The Souvenir is a personal (and family) affair for stars Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne, and director Joanna Hogg
Watching Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a rare cinematic experience — one where the viewer feels stripped and laid bare at Hogg’s richly baroque film altar. It has a simple enough premise, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) a young film school student gets involved in an intoxicating and all-consuming relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), a man who isn’t always what he seems, which proves to simultaneously hinder and facilitate Julie’s growth as a woman and an artist. It leaves a deeply personal residue, one that’s hyper-specific to Julie’s own journey, but one that allows for reflection on our own previous relationships and twentysomething paths — it feels like the aftermath of reading a really great gloomy novel (shout out to the Brontës!).
Loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences, she reached out to a longtime collaborator, Tilda Swinton (and Honor’s mother, in case you didn’t pick up the name connection), to get involved in the project early on to play her fictionalized mother, which then led to finding her perfect Julie in Swinton Byrne — whom she’s known since she was a wee babe.
The three women sat down with EW to talk about this family style collaboration on The Souvenir, Hogg’s unconventional way of making a film, and what’s next in store for The Souvenir Cinematic Universe.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Souvenir feels like a family affair for all of you. What was it like getting this film together?
JOANNA HOGG: It was a very natural process over a few years and Tilda became involved and then Honor a number of months later. Tilda and I haven’t worked together for over 30 years, and it was a real pleasure and I like to work in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I like working with non-actors, and I see Tilda, in a way, as a non-actor…
TILDA SWINTON: Thank you very much, I take that as a compliment.
HOGG: There’s a documentary aspect to it. Tilda knows my mother, knew my mother at that point in time, knew the relationship that I was involved in, then [was] at university for some of that time, so we weren’t always together but we’re very old friends and it seemed very natural to bring Honor into the picture.
Honor, were you interested in getting into acting or did this just fall into your lap?
HONOR SWINTON BYRNE: I didn’t go out looking to be cast in the film. I grew up around films and I wanted to be involved in so many aspects of life — to study psychology at university — and I feel like being involved in film in some aspect, whether it was being a costume trainee or a runner, was always something I was interested in. Being asked to be part of The Souvenir was so shocking. I was so surprised and so delighted and I said yes straight away.
What was it like for the two of you [Tilda and Joanna] to work together again?
HOGG: It’s just a relief in a way to be back together, not just as friends but making work together, it’s really a great feeling of…
SWINTON: Coming home.
HOGG: And the beginning of something. I’ve got a few years in me as a filmmaker and we’re gonna do more together.
Joanna, what was it like mining your own life for this work?
HOGG: Well, initially, quite painful, in a way, to put a mirror up to your younger self. Not a very flattering image. The pain is very early on in the process, before anybody else comes in. I’m looking through diaries, any kind of evidence that I have of who I might have been at that point in my life. That early stage is not easy, but I’m mining for something, not because I’m so interested in myself but I felt that it was a story to tell that was more to do with exploring how an artist comes into being, how does a young woman who wants to be creative get on in life.
It does feel so naturalistic. So what was that like, was it just mining diary entries and old photographs, or…?
HOGG: I think most people doing AN autobiography in this way would probably be very exacting about every detail, but it’s not interesting for me to recreate something from the past. I want it to have a new life of its own, so the life comes from Honor, Tilda, and the other cast coming in. I know there’s sometimes a point where I think, I do remember this thing, but I know opening that door to collaboration in this way, it’s going to become something else, but it’s that something else that I want it to become.
Was that a lot of building the relationship between Julie and Anthony? Was that a naturalistic process or was that more scripted?
HOGG: Honor agreed to be part of the film and agreed not to see what the story was. She didn’t know from scene to scene what was going to happen. It unfolded for her in a way that was different for Tom playing Anthony — he saw the script, or the document that I make. He knew where it was going, and that seemed right for the characters. So, Honor had privy to some of my diary’s notes but not to the actual story.
Honor, what was that process like for you, especially as you’re coming into this as the lead of the film?
SWINTON BYRNE: I’d never experienced anything so I had no idea what it [was] in comparison to anything else. It felt like I was living that life, which was really challenging for my psyche, and every single day was a completely new adventure. It was good [for] Julie’s character to be completely in the dark and for Anthony to be leading the situation, which is how I felt.
How was getting Tom on board for this? He’s so incredible.
HOGG: He’s fantastic.
SWINTON: He’s a really extraordinary anchor in the film.
HOGG: I cast Tom very early on. I had months of meeting him and showing him materials and he even listened to a recording of the man on whom Anthony is based. He works in a very deep way, he’d seen my 30-page document (what Hogg uses in lieu of a script), so he knew where he was going, although even that isn’t a safe thing because the story will change. We’ll shoot in story order, so I’ll come up with new scenes as we go along because I can’t imagine working any other way.
Julie’s apartment in the film is based on the one that you lived in at the time. Was that surreal rebuilding your former home?
HOGG: None of us had access to the apartment so all we had to go on were photographs that I’d taken at the time, a really bad estate agent plan of the flat, and a bit of super 8 film, so it was sketchy for [production designer Stéphane Collonge] to go on. We were quite frustrated because we wanted to get that specific flat but we couldn’t, someone else was living there now. That was a gift, I think, having to dig in my own memory and for Stéphane to have to imagine it himself. In a way, we had to start building it to know exactly how it was going to be. There was the basic structure of it before the walls were there and then lots of memories sprung to life, so it was an incredibly powerful reconstruction.
SWINTON: One of the things that I find so intriguing is that even though this wasn’t a conscious thing, you had managed to record so much of the material to make this film at the time, unconsciously, I believe, in some sort of will to make it. For example, the set, which is to a millimeter precise [to Hogg’s former flat], for me to walk into that set in the middle of an aircraft hangar was quite surreal. It was like a time machine. But all the vistas out of windows, Joanna had, for some reason, taken these photographs out of all of the windows of the flat. Why would you do that? If somewhere, deep down, your future self wasn’t saying, one day, this is gonna be useful and you won’t be able to go to the flat again, so do it now.
I got major Brontë sister vibes when I watched it the first time. Other than your own experience, were there things that you felt inspired by when creating this?
HOGG: Maybe a little more Henry James, I was thinking of Portrait of a Lady.
SWINTON: I think all of your films have a certain atmosphere of detail, found in novels, particularly novels of a certain era. That relationship with what’s said and what’s not said and what’s demonstrated and what’s not demonstrated.
Julie’s relationship with Anthony is interesting because he’s everything she says she doesn’t want in her films, that she wants to make art outside of her privileged bubble.
SWINTON BYRNE: I think she’s completely mesmerized by him. From the moment she meets him, she’s just completely under his fantasy world, then she begins to wake up to it a little bit. She is feeling a little bit lost and trying to find her own path but he seems so in control…
Like when she calls him arrogant…
SWINTON BYRNE: Exactly. And so in control.
SWINTON: Sure of everything.
SWINTON BYRNE: Sure of everything, confident, and relaxed. She possibly wants a little bit of that self-assurance for herself. I think that was very attractive to her.
Another parallel to this is Julie’s growth as a director, being a student in film school, a woman working in a male-dominated industry.
HOGG: Well, it’s true. [Laughs] I can remember having this thought, when I was in this relationship, of how can I possibly do anything on my own without that support? Because of that man being so engaged in cinema himself, it was seductive, and incredible to have someone who can help so much in what you’re interested in. I had a dread that that person would disappear, not just on a romantic level, but almost more on a creative level. That they were guiding me in what I wanted to do in life as a filmmaker, so I just thought, if they disappear, I won’t be able to manage on my own. I really believed that.
While the time frame of the film is never explicitly mentioned, there are different objects and issues that bubble up in the film that allude to those things happening.
HOGG: It was part of the time, there was fear of a bomb going off if you went shopping [in the U.K.], there was fear of HIV that was coming in. I wanted those ideas to be in there, not just as ideas; they were things I thought about and was worried about.
SWINTON: I do think this is particular to the era, which I believe the film nails in a really extraordinary way, in which those of us who were that age at that time had this very different relationship to being grown up to the way people of Honor’s age (Swinton Byrne is 21) have now. One was exposed to bits of it, but one never really understood it, and one certainly hadn’t been prepared for it. This weird, fractured relationship of the world of grown-up-ness that came and went and didn’t make any sense, one had these moments of exposure, and then it was gone. I think that’s really precise to that experience at that time.
That couldn’t be an experience that happens now, because everything is just so out there and so open…
HOGG: And that’s what’s interesting about telling that story now, it really seems, and it is, a completely other era.
When it’s not even that far away…
SWINTON: But it’s so different.
HOGG: Through the process of making this, I yearned for it, actually.
SWINTON: The whole thing of getting postcards in the mail…
I loved that so much!
SWINTON: …not spending one’s life on email or certainly not having smartphones… all of that, waiting in for the phone to ring, all of that, is basically like the 13th century for people of Honor’s age, but it was an absolute reality. It did mean that one’s relationship to a sense of being powerful was different.
What can we expect for The Souvenir Cinematic Universe for part two (The Souvenir Part 2 is expected in 2020)?
HOGG: I can’t say too much… but it is a continuation of the first film. It’ll be a film in its own right, you can see it without having seen Part 1, but it’s a continuation of Julie’s journey. And she’s got a lot of processing to do after what happened at the end of Part 1.
Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, star in Joanna Hogg's slow-burn drama.