The critically acclaimed Unrelated
In the past 12 months small British films from debut filmmakers have started to make a big noise again. With Hunger by Steve McQueen winning the Camera d'Or and Duane Hopkins' startling Better Things causing a critical stir in Critics Week. The current resurgence, however, arguably began with Joanna Hogg's excellent and unusual Unrelated, which was a surprise winner of the International Federation of Film Critics' (FIPRESCI) award at last year's London Film Festival.
Despite garnering glory there, it has taken a year for it to make its way – via several additional festivals – to a cinema (and now a DVD player) near you, but it is certainly worth the wait. And waiting, it might be said, is something that Joanna is not afraid to do, since despite a lengthy career in television – including episodes for Casualty and EastEnders: Dot's Story - this is the first time she has committed her thoughts to celluloid.
"It was something I'd had attempts at for the last few years," she says. "I'd stop after a [TV] job and think, gosh, I really want to do something that's more from my own heart and something independent. So I'd have attempts at it, and for whatever reason – either because I'd get involved in another television job too attractive to turn down or I'd convince myself I couldn't do it or I wasn't ready to do it or something and go on to the next thing.
"It could have happened sooner and it didn't. I'm not sure why it happened in that moment in time, but various things were going on in my life and I thought, well, bloody well get on and do it now or you'll never do it. So I sort of forced myself, which sounds like a punishment but obviously it wasn't."
This last qualification is quite typical of our conversation, Joanna chooses her words carefully. She puts the same sort of attention to detail to good use when selecting shots for her film, which tells the story of fortysomething Anna (played by Kathryn Worth, also enjoying a 'late debut'), who undergoes a midlife crisis while on a bourgeois holiday with friends in Italy.
The choice of an older protagonist, though on the rise these days, is not something that necessarily guarantees bums on seats, or cash funding, so was it a tough choice?
"That was really important to me. It was coming out of my own experiences at the time so, naturally, as someone in my forties it was going to come out of that experience. It wasn't that I thought, I'm making a film about a woman in her forties, I thought, I'm making a film reflecting some of the issues I'm dealing with in my own life. I'm very much inspired by things going on at a particular time for me. I tend not to think back to, say, my twenties."
The film, although chiefly focusing on Anna's reassessment of her own life, also shines a spotlight on family dynamics, both good and bad – and the decision to take all the cast 15 minutes south of Sienna and keep them there for the duration of the eight-week shoot has paid dividends in terms of the characters' rapport.
"If we had had actors dipping in for an odd day here and there I think it would have created a very different kind of atmosphere," adds Joanna. "It was great. There becomes a grey area between what's the film and what's a trip away from home in a really good way."
This same sort of intimacy helped Joanna to explore the issues she wanted.
"Why I wanted to make the film with a small amount of people and without the sort of usual pressures was because I was interested in expressing something quite personal. So I know I wanted to find the right arena in which to do that. It's hard to be dealing with your own personal stuff, within limitations and budgets, so I wanted to keep it very small so I could explore those ideas and not feel inhibited in doing that."
The result is a film with a remarkable amount of depth, which may in part be down to the fact that Joanna doesn't finish the script before filming begins. But, she is again at pains to qualify, that does not necessarily mean that huge chunks are improvised – although the cadence of the end result has an admirable ring of truth.
"I'm always loathe to call it improvisation because I think it conjures up an image of a way of working which is not necessarily the way I work. It's more that I wrote the script - so I wrote a lot of the dialogue – but when I'm filming I've got very much an ear to what sounds real and authentic.
"So then I allow, as we're going along, the actors to put things in their own words and I'll encourage them to take things further. But it's very much an instinctual thing as we're going along, I'm not planning for them to improvise but that's how it worked out. Particularly with the teenagers - it's a long time since I was a teenager – so I want to hear them string words together in a way that makes sense for that particular character at that age. I definitely encourage that within tight parameters.
"I'm not saying that improvising is bad, but it's not like the process is thoroughly improvised and there are some scenes that are taken from the page.
"I wanted to put the actors into a situation where it felt very real for them, so they could react in a very natural way."
Winning the FIPRESCI, she confesses, was "a complete surprise", and it's clear that returning to work on the small screen is no longer on the agenda.
"I'm afraid I don't want to go. I don't want to go back to directing something that isn't of my own creation, really."
Just as well, then, that she is already some way into her next project.
"I'm working on something new, which continues some of the same themes from Unrelated and takes those themes into slightly different realms. Still about family, about a character of a similar age – because that's what I am still – and reflecting, a bit, where I am now.
"That sounds like I'm doing a diary of my personal life and it's not like that, but I find that when I'm writing it is very much a thing of soul-searching and digging deep into certain aspects of my own life. But then by the time you're starting to make the film and you cast it, it extends outside of yourself, which is the really beautiful thing for me, otherwise it would just be too intense.
"It's much more about finding an emotional truth and that isn't an autobiographical approach. There is imagination at play. With Unrelated there are a lot of things in there that I've never experienced in my life. But they come from something that's very real and truthful.
"I'm actually quite far into the process at the moment. It's exciting, so I'm totally immersed in that. From a writing point of view because I only take the script to a certain point, because I like to shoot in story order, I like to have the ability to change events and stories as I go along. From a practical point of view can be quite difficult to organise. But if you have a story that's in quite a contained geographical area then I think it's a really great way of working."