The Welsh Estate in Joanna Hogg's 'The Eternal Daughter' Had Its Own Transformation
The location, currently a wedding venue, went back to its haunted origins, courtesy of production designer Stéphane Collonge.
During her stay at Soughton Hall, an 18th century Welsh stately home, for the production of her latest film The Eternal Daughter, director Joanna Hogg saw eerie shadows passing under her bedroom door. Her line producer was disturbed by bad dreams. The sound recordist felt a hand touching them through toile de Jouy wallpaper. “We all got a bit frenzied,” says Hogg, who admittedly doesn’t do well with the supernatural. There have been a few tales of Soughton Hall’s spectral presences over the years, hinted at by one of the building’s directors Sarah Ramsbottom. “I’ve heard housekeeping staff talk of things being moved occasionally and something playing tricks on them,” she says, cautious of saying too much for fear of scaring off future guests.
Despite all of this, the location was the perfect atmospheric site for the British director’s venture into ghost story territory for The Eternal Daughter, a haunting and expressive portrait of a daughter reckoning with her relationship to her mother. Across Hogg's body of work, reflections on her own life have been depicted through space as much as through narrative—for her previous two films The Souvenir Part I and II, for example, the filmmaker and her team recreated the London apartment that Hogg lived in as a film student for the character of Julie, a semi-fictionalized version of the younger Hogg. The Eternal Daughter is another of the director's films that layers fiction with personal history, drawing on her experiences and memories of her own mother and places that were important to them. “These are places and often they're places that I knew well before we made a film in them,” Hogg says, bristling slightly at any use of the word “location” to describe her film’s settings. “The starting point is a place that I want to revisit and so they have a very personal resonance.”
For The Eternal Daughter, the director wasn’t attempting to create another replica of a space she once knew but to find somewhere with the right kind of architecture and atmosphere for the gothic narrative she wanted to explore. It was during a “really crude,” as Hogg puts it, Google search for the most haunted houses in the UK that the filmmaker discovered the property. She quickly adds that she didn’t actually want to shoot in the most haunted place she could find—“I’d have been too terrified to do that.” In the film, Tilda Swinton plays both mother Rosalind and daughter Julie, a twisting, metatextual continuation of both her and her real-life daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne’s roles in The Souvenir Part I and II. For Rosalind and Julie in The Eternal Daughter, their visit to Soughton Hall’s fictional counterpart, the Moel Famau Hotel, is both a retreat for Rosalind’s birthday and a chance to revisit what was once her family home. In reality and in the film, the building has undergone several redevelopments and is no longer a domestic property, feeding into the complexity of Hogg’s story and the tension between what the house once meant for Rosalind and the hotel it is now.
Soughton Hall had never been used as a film or television set before—surprising given its striking architectural beauty. The Georgian house was built in 1720 and was later remodeled, a commission given to the architect Sir Charles Barry who would go on to design the Houses of Parliament. The owner at the time was a keen traveler and wanted the house to reflect his interests in Islamic architecture and North African design. As such, while there is a clear British sensibility in the grandeur of the property, details such as the reddish brick, curved windows, and turrets in the landscaped gardens add a compelling internationality. During the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, the hall, now a commercial wedding venue, was left deserted. It was an ideal opportunity then, and a silver lining for Ramsbottom, to use the space for the film. “We normally host 120 or so weddings a year, so filming during any other time would be impossible,” she says. “Whole rooms were being repurposed, one of the bedrooms became a prosthetics room for example. You just couldn’t do that with weddings going on.”
Production designer Stéphane Collonge, who has worked with Hogg on all of her films, explains that the contrast between the old and the new was ultimately crucial for The Eternal Daughter. “The interesting thing with what we've been doing all these years is that we always start with the real place,” he says. “We didn’t just want to go to a scary location, the real place had so much interesting history. It was quite elegant, it was the right size, and it was also a bit of a mishmash of different styles. We really liked that and the way it looked as a very grand family home, but we were also attracted by that contrast of what it was and how it has now been turned into a bit of a wedding factory.” In an early scene as the mother and daughter arrive at the hotel, Julie notices an unflattering marquee placed in the gardens. The stark clash between this feature of the space and the rest of its historic architecture was something Hogg and Collonge had to also reckon with. “We had the shock that Julie has in the film, which was seeing that marquee and then realizing we weren't going to be able to get rid of it,” Hogg says. “So it had to be part of the story and then I became fascinated with how they'd quite crudely chopped a wall away in order to fit the marquee on the back.”
The building’s own layered history inspired Hogg’s narrative as much as it housed it, and the filmmaker found herself using more of both the contemporary and historical features of the property in the story. The team found someone living locally who had grown up in the property and shared old photographs of other previous residents. “I was really fascinated by a photograph of one of the owners,” Hogg adds, “who was then quite elderly in this room in which everything was at such a large scale around her, the total opposite to her. Somehow those photographs became a bit of backstory for the family in the film.”
So much so, Collonge adds, that if you look closely you’ll find those actual photographs and some recreations adorning the hotel walls in the film. While both Hogg and Collonge are keen for the production design work to go unnoticed—“you’re not meant to see what we’ve done” says Collonge—there is a fascinating complexity in how the space became one with the narrative. “We dressed quite a lot in the front part of the house, pretty much everything, because we wanted to make it more rich in history. At the same time, we would feature how it has been converted with the exit signs with green lights and we would dress in fire extinguishers. And how many hotels do you see where the reception is in the staircase? We extended the existing staircase and created the piece of furniture to house the room keys. The interesting thing about that is that they really loved it and they kept those features. The place has really strong traces of the film now, so it’s now real.”
With the story integrating the real history of the space, and the space now retaining traces of the story, there is a warm, holistic feel to the film. It only emerged for Hogg later on, just how scarily apt much of the location had been. In one final uncanny coincidence (or not?), Hogg uncovered the perfect detail connecting it all together. “I discovered only recently that my own family house had the same toile de Jouy wallpaper when my parents moved in and my mother hated it!”