Joanna Hogg Talks Baring Her Past for 'The Souvenir': "I Put a Lot of Myself Out There"

Courtesy of Sundance Institute; Inset: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
'The Souvenir' (Inset: Joanna Hogg)

The director behind the acclaimed Sundance film created a semi-biographical story out of a traumatic romance: “There's a lot of soul-searching in making a film for me.”

Joanna Hogg first imagined making The Souvenir three decades ago, just a few years after the troubled relationship upon which the film is based ended.

Still, in 1988, the British filmmaker (UnrelatedArchipelago, Exhibition), just graduated from film school, figured she didn't yet have the skills to tell the story of the romance, which both encouraged her interest in filmmaking and obliviated her confidence in her own ideas. Moreover, Hogg wanted to make two films, one focused on the relationship and another on its aftermath. She shelved the project, returning every few years to it, but struggling with how to tell the story from both her point of view and her ex’s.

A few years ago, however, Hogg realized she didn’t need to understand her former boyfriend's point of view — the film could investigate his character, just as she still was. "It’s a confidence thing, really," Hogg says now of how she figured the story out. "Just sort of thinking, 'I can create my own impression of the time and it doesn't matter if it's right or wrong.'"

The Souvenir, set to bow Friday, is told in story order but unsequentially: Though it’s unclear how much time passes between scenes, periods in main character Julie’s (Honor Swinton-Byrne, in her debut lead role) relationship with her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) are linked by snippets of diary entries and letters over the audio track. Anthony’s secrets, beyond his tendency to disappear and ask Julie for money, surface just as Julie discovers them, producing, eventually, a climactic finale. Hogg pulled some of these details straight from her own life; others are fictionalized to fit the contours of a film.

Though she has enjoyed some renown in indie film circles since her 2007 debut film Unrelated, The Souvenir has vaulted Hogg to a new level of acclaim in America. The film — and its as-yet-unproduced sequel — was bought by A24 before it even premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it earned glowing reviews, including from this publication. Martin Scorsese, an unofficial consultant on Exhibition and a fan of Hogg’s since Archipelago, came on board as an executive producer, helping to broaden the movie’s audience.

When The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Hogg before the pic’s Los Angeles release, the director discussed writing as therapy, her moratorium on reading reviews and why each of her films is like “a skin I shed.”

You've said before that this movie was a "confusion of fact and fiction." Where was your starting point, and how did you craft the story from there?

When I first start writing, it's a very personal process. It's almost like I'm planning to make a documentary of a particular point in my life — that’s when it's most acutely personal. But when I start casting and when we start shooting, it no longer feels so personal because I've mined all my feelings and emotions and ideas and thoughts around my own story, then I craft it into something that works on other levels, so it's not just like reading someone's diary, it becomes a story. I always thought one of the things that appealed to me about making The Souvenir was that it's very much a narrative — maybe based on true life, but it's very much a piece of fiction, in a way more than my other three films.

In the movie, Julie says that writing films is in some way therapy for her. What is your relationship to this notion of writing-as-therapy?

First, let me just say that was my application to film school, I did those things: What Julie has in front of her in that scene is my actual application to film school. I really believed that. I was challenged in the way that Julie is challenged. But now, as my older self, it's interesting; in a way, I haven't thought about it recently. I certainly don't think it's a form of therapy. That's not really why I make films, and in a way, having done a lot of actual therapy myself, I'm wary of it, and I'm wary of getting to the bottom of what that motor to create is. So I certainly don't want to uncover that and discover that and risk destroying something that's so important to let be, if that makes sense.

How difficult did you find it to excavate old material of yours like diary entries and that film school application and share it with others on this movie?

When I choose to use my own material in my work like this, it's almost like that material doesn't belong to me anymore; it's serving the film and the story. So I don't really question it, and it's not even uncomfortable, actually. Maybe what was a little more challenging is material that isn't in the film that I showed Honor, who plays Julie, and Tom, who plays Anthony: They were both privy to diaries and letters that don't appear in the film. I thought twice about the archive material that I gave them. That felt a little strange. But I think once I'm making the film, I'm not thinking about any of this; it's much more when I'm writing that I can get feelings of shame, or I sometimes I question myself, “Do I dare to say that in the story?” And usually I do.

Though Honor Swinton-Byrne appeared briefly in I Am Love, this is her debut as the star of a film. How did you end up landing on her to play the lead?

It was a long process before finding her, even though I knew her all along. It was a long process to the point where I saw her as Julie. What I was looking for was somebody who was maybe more comfortable behind the camera than in front of the camera. I did meet actresses, and I always feel like they were actresses, they weren't filmmakers to be or artists. I needed to have somebody who could believably be comfortable behind the camera and believably be a student filmmaker. Honor hadn't considered acting at all and was writing and very much a creative person herself. So I saw that in her, and I saw something of myself in her; [it’s] hard to pin down what that was.

Because Julie is based to some extent on you, did that change the way you worked with Swinton-Byrne compared to the ways you've worked with past lead actors on your films?

No, I wouldn't say that changed anything. But a decision I did make was that Honor wouldn't be privy to the story, and would very much experience the story as it unfolds as we were shooting. There is a script; I shoot in story order so it has a rhythm, it has a natural progression. So Honor was able to engage in the story, but she wouldn't always know what was going to happen next. Whereas Anthony, Tom playing Anthony, knew where the story was going. But that seemed right for him because he's [his character is] a director in a sense himself. He's guiding her and leading her, so it made complete sense that he knew the map and Julie didn't.

Before the film even premiered at Sundance, A24 bought the rights to its sequel. When did you know you wanted to make a sequel?

I first noted down that the film should be in two parts in 1988, when I was writing those first notes I mentioned earlier. I always thought the story of Julie and Anthony should take up one film, that that couldn't be part of a film. It had to be at least an hour and a half that we [were] immersed in that relationship, and then the second part would be some kind of reaction to that. Interestingly, I only discovered that recently. I found a lot of old notebooks where I had that very clearly mapped out.

I said that there were going to be two films [to A24] and they were very interested in that. They've never had a sequel before so they're very excited about that idea about a film being two parts of something.

Has the film's success at Sundance changed your career in any way? 

Actually, I've been trying not to feel that, because I'm still in the work. We're shooting the second part in three weeks. I made a clear decision at Sundance not to read anything [and decided] that there was a danger that if I read something, no matter how good or bad, didn't matter. I didn't want to be influenced by someone else's opinion of the film and that I need to keep very much on my own track. I didn't want to give myself that added pressure. Of course, from a sidelong glance, I'm very happy that people seem to be responding to the film. So I'm delighted but I'm having to keep it at arm's length because I've got to make the next part and that's the most important thing. And that's also about a respect for the audience: They deserve to have my full attention so I can't get carried away with anything.

What would you hope people walk out of this movie thinking or feeling?

I find that so hard to answer because I'm curious. When I make a film, I have to keep very clear on my own ideas, on my own instincts. I'm not a filmmaker that tends to think, “Well, what would the audience think of this?” or “Oh, I must do this because this is how the audience will respond.” That, for me, is a lack of respect for the audience, and you can't make those assumptions. I think the most respectful thing you can do is stay true to your own ideas and not think outside that bubble in a way. And then it's a gift to anyone who watches it and they can take it as they want. Of course, it's very satisfying when someone identifies with the story: I don't know if I can ask for more. There's a lot of soul-searching in making a film for me and that soul-searching in the end is given away for other people to interpret, but I don't think that I could describe what that would be. It's like a skin I shed. I put a lot of myself in there and then I don't look back at the work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.