Joanna Hogg’s last two features, 2019’s The Souvenir and 2021’s The Souvenir Part II, were self-reflexive works about a young writer/director searching for inspiration, and a voice, by plumbing her personal and professional experiences. That process continues apace, albeit in thoroughly unique fashion, in The Eternal Daughter.
In Hogg’s mesmerizing new film, her on-screen proxy, Julie, is played not by prior leading lady Honor Swinton Byrne but, rather, by Byrne’s real-life mom Tilda Swinton—who simultaneously continues to inhabit the role of Julie’s mother Rosalind. It’s a dual-role turn that’s as unexpected as is Hogg’s decision to segue from the modern British drama of her previous outings for overt gothic horror. Eerie mansions, ethereal specters and strange bumps in the night are all a part of the filmmaker’s latest, which employs all such genre trappings for a haunted tale about the maternal ties that bind, and the large and small tragedies born from them.
Hogg takes her inspiration from a variety of hallowed macabre sources, such as Hammer horror chillers, 1961’s The Innocents, or 1980’s The Shining. Nonetheless, the auteur isn’t after jump scares or gruesome shocks; as before, her focus remains on the mysterious forces that connect us to ourselves, our pasts, and our loved ones. Such notions are underscored by the fact that her story concerns Julie and Rosalind taking a vacation to a Welsh estate that, decades earlier, was Rosalind’s childhood home. That’s not to mention that Julie intends to use this getaway to gather material for a movie she’s attempting to write about her family history.
What emerges, then, is less a conventional thriller than a melancholy chamber piece about memory, regret and the figurative chasms that separate mothers and daughters. Boasting two standout performances from Swinton, it’s another idiosyncratic and highly personal gem from the 62-year-old English writer/director. On the occasion of its December 2 theatrical release (following celebrated showings at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals), we spoke with Hogg about fictionalizing herself, her collaborative relationship with Swinton, and her fondness for the spooky and the sinister.
Have you had any encounters with ghosts? Or was that component of The Eternal Daughter not born from personal experience?
Well no, it was. I don’t know if I can count myself lucky enough to actually have seen one, but I have felt things, and I think of myself as quite a sensitive person in that way. If I, for example, check into a hotel room and there are strange vibes…or rather, I’ll pick up on the strange vibes. And then I’ve had weird things happen over the years—usually in hotel rooms, funnily enough.
Was that the first thing that inspired The Eternal Daughter?
When you ask what the very first thing was that sprang to mind, it was actually more about a relationship with my mother. When I first wrote the story, which was back in 2008, it wasn’t a ghost story. It was much more about a mother and a daughter—a middle-aged daughter and an elderly mother—going to stay at a hotel, but it wasn’t a haunted hotel at that point. It was later when I thought about it again, after making The Souvenirs, that I was reading many ghost stories—many of them thanks to Martin Scorsese. I would keep asking him, what other ghost stories are there to read?
It began with M.R. James, and then I read ghost stories by [Rudyard] Kipling and Edith Wharton. The ghostliness of it, as well as coming from these influences, is very much from my own experiences having felt things and being very susceptible and having a very alive imagination in this realm. And I’m very scared—I get very scared very easily [laughs]. I don’t like staying anywhere on my own, I don’t like it if it’s too dark. This has been with me throughout my life, and it still is, at my age.
What made you want to turn your original idea into a gothic horror story?
That’s a very good question, and harder to answer in a way, because I’m not sure if I can remember exactly the stages of how that occurred. But it’s true that before I made The Souvenirs, there was a point where I wasn’t sure whether to make those two films and go back in time to my years as a film student, or to make a ghost story. I wanted to make a ghost story for some time, independent of the mother-daughter story, because of these fears that have accompanied me throughout my life.
I have loved Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, for example, and The Haunting, which is a really scary film. I don’t watch those films easily; I usually have to watch them with somebody else because, yeah, I get scared in those films. And particularly the more gothic ones where you don’t see so much; you don’t necessarily see the monster, but there’s a lot of atmosphere. There’s always this feeling that something is going to jump out of the shadows, and there’s something particularly scary that happens in The Innocents about a ghostly face through a window.
Were there any classic horror tropes you wanted to actively avoid with The Eternal Daughter?
I was actually enjoying the horror genre—well, not so much the horror genre, maybe just the ghost genre, if one can say that. I was interested in some of those tropes, actually, and it was a fine balance of indulging in those and then also telling this very emotional story. Even now, when I think about it, I’m not sure if I hit exactly the right balance, but I wanted it to be spooky and sort of a tip of the hat to the genre, but to also tell a very, very personal story of a relationship between a mother and daughter. In a way, the scary thing is the idea of losing your mother. That was really at the heart of it. The ghostly fears are very interwoven with these very primal fears about losing our parents.
When making autobiographical films, are you always, in a sense, dealing with ghosts?
I think that’s really true, because I think The Souvenirs are ghost stories. Exhibition is certainly a ghost story, and maybe Archipelago and Unrelated are too, in a way. I don’t think it was a conscious thing—or rather, it was a conscious thing to look at the genre more directly. That was conscious. But I’m not sure I thought about the other films as ghost stories before now, talking about The Eternal Daughter. I’m still trying to make sense of it, in a way. But I definitely thought, oh, I’m going to really enjoy making a genre film now.
I’m not sure the story is over. I mean, the story of The Eternal Daughter is over, but not the story of making ghost stories. The more I talk about them—like I’m talking to you now—the more I think there are so many more things I’d like to do that go deeper into the genre. Maybe where I become stuck a little is when it potentially becomes plot-driven. For me, there’s always a trade, if you’re going to have a plot with the character development. You’ve got to service the plot, and I’m not sure I’m very good at, or very desirous of, wanting to service that plot.
This is your third straight film about Julie, who’s again working on a film project about her life. How close of a proxy does she still feel to you?
It’s funny, because I find myself saying things that Julie says in the films, forgetting that she says them, because they come so much from my own approach or ideas or thoughts and feelings. I almost embarrass myself in really repeating something Julie might say about the difficulty of writing something personal, and her struggle. I feel her and her experience very deeply, even if it’s not completely me. But there’s enough of me in there to still have that motor going.
Do you think there’s more to explore with the character?
Yes, and funnily enough, that’s something I’ve been literally thinking about in the last few days. At the same time that I want to challenge myself and move onto pastures new, I’m also always back with myself—so there’s always going to be something of me traveling into those future films. Whether she’ll be called Julie or not, I’m not sure; possibly not. I haven’t really thought about this before, but increasingly, with the films, there’s been a sort of young female character who’s an artist that has her challenges and struggles and that is a little bit based on me. It’s not Antoine Doinel [François Truffaut’s recurring alter-ego, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud], but yeah, I definitely haven’t said goodbye to her yet.
Honor Swinton Byrne played Julie in The Souvenir films, but in this, you cast Tilda as both Julie and her mother Rosalind (the role she played in the first two movies). When did that idea come about?
In 2008, I hadn’t gotten to the casting stage yet, so I wasn’t yet talking to Tilda about it. But after we made The Souvenirs and she played Rosalind, which is obviously a younger version of the Rosalind in The Eternal Daughter, we were talking about The Eternal Daughter and I was telling her about the story that I wrote in 2008, and, in fact, I showed it to her. Then we were talking about who could play the elderly mother Rosalind—although she wasn’t called Rosalind—because Tilda and I were always talking about her playing the daughter. I can’t remember how that happened—the point where it made sense, and I couldn’t give them new names. They then became Julie and Rosalind, because there was such a connection with The Souvenirs.
Anyway, it was Tilda’s idea; she just suggested it. We were having many phone calls about this story, and she said one day on the phone, why don’t I play both parts? As soon as she said it, it just made so much sense. Five minutes later I thought, well, hang on, how am I going to work in the way I usually work—with improvisation and shooting in story order—with that conceit? So then I had a sort of double take, wondering if that was the right thing. Yet moving forward, we managed to shoot it in exactly the same way as I’d shot the other films.
What was the biggest logistical obstacle that came from Tilda playing both parts?
The biggest one was, who was Tilda going to talk to? Who was going to be there, and how was that going to work? My concern was that she wouldn’t have someone to talk to, across the table or wherever it was, that she didn’t know. Not to have an unfamiliar person, and not to have that over-the-shoulder shot that you see many times in Dead Ringers, for example, with Jeremy Irons. I’m aware, in a brilliant way, of somebody else in the room who’s not Jeremy Irons. So it was how to achieve a simplicity and for Tilda to feel very free as Rosalind or Julie, and not be hampered by this stranger sitting there.
I also realized that, cinematically, I wasn’t interested in the over-the-shoulder, or trickery. I wanted to make this with the least trickery possible. I had the idea with Ed Rutherford, who shot the film, of just shooting very clean portraits of the characters. By shooting that way, you rarely see them in the same frame—only three times, in fact—and that freed up a lot. But then it was down to, how to create the dialogue and how to match it when we went from Rosalind to Julie or vice versa, and what would happen. Tilda and I, having known each other since we were children, have had so many conversations over the years that we talked as Rosalind and Julie, and we created the basic structure of the dialogue in the first take, and then I would disappear and Tilda would be on her own, as one or the other.
Though you’ve expressed an interest in continuing with ghosts, are there any other genres that you might want to explore in the future, for similarly personal stories?
Interesting question, and I’ve only been thinking about it recently, but I’m coming up with ideas for something new, and it’s not going to be this genre. I realize that, for me, there’s a close relationship between a ghost story and science-fiction. Something in a sort of liminal space/world, its own world, but also a fear of the future, in a way. I can’t elaborate much more because I actually don’t know. But it’s that unknowingness that’s quite exciting.
But I assume it won’t be Star Wars.
Probably not, no [laughs].
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