In the early 1980s, before Joanna Hogg became one of Britain’s most celebrated art-house directors, she fell into an absorbing relationship with an older man that threatened to derail her burgeoning career. Thirty-five years and three features later, Hogg has returned with The Souvenir, a lush re-creation of that youthful romance starring newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda, as naïve film student Julie, and Tom Burke as the enigmatic Anthony, whose background, habits, and occupation are shrouded in mystery. (The elder Swinton, an old friend of Hogg’s, pops up as Julie’s mother.) The film debuted to rapturous reviews at Sundance, but the director finds her attention divided; she’s about to start work on the sequel, which will bring Robert Pattinson into the mix. On the brink of The Souvenir’s U.S. release — the first of Hogg’s career, though her early films will soon be available on Criterion — Vulture spoke to the filmmaker about the challenges of making art out of one’s own past, what the Thatcher years were like for a young artist, and the pleasures of tactility on film.
One thing I’ve gathered from reading previous interviews with you is that you don’t totally love autobiographical questions.
I suppose, because I feel that I’ve displayed myself! I mean, I’ve already given so much personal information [in my films] that one’s constantly being skinned in some ways. It’s quite torturous!
How are you emotionally preparing for that part of the process with this film?
Well, I’m not. I haven’t; my head is in the second part. We start shooting when I get back on Sunday, in three weeks’ time. So I haven’t had time to think about what this means. I’m very excited that it’s about to come out, but I’m also a little bit anxious about my shoot.
You’re in two places at once.
Yeah. And it’s strange because I’ve never been in a situation where I’m promoting one film, about to shoot another, and those films are connected. So I’m almost wanting to block my ears. I don’t want to hear any feedback that destabilizes the shooting of part two, where I think, Oh, I’d better not do that, or I become self-conscious about what I’m doing. I want the film to do well, but the better it does, the more pressure it puts on me!
I know you don’t watch your films for ten years after they’re done, but since you’re making a sequel, I was wondering if you were tempted with this one.
I haven’t yet, but I do wonder whether I should sit in on a screening. I think I probably know enough without seeing it. What I quite like about not seeing the films afterward is that there’s a discrepancy between the film itself and my memory of it. I start to remember scenes in the film that actually aren’t in the film; they’re scenes that I cut. I watched Unrelated for the first time in ten years the other day and I was surprised by a couple of things that weren’t there that I thought were there. It’s very odd!
I suppose that’s similar to this film. You’ve got your own memory of your past, and then you’ve got the movie, which is based on those memories but not a direct re-creation.
I’m actually now getting a little bit confused about what really happened and what happened in the film! In using one’s own memory as material, there is a risk that the old memories will be replaced with new ones. Occasionally I get that feeling of muddying those memories; it’s like a book that’s been overhandled. I don’t like that feeling. I feel a bit like I’m stomping with heavy boots on my past.
Is there a way to hold on to them?
I don’t think so, because I’m very generous with the material. I’ll give Honor my diaries to look at, or Tom some recordings to listen to. I’m not very respectful of those things, because I need them. They’re necessary to play out this new version of the story.
Since the film is running roughshod over your actual memories, I was wondering if that happened with Honor’s performance as well.
I think they’ve a little bit merged. I’m a bit confused because I was asked the other day, when I had parties, whether I was like Julie and stood on the periphery of those parties taking photographs. And I’m not sure. It made me really question whether that was me or not. It’s harder to now know what was true and what wasn’t. I’m interested in that confusion.
People store memories in all sorts of ways, but for you it seems like it’s very tied into physical objects and spaces.
I’ve been surprised through the process. We built the apartment that I once lived in inside a studio inside an aircraft hangar. We didn’t have any actual plans and we weren’t able to revisit the apartment, which was a gift, actually. I had to reconstruct it from memory and photographs, literally conjure it up. And the process of reconstructing it from the past brought up a lot of memories that I didn’t think I had about that time. There was something about physically building this space and then being able to stand in it … I had no way of knowing what that was going to be like. It was quite an extraordinary process.
Besides the diaries and the photographs, what else did you hang on to?
All the photographs in the film are mine, and the Super 8 films. I’ve kept some of the paperwork from the film school, which helped the art department on bits and pieces. A lot of the stuff I’ve thrown away over the years, and I regret everything I’ve thrown away!
I feel like that’s something filmmakers of my generation might have lost. For us most of that kind of material is digital, and it invariably disappears when companies wipe their servers or something.
What a shame! It should inspire you to be more analog. Respect the object. It’s so nice, the tactility of objects. That was something that we really set out to do: to feel the sensuality and the tactility of that time. How the object is just so important. You don’t have a computer and a mobile phone; you have a typewriter. Having this conversation makes me very nostalgic for that time. I still write in notebooks. I resent the computer, I resent email, and I don’t think it nourishes our lives. Maybe some of the younger generation argue that’s the way they keep in contact with friends and that’s how their social network works, but I can’t see it like that.
You don’t do traditional scripts; instead you have a 30-page outline. Is that all longhand?
It’s longhand for a long time, and then I have to eventually put it on a computer. I had this crazy idea with The Souvenir that we should make it with no mobile phones, no computers, and no emails, but it’s impossible to do!
Besides the music and the fashion, there are a few period events in the background of the film: the Iranian embassy siege and the Harrods bombing. Are these drawn from memory as well, or were they just to give a sense that time is passing?
No, they were very much things I remembered myself. I didn’t want to have that kind of period detail that was outside of my experience just for the sake of expressing that point in time. Everything that I’ve included in there, in terms of political events, is true to my memory. This relationship I had was tied into some of those events, and even beyond that, they were possibly connected to that person that I was with. And that’s one of the big question marks over the film: What does he do for a living? Is he really working for the Foreign Office or not? And I don’t have an answer for that!
Did you ever get an answer in real life?
Not a straightforward one. You might have to wait for the second part to find out about that. Don’t expect any grand conclusions.
What were those Thatcher years like for a young artist?
In terms of what it was like at college at that time, it was easier than it is now, actually. There was a grant system, and there were no fees to pay, whereas now that same film school is very expensive. So in that sense, you’re in a bit of a bubble because it’s all paid for by the state. But I felt probably more connected to what was going on politically before I went to film school. That project that I wanted to make, the film that Julie wants to make at the beginning of the film, set in Sunderland about the dying shipbuilding industry, that was very connected to Thatcher. I went to Sunderland in ’80 and already the town was feeling the negative effects of that new political regime. But once I got to film school … actually, it’s not just film school. It was getting involved in that relationship that sort of took me in a strange way, sort of cushioned me from the outside world. I was in a bubble in that relationship, exactly what Julie describes that she doesn’t want to be in, but she is.
At Sundance you spoke about the struggle about telling this story because it’s not just your story; it’s also the story of someone who’s no longer around. What made you feel that this was something you were ready to do?
I don’t know when the spark ignited, but it was just realizing that I could tell my side of the story, and I didn’t have to tell his side too. I couldn’t do that. There was a moment when I thought, Well, I don’t even have to remember that well. I can just create my impression of that time. It didn’t all have to be true.
One of the things that’s interesting about the character of Anthony is that we don’t always see him head-on. Sometimes it’s a three-quarters view from behind, sometimes it’s a reflection.
I wanted him to be a mystery from the beginning. That was a very conscious decision to just see his back at Julie’s party, to not fully see him. I wanted him to be this dark shape in a pin-striped suit. And actually someone yesterday was asking me if I’d been inspired by Cary Grant in Notorious. I can’t say that was a specific reference, but that’s interesting because that’s one of the films that the original Antony liked very much. Maybe there was some kind of subconscious connection there. He’d quite like that!
Anthony is so arrogant, but there’s almost a charm in his disdain. So much of that is wrapped up in his voice and his affect. Did that come from you or from Tom?
It came from Tom, but it came from a recording that I gave him of the original Antony. He very much absorbed that. It was quite incredible. He did an amazing transformation, so much so that when he came in to do ADR, his voice had changed back to being Tom. And because of the work that he does immersing himself in the character, it’s not like he can just flick a switch and get back to that voice. It proved to me how deep he had gone. He’s a brilliant actor.
Part of what Julie deals with in the film is whether it’s right for her, as someone from a posh background, to be telling this working-class story. Obviously there’s not an easy answer, but I was curious about your current thoughts on that question.
It’s very current, isn’t it? Well, yeah, I don’t think there should be a boundary about what we can write stories about and what we can’t. I think it’s a dangerous line to make. We’d be artistically a lot poorer if we could only draw on our own experience.
It’s complicated because you’ve made a film that draws directly from your own experience that argues we shouldn’t.
I mean, that’s just a general argument. But I’m giving myself license in the future not to just draw on my own life! I don’t think I’m going to carry on doing that. I mean, otherwise I’ll be this image of me in heavy boots over my life and I’d be torn to shreds. I’d have nothing left if I carried on doing that.
You mentioned that the Sunderland idea in the film is one of your actual projects. I’m curious what your other student films were like.
You see them in the film, actually. There was a series of unfinished works. I had a project called The Tragedy of Passion about an eccentric, self-destructive fashion designer loosely based on Charles James. And then Film Dress, which is about a dress made out of film. Didn’t go very well. I didn’t finish it. But I ended up putting a version of that film dress in my graduation film, which was called Caprice, which I finally made in 1986, a year after this relationship fell apart. And then before that and at the end of The Souvenir there’s The Rehearsal, which I made with Tilda. It was about an actress rehearsing the part of Isabella in Measure for Measure. It wasn’t finished, partly because of what happened with the relationship ending. So the end of The Souvenir is very true to life as I experienced it then.
Before Phantom Thread came out there was talk that it was going to be a biopic of Charles James, too.
I was very worried about seeing it because of my Charles James project! I was like, Oh my God, somebody’s done this Charles James film! But it’s not really Charles James, in fact. He was an extraordinary couturier. I liked the film, but I was really worried when I first started reading about it. I was like, Agh!
I really enjoy the look of the film. It’s slightly desaturated, and slightly faded. There are no deep blacks.
There were reference photographs from that time that I took in the apartment, and there was something in those photographs of the real flat that then went into the aesthetic for the film. We were very much referencing these photographs of mine.
It sort of looks like the way a photo from the ’80s might have aged.
I suppose, but I didn’t want it to be romanticized or nostalgic at all. But there was something about that slight desaturation … which will be different in the second part. I think the next part is going to be a bit more saturated and more contrasty.
How secretive do you feel like being about the second part?