“She hasn’t had anything since breakfast,” a publicist warns me, nodding at the lady nibbling on a salad and chatting with a journalist a few tables across from mine. “And she has to run to her Q&A in about ten minutes. So…” The woman working on her salad is Joanna Hogg, the day a cloudy afternoon in early November, and the venue the lobby of the Mediterranean Palace, a vanilla-dyed hotel nestled along the gulf of Thessaloniki, Greece. Hogg is in town to attend the 60th Thessaloniki’s International Film Festival, which has slotted her fourth and latest feature – The Souvenir – in a tribute to her career. I’m here to interview her, and I’m the last in line. “There’s a slight chance you may be able to continue chatting on her way to the screening,” the publicist whispers. “But I can’t promise much.” I look through my notes, and wait for my turn.
Joanna Hogg released her first feature at 47; The Souvenir is only her fourth movie. For the past 20 years, she’s often traversed critical debates under the ill-fitting label of “breakthrough talent”. It’s a testament of the amnesiac variety with which her films have been received: critically acclaimed and yet summarily forgotten – or at any rate, seldom granted the visibility and prominence they deserve. Hogg made her directorial debut with Caprice, a 1986 short starring Tilda Swinton (a then unknown 26 year-old) as a young woman caught in a Technicolor Oz-style trip into her favourite fashion magazine. Twenty years and several TV projects later, she returned to the big screen with her feature debut Unrelated (2007), starring newcomer Tom Hiddleston (also 26 at the time of his Hogg debut, curiously) as a youngster spending his summer with well to-do friends and family in Tuscany. Hiddleston would pop up again in Archipelago (2010), this time as a brooding lad struggling to break free from his bourgeois bubble while stranded with mother and sister in a holiday house in the Isles of Scilly (a cultural claustrophobia that would ripple on to The Souvenir, too). Three years later, Exhibition (2013) followed a childless couple of affluent Londoners selling their home and struggling to imagine a life together afterwards. And in 2019, along came The Souvenir, quite possibly Hogg’s most personal work to date: an exhumation of her devastating relationship with a heroin addict that spanned through her film school years in the early 1980s. Hogg’s stand-in is newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie (Tilda Swinton’s daughter), her lover Tom Burke’s Anthony.
It’s a film that unspools as an act of recollection, down to David Raedeker’s grainy cinematography, one of the few from the past year in which you could sense the pain in the telling. And that feeling elucidates, I suspect, what makes Hogg’s films so piercing and intimate. As a rigorous and compassionate observer of the British upper-middle class – a turf she was born into, and which she’s dissected without embarrassment – Hogg has followed characters and all too often either caricatured or glamorised onscreen, granting them layered psychologies, empathy, and understanding. To wade into Hogg’s cinema is, in more ways than one, to witness people pleat to the ground and heal – and it’s curious how prominent a role art comes to play in their recovery. As I sit in the lobby of the Mediterranean Palace, Hogg and her team are in the midst of editing The Souvenir’s sequel, and I’m thinking about what the second chapter might look like when she bids farewell to the journalist, and beckons me to come forward.
I remember you! I saw you at my screening of The Souvenir the other day.
I was! It was actually my second time watching it. I first saw it in Berlin, and it made me want to revisit your earlier works. It’s fascinating to see how your characters’ struggles seem to pivot on identity as much as artistic crises, as if life and art were always intertwined. It’s a constant dance between chaos and order. In Archipelago, you have Christopher Baker, who plays a painter, warning others to let chaos inspire their creativity. And in Exhibition, we hear Liam Gillick, another artist, describe his work as “a mixture of intellect and intuition that somehow magically synchronise.”
That’s interesting. See, I probably believe all those things. And I think I’ve been casting people who are, in a way, playing a version of themselves. Christopher Baker is doing that in Archipelago, and Liam Gillick is doing the same in Exhibition. And I think…[pauses]. How do I put it simply? I think I am gravitating naturally towards these people, and casting them, because their ideologies are close to mine. They resonate with me. For instance, in Archipelago, I wanted the family to be very controlled. I wanted this chaos to be just on the fringes of things. And it sometimes feels like magic, in a way, that Christopher should start vocalising the things I’m expressing in the film. But I haven’t planned them. It’s like this chemical reaction. It’s intuition.
I thought The Souvenir added an interesting spin to the conversation. You have Julie’s film school professors warning her to stay true to herself, and to stick to what she knows already. But she’s also told the exact opposite by Richard Ayoade’s character, who scoffs at her film school struggles with a “teaching people how to film is like teaching them how to breathe.” I was intrigued by this dichotomy, this tension between sticking to the beaten track and venturing beyond it, and I was wondering how you’ve deal with it yourself in Julie’s shoes.
Well, this is all credit to your questions: I’m currently working on The Souvenir: Part II, and I’m beginning to want to make my own notes around what you’re saying. I don’t have the privilege you have, this outer perspective on my work, if you will. Particularly now, as I’m in the midst of Part II. Which is why I fear I don’t have quick answers for you. But I’m really interested. I want to honour your great questions, but it takes time for me to unravel… [pauses] Ok, this may not be an exact response, but I myself – outside of my films, as a filmmaker – I’m still learning to breathe in the way Richard Ayoade’s character says in The Souvenir. I’m still learning to breathe within cinema. And within my cinema, to let my work be hyperconnected to my own rhythms. My own breath. But it’s something I feel I haven’t arrived at yet. I’m still learning, which is why these different perspectives collide as they do.
That reminds me of another thing Christopher Baker says in Archipelago, when he tells Tom Hiddleston not to rush things, that people take their time to figure out their art as much as their own selves. He goes: “it’s taking me a long time, but I think I know the angles better now.” Does this ring as a mission statement?
It does! And it’s a constantly changing thing, so you may find, I don’t know, in Part II you may hear a character saying something that might potentially contradict what another character says in other films. But it’s a journey. It changes.
How does it feel when you go back and revisit your films? I remember watching your first short, Caprice…
Oh, you’ve seen Caprice?
I have! And I found the ending very emblematic. Tilda Swinton’s Lucky is offered a dream job at her favourite fashion magazine, but she rejects it, because she’d rather keep her integrity intact than selling her soul to an industry that would crush it. Does that statement resonate just as loud today?
Entirely! In fact, I don’t watch my films again after I’ve made them, and… [Hogg looks up; her publicist gestures toward the door]. Do you mind if we continue our chat as we walk?
Outside the Mediterranean Palace the air is still and the sky has taken up a lambent glow, coppers and ochers burning off the horizon. The sun is setting across the gulf, and the promenade around Thessaloniki’s docks is closed to traffic: all along the pier stretching ahead of us people flock to their last festival screenings. Hogg and I wade past tourists and cinephiles, trying to continue our chat while ducking bikes and scooters.
You don’t rewatch your films?
Not usually. But I did watch Caprice again recently, because it was so long ago and I thought, “ok, maybe I can take it.” And watching that scene where Swinton confronts the magazine’s editor-in-chief, listening to her telling him “my life may not be much, but at least it’s mine”, completely fires me up again. It just makes complete sense. I don’t think those ideas have dated in any way.
And what about the antinomy between the artist life and married life? That seems to be another prominent leitmotif in your work. You get a sense of that in Archipelago, when Christopher Baker, a single man and painter, tells Hiddleston’s mother that he “chose a different life.”
That’s central to my life, and my own experience. I’m very interested in how you balance being a creative being and being in a relationship. They’re not always… compatible [smiles]. It’s an ongoing mission, to try and achieve some kind of balance between the two.
Speaking of leitmotifs, I’m certainly not the first one to remark on the importance of class in your work. How do you think that such discourse has evolved all through your work? And how prominent do you reckon it’ll be in The Souvenir: Part II?
The thing is, class is just one discourse. All the other discourses we touched upon just now, those I relate to, in that they are part of my everyday life. But that one, this idea of class… it’s not so interesting to me, actually. I feel there are other people working that out for my films. But really, I don’t think about it that much when I’m conceiving or making them. Of course, I’m aware of that discourse, but it’s not something I aim for.
I find it very interesting to hear you say that, because that element really does strike me as omnipresent. From Hiddleston navigating his relationship with a house chef in Archipelago all the way to Honor Swinton Byrne’s struggling to escape her hyper-controlled bourgeois bubble, your cinema is dotted with people confronting and coming to terms with their position in class hierarchies.
I wonder whether it’s just simply because I’m focusing on characters we do not see very often. Characters who can often be caricatured. But really, all I’m doing is putting on a lens. Hopefully I’ll be making films about lots of different things, and not just from my own experience. What I mean is, viewers may not have seen these characters depicted in such a way before. But this emphasis doesn’t come from a personal interest in class per se.
At the end of your screening last night someone made a comment about how meek and passive Julie is vis-à-vis Anthony. It wasn’t the first time I heard the argument: Julie as a gullible, naive figure. But I found your reply illuminating. You said that this is a movie set in the 1980s, and that to dissect Julie in light of the discourses and debates we inhabit in 2019 would be to miss the mark, simply because the space and role women enjoyed in the 1980s was quite different from today. I was wondering how you feel about people approaching The Souvenir from a contemporary – if somewhat anachronistic – discourse.
I can’t control that, obviously. But to some extent, if I was thinking about doing The Souvenir right now as opposed to give or six years ago when I first started the project, I might question whether I would want to do it in this climate. Because for me, some of the impetus of telling that story came from a lack of that kind of discourse, and a need to see a female perspective, to see a young woman wanting to be a film director in a man’s world. I think I have a sort of pioneering spirit that I need to satisfy in my filmmaking. So [were I to think about making The Souvenir today] I might feel, “oh, there’s not that necessity, there’s no pioneering to do, it’s already being done by Time’s Up, or #MeToo.” That conversation had yet to happen when I conceived of the story. But now it’s been seen in that light.
And how do you see that discourse influencing Part II? How much of a role did the conversation play as you began writing and working on the second chapter?
Well, Part II was also conceived at the same time as Part I, because my intention was to shoot the two films back to back. I wasn’t able to do that, I could not raise enough money to shoot them one after the other. But [the second part] was already written and thought about. Of course, during the actual shooting, there are things that may come into play. Not consciously, perhaps. Because I feel that I have kept in my Souvenir bubble for the last few years. And as much as I don’t think the debate has permeated the film, these are things you just don’t know.
We were mentioning Julie’s vulnerability – I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your struggle to find the right actress, and your casting of Honor Swinton Byrne.
That was probably the biggest challenge. Particularly because, as we were saying earlier, young women in the 1980s behaved differently to young women now. So I needed someone who was out of the past, in a way. It may sound strange, but I wanted someone who’d seem more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, because I wanted her to play a filmmaker, not an actress. Which meant I didn’t look for actresses. At one point I looked at film students, too. It took a long time, and I met a number of people. Casting for me is a very instinctual process: I’m sure every director says this, but it has to feel absolutely right. Not to mention this character has to be in two films, not one. Often what happens to me is that I don’t find someone very quickly, and then time goes on, and the first shooting day approaches. And it was probably about two weeks before we were due to start – not ideal – and still I wasn’t so worried, I’d been there before. But what was strange is that I’d already cast everyone else I needed. I even cast Julie’s mother, who turned out to be Honor’s real-life mother. And I couldn’t have planned that. In fact, I felt that casting Honor was a bit like treading across a line I wasn’t comfortable to tread across. I knew her from when she was a baby [Editor’s note: Hogg and Tilda Swinton have known each other since high school, and the director is Swinton Byrne’s godmother], and I wanted to protect her. Which is why I took that decision very seriously.
I wanted to go back to the significance of settings in your films. I heard Julie’s apartment in The Souvenir was built from scratch and designed to resemble the flat you lived in in your twenties.
Yes, that’s right.
I was wondering how your location scouting unfolded in other films. What about the house at the centre of Exhibition?
Oh, I knew that house already, and the story was very much built around it. I think if I hadn’t been able to film in that specific house I might not have made the film. Because I was very inspired by it. It was built by an architect I knew [James Melvin], whom I dedicated the film to. As for The Souvenir, I was concerned. I thought, “how am I going to get that sense of place that I need?” I needed it not only as a kind of creative inspiration, but also for practical reasons. I shoot in story order, and I can’t be traveling to many different locations. I’ve got to be in one place, and then I’ll have the artistic freedom that I need. So then I realised, “ok, I need to recreate this apartment that I lived in, I need a film school, and a film school needs to have a studio, where the students shoot films. So then I’ll create the apartment within the film school…” And then we found the disused airbase, and the aircraft hangar. So the sense of place becomes this aircraft hangar, this airbase.
It’s interesting to see so many different art forms coexist in your films. There’s a painting hanging inside Edward’s holiday home in Archipelago that takes on a prominent role in the film’s economy. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Souvenir”, of course – the painting Anthony shows to Julie in the film named after it. And in Exhibition, we see glimpses of Bernini’s statue, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa…
The Souvenir just had to feature Fragonard’s painting, simply because that was the one I was introduced to when I had this relationship in my early twenties. The picture in Archipelago was a completely chance thing: I knew that I wanted a painting, something very bleak that would depict big waves in an ocean. And we were sitting in a pub in the island where we shot the film, and above this person I was talking to was this picture – it was a photograph, actually – taken of a storm, and we borrowed it from the pub and put it in the film. As for Saint Theresa, that was something we researched and found.
It’s interesting because they take on different meanings, but they all seem to exist in conversation with the film. All different parts of the same organic tissue, in a way.
Oh, absolutely! And it’s really interesting to hear you say that, because Part II is again all about filmmaking, and I’m sure these ideas and these connections you’re making will inspire something in the film, too.
There’s a certain feeling of catharsis in The Souvenir’s ending, and I like to think it extends to all your films. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they all end on a happy note, but they do seem to finish with new beginnings, and there are hints that your characters may find their way.
I think that’s just me. And the way I see life. I do tend to see something positive even in the worst of times. I guess I need a feeling of hope.