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The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg
The Souvenir (2019)Courtesy of Curzon

Joanna Hogg opens up about The Souvenir, life and love with a drug addict

The writer-director speaks about Robert Pattinson’s drop from the sequel, working with Scorsese, and not questioning her artistic intentions

When you remember the significant moments of your life, it’s the tiniest of details that protrude like a broken mirror. In Joanna Hogg’s masterful memory movie, The Souvenir, the British writer-director depicts the rhythms of how ecstasy and trauma linger in the brain. In the fragmented story structure, some scenes shoot out in short bursts, others allow the drama to play out leisurely. These events occurred in the early 80s and Hogg’s been untangling them ever since. Empathetic and emphatic, it’s a tale of first love, heartbreak, and self-discovery: a portrait of an artist remembering herself as a young woman.

Hogg first jotted down ideas for The Souvenir in 1988. It was three years after Hogg, a film student at the time, ended a romantic relationship with an older man. He was charming, erudite, and also a heroin addict. In the eventual movie version of events, Hogg’s cypher, Julie, is played by Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears on screen as Julie’s mother. Tilda was a fellow classmate of Hogg’s and is the basis for Julie’s best friend. If that’s not personal enough, Julie’s Knightsbridge flat is a meticulous reconstruction of Hogg’s former Knightsbridge flat, and the period-accurate skyline visible through the windows is actually back projections of Hogg’s old 35mm photography.

For better or worse, the meta-narrative shapes the viewing experience. It certainly deepens the emotional resonance, and it’s a thrill to assume each detail – including everyday objects on the dressing room table – exists for a heartfelt reason. However, Hogg initially considered the Noah Baumbach approach: denying it’s autobiographical when it very obviously is. “But then I thought it was ungenerous not to admit they’re my own memories,” Hogg tells Dazed in the bar area of a Soho cinema. “If I deny any part of it, that seems a bit of a closing off. I’m very honest in interviews.”

Due to odd timing, Hogg is caught between two movies. In January, The Souvenir had its triumphant world premiere, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The film comes out in UK cinemas on Friday and is what we’re here to discuss. But in June and July, she shot principal photography for The Souvenir: Part II, which is presumably still dominating her thoughts. “I haven’t seen Part I for a while, so I’m sure I’m saying things that relate to Part II,” she admits with a chuckle.

The Souvenir, though, unquestionably stands on its own. It’s early into the film when Julie is seduced by Anthony, a smartly dressed, smartly spoken mansplainer depicted by Tom Burke. Once they’re a couple, Anthony’s behaviour raises questions. He will casually disappear for days on end, he constantly needs to borrow a tenner, and he nonchalantly dismisses any concern about the scratches on his arm. It’s a dickish filmmaker (played hilariously by Richard Ayoade) who breaks the news to Julie: “I’m trying to work out where you two tessellate – habitual heroin user and a trainee Rotarian.”

Nevertheless, Julie is enraptured by Anthony’s presence, his warmth, the gentle gaze of his sad eyes as they analyse her artistic ambitions. As a wannabe filmmaker, Julie fears she’s insulated in a bubble; through Anthony, and the tessellations of their romance, she transforms into a character in a movie she’ll one day direct. Or maybe it’s a different bubble, a toxic relationship blinded by youthful yearning: when Anthony admits he stole her jewellery, it’s somehow Julie who apologises. Anthony also speaks incredibly slowly, unlike the skittishness of Julie’s “ums” and “ahs”. Is this a power move?

“It comes from Tom, but also my memory of the speech patterns of this boyfriend I had a relationship with,” Hogg explains. “I had a recording of his voice that Tom listened to. But it’s not a power game. The pause indicates a deep thinker. Anthony’s really serious about what he says. It may seem like a performance, but it’s not a game.”

As Hogg’s movies are unscripted, the precision of Tom’s dialogue stands out. The director’s process is akin to Curb Your Enthusiasm: she writes a brief scene-by-scene plot summary and captures the actors’ spontaneity on camera. So it’s astonishing to learn that Hogg once attended Robert McKee’s infamously formulaic screenwriting course. They’re the banal lectures mercilessly mocked in Adaptation when the fictional Charlie Kaufman hits rock bottom.

“It was a traumatic experience, actually,” Hogg sighs. “It was ’87 or ’88. I’d graduated from film school, and I’d written quite a lot of a feature film that I was really inspired by. And then I made the huge mistake of going on his two-day course. It blew my thing apart. I completely lost confidence in what I was doing. And it coincided with me going into television. So Robert McKee is another person to blame for why I got lost in the television world.”

“With Robert (Pattinson), I was very sad about it. I was very upset at the time, but you’ve got to move on. I’ll do something else with him. He’s a wonderful actor. The cogs are whirring. We’ll see what comes up” – Joanna Hogg, on Pattinson dropping out of The Souvenir: Part II

Hogg didn’t direct a full-length feature until 2007 with Unrelated. From 1987 to 2003, she shot TV dramas like EastEndersLondon’s Burning, and an episode of Casualty that’s entirely one unbroken take. The Casualty gimmick aside, it’s hard to imagine Hogg’s personal stamp on these shows – could there be an unscripted 15-minute scene of Phil Mitchell arguing about what painting to hang up in his living room? “It wasn’t Twin Peaks,” Hogg admits. “I hadn’t developed my voice then. Casualty is a formula. I tried to squeeze as much as I could out of it, but there’s a limit.”

With Unrelated, Hogg unleashed an esoteric approach to storytelling that’s still present today. Through long, fixed shots, Unrelated frames the collapse of a gang of upper-middle-class Brits on holiday. Anna (Kathryn Wirth), a married woman in a midlife crisis, can’t stop flirting with a much younger, often topless teenager (Tom Hiddleston), and it leads to watch-between-your-fingers awkwardness.

Her next film, 2010’s Archipelago, was another slow-burn drama about a disastrous holiday starring Hiddleston (by law, every Hogg movie needs an actor called Tom). Martin Scorsese switched the DVD off after 15 minutes. The next day, he felt compelled to rewatch it, and immediately joined the Joanna Hogg fan club. Scorsese advised on 2013’s Exhibition and is an executive producer on The Souvenir“The Souvenir is about cinema,” Hogg says, “and he’s a fountain of knowledge when it comes to cinema. He’s been incredibly supportive.”

Scorsese’s response to Archipelago speaks to the push/pull power of Hogg’s uncompromising filmography. Archipelago, in particular, comments on how audiences relate to provocative art: the family remove framed artwork from the living room wall because it’s unsettling. The opening scene is of a man painting an idyllic landscape – it’s the tranquillity absent from their splintered lives.

Similarly, The Souvenir is a feature-length response to a painting of the same name. Hogg was taken by her boyfriend in 1980 to see Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1778 artwork. In the image, a woman scratches her lover’s initials on a tree. “She looks sad,” Julie comments in the film. “She looks determined,” Anthony counters.

Hogg ponders my comparison. “I don’t think I’d made a connection between the image of the sea in Archipelago and the painting in The Souvenir.” What about Julie’s remark that Psycho is frightening because the women’s screams are heard but the violence is never seen? Was that a comment on the off-screen arguments of Unrelated and Archipelago? “I think the films start to eat themselves. The performers will have watched my previous work, and sometimes they’re saying their own words, and it comes through that.”

However, in The Souvenir, Hogg employs more close-ups than ever before, and the characters are less distant. Even buildings are viewed through the protagonist’s POV. Julie’s flashy home – paid for her by parents – and the wall-sized mirror are angled as reminders of her guilt and privilege. When Anthony smashes that mirror, Julie’s broken reflection tells a different story.

Other subtleties include a lens that alternates between Super 16, 35mm and digital depending on mood. “I wanted to mix these different tensions,” Hogg explains. “It’s subtle. The digital mimics 16mm but it’s colder. In Venice, we shoot digitally with a 35mm sensor. We wanted Venice to be this clear pool that you look into which has more detail in it.”

As for the soundtrack, The Souvenir is punctuated by 80s radio hits, including “Shipbuilding” and “Stop the Cavalry”. The closing track, a shoegaze-y blur of distorted guitars, I assumed was The Jesus & the Mary Chain. It’s actually an original track composed by Anna Calvi called “Julie”.

“If it’s a serious film, end credits music is often a fun, uplifting song that breaks the mood,” Hogg says. “It’s not that I didn’t want it to be uplifting at the end. But I asked Anna to react to the film musically. I made sure Anna could watch it and record something straight away. That piece you hear is her picking up her guitar after watching it for the first time. She was very moved. For her, it’s a cry – on some levels, it’s a primal scream. It doesn’t fit the rest of the music. It’s looking forward to Part II, in a sense. It’s Julie in the future.”

In The Souvenir: Part II, several of the actors, including the Swintons, Ayoade and Ariane Labed, will reprise their roles. Robert Pattinson was supposed to be involved, too. But shortly before the sequel went into production, Pattinson dropped out due to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Hogg replaced him with Joe Alwyn and Harris Dickinson.

“The thing is, in the world of cinema, this happens a lot,” Hogg says. “The unfortunate thing is that he’d already been announced as part of Part II. But it’s very normal. I’m thinking of other actors I might have pursued for other roles. Things come up. There’s little you can do as a filmmaker when you’re not working on the level of Christopher Nolan, with those kind of budgets and infrastructure.

“With Robert, I was very sad about it, because we’d spent time developing the role. It was over a period of more than a year of meeting up to talk about it. I’m a realist, in a way. In the back of your mind, you know something could be around the corner for him, and suddenly those dates don’t work. There were so many actors from Part I I needed for Part II. We couldn’t move our dates. You’ve got to shoot when you’ve got to shoot. I was very upset at the time, but you’ve got to move on. I’ll do something else with him. He’s a wonderful actor. The cogs are whirring. We’ll see what comes up.”

Regardless, in terms of budget and press attention, The Souvenir is Hogg’s biggest film to date. Stewart Lee did a joke in 2012 that he’d seen two movies the previous year, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island and Archipelago, which he describes as “an art film about middle-class people on a disappointing holiday” (Hogg has never heard of this routine, so I get to perform it for her). But whereas Hogg’s arthouse reputation was once a punchline, The Souvenir is entering mainstream conversation, all while maintaining the artistic integrity of her earlier films.

“I work in such an intuitive way that it’s hard to unravel what I’ve done. When I’m shooting a film, I’m in a particular space. I don’t disappear from myself, but I disappear into a space” – Joanna Hogg

Above all, The Souvenir possesses a power from knowing only Hogg could deliver this specific film. For whatever reason, memory movies by auteurs of a certain age are what audiences crave at the moment. Just look at Roma and Pain and Glory – an hour after viewing the latter, I cried on the train home, and I still don’t know why. Hogg admits she’s afraid of watching Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical drama in case she accidentally absorbs any of its essence while editing The Souvenir: Part II.

After all, if these memories haunt the filmmaker, they’re passed on so that they haunt the viewer, too. And just as Julie and Anthony disagree on their interpretation of The Souvenir, Hogg’s movie is open for debate. I assumed it was obvious that the editing is supposed to mimic memory, but apparently not. “I don’t think I’ve thought about that,” Hogg says. “I work in such an intuitive way that it’s hard to unravel what I’ve done. When I’m shooting a film, I’m in a particular space. I don’t disappear from myself, but I disappear into a space. I can’t necessarily recollect what those thoughts are or what those processes are afterwards.”

So maybe filmmaking, for Hogg, is an out-of-body experience. It’s fitting, then, that we end the interview with her explanation of how she copes with the stress of shooting without a script. The secret is that there is no stress. It’s all instinct. “I don’t do auditions,” she says with a calm grin. “I didn’t know how Honor was going to be until the first day of filming. But somehow, I go into this zone where I’m not questioning that. I wasn’t afraid. It’s a very intense space I go into. I’m just following something.”

The Souvenir is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon On Demand on August 30