Three films into her career, Joanna Hogg had already established herself as one of the most distinctive and exciting artists working in contemporary British cinema, but even by her own high standards The Souvenir is something extraordinary. This portrait of a young film student's relationship with an troubled older man in 1980s London is both her most nakedly autobiographical film and most ambitious project to date. The film as it stands is a singular and perfectly crafted gem, but for the director it’s only half-complete, with The Souvenir: Part II set to continue Julie’s story. She had just finished shooting the second instalment when we met in London recently to discuss The Souvenir.
We've spoken in the past about how you often begin your projects with a particular location in mind and then develop the characters within that space. With The Souvenir you've got a different starting point, drawing on your own memories and experiences. Did that make it a very different process for you?
I'm not sure in the end if it did change very much, but I suppose the starting point was different, which I was aware of. It concerned me in the beginning when I was first thinking about doing it because, you know, what was going to be the place? At that point I hadn't really thought about the reconstructing of the apartment and the film school, but it quickly became clear that I also needed a place to set this film. That place became the aircraft hangar we found that has ended up being – both for part one and part two – the container for everything, in a way. There are locations outside that hangar, but it is the centre of it. So in a way it is no different from the others, but then as the container for a lot of scenes and ideas it challenged me into making formally different choices with this film, and I was aware of that and aware of wanting to push myself. With those three previous films I felt there was a pattern emerging that I consciously wanted to break and confuse and destroy.
This is a memory piece and I'm fascinated by the way it feels like a memory. The moments feel very specific but the whole feels more elusive and fragmented.
[Long pause] You know, I was actually going to preface our meeting by saying that I feel completely emptied out after shooting the second part. It's a strange thing – and I will try to answer your question – but for the shoot it's such an intense moment. As a filmmaker you don't get to shoot that often, so I think I've got six and a half weeks here, I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself. At the end of it I'm sort of an empty vessel, and that's exactly where I am right now. [laughs] Now there's a little bit of a confusion between part one and part two, because I've been completely immersed in part two, and I have to try and remember what part one is and what I wanted to do with that and how to talk about these two separate things. For me it's all part of one piece of work.
With Exhibition – although that fits into the pattern of the previous films – I wanted to challenge myself with that in terms of trying to tell a story in a non-linear way, in a more fragmented way. I think Exhibition is more fragmented than The Souvenir; the first part, anyway, I don't yet know if the second part will be more fragmented. The first part seems quite linear in a way, and when you talk about the precision in one sense but the fragmented nature in another, I suppose just by the nature of the way I work and what I'm searching for there are...it's so hard to articulate right at this moment, to be honest. I don't want something too loose even though the way I work seems very open and allows a lot of things to come in, but that has to be very tightly controlled, so it's a mixture of extreme control on the one hand and letting things go. The result of that is something between those things.
It has an ellipical quality, like we're just getting these snapshots of a relationship.
It's interesting, because I didn't set out for it to be those snapshots, and I thought maybe this film would be less elliptical, because I'm aware of that with the other films. This was my attempt to tell more of a conventional narrative but I guess it's hard for me to do that
Your work often withholds things from the audience and leaves things unsaid, but I felt that aspect was particularly potent here. What's unsaid is often hanging heavily over every scene.
Yes, well, I think of the other films and maybe my experience in life is often people not saying what they mean, and speaking for myself, I don't think I'm very good at saying in everyday life what I want or what I think. I guess that opaqueness sort of washes over the films. I'm interested in depicting a scene and just letting it sit there. It's not even something I talk about with Helle [le Fevre], the editor I work with, but we're very interested in editing scenes together but letting the effect of them sit there and not wanting to spell too much out, even though I did think I was going to spell out more with this film. [laughs]
I was just thinking about that scene where they're having the birthday meal and Tilda is talking about taking a course at the Courtauld and everyone's having a nice time, but right behind them we see the broken mirror from when Anthony had his withdrawal meltdown. I kept wondering, have they discussed this? Do the parents know what happened? Are they all choosing to ignore it?
It's funny, because I remember my perspective on that when we shot it and edited it was, is it too obvious having this broken mirror in the background?
Do you talk about that kind of thing with the actors?
I do remember a certain amount of conversation around that. It was interesting because James Spencer Ashworth, who plays Julie's father, he's not an actor, he's actually a farmer in life. He would often ask those questions as someone who wasn't coming from an acting perspective. He would ask me, "Should I know that?" or "What would I know in this situation?" so some of those questions came interestingly from him just because he put himself into this new situation and had a natural curiosity I wouldn't encourage him to work out too much or think too much about the situation, but as a person he just wanted to understand what things meant. Tilda and Tom, and even Honor, were happy to just be in that situation, and Honor wasn't party to the story so she wasn't questioning anything because she really didn't know what was going to happen from one moment to the next.
You've often cast non actors. How do you know someone with no experience is going to be able to handle a role? Is it just gut instinct?
I think it's a gut instinct and – talking about James, for example – knowing that he didn't have to stray too far from who he is as a person, so I'm not asking him to play a pawnbroker or something. When I cast a non-actor I won't push them to stretch too far from who they are in life, and I think that helps a lot. But to answer your question about whether I know how it's going to be, I really don't. Even though I might take those precautions, the excitement for me is not knowing how it's going to be on the day. Someone might be playing who they are in real life but they might be very uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of the camera.
Do you screen test them?
No. I think I just create a comfortable environment for them to be in and that's maybe half the battle, having a calm set and creating a certain atmosphere that they can be themselves in. That's the same for the actors, actually, I want to create that atmosphere for them too.
Tom Burke is a remarkable actor. He has such a distinctive presence and delivery. What drew you to him for this role?
Again so much is instinct, but knowing and having seen him perform brilliantly in certain things I had more evidence of his ability as an actor. He just had some qualities that reminded me of the original character and there was just something about his physique that is so different from the physique of a lot of young actors now, who are going to the gym all the time. There's a sort of body consciousness that I find off-putting sometimes. I want their mind to be connected with their body, I don't want this concern of looking right, and that's not where Tom is and that's not what he's interested in. I thought he reminded me a little bit of a young Orson Welles, he's not off to the gym every five minutes.
Anthony feels very specifically constructed as a character but he's also very enigmatic. How did you work with Tom on developing this?
I cast him quite early on and I gave him a lot of materials to use as foundation for the character, so he had voice recordings of the original character, letters, photographs. He's an incredibly intelligent actor and from these materials he was able to build a picture of someone that in the end was spookily close to the person I knew. That happened over weeks and months. It was a wonderful thing to meet Tom and spend that time with him in the lead-up to the shoot, because often I'll cast quite late in the day and won't have that opportunity, but it seemed so right with this character that he was carefully constructed. The person was very carefully constructed, in a way, and it needed that time and energy and focus.
The fact that he was so well prepared and Honor wasn't helps create that unbalanced power dynamic between their characters.
Yes, that's true. She came in very late and didn't know where she was going.
What I loved about Honor's performance is the way it shows how being in love can make someone so vulnerable. She doesn't hold anything back, she doesn't protect herself in any way. Did you discuss that with her or was that something she brought to the character?
I think a lot of that is Honor. She was party to some materials but in a very different way to Tom, and in a very sped-up way because she was cast so late in the process. I did show her some of my diaries from the time. I didn't show her so many letters but I showed her some materials so she could get an idea of who this young woman is at this point in her life. As well as diaries I showed her some of the screenplays I attempted to write and the film I did. I didn't want her to know anything about the relationship because that was going to happen during the filming, when she was going to meet him; in fact she didn't even know it was about a relationship. She knew it was about a young film student and I just wanted to have an idea of the projects and the impetus of a filmmaker and photographer. It was the creative and artistic side I wanted her to inhabit.
I know you like to put your actors into a scene with little preparation and to capture their spontaneous reactions. Can you maintain that sense of spontaneity when you're doing multiple takes?
Of course there's always a risk that after the first take the innocence has gone in a way. It always surprised me actually, even with Honor who had never acted before and never had a desire to be an actress, how she was able to repeat that surprise and that feeling of not knowing after a number of takes. That has continued to surprise me in shooting part two as well, her ability to perform.
This is the first feature you've shot on film. Did that change your process?
It did, it changed a lot because I can't have such long takes. I really liked having that disciple. I really liked having something telling me that a take could only be so long, the economy of it, how many rolls of film we were getting through. I found that very exciting actually, having those limits. I decided to put those limits on myself even more in the second part. So part one is partly shot on 16mm, partly digital and super 8, and the second part the ratio is more towards film. There are some digital moments but most of it is shot on film, and I absolutely loved that.
You're using close-ups a lot more too.
Yeah, and I feel like I'm pushing that even more in the second part, in terms of where to put the camera and how to shoot scenes. I'm trying to move the camera around a bit more too.
It's interesting that you've had this big gap between shooting the two parts. Was there ever a thought of doing them as one production, or was it the money factor that dictated that?
It was a money factor. I wanted to, actually, and in the lead up to shooting part one there was always the possibility of doing both back-to-back. I didn't want to have a break and certainly not a break of two years, but we just weren't able to get the commitment and raise the money for shooting two at the same time. I think in the end it's probably a good thing, actually, because I had much more time to construct part two. At first I thought what a shame to lose momentum, but there are certain ideas that I hadn't come up with then that I'm really pleased I got a chance to do.
The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from August 30th