After a trio of impressive films that arrived fairly quietly to the United States, Joanna Hogg’s fourth film marks a genuine breakthrough for the director, in both expanding her scope in a singular way and delivering a story with immense emotion. As I noted in my review from the Sundance world premiere, The Souvenir tells both a painful addiction story and a behind-the-scenes look at film school struggles as we follow Julie (a beautiful debut performance by Honor Swinton Byrne). The daughter of Tilda Swinton (who also briefly turns up), Swinton Byrne is in every scene, and steals them all. Akin to the revelatory introduction to Tom Hiddleston in Hogg’s first two films, Unrelated and Archipelago, she is the lifeblood of The Souvenir, which follows doomed lovers in a story that is conveyed with feels mined from achingly personal memories.
Through her abstract, painterly compositions and improvisational approach, the British director has a keen desire to remove all artifice from her films, stripping away clichés to get to the emotional essence of each scene. It’s how we started off our conversation, which also led to casting Richard Ayoade, working with Honor Swinton Byrne, and what to expect in the sequel. Read our conversation below.
Can you talk about the process of getting to the heart of the story and of the characters and each moment?
Joanna Hogg: It starts with my writing. Very much my aim at the beginning of each film is to start with the getting to the heart of the story. Then when I’m writing that’s what happens. Then when I’m working on each scene I always have in mind this depth that I’m looking for but you never know what you’re gonna get when your shooting. My screenplay is a series of notes to myself really to get each time to that place each time that I want to get too. I’m glad and reassured that you see it that way because I’m about to embark on a second part. It feels like something from scratch each time. I have this moment of memory loss of how I make a film.
You mentioned in an interview for Exhibition that you had this history with television and you had to unlearn everything you learned in television to make films. Does that help that each time it feels like fresh new experience?
I think it’s probably a good thing. It’s not good for the nervous system, but I think it’s good. It stops me from sitting back and feeling like I’ve done anything before. It really is like your making the first film over and over again.
With this film especially as compared to the other ones, you’re revisiting some of your own memories, using your own older footage and recreating this apartment. Going through the past, was it feelings of warm nostalgia or other kinds of feelings?
It’s strange to confront one’s younger self. It’s something I haven’t done in such a direct way before. There is something about not just revisiting who I was but also looking at the project I wanted to make at that time. Quite exciting to use the material that didn’t seem like it was going to see the light of day. I found that I became inspired by some of the ideas I had back then. My present body into my younger body moment.
Joanna Hogg’s conversation with Martin Scorsese.
I love Richard Ayoade. I was curious how he came on board. He kind of steals the scene he’s in.
He just dropped me as being the right man to play that part. Also, I connected with that he’s a filmmaker in his own right and he’s made some wonderful films. When I’m casting, depending on what that character does for a living or what he’s occupied with I try not to stray too far from reality. For a film director to play a film director makes a lot of sense to me. I’m a big fan of The IT Crowd and a lot of other works he’s done in front of the camera.
For Honor Swinton Byrne, this is a revelatory performance. I know you prepped a lot with her, but you didn’t show her all of the script. Can you talk about watching her blossom on set or beforehand and what it was like to see this almost transformative experience people will have seeing her?
It’s hard to see it the way that you see it or other people will see it in the finished work. We’re all working together, so I don’t sit outside what I’m doing. I’m thinking, “Honor is amazing,” but I’m not making any judgments good or bad outside of that because we are living and breathing the same story. Sometimes your acting in the dark a bit, and other times we are very clear about where we are going. When you’re working on individual things you don’t know how the whole thing is going to come together. But I was aware from the first day that Honor, without a script or any idea of the story, was falling into the film scene by scene in an incredibly easy way. The information she got she gathered from each scene.
Seeing your films in a row earlier this year, it reminded me a bit of Lucrecia Martel’s films, especially her most recent film Zama. With each new shot, your mind has to adjust expectations in a really exciting way. You never know what’s going to happen next. I was wondering if she is a filmmaker you admire or you see any connection there?
Yeah, I mean I’ve seen Zama and maybe I didn’t see that connection you did except that I really loved the film and I really admired her work since her first film. I’ve seen all her films and I met her. I had the pleasure of meeting her a year ago. She’s very much on her own path and we are quite different as filmmakers, but I really admire her work.
You do lot with mirrors and different angles, like it’s a beautiful painting with each new shot. I’m curious how you came up with some of those ideas.
I suppose that it’s just reacting in the moment when we are shooting a scene. So I don’t plan or plot that much of how I’m going to shoot. It’s just how I work with my crew and just the ideas that come up at the time. I have a background in photography so I do have an eye for a particular kind of frame and I work with some wonderful cinematographers who share a particular way of looking. I’m not conscious of trying for any effect, it’s just trying to challenge myself and those around me. It’s the immediacy of working that’s exciting to me–not knowing where it’s going to go. Sometimes it’s quite scary not having a plan, but there’s always some kind of safety net around it. That’s where that digging deep is so useful when I’m writing and coming up with an idea, because that digging deep allows me then to springboard into the shoot and a particular way of looking the kind of things I’m looking for. So rather than thinking about making a beautiful image, it’s about the characters and how they are interacting in the scene and watching those things. In The Souvenir, we have the gift in that flat in that wall of mirror tiles. It was exciting to use that, to shoot through the mirrors and find different angles in the apartment where we were spending so much time.
Looking ahead, I know you’re probably still prepping the sequel, but you announced some of the cast, Robert Pattinson is joining. This movie ends with one of the most beautiful ending shots and I’m curious what kind of ideas you’re playing with next and if you’re excited to bring some new faces to this universe.
It’s definitely a new phase. The second film will be a film in its own right, you shouldn’t have to see the films as a pair. I’m challenging myself in the next film to not just sit back on the ideas I’ve developed in part one but to really move forward and take new risks. Of course, there’s a danger that those who like part one might find things in part two different. They might like it more or less, but I can’t really think about that. It’s quite strange for me to be promoting part one at the point I’m jumping off into part two, which is why I’m not reading anything about part one. I don’t want it to scare me in a way. I want to continue to take risks and connect it to part one and that it’s a continuation of Julie’s life as a film student and as a filmmaker and we go a lot more into the territory of filmmaking.
The Souvenir opens on May 17. Watch a conversation with Hogg and the Swintons above.