‘The Souvenir’: How a Filmmaker Turned Her Memories Into a Masterpiece

Joanna Hogg has, by her own admission, a decent memory. Not perfect, mind you — “Which is why I always hesitate when the word ‘autobiographical’ comes up,” the British director says, taking in the afternoon light as it streams through a window in A24’s New York office. “You need a perfect memory to recall exact conversations, where someone was standing and all that, to be really autobiographical, right? But I guess it’s good. Or good enough?” It’s good enough that she vividly remembers the early 1980s, when she was just starting film school and dealing with dismissive professors and slightly sexist male students. It’s good enough to remember the flat she lived in London in her twenties, which she would end up recreating many years down the road, down to the last detail, in the corner of an airplane hangar in Norfolk. She remembers the older man she met. He wore such nice coats and smoked Turkish cigarettes and seemed so confident, to know so much and appear so worldly compared to her.

And she remembers the painting he took her to see one afternoon, in a museum in Manchester Square, right before their casual acquaintance would develop into something a lot more complicated. It featured a young woman carving something into a tree, and it suggested a whole other world of lush romanticism, a world she felt like she was on the cusp of entering if she simply let this man guide her there. It was called The Souvenir, and it would end up giving Hogg the title of the film she’d make that looked back on that relationship, with the benefit of hindsight and more than a little bruised fondness, three decades later. Some parts felt like they had happened lifetimes ago. And some of it still seemed so fresh.

It’s ironic, then, that a minute or so later, when her longtime friend and one of The Souvenir‘s supporting players Tilda Swinton interjects something about revisiting the past, Hogg has completely forgotten what she was going to say next. “I was … so sorry, I’ve completely lost my train of thought now,” she declares.

“It’s the jet lag, dear,” Swinton says. “We’re all a mess from it. You were talking about memory and experiential cinema and the art of recreation.”

“Right! Thank you, yes, that was it,” Hogg says, nodding.

Swinton leans forward, grinning and executing a loud, quick drum roll on the table with her open palms before throwing her hands in the air with a flourish and yelling out, “TEAM-work!” Her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, who is sitting between the two women, goes from looking almost imperceptibly embarrassed to slightly giggly. Mother takes Honor’s hand and, holding it, rests both of their intertwined fingers on the young woman’s knee.

“So maybe partly autobiographical is a more accurate way of putting it,” Hogg says, picking up right where she left off. “I was only able to tell this story when I realized my memory is not perfect — and that I was going to create an impression of that time rather than a recreation. I was going to allow for possible inaccuracies. I really wasn’t interested in ….” She hesitates, choosing her next words carefully. “I was interested in things beyond just telling a story. It’s much more about exploring memory, the experience of the time, the experience of becoming a filmmaker. It’s much more than just a memoir.”

The Souvenir is indeed an extremely impressionistic look back at a pivot point in one young woman’s life, and even if you don’t know that Hogg is mining her own story in the name of revisiting a slightly traumatic, incredibly formative and very real relationship, it’s infused with the sense of someone sifting through a painful, personal past. At one point, a character notes that there are two types of movies: those that depict “life as it is versus life as it’s experienced.” Hogg’s Roman à clef falls under the latter category, as we view her screen counterpart Julie — played by Byrne — plan a student project, hang out with her  friends, meet this male mentor figure/lover named Anthony, fall in love, break-up, make-up and eventually find a way to move on in fragmentary bursts. It takes a while before you even realize where you’re at and what time period the story takes place in (bulky Bolex cameras, the IRA bombing of Harrods department store and Robert Wyatt’s extraordinary 1983 mope-ballad “Shipbuilding” eventually IDs that it’s Thatcher-era Britain). You feel like you’ve been dropped into a flashback already in progress.

Hogg first started thinking about fashioning a film out of this experience back in 1988, several years after the romance had run its course. “Only I couldn’t get into his mindset yet,” she admits. “I knew her side of the story, intimately. But not his. I didn’t want to judge him.” By that point, Hogg had started making music videos and was working a lot in television; the idea of delving into that emotional wreckage was back-burnered. It would be another 20 years before she even made her debut feature, Unrelated (2007), about a woman who falls for an old friend’s devil-may-care son (a baby-faced Tom Hiddleston, in his first film role) during a vacation. Two more films, Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), soon followed, at which point Hogg had begun to develop a signature style: narratives shot chronologically but constructed elliptically; a penchant for long, static shots and casting non-actors; a way of allowing things just sort of happen onscreen that somehow felt both Cassavetes-loose and Kubrick-precise.

When Hogg finally came back around to the idea of what would become The Souvenir, she began to put together her version of an outline; in lieu of writing a regular script with stage directions and dialogue, etc., she prepares a sort of dossier on the big picture. “It’s a 30-page document that describes things that you wouldn’t normally describe in screenplay,” she explains. “Like what a character is thinking, or a sort of the underlying feeling of a scene. It’s very detailed yet very condensed.”

“It’s like a short story,” Swinton adds. “She shows it to some of her collaborators. But not everybody.”

“Well, you didn’t really need it,” Hogg says. “You knew me back then.”

Swinton smiles. The two women have been close friends since childhood; the Oscar-winner starred in Hogg’s first student film back in 1986 (“But we’ve been in each other’s lives since 1886,” Swinton jokes). And after the director had spent several months working with Tom Burke, the young actor who she’d cast as Anthony, she turned to the one person who she thought would be perfect to play Julie’s mother. Tilda agreed immediately. There was one issue, however. Hogg could not find her Julie.

“There was a lot of searching, a lot of meeting young actors, a lot of grabbing people off the street,” Hogg says. “I had a few experiences of sitting in a cafe and seeing someone walking by who I thought was right for there part, running out and grabbing them in the street … I made a fool of myself a couple of times. Not everyone wants to be in a movie.”

So when she went to Scotland to see her old friend, Hogg asked Swinton if, through her connections and travels, there was a young woman — any young woman — who the actor could recommend. “Well, not just anybody, really,” the filmmaker says. “I wanted someone who hadn’t grown up in a big city — there’s a certain sophistication that young women had if they’d come from London back then, and I didn’t want that.”

“You also wanted someone who’d believably feel like they were from the 1980s, remember?” Swinton notes. “Which is quite a tall order — it means someone who’s not self-conscious in the way that so many young people are now.”

“Yes,” Hogg agrees. “And you had to have the sense that they didn’t want to be in front of the camera, the way that so many actors do. This person had to give you the feeling that they wanted to be behind it.”

She was looking for a young version of herself, essentially, and with two weeks to go before production began, the perfect Hogg ’82 was nowhere to be found. As the filmmaker was getting ready to return home, she ran into Tilda’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, stepping off a train that had just come from London. The two of them had a brief conversation. And it was at some point during that exchange that Hogg felt a strange thought occurred to her. What if she had already found her Julie? What if, in fact, she’d known this person for years? What if she was talking to her right now?

Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne in ‘The Souvenir.’

The idea that Honor, the daughter of a playwright and an instantly recognizable world-famous movie star, had exactly zero acting experience somehow made the idea even more desirable to Hogg. The then-21-year-old was an accomplished writer and a painter, but not a performer. There was something about her that the director felt made her “seem like she was from another era, or ‘out’ of time, which is often how I felt at that age.” So then it was merely a question of whether the younger Swinton would —

“Oh, I said yes straight away,” Byrne says, brightly. “I had absolutely no idea what was to come. But that was fantastic, because it’s what Joanna needed. I had no idea of the story, I had no idea of the character, I didn’t know where this was going to go. But I knew I wanted to do it. I was very keen to do it, actually.”

“I mean, you knew you’d be playing a big part in a film,” Hogg says. “But past that ….”

“It was an adventure,” Byrne replies. “I wanted an adventure.”

Because Hogg wanted her screen counterpart to feel as lost in the dark as she did at that age, she did not show Byrne the 30-page document. Instead, she gave her old journals, books of photographs and reams of notes that she had taken when, like The Souvenir‘s heroine, the twentysomething Hogg had been preparing to do a project based on the ship building industry in Sunderland. “It gave me a starting point,” Honor says. “And it quickly put me into the time period. Even the handwriting gave you a sense of who this person was and what her environment was like.” The young actor did not meet Burke until they were filming their first encounter; Hogg purposely set it up so that the performers’ push-pull dynamic would replicate the characters tentatively feeling each other out and establishing a sort of dominant-submissive rapport.

And, in one of The Souvenir‘s more intriguing scenes, Julie notices that her lover has some rather strange, scab-like scars on his arm. He plays it off as something like a rash; anyone aware of the heroin epidemic that plagued London during that era will recognize what the marks signify. (It later comes out at a dinner party that Anthony has indeed been a functional addict for some time — another thing Honor learned at the same time as her character.) Byrne was not told that Burke would reveal these telltale signs to her or what he’d say in response; Hogg, for her part, had no idea what the actress’s reaction would be. The fact that Julie sort of plays along with the ruse suggests she’s either too naive to identify what she’s seeing or that she simply refuses to acknowledge it in an act of extreme denial. Ask the three women which interpretation would be more likely, and even they aren’t entirely sure.

“What was going through your head when you did that scene?” Tilda asks.

“I’m trying to remember,” Honor answers. “It was years ago when we did it. But that’s really interesting — you don’t know which way it goes.”

“It’s one of the few derivations from my story,” Hogg says. “Because I knew about the addiction much, much sooner in the relationship. Contrary to me not liking plot very much, I wanted that moment of realization — or non-realization — for Julie to happen gradually. But now I’m wondering how you played it as well, Honor.”

Byrne scrunches up her face in thought. A few seconds pass. Then: “I think she saw them and, even what Julie says about, ‘Leave it and it will go away’ — I think it’s her slightly wanting it to go away and not wanting to pay attention to it. You know, don’t think about it, don’t look about it, don’t talk about it and then it doesn’t exist. Out of sight and out of mind, in a way.”

“It’s a good example of how our process worked,” Hogg says. “Those words are coming out of Honor. They weren’t scripted.”

Nothing I said was scripted,” Honor replies.

“You say the line with such concern,” Hogg notes.

“She doesn’t want him to be in pain,” Byrne says. The elder Swinton puts her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“I was interested in things beyond just telling a story. It’s much more about exploring memory. It’s much more than just a memoir.”—Joanna Hogg

Then the conversation turns to talk of mirrors (there are multitudes of them in the film) and mothers, and how the casting of Tilda as an avatar for Hogg’s own mom was just one more element of self-reflection, especially since one of Julie’s close confidants is based on Swinton and the real Tilda shows up in old rehearsal footage for the director’s student film near the end of The Souvenir. That scene soon leads in to one of the more devastating moments near the end, when Julie’s mother comforts here after a tragedy. Most filmmakers would stay with the young woman after this. Instead, the camera follows Tilda’s character, Rosalind, upstairs and into her bedroom, as she sits quietly for several moments and contemplates what’s just happened.

“For me, the scene with mother on the bed …” Hogg says, and then she stops and begins crying. “I’m sorry, I just find it very moving. Because my mother is still alive, and she has a lot of difficulty expressing herself. And that moment is so true — it’s so painfully true. But it’s just a beautiful moment that you two gave me. And the fact that we created that together, and that Tilda knows my mother — and knew my mother then — I’m just…I’m so moved. And I’m so excited that we get to take these character further and get another window into their lives.”

By which she means the second film involving these characters — the story was always designed as a diptych from the very beginning, Hogg says, and all three of them will start shooting The Souvenir‘s sequel in a few weeks. She’s reluctant to share any details about what happens next, “partially because I’m not sure myself,” Hogg adds with a laugh. (The only thing that does seem certain is that Byrne has no immediate plans to continue acting after filming the follow-up; she told a crowd at the Berlin Film Festival’s press conference that she’d applied for a neuroscience program at a university in Edinburgh.) The director hints that it will involve “the aftermath” of the relationship and how it helps Julie grow as an adult and an artist. As for the rest, it is very much up in the air as to whether it will follow the facts of Hogg’s own evolution or skew more towards fiction.

“But in a way,” Tilda adds, “the last scenes in this one are really the most precise in the entire film, even down to the words that are spoken. They are the most true. So Part 1 ends, in my opinion, really on-point. It’s like a hinge between the two movies. The accuracy becomes very concentrated at the end of this chapter … and then continues out and sort of expands in Part 2.”

Hogg glances over at her collaborators and breaks into a huge grin. “Apparently my memory is not as bad as I thought, then.”

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