‘No One Wants to Talk About Mortality’

The British director Joanna Hogg on death, mothers, and the allure of memoir movies

Photo collage of stills from Joanna Hogg's films, featuring Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne
A24; The Atlantic

Joanna Hogg is probably the most understated filmmaker to currently have an entire cinematic universe revolving around her. The British director emerged with her 2007 debut feature, Unrelated, which had an autobiographical tinge, and went on to make two other brilliantly quiet interpersonal dramas, Archipelago and Exhibition. But it was with 2019’s The Souvenir that Hogg began to build out an interconnected series that blurs the line between fiction and memoir. She drew from her own life in telling the story of Julie, a young film student in the 1980s who embarks on a formative, if disastrous, relationship while trying to find her artistic voice.

In that movie, and its sequel (2021’s The Souvenir Part II), Julie was played by Honor Swinton Byrne, and her mother, Rosalind, was played by Tilda Swinton, Honor’s real-life mother. Hogg’s next project, The Eternal Daughter, now in theaters and available on demand, is one she’s long considered filming. Set closer to the present day at Christmastime, it follows a mother and daughter who visit an old hotel and sift through sometimes-fraught memories together. Hogg knew she wanted to tell a story about facing the mortality and vulnerability of one’s parents. But only late in its development did she decide to name the characters Julie and Rosalind, suggesting that they’re older versions of the Souvenir characters.

“I toyed with that thought—is this a good idea? It’s not the third part of a trilogy,” Hogg told me of The Eternal Daughter. “But then they were embodying so much, those characters at a later stage in life, it just seemed to be pointless to create other names. It didn’t feel right. Names are really important in films.” She chuckled when I told her she was creating a “Hogg-verse” of sorts. The idea of a film series existing inside one giant story has become the norm for studio blockbusters, but it’s a notion that more independent directors have indulged in, especially ones with comic-booky inclinations: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, M. Night Shyamalan.

Hogg, though, has created an art-house version almost by accident, and the ongoing experiment feels more literary in nature. Even though The Eternal Daughter can be enjoyed on its own, it’s fascinating to consider the movie’s links to her past work, and to her own life, especially given that Hogg has once again cast her longtime friend Tilda Swinton. This time, Swinton plays a dual role: both Julie and Rosalind. Julie is now a more established artist, doting on Rosalind in her older age.

When Hogg first wrote The Eternal Daughter in 2008, she felt too close to the material to film it at the time. “I attempted to make it then, but I felt too bad for my mother,” she said. “We often went on trips together to stay at hotels, sometimes near relatives, and so it was very directly taken from that experience with her.” Like Julie in the film, Hogg felt guilty about portraying such a fresh moment in a real-life relationship. So the director explored her family tensions in other ways through her art, putting some of her ideas into Archipelago and then creating the Souvenir films, by which point the mother in The Eternal Daughter was beginning to morph into Rosalind. “There was something about Rosalind in the Souvenirs that was so interesting, both to myself and to Tilda,” Hogg said. “We wanted to know more about that character. And, of course, Rosalind is partly based on my mother, so my mother is still present all along. But [the delay] made it possible to have a little bit more distance.”

The other major change she made from her 2008 conception of the project was to turn it into a ghost story. The hotel Julie and Rosalind are staying in is devoid of other guests, and the hallways are full of spooky noises and apparitions. “The ghost-story [element] really came about partly from my mother aging, and me thinking a lot more about mortality both for myself and for her,” Hogg said. She “was still alive when I was making the film … so I still had to face this thing of what will she think? Will I show it to her? But then, sadly, she died while we were editing.”

That loss is a melancholy coda to Hogg’s initial trepidation about making The Eternal Daughter. But during our conversation, I got the sense that the director is most inspired when she’s tapping into her past to tell stories. “In a strange way, [it] replaces the real memories. Or becomes a confusion of memory and reality,” she said of her storytelling style, where names might be changed but specific scenes feel raw and distinctly honest, as though plucked from her mind and beamed onto the screen. In The Souvenir, Hogg delved into an old relationship, and in the sequel, she dramatized her youthful attempt to then make a film about that relationship—a piece of self-reflection so complex, it feels more like a hall of mirrors, warping the truth into something cinematically compelling.

“I find it very hard to get away from that transference, of my life or my experience and the work. But I think there’s a need in me as a creator in having some basis of truth in everything that I do,” Hogg admitted. “So if I make a thriller, it will have to connect with feelings of mine, or some particular experience. It’s like some kind of foundation that I need that I can’t really articulate fully.” Still, she said, it was Swinton’s idea to play both roles, in part because the actor felt similarly connected to the material. Over the years, the pair had discussed their mothers and the experiences of feeling like outsiders in their own families. Though The Eternal Daughter is largely gentle in tone, it’s suffused with the kind of English tension Hogg specializes in—awkward pauses and benign-sounding chitchat that tiptoes around deeper, darker feelings. In The Eternal Daughter, Julie and Rosalind are clearly close, but Julie is also anxious about her mother’s frailty, and worries that she’s failed her by seeking an artistic life rather than a more traditional family-centric one.

Setting the film at Christmas only heightens that anxiety. “The pressure to be all happy and jolly is really excruciating,” Hogg told me. “The inability of both of them to name what’s really going on—that’s the excruciating part for me, that situation where you’re feeling something, or you know something inside, but you can’t voice it.” Though Julie and Rosalind love each other, both are scared of the end; Julie is afraid of losing her mother and Rosalind is afraid of dying. “No one wants to talk about mortality, and I regret to this day that I was never able to have that conversation with my mother,” Hogg continued. “I was too fearful of it … I didn’t want to upset her by bringing it up. But it would have been on her mind, and it would have maybe been a relief to have a conversation about it. But it just didn’t happen.”

For all of her films, Hogg has a specific process to make raw emotions more dramatically nuanced and naturalistic. She doesn’t use a typical screenplay while she’s filming. She instead writes a plot “document” that lays out the story structure, visual ideas, and character backstories; most of the dialogue is improvised on the day of shooting. For The Eternal Daughter, Hogg imagined that her approach wouldn’t work, given that Swinton plays both major characters and is onscreen almost the entire time. “But it worked, and Tilda was able to improvise as one character and then the other, and keep the sense of the scene,” she said. The movie doesn’t rely on the usual Parent Trap–style camera trickery to have both characters onscreen; instead it largely isolates them within the frame even when they’re in the room together.

Composing scenes this way, Hogg said, helps audiences “see Julie and Rosalind as individuals,” as does Swinton’s ability to embody them. “I still see them as different people and don’t look and go, ‘That’s Tilda twice,’” Hogg said. The two have known each other since Swinton was 10 years old and Hogg was 11 (they’re both now 62); in 1986 Swinton was the star of Hogg’s student-thesis film, Caprice, an electrifying watch to this day. When I asked Hogg what Swinton was like as a kid, she laughed. “I don’t know how much we’ve changed. It’s an incredible thing to know someone for that long, even if you’re not working with them,” she said. “It’s really nice that we’re both presenting something together that we’ve made. And we’ve been through both our challenges and difficulties over the years … but our friendship’s been very constant.”

Whether Rosalind or Julie will return for Hogg’s next project is unknown, but whatever the director pursues next will have at least some link to her other films. “I won’t say any more, but it’s tempting to hang on to some names from the past,” Hogg said. “I’m enjoying the connections. And I’m always doing diagrams when I work out the structure. One can do a sort of diagram that connects all the films together … It’s one piece of work, in a way, and will continue to be.” The one-of-a-kind Hogg-verse endures and, with each film, solidifies its status as one of the more important cinematic contributions of recent memory.