With The Eternal Daughter, Joanna Hogg continues her method of cultivating an environment that allows dialogue to be discovered on set. A ghost story in a classical British sense it, provided complications to that long-standing working method—namely that Tilda Swinton plays both lead characters: mother and daughter duo, Rosalind and Julie. Refusing to employ camera tricks, the subsequent shot-reverse shot dynamic that dominates these dialogue-driven sequences meant the distinct possibility of “getting too bogged in the technicalities of it,” Hogg says. But they largely “managed to keep it in the air,” by having key crew members track those pesky technical details of who said what when, allowing Swinton and Hogg to zero in on the moment at hand—something so vital to Hogg’s on-set atmosphere of exploration.
Fans will recognize Julie and Rosalind as originating from her most recent collaborations with Swinton and Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II. The Eternal Daughter isn’t a traditional sequel to those per se—the carryover is more about Hogg and Swinton’s impulse to continue probing the mother character of Rosalind, attempting to illuminate, in any small way, what makes her tick.
With the film now arriving in theaters and on VOD from A24, I spoke with the longtime friends and collaborators—who grew up together in London—about how that Rosalind shift occurred, why shooting in story order is critical, and how Hogg’s shooting style stacks against other lauded directors with whom Swinton has collaborated.
The Film Stage: Joanna, this project has been in the works since 2008. How did the project change during that time? Were you and Tilda having conversations about it for the past decade?
Joanna Hogg: In 2008 I didn’t get as far as casting. I wrote a 30-page document and started location-hunting. It was to be set in North Norfolk. I realized quite quickly that it was going to be hard to do because I was so worried about what my mother was going to think. I felt too full of guilt. By the time Tilda and I started talking about it—when we were making the two Souvenir films—the theme of my relationship had changed to one where I was a lot more worried about my mother’s mortality and how much time I was going to have with her. Her health wasn’t so good. Thinking of her death turned it into the ghost story that it became.
Tilda Swinton: Joanna started talking to me about a film about an older daughter, the age of us, and an older mother. But at that point there was no particular connection in either of our minds with Julie and Rosalind, and it was only when we’d been working on The Souvenir films and we’d said several times how intrigued we are still with Rosalind. She’s sprung from the same era as our mothers. She’s not an impersonation of either of them, but she’s related to them. They knew her. She’s a friend of theirs. And that really fascinates us. As Julie says, her mother is a “mystery person.” This feeling of yearning to understand more about Rosalind made us think maybe the older mother should be Rosalind. Well, who’s going to play Rosalind? Well, I am—because I, with Joanna, created Rosalind in The Souvenirs. So that whole idea of them being played by the same person came about relatively late on.
Hogg: There are so many moments in both Souvenirs where you get a glimpse of Rosalind, but we never go far enough in a sense. I love that moment—I find it very moving—where Rosalind is lying beside Julie after she’s heard the news about Anthony and it’s Rosalind who’s crying, not Julie. That’s so fascinating. What is going on in Rosalind’s mind at that moment? What is moving her so much, and why is Julie not able to express her feelings?
A24 publishes screenplay books, so I’m curious what your screenplay book might look like. And how does this unique document function? Are you showing it to the studio? Does Tilda see it?
Hogg: I have been asked about publishing these documents, and initially I think “Oh, is that quite a nice thing.” And then I realize: no. It’s such a private document. It’s a road map for me to remember what I’m interested in and where I’m going, even if I don’t stick to it as I go along.
With The Eternal Daughter, Tilda very much saw it. In fact, she even saw the document I wrote in 2008, which I didn’t read myself. In the case of The Eternal Daughter, it was like a short ghost story.
Did you have it on set, or at that point did you know where you were going?
Hogg: I did. I’m probably the one person on set who doesn’t really look at it because what’s happening in the moment in front of me is so much more interesting. There’s no dialogue in this document—occasionally the odd line as a direction to go in—but Tilda and I were in conversation together in the moment. We weren’t looking back at something on paper. But the script supervisor, Sara [Doughty], needs this document and she turns it into something which starts to look like a normal script. I find that a bit strange, but she needs that to map things in her own way. As Tilda was creating either Julie or Rosalind, Sara is noting down everything Tilda is saying so that we’ve got a record of it when we turn around to the other character. So there was a whole technical process behind the scenes.
Swinton: It’s a completely different energetic field, working without a script in this way. You’re not pitching yourself forward to deliver lines that have been written and memorized and forgotten—struggling for them. You’re not trying to hang yourself off a clothesline, which you very often are negotiating with when you’re dealing with interpreting a script. Because there are no lines. It’s all about impulse. Do I speak now? Is there something I want to say? Is there something I want to say, but I’m not going to say it? What’s the weight of this silence between us? The question is internal. You’re not trying to fake making it sound like you came up with the lines. Because you really are coming up with the lines. So the fakery is kept to a minimum.
Hogg: It’s the same for movement. I’m not keen on hitting marks. I want this freedom of speech and movement to get something very much out of that moment that feels natural.
Tilda, was coming up with lines different in this instance, knowing that you would ultimately be the one responding on the other end as either Julie or Rosalind?
Swinton: In a funny way, no. Because the material of their relationship, these two, is all about: how do we communicate with one another? It’s a question mark. There isn’t an established track. Or rather there are tiny tracks, which are slightly codified tracks. There’s a certain chit-chat which they can rely on. But the deep, deep plumb lines of communications are so fraught with complexity and difficulty, so they just don’t go there. Generally speaking, they stay in this very loving but quite codified chit-chat frequency. But there’s this other channel that is below. So when coming to the question “what do I say now?” it’s very often: “Oh, well I’ll go to the chit-chat channel. I’ll go there.” [Click, click, click, click]
The difficulty of actually getting below the chit-chat level—that’s the material of the relationship. We needed to go into that difficulty. So all the difficulty and all the awkwardness and all the emotion that’s banked down—that was what we were dealing with. So we didn’t have to drive past that; we had to drive into it.
Hogg: That moment when Julie says what she’s really feeling is quite a shock, and it continues to be a shock for me every time. It’s because of all of the unspoken before that; then when something’s spoken it’s the highest kind of drama, really.
Swinton: But it’s so plausible, because that’s how things really work. Very often we are led to believe in films—and I suppose it’s a tendency that comes through from the theater—that a moment like that, a sort of denouement or a revelation moment, there’s going to be preparation for it. But as we know in life, that just does not happen. Things burst out of people, with absolutely no warning or…
Swinton: Exactly. People get themselves into the most terrible pickle. And I think, very often, good screenwriters are their own worst enemies because they cannot resist doing very good writing about preparing the ground. But that isn’t necessarily what really happens. What really happens is that we aren’t all playwrights and we burst sometimes.
Hogg: And we don’t all want to be playwrights. In fact, very early on with The Eternal Daughter I thought, “Maybe I’m going to write all the dialogue out for it.” All of this detail and nuance that Tilda is talking about—of course you can write that. But then it becomes very constructed and it doesn’t have the excitement of the moment of seeing what’s going to happen. More and more I realize I like the adventure of setting off on a journey and not knowing how I’m going to get to the other end. And so I’ll probably carry on working in this way. It’s just a lot more exciting. I’m very lucky to have a collaborator like Tilda who enjoys this, because not every performer enjoys that mystery in a way.
Swinton: What I meant by “we’re not all playwrights” is not just all filmmakers, but people. People don’t have perfectly constructed arguments in fluent sentences. And we don’t listen to each other and really hear each other very often in an argument. We often miss things or don’t react or pick up something completely wrong, or pick up something that was said three sentences earlier. I love to see that, but you rarely do. The territory that you create opens up the possibility of that. All these jangled and mismatching frequencies and wavelengths—it’s so refreshing to see that.
I’m thinking of that extraordinary scene in Archipelago at the family lunch, where somebody complains about some service, and it’s just unbearable because I know that everybody at that table was deeply uncomfortable for real. They didn’t need to pretend to be uncomfortable—they really were. If one had written that scene, one could so easily have written all sorts of protestations of “oh, darling, don’t be so ridiculous” or whatever. But they’re not even able to do that, because they’re so mortally embarrassed. It’s such a contribution to show the reality of that.
Hogg: It does require a way of working that I hope I can continue to follow, which is shooting in story order. It really helps that progression because then everybody, cast and crew, feel the story moving forward. If you’re jumping around different locations and bits of the story, there’s not that freedom—it’s about creating an atmosphere.
Swinton: It’s really true, and when you say that it makes me reflect that screenplays are very often insurance policies for financial reasons. They are the quantifiable measure of: “How many pages are we going to shoot today?” “What is it going to cost?” “We got two-thirds of a page.” Or whatever it is. And shooting out of story order is almost always to do with the logistics and the financial pressure of “we’ve got this location for four days.” And we come in on day one of the script and we come back on day 10, and we come back in the finale—we’re going to shoot all of those scenes in two days. And so people are going to hop about. And if they’re going to hop about, they’re going to have to have something to hang themselves on. And that’s why they’re going to have to have a written script with all of this dialogue that they know they’re going to say. So the whole thing actually is borne out of the whole financial paradigm.
Long live studios like A24, who have the wisdom, in my view, and the inspiration to fund your work because they know that you need to work in this way. They aren’t going to get a series of coat hangers to hang their budget. They’re just going to have to trust in faith that you’re going to deliver this atmosphere.
How does an artist balance working purely off of instincts vs. setting aside time to revise and refine their craft?
Swinton: I’ll say something and tell me, Caleb, if this is remotely related. My path is different from Joanna’s in that I work with other filmmakers in other atmospheres. I’m happy to say that I’m in very loving relationships with all of the filmmakers I work with. Bong Joon Ho works with not only a screenplay, but with an editor on set. So with every single shot you are setting up for, you can see the shot that went before and, very often, the shot that comes after. It’s a big jigsaw. It’s a completely different way of working. Wes Anderson is completely different. Jim Jarmusch: completely different. Everybody works in their own way, happily—they’re all masters we’re talking about. The thing that I find to be such a huge warm bath about working with Joanna: I don’t have to negotiate with someone else’s plans. I’m happy to say, in the case of all my colleagues, I love their plans. I appreciate their plans and I want to see their plans being realized. And I’m very happy to do what I can to help realize those plans.
But working with Joanna is all about instinct; it’s not really about filling in any boxes or ticking anything. It’s about following one’s nose into uncharted territory all the time. And that happens to really suit me. I like that. I would even say—and they can all forgive me for this—I actually like it the best. I like this feeling of discovery which happens with Joanna. It’s not just a question of “Oh, my God, we managed to do that massive dance scene which we’ve been planning on doing for 15 months.” Tick, done. There’s not that. There’s this feeling of revelation all the time with Joanna. So it’s all instinct.
Hogg: I realize I’m not very adventurous in my life. I don’t go bungee-jumping or deep-sea-diving. I’m terrified of a lot of things out there. But when it comes to filmmaking I’m very adventurous. The less I know and the more I’m led by an instinct, the more exciting it is. I haven’t heard Tilda describe exactly what she likes about working with me before, so hearing that I realize: of course we love working together, because we both like filmmaking as bungee-jumping.
Swinton: Completely. It’s properly adventurous and it’s full of questions and not many answers. And I love that. That’s my favorite. That’s my drug of choice.
The Eternal Daughter is now in theaters and on VOD.