How The Souvenir Part II helped Joanna Hogg and Honor Swinton Byrne grow as artists and people
Joanna Hogg is one of the last filmmakers whose work would ever be compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and not just because Martin Scorsese is a stalwart supporter). And yet her 2019 film The Souvenir pulled a classic MCU move: teasing a sequel at the end of the credits, with a title card reading: "The Souvenir Part II coming soon."
Of course, it's rare for an indie film to even allow for a sequel, let alone demand one, but Hogg says that was always the plan for The Souvenir. "It just seemed natural that it should be in two parts," the British filmmaker tells EW. "I always wanted the second part to be some kind of reflection of the first part. I do see them as one piece of work, actually, but with this separation in between."
The acclaimed first part of The Souvenir followed a film student named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her turbulent relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious, heroin-addicted drifter. Part II picks up in the aftermath of Anthony's death, as Julie tries to sift through her grief, then channels it into her thesis project for film school, a short film essentially re-creating the events of the first Souvenir.
This daring conceit adds a new, meta layer to a story that already blurred the lines of fact and fiction; both Souvenirs are partially based on Hogg's own experiences, including her time at England's National Film and Television School in the 1980s and her own toxic romance around that time. While Part II moves further away from reality in some ways — it took Hogg decades to be able to process her affair through film; her real-life thesis project was a fantastical short starring Byrne's mom, Tilda Swinton — it also muddles the swirl of memory, fiction, and metafiction that makes up its narrative.
"It got a lot more complicated," Hogg says of sorting through these layers, "because we were making multiple films and we were in multiple realities, in a way. And then the shoot of Part I became material for Part II as well. It's very hard to describe it in any sort of clear, simple way."
Byrne, meanwhile, returned to the part of Julie — still her only major acting role — after two years away from it, feeling she had grown up a bit and was ready to build on the work she had done before. (She spent eight months teaching in Africa after finishing work on Part I.)
"I felt very prepared," the young actress explains over a joint Zoom call with Hogg. "I felt like I really knew this person, and I had really explored a lot of myself as well. It was like seeing a friend after a long time and re-getting to know her. I keep referring to Julie as one of my best pals — there's a slight separation, but we're almost like conjoined twins."
Making Part II also helped her feel more ownership over the character and her journey. Hogg's unconventional process never involves a full screenplay; instead, she creates a detailed outline and allows her actors to improvise and discover the particulars of each scene. "You feel so respected and so valued," Byrne says of this method. "My opinions and instincts were so cherished. It can be very messy, but that's exciting — it's an adventure that you go on together."
And that interplay grew more intense from Part I to Part II: "Joanna made the choice this time to have a bit more discussion and more of a collaboration about where we were going and what was going on," Byrne recalls.
"Which was part of the design, in a way," adds Hogg, "because the idea of Part I is that Julie's not really in control of what's happening to her. She gets caught up in this relationship and she's not got much agency. So the idea of Honor not actually knowing where she's going in that first part made sense, and then in the second part, Honor knowing exactly where we were going was exciting. I really enjoyed that; I didn't have to keep any secrets from her," she adds with a chuckle.
"I think it was very appropriate," says Byrne, chiming back in. "In the second one, Julie's taking control, she's taking power, she's getting up in her own strength."
Much of The Souvenir Part II is devoted to Julie finding her voice as an artist, employing a similarly improvisatory method in her filmmaking. There's a scene in which her professors berate her for not presenting them with "a professional script," and one in which her frustrated crew pushes back against her process. "We don't know what's going on," Julie's cinematographer says — a comment it's easy to imagine being lobbed at Hogg at some point.
Indeed, the director admits, her method "was more challenging with the second one because there were a lot more set pieces, a lot more stylization. It was very difficult for some of my collaborators." For instance, Part II culminates with an elaborate sequence depicting a dreamlike refraction of The Souvenir itself, drawing inspiration from the Technicolor fantasias of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
"[My collaborators] were constantly asking me about [that sequence], because that was going to be the height of our stylization, which would seem to be something very planned and very organized," Hogg recalls. "And I knew that I wanted to decide the details of that closer to the end of the shoot, partly because I was observing Julie's journey and the grief she was experiencing as a character. And so the ideas weren't cooked yet, until close to shooting those scenes."
Still, like her onscreen surrogate, Hogg has overcome such obstacles and come into full flower as a filmmaker, with The Souvenir parts 1 and 2 standing as a collective testament to that fact.
"It's reignited enthusiasm in me for making films in a particular way," she reflects. "I hope I take something from it that I bring forward to my work in the future. The work is not a fixed thing for me, because I feel that it's a part of me, part of who I am. I hope to remain creative for as long as I possibly can, and that there's a lot I take from it, or that exists within me now."
And Hogg can also take pride in the fact that she's helped create another artist in her own right.
"I've grown so much over the two films," says Byrne. "I'm so grateful, because there's no way I'd be as confident and artistic and eloquent — I hope — and as keen to talk about emotions and the deep stuff that frightens many people if I hadn't made The Souvenirs with Joanna. It's spoiled me, I think, in a beautiful way."
The Souvenir Part II is now playing in theaters.
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