Joanna Hogg: 'I don't believe that you can only tell stories from what you know. It encourages me to think the opposite in a way'
The Souvenir director explains how her own personal story morphed into the tale that ended up on screen
When British director Joanna Hogg arrived at film school in the early 80s, she entered into a relationship that would change the trajectory of her personal and creative life. So much so that nearly four decades later, Hogg has revisited these formative memories in her latest – and best – film. The Souvenir follows Julie, a fictional version of Hogg, played by Tilda Swinton's daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne in her first acting role. As a privileged young woman entering film school, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious, troubled man. The result is a swooning romance with bite; a self-aware confessional and a brilliant, carefully crafted hard look in the mirror.
'It came partially from my memory of a relationship I had in the early 1980s but what it has become is something else entirely,' explains Hogg. 'It was quite a painful process – facing the young woman who I thought I was at that time. I don't even know if it accurately portrays the thing that happened to me. But that was the starting point and then when other collaborators came on board, it became something entirely new.'
The new direction beyond Hogg's memories largely came from the casting of first-timer Swinton Byrne as Julie, the film's lynchpin and perhaps its biggest challenge. 'Honor came on board quite late in the process,' she explains. 'I spent many months interviewing young women to play that part. I met young actresses, I stopped people in the street, I talked to friends about people they knew. It became quite a desperate search. I think what I wasn't finding was someone who could believably be a young woman at that time – an analogue young woman!'
Putting a Super 8 camera into Swinton Byrne's hands was as far as Hogg went in preparing her young star for her first role. 'Really the only thing I didn't do was tell her the story of The Souvenir because I wanted her to live the story through the shooting of it. I'm not even sure she knew it was about a relationship. She discovered that as we shot the film. She just knew that she was playing someone who was interested in film but beyond that it was a discovery, including the ending.'
The Souvenir also makes use of film Hogg shot as a young filmmaker. 'We weren't able to shoot the entire film on celluloid because of budgetary constraints so I decided to use that to my advantage and tell the story with these different textures. I suppose the idea was that Julie's creative life is expressed in film and at the start of The Souvenir, before she meets Anthony, she's in the texture of film and the looseness of shooting on handheld. And then when she meets Anthony, it closes down a little bit and we're shooting on digital. But throughout the film, there's a play between digital and film – very much reflecting Julie's state of mind. We're using 60mm and Super 8 that I shot in the 80s. That was very exciting to use some of these materials that have been sitting in a drawer somewhere all those years.'
In The Souvenir, Julie's arrival at film school forces her to wrestle with her own exposure to privilege and the question of whether artists can tell stories removed from their own lived experiences. Has Hogg herself reached a conclusion on that question? 'I don't know if I've come to a conclusion,' says Hogg after a pause. 'But I don't believe that you can only tell stories from what you know. It encourages me to think the opposite in a way. As artists, you should be allowed to tell stories you want to tell and not just from your own experience. Otherwise what have you got to say?'
The Souvenir Part Two has already finished filming and Hogg is gleeful when asked what she can say about it. 'It's the same story but jumping forward. It's something else entirely but also a continuation.' And have the reactions to Part One shaped Part Two? 'Well I haven't read any of them,' Hogg laughs. 'I didn't want to be limited by interpretation. I never want to limit possibilities.'
The Souvenir is out now.