Until this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where The Souvenir won the Grand Jury Prize for the best international drama, the name Joanna Hogg wasn’t especially well-known in America, even in arthouse circles. Hogg’s previous three features had been shrewdly observed studies of well-off Britons, quietly probing the nuances of a tense family outing or limp bedroom encounter or awkward dinner party. The Souvenir, which will be released Friday and to which a sequel is already in the works, finds Hogg turning her lens inward for her most personal project yet: a portrait of herself as a young artist in the form of the posh film student Julie, who falls into a tormented romance with her urbane older mentor, Anthony. To play this younger version of herself, Hogg looked to Honor Swinton Byrne, a first-time actor and the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film as Julie’s mother.
Hours before jetting off to begin work on The Souvenir: Part II, Hogg spoke to Slate about re-creating the intimate story, which found the English writer-director returning to old film projects, photographs, and diary entries to revive her early 20s.
Slate: The film captures the experience of being a fledgling artist so vividly—that complicated mix of reticence and ambition. What sort of research did you do into your past to re-create how you felt when you were just starting out?
Joanna Hogg: I was very interested—first and foremost, really—in portraying the development of a young woman artist. I think that came out of a frustration at often seeing the lives of male artists portrayed, and I thought, well, female artists don’t get a lot of screen time. But that was in the background rather than the foreground because I wanted to tell a story not only about the development of an artist, but the development of a young woman, and those first relationships that are very formative—not always in positive ways—but can also contribute to creativity or artistry.
The first thing I did was look back at the work that I was doing at the time, those very first steps at expressing myself. I found it interesting, sometimes quite difficult, to look at the projects I was doing right when I started thinking about being a filmmaker. I decided to use those very projects in the story, so those films Julie is making, or trying to make, were all ones that I was doing myself. I thought it would give a very real sense of her journey and help her work feel alive. It was satisfying because I had put aside the Sunderland projects in the same way that Julie does, so they’re sort of ghosts from the past.
The story is, as you say, semi-autobiographical. Actually, I don’t know myself sitting here what is real and what isn’t. I think memory is not always good enough for the details. But it was a powerful process, using these lost works, and then also creating the apartment that Julie is living in, which was very much based on an apartment I lived in.
So during the opening scene, when Julie describes the film she wants to make about a boy named Tony who’s obsessed beyond measure with his mother, that was a story that you really conceived as a 20-year-old? It fits so elegantly with what Julie goes on to experience in her relationship with Anthony.
Yes, some of those connections I discovered when I was writing the film. I’d never made the connection between Tony’s fear for his mother in that story and Julie’s fear of something happening to Anthony. In the film, Julie is often waiting at the window for Anthony to come home, and she invests so quickly in that relationship. That fear of losing someone and that sense of not being able to exist on your own—they were all reverberations that came out of exploring what happened to me at that time.
This is your first period piece, and you incorporate a bunch of ’80s artifacts, but I know you’ve said you wanted to cut against any sense of nostalgia. Why was that, and how did you ensure that your revival of the past didn’t feel too sentimental?
I wanted it to feel immediate, yet I did want to create an impression of the era. I decided along with my production designer Stéphane Collonge to not overfetishize, so not every detail on a desk or a table is from that period. And that’s how life is—the ’80s particularly, I remember, was a time of actually being interested in other time periods. All the objects and the cutlery were from different times. Back then I was obsessed with the ’40s, partly because I was very fond of Hollywood music from the late ’30s to the early ’40s, and films like Cover Girl and Lady in the Dark.
I wanted to draw on those other periods—and also to get things wrong. Probably, if you analyze the film, there are some things in there that are contemporary. I really didn’t want to be strangled by the time, like a period film that’s just kind of ’80s all over in an unrealistic way. I wanted to find other ways to conjure up the time, more about my own personal response to it, which is more subtle. I’m always trying to find the more subtle way of expressing something.
You can particularly feel your hand steering the music, which aligns ominous opera with Anthony and punk or New Wave with Julie. Your earlier films rarely use music, so when in the process did you choose to incorporate it so heavily into this one?
From the beginning, when I was writing the film. Bluebeard’s Castle [the opera by Béla Bartók] was the first piece of music that I knew I wanted to use, because it connects to the original person that Anthony is based on—it was his favorite opera, and I listened to it a lot at that time. So that was the first piece that I needed to have, and then there were other sounds and songs that I knew that I wanted like Joe Jackson, Robert Wyatt, The Fall—a lot of those tracks I listened to at the time—The Specials, Bronski Beat. We also wanted to make the tracks a way to define time passing, so at any particular point, we only used tracks from that period or earlier. The Bronski Beat track comes in quite late.
I very much didn’t want to have a score. My previous three films had almost no music at all in them, so this was my first time using music in this way. There’s still no score—the Bartók acts as a score at a certain point, but I’m very careful for that music not to be too dominant and not to lead the emotion, to only be used at points where you might not expect it.
I want to talk about Honor, who had never acted before and yet is such a compelling screen presence. What drew you to her to embody this younger version of you?
Honor hadn’t had a part in anything before besides maybe school plays, and she wasn’t really thinking of a career in acting at all. I chose her not for her acting heritage, either. It was very late in the process, and I had met a lot of young women for the part, but no one had seemed right. I was very much looking for a young artist, someone who you see holding a camera and feel they really are observing and interested and taking photographs. I wanted that to feel very real, that creativity that’s being developed in front of your eyes.
So Honor—I think it was two weeks before we started shooting that I went up to Tilda’s to discuss the part of the mother. I cast her before I cast the daughter, which I didn’t intend, but that’s how it ended up. On that trip, there was a moment with Honor when we had a conversation about what it’s like to be a young woman now. I already knew Honor then, but I hadn’t seen her in this way before. There was that moment of recognition where I saw something of myself, and I saw something of Julie.
I didn’t pressure her—it’s a big commitment to not just one film but two films—but she was very excited to play the role. She didn’t even know how the story was going to unfold. I shoot in story order, so she was literally discovering where the story was going moment by moment. She’s very brave to agree to working that way with me and trusting me to lead her.
On previous films, you’ve left some space for improvisation, presenting the script to certain actors and withholding it from others. Was it the same on The Souvenir?
Right, often it’s the non-actor I don’t show the script to because I think it can be confusing, and I’m casting them because I want them to react very naturally within the scene. So Honor saw nothing. The only thing that Honor saw, which was more important to me than seeing the screenplay, were my projects from the time and my diaries. I gave her insight into who I was at that age and my thought processes—insight into the 20-year-old young filmmaker-to-be.
Did you also share with her any memories or photos of own version of Anthony, or did you keep that separate?
No, actually that’s interesting—I didn’t tell Honor about that relationship. It was all to do with my filmmaking, and my photography, and my creativity. And my sense of self, because there would be diary entries where I talk about something personal. But that’s actually right, nothing to do with the story of the Anthony character. I wanted that to be very much happening as we were shooting.
Honor didn’t even meet Tom [Burke, who plays Anthony] until the first day, when we shot that scene at the party. Then their relationship literally unfolds day by day through the shoot. Of course they’re talking between takes, but before that party scene where she tells him about the Sunderland film, they hadn’t actually been introduced to each other, which was my intention.
Julie is repeatedly asked to justify herself and her artistic intentions—at one point, she’s essentially accused of being a voyeur. Is that something you’ve experienced?
Well, not recently, but I had that same challenge at the time. I wanted to make the Sunderland project, but I was challenged by the Anthony character that I knew. At film school, it was actually different—they would have liked me to do it. They supported the sort of black-and-white socialism aesthetic.
But I think that the confidence I had to make that film was probably only skin-deep. I was 20 at the time. I hadn’t had any experience with filmmaking except shooting a little bit of Super 8. I didn’t understand structure, or story, or character, and yet I wanted to make this feature film. I think it was only a matter of time before someone prodded me slightly and then the whole thing fell apart, because it wasn’t built on anything solid. It’s a shame, but I also recognized some truth in the reaction I got. If it hadn’t rang true, I might have carried on pursuing it.
I felt like your previous films cast a colder eye on characters’ privilege, but The Souvenir felt more sympathetic to Julie’s desire to break out of “the bubble,” as she says. Was that a conscious choice, or did that come about naturally?
I was a little conscious of it. I wasn’t so much interested in it, in a sense. It’s just true to the story. With the other films, there is a little more distance from that and a kind of reluctance to enter into a conversation about it. With The Souvenir, it was going headlong into the eye of it. I was looking at those issues straight on and making that conversation part of the story.
I’m curious about the name of the film, which is drawn from the 18th-century portrait Anthony shows Julie—which your real version of Anthony once showed you. What is your understanding of what that painting meant to him?
That is an example of something in the film that’s very accurate. I was shown that painting by the man that I knew at the time, and it was important, though it was less important to me and more important to him. And the film’s ending, when Julie receives the postcards, that also happened to me. So the significance of that painting is very true, even if I still don’t understand all the ramifications of it. I’m still trying to unravel what it meant to him.