It’s early morning in LA and Joanna Hogg is looking back. It is a process the filmmaker has grown accustomed to in recent years, not least with her latest film. Less a sequel to its acclaimed predecessor than a mirror––even a Matryoshka––and examination of how people remember things, or how they might choose for them to be remembered, The Souvenir Part II reintroduces the viewer to Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), now deep in mourning for her doomed lover Anthony, an enigma to whom she has devoted her graduation film. Layers beget layers: “I got so many ideas from that first shoot,” Hogg says over Zoom, “and the second part is a response to that shoot. It’s almost like I’m making some kind of documentation of that experience that I had had, not just the characters within the story.”
Born in London in 1960, Hogg studied at the National Television and Film School and honed her craft working in TV for much of the ‘90s. Only after did she move to features, directing an early string of exceptional films—Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010), Exhibition (2013)—that took a fine comb to the inner lives of the British middle class. For The Souvenir, released in 2019, the director took a slightly different route and enjoyed her widest success, telling a semi-autobiographical story that was both a coming-of-age tale and romantic tragedy.
Opening to great acclaim at Cannes and NYFF, The Souvenir Part II returns us to that world while picking away at its conventions: “Part II jumps off into new territory for me that isn’t necessarily based on how I was as a student,” Hogg explains. “There’s a lot more invention, which is maybe where the feeling of experiment comes from. I didn’t feel like I was stuck with my own life. It travels in different directions, in new directions, and that felt really exciting.”
The conversation has been edited and condensed for quality.
The Film Stage: In some ways it feels like your most experimental film. And quite different from Part I, despite you having written both parts around the same time. How did those experimentations develop?
Joanna Hogg: I like that you see it as experimental. I’m always sort of pushing the way that I do some things. I knew that it would have to encompass a lot, but I don’t know what it is that makes it feel that way. All of us, the crew and the cast, we felt like we were making one big student film in a way. It had that kind of atmosphere of discovery, of trying out new things, not knowing how things were going to work, deciding things at the very last minute.
So it had this sort of chaos—maybe not quite the chaos of Julie’s shoot, but something of that. It was fun and really challenging, every day we were shooting what felt like a different film in a way.
It’s no less moving than the first. There is this scene when Julie breaks her mother’s sugar bowl, I can still hear the gasps from the audience in Cannes. Could you have predicted how powerful that would be?
Well, you never know really, but you sort of hope there will be some investment in it. It’s one of those scenes that are kind of tricky to get right. But I really like that, when something so subtle can have that reaction.
Did you consider it a sequel? Are there any you’re fond of?
It is a sequel, in a way, but it was always planned to be two films so it wasn’t something I thought about. I tend to steer clear of them, but The Godfather Part I and II are kind of necessary to each other. Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, they feel like two films in a way, but not the traditional sequel I guess.
It brought to mind some of the Iranian films of the 90s: Kiarostami, A Moment of Innocence, stuff like that. I was wondering if you thought about them, that idea of going back and directing a pivotal moment from your life, in the way Julie is doing?
I’m very fond of Kiarostami and I’m very sorry that he’s not around anymore. It’s true. I didn’t go back and look at those films but they probably had such an impact on me at the time that they were somewhere around in my subconscious—as were other more obvious works, like 8 ½, Day for Night. I am interested in films about films.
Were you looking to subvert the idea of the “film within a film” in some way?
I don’t know about subvert. I like the idea of subverting that idea. The thing is, it was so much a part of the story—it’s so much a part of the fabric of the main film—that it wasn’t something that I could sort of lift out and think about in a different way. It was all about Julie responding to what had happened to her and learning to express herself and express something that had happened to her. I just always thought, with Part I, that they are kind of a negative / positive or positive / negative of each other, and the film within the film, or the dream within the film—either one would describe it—is within that story.
I knew that I didn’t want to show the film that we see Julie making; I wanted to push the idea further, and that experimental thing that you mention is maybe part of that. That comes from me pushing myself. Everyone around me, we were all very excited about getting to that point where we were going to shoot Julie’s “dream” film. Everyone wanted to know what it would be exactly, what sets were going to be built and what the costumes were going to be, and I wasn’t able to decide on the details of it until we literally came to shoot it. So it was done very spontaneously, contrary to how it appears.
The interview we see at the end is taken almost verbatim from one you did at the time. How much did Julie’s graduation film also echo your own?
The film was inspired by my graduation film from film school. Where it differs is that my graduation film from film school didn’t speak about the relationship that I’d been through. It was personal but in a different way. It was about self-identification and accepting yourself, on some level, but it didn’t deal with the relationship. I knew that I wanted Julie to make this film. I knew that I wanted her to examine the relationship from Part I, and that was partly the experience of shooting Part I, making me think about that.
Anthony’s absence leaves so much space for the other characters, especially Richard Ayoade’s Patrick. How did you develop that role?
Richard is wonderful to work with––he’s a filmmaker himself, obviously, so he brings that to the role. We had a lot of fun together researching. He did research on his own too, into the kind of director Patrick was, and looked at interviews from different directors from that time in the ’80s and the kind of ideas that were around at the time, of being political but also the Hollywood musical having a kind of resurgence or reimagining.
So there was a lot of detail in there, thinking about what it is to be a filmmaker, with the vision and the arrogance that can potentially go along with that. But also the director as performer in a way, because directors have to perform—in a sense I’m performing now. I don’t feel like I am, but there is this other role you have to play.
How did you see that reflected in Honor’s performance?
It was uncanny for me. I realized how much she observed and absorbed how I worked by watching me direct when we were doing Part I, and then bringing that into how Julie directs and works.
You’ve said that Honor began wearing some of her mother’s clothes from that time. It all seems to lend to the film’s surrealism in some way. Was there a clear sense of that on set?
Yes. Even more so in making the film. How to explain? That sense was present all the time. Sometimes we didn’t know kind of where we were. It’s complicated because of those mirrors. I experienced what Julie experiences in Part II when she goes onto the set of her apartment. I had that when I made Part I, of walking onto the set and thinking it felt like my apartment had time traveled to the present. A lot of strange things happened.
Has it felt, sometimes, as if you are still in that world, taking interviews like Julie does near the end of the film?
It was difficult after Part I. I decided at that time to make the interviews part of the work because I didn’t want to leave the preparation for Part II. So talking to you or to other journalists, I would use that as some kind of strange research.
Will it be difficult to say goodbye to that world having been so immersed over the last few years?
It’s hard to move on from it, in some ways, because I have so much affection for the characters, and that’s always the hardest thing to leave behind—the sort of potential for the character—but leave behind I will. You never know what will pop up in the future. Each character has a story and there are more stories to tell. It feels very rich in that way.
Have you had thoughts about revisiting it?
No. I mean sometimes I wonder, this isn’t something I’m doing, but I think about the time I was working in television and whether that might be something I might explore in the future. I’m not necessarily going to do that. I have already made another film, which I can’t speak about, which I’m editing and doing post-production on. I’m very excited about what will be beyond that—I don’t know but part of the excitement is not knowing what it’s going to be.
The Souvenir Part II opens in theaters on Friday, October 29.