The writer/director and star of The Souvenir discuss diaries, memories and the life-changing qualities of making art.
To say that The Souvenir is a personal project for British filmmaker Joanna Hogg requires a finessed understanding of what this clichéd description means. A hoarder of letters, diaries, photographs and miscellaneous creative mementos, Hogg has both returned to a specific period in her life – London in the 1980s when she was a film student and in a tumultuous relationship with a troubled man – and also recreated it. Production designer Stéphane Collonge projected old photographs taken by Hogg as exteriors to the windows of the central apartment, itself an inch-by-inch reconstruction of her old Knightsbridge flat, albeit based, like most of the set, within a former RAF hangar in Norfolk.
Casting herself, as it were, was a long process. While she quickly settled on Tom Burke to play the lover, Anthony, it was only after an arduous search that Julie went to then 19-year-old first-timer Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Hogg’s friend-of-many years, Tilda Swinton, who acts as Julie’s mother. It’s saying something that the resulting films transcends all of these meta layers, standing as a painfully raw and structurally rigorous account of a sensitive young woman trying to move forwards creatively and romantically.
LWLies was granted an audience with Hogg and Swinton Byrne and noticed within one second (the pair embraced passionately on the moment of reunion, then rushed off to see the hair stylist’s small dog) that theirs is a relationship more akin to family than professional co-workers. We started by diving straight into the deep end, cutting to the quick of this rich, elegiac film and asking about the mechanics of the central romantic relationship.
LWLies: Is there a way to avoid destabilising relationships or do you have to go through them in order to grow wise to them?
Honor Swinton Byrne: I think you have to go through them. It’s ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ it makes you get to know yourself better. But I’m talking not from real experience. [To Joanna] What do you feel?
Joanna Hogg: Sometimes you don’t have any choice, because when you’re in the relationship you can’t see yourself outside it. You’re taken with it until there’s a moment where you think, ‘Maybe this isn’t right,’ or, ‘Maybe I have to get out of this’.
I’m surprised to hear that the relationship wisdom doesn’t come from personal experience, Honor, because you appear so vulnerable. Where did that performance come from?
HSB: That was my first of any kind of acting experience in front of the camera so I guess the vulnerability came from it all being so new to me. I was given so much leeway and so much freedom to try and find my own version of the character.
JH: Honor didn’t see a script so she didn’t see how the story was going to unfold. You, Honor, are vulnerable in the situation because you’re giving yourself to the process and sometimes you’re surprised by what’s going on – living the story. Yet you were guided by materials. You saw some of what I was thinking at that point in time. You saw some diaries of mine didn’t you?
You kept stuff from the ’80s?
JH: As much as I could not knowing why or when it might be useful. I don’t like throwing things away.
HSM: Seeing those made me feel as though I should keep things and write things down and take pictures and make films and document things and keep them safe. You never know when you will want to look back and reminisce and create something new.
That’s a huge deal, showing someone your diary. Was it hard to hand it over?
JH: Not with Honor. I already knew Honor so there was never any question about that. Maybe I thought about that more when I was showing Tom because I didn’t know Tom when I first met him. Even so, somehow the film – the story – takes precedence. What’s important is what materials are necessary to tell this story and make this film. It sounds very cold, doesn’t it? There is a sort of objectification. I think it’s necessary to do that.
I would say it’s the opposite of cold because you’re putting all that heat into the film on which other people can warm themselves.
JH: But I would sometimes feel guilty when we were filming and my objects would appear in front of the camera. [To Honor] Sometimes your objects, because Honor bought some of her personal things to the film.
HSB: Toys, all my childhood stuff was on the bed. The lion was mine, the crocodile was yours and it was mixing stuff from the ’80s with stuff from the late ’90s.
JH: The bed cover you bought.
HSB: When I was lying underneath it I felt like I was in bed at home. I felt very safe.
JH: And then the bed was mine. It was a real mix-up of you and me and past and present.
HSB: Which was magical.
It sounds like quite a trip for you, Joanna. What was it like to vividly go back to such a specific time in your life?
JH: Some of it was exciting and felt creative because I was rediscovering ideas and thoughts I had and scripts and films I wanted to make from that time. Occasionally I would come up against an image I didn’t like so much that made me think, ‘Oh, did I really do that?’ or ‘Was I like that?’ and brought back the questioning that I did a lot of at that time of who I was and what I was and where I fitted into the world. That was exhausting at the time and I caught a bit of that again looking back at it.
Did it place a burden of responsibility on you, Honor, to know that you’re playing a version of Joanna?
HSB: Not at all! Oh my lord, the opposite! It’s an absolute honour to represent an alter-ego – represent a tiny part of Joanna or Julie. The whole filmmaking process helped me to feel more spontaneous in life. I love routine, rhythm, knowing what’s going on and knowing the plan, a little bit like a control freak. Shooting the first Souvenir, I really allowed myself to be completely in Joanna’s hands. It felt so good to improvise and to not have a plan. It was such an adventure and it helped me to feel slightly more confident and slightly more comfortable, even in my personal life. Feeling more trusting, having faith that everything’s going to be fine and knowing that you’re held by your loved ones so you can let go and be completely relaxed.
It sounds… life-changing?
HSB: It was so, so life-changing in the most positive, positive way. The last day of shooting was my 20th birthday. We were in Venice, then I had three months and then I went to Namibia in southern Africa. I volunteered as a primary school teacher for eight months. Going there by myself, not having any idea of what it would be like, I used those improvisation skills, and having a situation come to you that’s completely unexpected and going, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to face it and I’m going to do my best. I’m going to completely push forward and I’m not scared’.
Before The Souvenir, acting wasn’t your focus. Has doing this made you want to continue down this track, or are you going to do something different with your new confidence?
HSB: I’ve applied to study psychology at University in Edinburgh and I’m moving there in August whether or not I get in. I’ll discover in August whether I’ve got in or not, but I want to live there for a year.
HSB: This is very, very new. I applied to study psychology after I’d done The Souvenir. The combination of The Souvenir and Africa – but particularly The Souvenir – watered the flower of my interest in psychology. Getting into the soul of Julie and interacting with Anthony – who he was and who he is and the new version of him and the old version – was so interesting.
Was the old version of Anthony also called Anthony?
JH: He wasn’t actually.
HSB: I never knew the character that Anthony was based on. I only know Tom’s.
As I understand it, you Honor were improvising day-by-day but there was a script that other actors were referring to.
HSB: It wasn’t a script.
JH: It’s like a novella or something. An illustrated novella. Did you ever physically see it?
HSB: Never. I just hear the legends.
JH: I cast Tom quite a few months before the shoot so he was privy to the document. Anthony is, in a way, an actor – you don’t know if he’s performing or not. I sometimes cast non-actors but it felt right that Anthony was played by an actor – a man who’s in control and sort of directs life. So it was completely right that Tom saw the map of where we were going. For Julie it felt like a different journey. It was something we agreed. I didn’t just impose that on Honor. I said, ‘How would you feel if you don’t see anything and take it step by step?’ I think that was…
HSB: …the best decision because I was actually experiencing being a little bit lost and trying to find my way in something with somebody who was a little bit more in control than I was. Tom being in the know was perfect for Anthony, who was also slightly in the know.
JH: And even designing what was coming up.
There’s no moral signposting at moments of revelation. You leave it to the audience to decide what to think of this relationship, this man, all of it. How important was striking this non-judgemental tone?
JH: I tend not to like to judge things. I was exploring who this person was in the film without knowing the answers myself. Maybe it comes out of me simply not knowing and actually it’s a voyage of discovery. In part two, without spoiling too much of that, there’s a continual discovery even after Anthony’s gone.
That says something about your inner poise that you can show a character making their lover suffer and still be curious about them. There doesn’t seem to be a tipping point, behaviourally, where you want to caricature him.
JH: You’re judging him more than I am. That’s what happens. You make a film and then I’m – with the other films too – sometimes surprised or even shocked by the judgements that are made. Human nature is so complex and I always try with the characters to show different sides of people, and there are good sides and bad sides. It’s not even good and bad. It’s just so complex. So when someone judges a character and focuses on what I see as one facet of them I’m sort of shocked by that.
Well, I’m almost definitely projecting my values, therefore it’s interesting to learn what was in the DNA of the film and what wasn’t.
JH: Maybe it sounds better if I say, ‘Yes it’s totally part of my plan and moral code,’ but it was a journey of discovery back into who I was through Honor’s Julie and who Anthony might have been. There are still no answers. I didn’t want there to be any answers.
So it’s the mystery of human nature. Do you think that sometimes people stay in painful dynamics because there is intimacy to be found in shared pain?
JH: The pain is maybe felt more by you, or the viewer. From my memory of being in a relationship like that, I’m not sure how much pain I felt. I don’t know whether that’s a question of the time passing and it’s so far away that I’ve forgotten the pain. There was certainly anxiety and worry, but I don’t know if I would go so far as to say pain. There was a comfort in this push-me/pull-you relationship, where it’s its own drug and the drug of that relationship. The dance you make with that person is kind of painless. It doesn’t mean that you don’t suffer later on but during the dance you’re numb.
What do you associate with that time, with old Anthony?
JH: It was a total immersion into a particular way of life. Anthony shows Julie a way of being and Julie becomes a protagonist of their own film, which is very seductive. There’s a lot of seductiveness, there’s a lot of pleasure. He does seduce her. He’s a king of pleasure. They’re floating just a few inches off the ground. Pain is when you’re on the ground and you’re fighting and it’s all coming out.
HSB: Pain suggests that you want it to end. When you feel pain you want it to end –well I do anyway – as soon as possible and not come back. That’s not what I felt as Julie. I didn’t want Anthony to go away and never come back. Yes, this thing you said about being a protagonist in their own film. They really, really love each other. That I feel is overlooked sometimes. It’s such a love story. I know it’s very distressing but they’re such an interesting pair. Adding to the meta layers, your actual mum, Tilda Swinton, plays your on-screen mum. Did it make the shoot feel more like home?
HB: I felt at home anyway because I was with Joanna, but of course, because she’s my real mum it felt so natural to me, and to her as well. Our relationship is so different to the relationship of Julie and her mother. It was difficult not to hug her all the time because that’s what I do. It’s very interesting to explore a different relationship with her, although I love my relationship with her. I wouldn’t change it.
Joanna, what sort of films were you watching at that time in the early ’80s? Who were you discovering and who was influencing the way you were thinking?
JH: It was quite eclectic. Radio On by Chris Petit set on motorways, shot on beautiful black and white film by Martin Schafer to the music of Kraftwerk and David Bowie. The Super 8 films of Derek Jarman. I really liked Ulrike Ottinger, the film Ticket of No Return was inspirational, but also Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. It went from gritty realism to musicals.
At what stage did you realise that you wanted to name your films after the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting, ‘The Souvenir’?
JH: The painting was always in the story, and in the original experience. I honestly can’t remember. I’ve got notes from 1988 about making a two-part film and the first part was going to be based on the experience of this relationship. I only discovered that when we were doing all the diary searches before we made part one. It definitely wasn’t called The Souvenir then. It probably came up near the beginning of when I sat down to work on that story again. It suddenly seemed very obvious. It had to be that because the film is a souvenir itself. It has a lot of different meanings. I am normally terrible at coming up with titles. With all the other films I’ve come up with a title after production was completed and there’s
been a bit of pressure.
HSB: Which is the right way round because it’s the title of your project and you only really know that project once you’ve made it. It’s almost like naming a baby after it’s born, do you know what I mean? Once you meet it you can look at it and go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a Rosie,’ or, ’It’s a Paul,’ because it’s your creation.
What was it about Joanna’s baby that made you want to be in it?
HSB: Joanna could come to me with absolutely anything and I’d say yes. Genuinely. It sounded like such an unbelievably important story to tell and I was so touched that she asked me to be a part of it. I just had to do it. I wanted to explore it, I live inside Julie for a little bit and I really wanted to learn more about this relationship and experience new self-discoveries. It sounded like such an adventure and it excited me hearing about this. It stimulated me. I wanted more of it. [To Joanna] Anything to do with you I love.
There’s a lot of love here!
HSB: So much love…
The Souvenir is released 30 August. Read more in LWLies 80.
Published 24 Aug 2019
Joanna Hogg explores her own memories to create a fragile, fascinating portrait of romance in both bloom and decay.
This special, expanded edition of the magazine celebrates British cinema and contains moving illustrations.