where the scene needs to go. Swinton describes this process as “anchored in a very balanced way, uncluttered by technical concerns involving remembering lines and coordinating them with others’ lines. The things people say in Joanna’s films bubble up from within the people who say them.”
Still, given this process, how on earth did it work on a practical level for Swinton to play opposite herself?
“Well, Tilda is improvising with herself, which seems an impossible thing,” Hogg laughs. “She’s so brilliant, and I’m still kind of in awe of what she did.” On set before filming, Hogg would sit in, playing one half of the scene opposite Swinton, “and that would form the very early basis of the conversation, and then I would disappear after we just tried it once like that.” Swinton would then be filmed “having a conversation into thin air” until Hogg felt that the necessary material had been captured. Then a costume, hair and makeup switch would take place, followed by filming the other half of the scene as the other character.
“The bottom line is Tilda was phenomenal,” Hogg says. “The subtleties and nuances of difference between [her characters], the gestural differences – it was kind of a question of possession, even.”
A question of possession, but also a question of enormous trust, given the anxieties that had previously caused Hogg to shelve the project. I think of the first part of the Oscar Wilde line: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” The film makes the idea of our parents as ghosts of our future selves very tangible, to the extent that it’s genuinely difficult, as a viewer, to imagine the film without the double role at its heart.
“Our mothers are ourselves in many ways,” Hogg says. “So that merging of the two makes a lot of sense. And I’ve always loved ghost stories, so making it into a kind of ghost story was definitely a way of taking it further from my own mother, and making it something that I could separate from myself more easily. And I’ve always loved the idea that our mothers are sort of future ghosts, in a way. I’ve always been terrified since I was a young child of something happening to my mother and my mother not being around any more.”
Of all Hogg’s work, The Eternal Daughter feels like it has most in common thematically with the 1980s-set Souvenir films, where Swinton also played a mother named Rosalind inspired by Hogg’s mother, whose age would approximately match the age of the elderly Rosalind in The Eternal Daughter. Rosalind’s daughter is played by Swinton’s real-life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the Souvenir films, and by Swinton herself in The Eternal Daughter, and is named Julie. Swinton even wears the same dresses in key birthday party scenes in both films. It feels like there is a blurring of several different identities in several different directions. But Swinton is clear that: “Julie is not either of us, truly, and Rosalind is not actually either of our mothers. They are people we recognise but still need to wonder about.” So best to think of the characters as a poetic echo, rather than an act of ventriloquism.
Hogg won’t be drawn too much on what might be next for her as a film-maker, but she does talk with cautious enthusiasm about a possible change of gear, or shift into new territory: “I feel that I’ve just got the engine going with something new. I want to try new things. I’m turning in a slightly different direction. I feel on a personal level the need to keep being adventurous, and my idea of adventure is being creative and making films. And there’s only a finite amount of time.”
It is tempting to ask what Hogg’s mother finally thought of The Eternal Daughter in the end, after all that time. It’s a question sadly destined to an eternity without an answer. “In fact, my mother died when we were editing,” Hogg says. “She was very much looking forward to seeing the film, so I’m very sad that she never saw it.” Her tone is composed, but she then repeats herself a little, as if she can’t quite believe it. “I was worried about her seeing it, but she died when we were editing … ”
She takes a breath. “So then I thought to myself: ‘Interesting, I’m making this work and dealing with the loss of my mother at the same time.’ But I realised that in fact the grief actually came out later, much later, like almost a year after she died. So I don’t know if creative work can really do that thing that you’ve got to go through in life when you lose somebody.
“The work is the work.” She pauses again and echoes herself. “The work is the work.”
The Eternal Daughter is in UK and Ireland cinemas from Friday. The seasons, Internal Reflections: The Films of Joanna Hogg and Joanna Hogg: Influences, run at BFI Southbank during November.