INTERVIEW: Director Joanna Hogg discusses ‘The Souvenir Part II’
Joanna Hogg is known for her films exploring upper-middle class English families, depicting at times excruciating social awkwardness and the complicated dynamics of relationships through her meticulous blocking, exquisite framing and astute writing. Hogg works in a loose, improvisational style, similar to Mike Leigh; instead of a screenplay, she works from a “document” that is more of an outline for the actors. Her first two films – Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010) – starred a young Tom Hiddleston and her third, Exhibition (2013) starred two middle-aged non-professional actors as a couple of artists who live in a work of architecture of their own creation. Some motifs that run through Hogg’s work include holidays-from-hell and awkward dinner parties.
In 2019, Hogg wrote and directed by far her most personal work – The Souvenir. Heavily autobiographical, it is based on Hogg’s time as a film student in her early twenties and a relationship that deeply affected her. Julie (based on Hogg) is played by Hogg’s goddaughter Honor Swinton-Byrne and her mother is played by Honor’s real-life mother (and close friend of Hogg), Tilda Swinton. The film features an almost exact replica of the Knightsbridge flat that Hogg lived in during the 1980s, based on Hogg’s photographs and diaries from the time. The flat was recreated in a giant hangar in Norfolk, including projections outside the windows, blown up from Hogg’s actual photographs of the view from the flat at the time. Hogg’s film school was also recreated within the hangar. Hogg now returns with The Souvenir Part II, which picks up where the first film left off.
I know that Part II went through some changes after you made Part I. I’m wondering if any of that was caused by Robert Pattinson being unavailable or was it entirely unrelated to that?
No, it was just because there was a passage of time between making Part I and Part II, which I hadn’t wanted originally. And in that passage of time, I just had a lot more ideas and in the end, I was grateful that I did have that space in between, because Part II became a different thing to maybe how I’d originally conceived it. I think it’s really down to having so much more time developing it and thinking about it and working with my collaborators.
Your framing and blocking seems so meticulous and precise, are any of the shots storyboarded as part of the document or is the process much more organic than that?
It’s not storyboarded, but there are photographs in the document and in this case, they were photographs that I’d shot in the 1980s. Sometimes just the still image would be a reference for the frame of the scene we’re doing. The director of photography and the production designer and I – we did study some of the photographs from that time to try and get not just a sense of the framing of those photographs, but the atmosphere within them. The lighting maybe, the objects in the frame…so we were often referring to that earlier work.
The set construction in the hangar seems quite complicated, with Julie’s flat and the film school sharing the space. Is it difficult to work in and to establish the sightlines with doorways, windows and mirrors?
It’s maybe more interesting than complicated. It was a process in itself and one which I wanted to document for Julie’s film. So the scene where you see her flat being constructed, it was being constructed for us, for the making of Part II and we shot that footage at an earlier point, obviously, because I didn’t want to miss that stage. It was interesting looking at the construction of the set, both from our point-of-view, as a whole and within Julie’s world of the film school. So I would just say that it was interesting and inspiring actually.
In Part I, when we first constructed the apartment, which was based on somewhere that I lived in the early 80s, it was such a powerful process to see unfold. For me, it brought back so many memories of that time. Somehow it was a literal reconstruction of one’s memory in a way and I was so interested and inspired by that, that I wanted to capture that for Julie and recreate that again. It’s a recreation of a recreation in Part II.
[Spoilers] So we see Julie filming quite a realistic version of her own story, with Harris Dickinson playing Anthony (played by Tom Burke in Part I). But when we see her film towards the end, it’s much more abstract, impressionistic, theatrical and dream-like – what was the evolution between this two points?
I always wanted to see her shooting something different. I didn’t want to show what she was shooting and then show a version of that at her graduation. I think also I see her film, that we see unfolding eventually, as more of a dream in a way, more of Julie’s subconscious. I don’t want to prescribe to the audience how they see that but it’s not meant to be a representation of what we see her shooting, it’s more what’s going on inside her head.
You use different shooting formats – including 16mm, 35mm and digital formats I believe – how do you decide when to use certain formats and when to change to something else?
If I remember rightly, the scenes of Julie making her film were shot digitally and the reason for that is because we were almost shooting a documentary of the filming of Part I, so I needed the long takes to capture what I wanted to capture. But there wasn’t a clear division, I quite like the idea of using these different mediums and getting a feeling of that time in the 1980s that I remember so well, when filmmakers were often mixing media. I think particularly of Derek Jarman, who would go from film to digital and back to film again. He might shoot something on Super-8 and blow it up to 35. There was something very creative in the way that people used mediums back then, so I was inspired by that in a way. I wanted to use different textures, I didn’t want the same texture throughout.
As well as the cinematography, the sound design probably changed quite a bit between Part I and Part II because you’ve got Patrick’s musical and the music video that Julie shoots at the end, so you’ve got big production numbers at times. How did the cinematography and the sound evolve to cope with these big set-pieces?
We always knew we were going to have these big numbers and we were a little bit intimidated by them when we set out to shoot Part II. Especially as pretty much the first day of the shoot was Patrick’s film set, so that was always our Hollywood production number that we had to do. It was a challenge because one day we’d be shooting a big-budget musical and the next day we’d be shooting an intimate scene in Julie’s flat, so constantly we were kept on our toes about what was happening next and at the same time, shooting in story order. It felt like shooting multiple films.
Something that continues in Part II that is a continuation from your earlier work is the use of meals around a dinner table to reveal character. What do you think it is about meal times that reveal so much about middle-class Brits and family dynamics?
I don’t know, meals are important for all of us. It may be something to do with my upbringing, being a child at a meal and the adults talking. I always felt that I kind of went into a dream-space in those moments and yet I realise now that I observed a lot during meal times as I was growing up and those observations have become inspiration for me. There’s just something about those moments in family life that interests me.
Honor Swinton-Byrne was very inexperienced on Part I (it was her first leading role), did you notice her evolve between the two parts or develop as an actor?
Even when we were shooting Part I, Honor never seemed inexperienced. Literally from the first day of shooting with her, she had a very natural ability to be in the present moment and to find her way through a scene. She seemed, watching from the outside, to be a completely intuitive actor and seemed very experienced, anyway. And with Part II, she continued to be an amazing performer with an incredible intuition. I think we all grew up over the two films because it ended up being shot over three years or something. She had various experiences, she went to Africa for a number of months between the making of Part I and Part II, so she brought a lot more experience to the second part.
I also allowed her to participate more in the making of Part II because I showed her the document that I’d written, so she was much more involved in how the story was unfolding and where it was going. Whereas with Part I, she didn’t have the benefit of knowing the story because I didn’t show her the document, so she was very much led by Tom (Burke) in many ways, as Anthony, who did know where they going. So the process was very different from Part I to Part II, but Honor responded to both of ways of working in a very aware, very intuitive way.
The Souvenir Part I – Full Review
The Souvenir Part II – Full Review