Julie is struggling through film school when she meets Anthony, a charming but volatile diplomat. So begins The Souvenir, which explores their relationship in uncomfortable detail, requiring astonishing commitment from two young actors, Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke. This elegant, engrossing film is the latest from Joanna Hogg, one of the great British filmmakers of her generation, and her ultra-controlled, rigorously formal style meets its ideal subject matter: Hogg’s own life.
Metrograph is bringing The Souvenir to its screens for a revival run beginning August 16th – along with High Life, another A24 release you may have missed earlier this year. Hogg spoke to us from London, just days after wrapping production on The Souvenir Part II.
Austin Dale: I should start by asking about The Souvenir Part II. How did it go?
Joanna Hogg: Part II was great. I can’t give too much away, of course, but I think it was great to work with everyone again and figure out what was next for Julie. Anthony is all over the film, in a way, but it’s very different, and she’s discovering who she is as an artist, and then the last scene in the film is a music video.
AD: That’s interesting, because I read that you were very into musicals when you were a kid.
JH: Oh, yes, I was obsessed with them at a young age, and I think that's because my father had a connection with, particularly, American musicals, actually. He was an insurance broker, but he would go and do business in the States, and he would come back with music from musicals: I remember Mame or Hello, Dolly!. And I was a voracious television watcher, because when I was young, obviously I wasn't taking myself to the cinema. So I saw a lot of films on television, as well as later on in the cinema. But yes, it was films like Hello, Dolly!, High Society, Singin’ in the Rain. I had, one of my big passions was – well, two passions actually: one was Gene Kelly and the other was Frank Sinatra. So anything that involved either of those two, I was into.
AD: Another early influence for you was Derek Jarman, who was an important person in your life at a young age.
JH: Well, I first came across him through his work, and I think, probably the first film I saw of his was Jubilee, when it came out. And then whenever a film of his came out, I would go and see it. But I also, particularly, from a filmmaking perspective, responded to his Super-8 films, and that encouraged me to do my own work in Super-8. I saw him in a cafe that he frequented in Old Compton Street in Soho in London, and I braved it one day and went up to him. I knew that he was planning to make Caravaggio, and I asked if I could come and work on it.
But he was more interested in what I did, what I was creating, what I wanted to do, and he said, "Well, why don't you come and see me in my studio and bring some of your work?" And the work that I had wasn't films at that point. It was photographs, and I had some drawings. And I went to see him and he said, "Just start making films." And so, yeah, he encouraged me to start making films on Super-8.
AD: What was it that initially appealed to you about Super-8, specifically? Was it just that it was so accessible or was there an aesthetic quality for you?
JH: Well, I certainly did like the aesthetic quality, and I loved the quality of the Super-8 work that Derek did. But it was an economic thing. Even though I really felt like I needed some way to know more about filmmaking, and to be shooting real films, I couldn't afford to shoot on 16 at all. Super-8 was all I could get a hold of.
Initially, in fact, it was Derek Jarman who lent me his Super-8 Nizo camera. I think I was very nervous that something would happen to it. But anyway, I borrowed it, and then eventually got my own Nizo, which I used in The Souvenir, and some of my Super-8 is actually in the film. That was really fun to use work that had just been in a dusty drawer somewhere and put it into the film. And also was a way of tapping into that time and the feeling and passion of the early '80s.
AD: Speaking of the early '80s… One of the things that stood out to me immediately about The Souvenir was the variety of the music. So I'd love to hear a little bit about the soundtrack and setting the mood for the film, because the mood is so specific.
JH: Yes, it’s true. I wanted to capture the mood of that time through the music, as opposed to the visual design of the film. I didn't want to fetishize the 1980s, so I felt if I did it musically, it would create a different sensation. And I wanted to use tracks that had a resonance for me that, when I listen to them now, conjure up memories from that time. So I use them like musical madeleines, in a way. They definitely evoke a time and a sensation. So, even before I decided to use the music in the film, I was listening to certain tracks as I was writing, songs by Joe Jackson for example, and that would give me a sensation of that particular point in time. Most of the music is music that I listened to back then, particularly Bluebeard, the Bartok opera. That was extremely specific to that time too, and was the favorite music of the man I had that relationship with, the man on whom The Souvenir is based.
AD: So how close does The Souvenir come to straight-up autobiography?
JH: Very, I would say. It certainly started out that way when I wrote it. I put everything I could remember of that time into this story. And I had a relationship very much like the one Julie has in the film. It coincided with going to film school, and it distracted me from film school. But the relationship was its own film school itself, in a way. And despite the relationship, and Anthony taking advantage of Julie, I feel that there is something she's getting from him that she's taking, that she's grabbing hold of from him, in terms of inspiration about a certain kind of cinema, and actually encouragement from him, to find her voice as a filmmaker.
So, yes, all of that is very much from my own life, in a way I hadn't done with the other films. And yet, the way that I work is: I open myself up to what's happening around me, and to the people I cast. I'll write the film as we're working. I'm often writing as we're shooting a scene. So that then allows other things to come in that I couldn't have imagined, or couldn't have remembered, because other people, or other non-actors are channeling my story. But sometimes, it would be very strangely aligned to exactly what happened to me, or how something happened to me, even though those collaborators couldn't have possibly known. So, in a way, it felt like I was channeling something. Particularly in Part II, there's a point where I just had to enact whatever came to my mind, and what comes to other people's minds. It takes on a life of its own, working in that way.
AD: Can you talk a little bit about your collaborators on this project? I'm curious about your relationship with your DP. Visually, it’s quite amazing.
JH: Yes, David Raedeker. That was the first time I'd worked with him. In fact, the cinematographer that I'd worked with on my previous two films pulled out at the last moment for personal reasons, and I was actually devastated. I thought the film almost wouldn't survive. It was like the break up of a relationship. I can't describe to you how that felt. It was like the bottom of my creative life had come out, and I tend to rely on my collaborators. There’s a family of us. I've got a designer that I've worked with for about 14 years now, an editor I've worked with for about the same period of time, an assistant director. It's a very tight little family.
So I had to look around, and I came across David. From the offset it was a very good collaboration and I soon forgot my woes. I think it was really good for me as well. I think the cinema family thing can get too comfy sometimes, and so it's quite good to look outside and think, "Yeah, well, I can work with other people." I find that what is important for me is that I work with somebody who is going to help take my creativity to where I feel quite free and unselfconscious, where things can flow freely, and communication is good. I like a very calm set. And because I am writing, as I said, as we're shooting, it's very immersive, so every minute counts. It's the process of doing the work, not just the result of what one's doing.
AD: I know you have a long professional relationship with Tilda, but I was completely astounded by Honor in the film. I imagine you've known her for a while, as she's grown up. When did you decide that she was right for the film?
JH: Only about two and a half weeks before the shoot. That's not unusual for me. I've done that before. I'd decided that I wouldn't do that with The Souvenir, and that I would find my Julie months in advance so she can research being a filmmaker and photography, and immerse herself in the story and my former, younger self. And of course that didn't happen. I attempted to find somebody at an earlier stage, but Honor just simply hadn't occurred to me, because Honor had never expressed an interest to be an actress. So that occurred very, very late.
I really found it difficult to find someone who could believably be this young, budding filmmaker in the early 1980s. Young women were very different to how they are now. Now, I met a number of actresses, and I just felt, well they're too much part of this selfie generation. I wanted somebody almost a little bit more old fashioned, or not self-conscious in that way that young people are now.
AD: This is her first time acting in a film. What are the specific challenges there?
JH: I have to say, when I know someone hasn't done a film before, or been in front of a movie camera before, it excites me, because I feel that there's a discovery to make. There's an element of risk, obviously, but I love that. I love risk which doesn't really feel like a risk at the time. It just feels exciting, like I'm going to discover something.
Honor was so open to the adventure, without knowing what it was going to be, in any shape or form. She just knew a little bit about me, at that time, but nothing about the relationship that would unfold or even that the story was about a relationship. So it takes a lot of bravery. She did an amazing thing in throwing herself into this story in the way that she did.
AD: Was there a day of shooting, or a specific scene, that stands out as a particularly difficult one?
JH: Yeah, good question. It wasn't difficult, but here’s just an example of how different relationships are now, in a way. I'm thinking of the moment when Rosalind, Julie's mother, receives the phone call about Anthony's death. She comes down the stairs and tells Julie. And the instinct from both of them was to embrace and for Rosalind to console Julie, and for Julie to break down. And so we did a few takes. I like doing a first take anyway, where I just see what happens. I don't give them any direction. I just say this is the setting, and you're going to get a phone call, and then I let the rest unfold. And then after the first take, I start moving things around, I start changing things, to get more of what I'm after.
After the first, very emotional take, I said that I wanted Julie to restrain herself, to not break down, but to hold in what she's feeling, not express the emotion from outside, and for Rosalind not to move forward and physically embrace Julie. It wasn't just that I wanted restraint. It was just about how relationships – well, certainly my relationship with my mother – was at that time. It wasn't particularly physical. It was a very loving one, but not particularly demonstrative one. There was a lot held back. Yeah, holding back the feelings, not expressing it.
AD: Coming out of film school, what kind of challenges did you face as you got started?
JH: It was a long and winding road from film school. My first job was a pop video, and I got signed up with a production company making pop videos and commercials. So I started off in that way, which I found quite exciting. But I had very ambitious ideas for films, much too ambitious for what I was capable of doing at the time. And that was my stumbling block actually. It was my ambition to work on quite a big scale and not compromise in any way. It had to be 35mm or nothing. Yeah, it would be crazy if I describe to you the films that I wanted to make.
But at the same time as I had this ambition, I was also lacking in confidence. Which is typical of that point in your life, maybe. Anyway, I had these duel: the conflicting ambitions and lack of confidence. And no encouragement from the film school I went to. And only, the only message I took, really, from the film school, was that I should lower my sights. I'm sure the word frivolous was used at some point, but I was advised not to have such fantastic ideas, and get experience with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking: working with actors and shooting on a budget. And that led me to television, for about 12 years. It was always paid well, and very satisfying from that point of view, but very rarely was it creatively satisfying.
Between jobs, I would always keep going on my feature film ideas. I was determined never to make a film using digital means, because that was starting to come into the picture, and that I absolutely frowned upon. But after 12 years, I suddenly saw my future, not as a filmmaker, but as a TV director, or maybe not even that. I just thought, "Well, maybe I'm never going to make the films I dream of making?" I think at that moment, when I thought that was never going to happen, I began to make it happen, and also began to compromise. "Well, okay, I can't raise the money to shoot on 35. I need to just do something on digital." There was a producer called Barbara Stone, and David Stone, her husband. Barbara really encouraged me. I remember at one point I said to her, "I really want to make my own film. I'm going to make a short film." She said, "Don't be ridiculous. Why do you want to make a short film? You've got so much experience. Just make a feature film." And that was Unrelated.
AD: So when we started talking, you mentioned that you shot a music video for the finale of The Souvenir Part II. Do you still think about musicals? Do you want to make a musical one day?
JH: I do, actually, yes. Part II goes into very new territory, even from Part I, in terms of a cinema of imagination. I'm excited about doing something there.