Disarming in their skittery vulnerability and unyielding portrayals of human disaffection, the films of Joanna Hogg have simmered under-the-radar since her powerful feature debut Unrelated (2007). Critical appraisals of her body of work have correctly found common ground between Hogg’s approach and a number of canonical cinematic heavyweights, but any list of touchstones will blur into obsoletion as the breadth and peculiar combination of the cinephile, photographer, and artist’s collection of interests and inspirations meld into a singular auteurism.
Hogg’s latest film, The Souvenir, arrived at Sundance this year with a resounding bang. The portrait of an artist as a young woman, Hogg’s fourth feature is based on her own experiences as a film student in 1980s London. Hogg surrogate Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) is a 24-year-old living in a smart flat financed by her wealthy parents (her terrifically dowdy mother, played by Tilda Swinton, lives aways in a magnificent countryside estate). But Julie longs to break through the restrictive bubble of her existence, pitching, in one memorably cringe-worthy scene, her idea for an art film about shipyard laborers in Sunderland (a working class region far north of the capital). A house-party encounter with a slightly older man, a wry, magnetic Foreign Office worker by the name of Anthony (Tom Burke, channeling an Orson Wellsian swagger), snowballs into the naif-ish Julie’s first great romance and tragedy, simultaneously opening up the young woman to new experiences, while taking a toll on her artistic production.
Buoyed by delicate eroticism and drifting back and forth between staid, observational formalism and quivering naturalism, The Souvenir unfolds as a work of imperfect memory. As in her usual fashion, Hogg has no interest in holding the audience’s hands through easily plottable events; the effect is one of putting places and faces together in an act of dreamy, but potent recollection.
I spoke to the British director by phone prior to the U.S. release of The Souvenir on May 17th. One foot in promotion, the other in the throes of pre-production for part two of The Souvenir, Hogg talked about casting Swinton-Byrne, character building as autofiction, and “forcing [herself] out of a groove.”
NOTEBOOK: You’ve worked with Tilda Swinton in the past, in your first short film, Caprice, in ‘86. How did you decide to cast her daughter Honor and Tilda together for The Souvenir?
JOANNA HOGG: Well, I’d been looking for years for an opportunity to work with Tilda again. It’s amazing how time passes so quickly. I’ve always thought it’d be wonderful for her to play the mother in The Souvenir. But then I thought, well I should probably get the daughter first. Time went by and I hadn’t found the right [person] for Julie. [But] I had to act fast because who knew how much longer Tilda would be available. So I [officially] decided to cast Tilda, and I don't remember the timing but I was getting desperate for my Julie. I was meeting all sorts of actors and non-actors, and I was looking for someone who could believably be an artist, or a filmmaker. Someone who is more comfortable behind the camera than in front of the camera. Whenever I’d meet an actress I’d think “well, they’re an actress.” Their job is to be in front of the camera. And I wanted a person who wouldn’t necessarily even look that comfortable [in front of a camera]. It was a difficult thing, and as per usual I tend to think in a documentary light and I started looking for someone who is a filmmaker or a student filmmaker.
Time went by and I asked Tilda, “Well, do you know anybody?” I always ask people and friends for ideas. That’s how I cast the main part in Unrelated. There was a moment when Tilda and I looked at each other and thought about Honor. I knew Honor already, but we were almost too close [at that point] that it had never occurred to me. It was the same with Viv Albertine in Exhibition. It was through a good friend of mine, and her advice when I was desperate to find the wife [character] in that film. I should know this by now and not be surprised.
NOTEBOOK: Did it take any convincing or was Honor immediately sold?
HOGG: She pretty quickly responded. To the point where I was like, “well you should take your time and not rush into it.” I wanted her to feel comfortable with the decision. And the decision was not just to make one film, but two films.
NOTEBOOK: So the vision has always been to make two films?
NOTEBOOK: Honor is wonderful. She’s so vulnerable and insecure but there’s also this honesty in her face, this authenticity that simultaneously feels very powerful. So many of your female protagonists convey a similar sensibility.
HOGG: Perhaps because I see myself quite vulnerable in some ways. And quite awkward. I don’t want this to be a reflection of myself, but [in The Souvenir] I’m speaking about an experience that’s so personal that I’ve got to have an actual conversation with the character, even if it's just about one facet of me. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, but for [someone] to play a version [of me] in front of the camera, there’s got to be some kind of affinity between me and them.
NOTEBOOK: In Archipelago you do this but it feels more omniscient than tethered to one character. In any case the point of view is not just strictly female.
HOGG: I was doing that in Archipelago. I did feel a connection to [Tom Hiddleston’s character] Edward, that was a part of me. I think I had some of myself in the sister character as well, as well as the mother character. Perhaps it was more spread out, but I was interested in that with Edward. Sometimes it's easier to speak about certain difficult issues if you do transference onto someone else, especially a transference to someone of a different sex. But I think that particular subject in Archipelago—it needed to be a young man. Because it was talking about being tough or the difficulty of being tough. The difficulty for a man to be vulnerable.
NOTEBOOK: Your first three films take place in insular, exclusive spaces: you go from vacationing in Tuscany in Unrelated, to vacationing in the Scilly Isles in Archipelago, and then we’re confined to this wonderful but also really claustrophobic house in Exhibition. Things get progressively smaller. There’s an insularity of spirit in The Souvenir, but Julie travels and goes to different places: her mom’s house in the country, school, art galleries, et cetera. It’s much more sprawling in comparison.
HOGG: Yeah, I was really aware of that. And I was very excited by that. That larger canvass was incredibly exciting. And you’ll feel that in the second part to an even greater degree. I’m not sure what that impetus is about, but I am feeling compelled to paint in larger strokes. I always respond to a challenge, and I was aware with my first three films that I could just get into a particular groove and I wanted to force myself out of it. I felt I was getting a bit too comfortable.
NOTEBOOK: In a way that impetus to explore and “force yourself out of a groove” relates to the issues in The Souvenir concerning Julie’s artistic endeavors. Her desire to penetrate a different reality other than her own, which she acknowledges is stifling and limited. I’m thinking of the various moments when Julie discusses her desire to make a film about shipyard laborers in Sunderland.
HOGG: That [project] was actually something I wanted to do at that stage in my life. But like Julie who doesn’t actually finish that project, I don’t think I was ready to look outside myself in that way. Or ready to make that project in that point in time. I didn’t have enough experience—life experience or experience making films.
NOTEBOOK: In past interviews, you’ve objected to critics saying your work is about class [Hogg laughs]. But The Souvenir, which is one of your more personal, reflexive works—I think—and I see the commentary on privilege as more explicit, more felt, because it has to do with the circumstances of your life, your opportunities.
HOGG: I wouldn’t say that I’m even addressing [class]. It’s a fact of that time. Of being who I was and mixing with the people I was mixing with. It’s the unavoidable fact of “how [did I] grow up?” What forms you as a person. One’s environment and habits are a part of that. I suppose I’m interested in [class], but I’m more interested in how that affects behavior. So I’m not interested in class per se. I don’t meet someone and go, “oh I’m interested in getting to know what class you belong to,” but I am interested in how that affects your place in the world and how people behave with each other. I suppose I’m looking at it from a certain stance, from the side, with one eye open for it.
On many levels it’s not interesting to me. In the U.K. there is an obsession with it to the point where it’s not even relevant. Because the stratifications are changed and changing so much, so the traditional class systems of the U.K. are outdated. If there’s any class system there’s a new one. It’s different talking about it here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K. I do notice stratas of people here. And in some ways you’re more class conscious here than we are. [This] ties into the sorts of behavior I’m interested in. If I’m in a restaurant here, especially in L.A., I’m sitting down and I’m putting in an order for something to eat, so I ask the person who brought me the menus and the water for what I want. And usually they say, “no I can’t take your order. You’ve got to ask someone else.” There are some people who are helping at a restaurant who can’t your order. That restaurant dynamic [is unique].
NOTEBOOK: Historically you’ve not been one to use much music in your films. Exhibition has no score. That’s not the case in The Souvenir.
HOGG: [In my past films] normally [that absence of music] is me giving myself license to change my mind because I do enjoy music. In The Souvenir I use it particularly as a way of conjuring up that time period. It was very important to bring music into [the film]. Because music was very present in life for me at that time. It was like a musical madeleine [moment] for me, that brought back some memories. I didn’t want to be a slave to that early ‘80s period, particularly with the set design, but the soundtrack I found was a good way to create a certain impression.
[There was] one thing I missed in the sound mixing stage of making The Souvenir—the space to create a soundscape without music. In Exhibition we created music out of the sounds of the environment, the sounds of the house. There wasn’t a similar space in The Souvenir. But also the editing would’ve been different. I wanted a faster rhythm in The Souvenir. Maybe in part two there will be more opportunity for that.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of rhythm and space, you have a very particular style of shooting and framing a shot. The way you return to intimate spaces feels ritualistic. Spaces and ways of seeing seem to take on the psychologies of their inhabitants.
HOGG: [In The Souvenir] we did have the gift of the wall of mirrors which I had in my original flat. A whole wall full of fragmented, framed mirrors. So that presented [a certain way] of seeing. The space does dictate that to an extent. When I find certain angles in a room I like I do return to those. I’m aware of that when I’m shooting. The real challenge in The Souvenir was Julie’s flat—we built the set, and we built it as if it were a real location. So we couldn’t remove a wall if we needed to. It also wasn’t a big space to shoot in. I was restricted. Only certain angles really worked.
NOTEBOOK: I had a conversation with a friend and we talked about your films as approaching reality as a mystery to be solved, as a gradual uncovering of a person’s nature. I think this is particularly true in The Souvenir, though I find your films always grapple with the question of how truth and reality are interrelated, or not.
HOGG: As I hear your interpretation, I think it does directly feed into the second part that we’re about to shoot. And I think we’re taking those ideas possibly a step further. I don’t think I would’ve worded it that way, but it’s also very hard for me to see outside of my own words. But [The Souvenir] is about more of a search for truth through a number of different [experiences].
It’s interesting because I’m needing to do two things at once. I need to talk about part one but I’m also in the middle of working on part two. The second part is about Julie being a filmmaker and her personal search for truth, which is an aspect [that is personal] for me. So there’s a lot of reverberations and connections around. And I’m trying to complete a picture, instead of thinking, “well, what I’m doing now has nothing to do with what I’m about to do.” So in a sense I’m being stretched apart, but it’s also allowing me to reconcile the two pictures and think of them together as one.