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Joanna Hogg on The Souvenir, Painting the Structure of a Film in Watercolors and More

A visual artist who writes in images more literally than most, British auteur Joanna Hogg has decisively disowned some of the creative chains pertinent to fiction storytelling. Her severance with traditionally formatted screenplays and strictly rehearsed acting came as the result of over a decade in scripted television, where her directorial influence over the material and its portrayal was restricted.

Nevertheless, from a practical standpoint, the fruit of that slightly unfulfilling labor was the platform to hone her narrative craft and emerge as a seasoned expert in guiding performances. Breaking the rules is much more feasible when you’ve extensively worked within their limits before. Her 2007 debut, “Unrelated,” inspired spiritually by Rohmer’s “The Green Ray,” began as her attempt to impose those parameters, but naturally evolved into a personalized method where the script was no longer the story’s dictator.  

Not unlike “Unrelated,” Hogg’s next sumptuously cerebral, yet criminally underseen, two features: “Archipelago” and “Exhibition,” interpret existential distress with an unassumingly revelatory voice on finely painted canvases. Her dramas observe individuals coming together and falling apart, unspoken doubt and how it tests us, and the irremediable loneliness that sometimes corrodes the human mind.

For “The Souvenir,” the first part of two connected explorations of toxic affection and personal growth, Hogg implements her now signature choices to process a chapter of her own memory several decades removed. The reproduction of such innermost pain was made possible by bestowing it onto fictionalized characters, their cores are built out of reality. 

In that pursuit, the filmmaker repurposed an aircraft hangar to house her former London apartment and film school under the same roof, and resurrected stills of the city she took in her facet as a photographer back in the 1980s, when “The Souvenir” takes place, to be projected as the views her characters see outside the windows. Being carved out of this deliberate artificiality is perhaps what makes it her most truthful work. Her protagonist, Julie (newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne), not Hogg’s direct surrogate but close incarnation, embodies a vehicle for the past to speak in a soft but penetrating tone.   

Appearing in Los Angeles before starting production on part two in the summer, Joanna Hogg met with us to open up about her preproduction experimentation, the curious but purposeful format of her scripts, her love for championing other people’s movies.   

"The Souvenir" / A24

In your role as a filmmaker working on your own projects and not television anymore, you refer to the blueprint to tell your stories not as a script but as a “document.” Could you describe what this document or documents are?

Yes, I always have difficulty knowing what to call it; it’s just my version of a script. So it is a script in a sense, it just doesn’t look like a conventional screenplay because it’s describing scene by scene, but with only examples of dialogue. I don’t write all the dialogue, but there are some scenes for which I write some words that I want the actors to say, but first and foremost, it’s telling the story and it’s describing the underlying emotion of the story, in a way that you don’t normally do in a conventional screenplay. To my detriment I took a Robert McKee scriptwriting course in the late '80s and I remember he would say, “Whatever you write, you’re writing what you’re going to see and hear.” I was very discouraged by the course that I did. Somehow, from that or maybe later on because then I worked for a long time in television, I came out of TV feeling that I needed to invent my own map for my films.

What does the document contain? Is it only text or also visual references? 

It also includes images; it includes photographs. And that can be, for example, in the last draft of “The Souvenir - Part 2” that I wrote, I included photographs that were actually taken when we were shooting Part 1. I find that for each draft I like to have new images, so I don’t keep reusing the same images, because it’s for myself, first and foremost. It’s about inspiration and about making connections between ideas. So in an early draft of the first part, for example, I had Polaroid images that I’d shot in the early 80s to give a feel of that time period. [The document] is like a scrapbook in a way. It doesn’t look like a scrapbook, but it is a sort of form of scrapbook of ideas. 

Given its more intense personal links, was the document for “The Souvenir” different in any way from those used in your previous projects?

No, for “Exhibition,” there was a very similar looking document, again with photographs, again not very much dialogue. It looks more like a novella, or a section of a novel. The same for “Archipelago,” but for “Unrelated,” I wrote the first drafts of that as a conventional looking screenplay, with all the dialogue. It was only when I began shooting “Unrelated,” which was a film I made after about 13 years working in television where I was working from other people’s conventional scripts for TV series, that I felt that what I put on the page was not what I wanted to have happen in front of me in scenes when I was shooting. So I let go of the screenplay, I let go of this 100 page object that I was carrying around, and started to encourage the actors to say things in their own words, based on obviously the plan, based on the story that I’d written, but it seemed just more interesting and more dynamic. 

Since you are not working from a traditional screenplay, what do the actors get from you? Do they have access to the document or parts of it? 

Not everybody gets that, actually. Using “The Souvenir” as the example, Tom Burke, who plays Anthony, saw the document. I felt it was important that he knew where the story was going and the shape of the film, because he as the character is very much directing Julie, and at points directing the story himself. It felt right for him to he see it, but I thought that for Honor, who hadn’t been an actor before, hadn’t been in a film before, it would be more effective for her not to see where the story was going, and so she is literally sort of lead by him in a sense, and by events that happen, and that way she could respond very spontaneously within a given scene.

"The Souvenir" / A24

You’ve often described the sets or physical environments where your films tales place as islands, and I feel like that description it makes a lot of sense. In “Archipelago” of course it’s more literal, but in “The Souvenir,” you recreated your former apartment in a hangar, and in “Exhibition,” you had a few streets in your domain to tell your story. In a way your sets are disconnected from the world. Why do you enjoy working that way?

Because it allows me to shoot in story order, because we don’t have to travel very far, so there’s not that practical thing where, if you’re going to a location that’s a few miles away, well then you have do all the scenes that you’ve got in that location in one go, and going backwards and forwards each time that location comes up in a story is really impractical. So it’s partly a thing of convenience, but it also allows me a lot of freedom to contain the story and the characters. 

Even though I have this document when we set out to make this film, I am actually adapting that document and I’m adapting the story day by day. So we might end the first week, and then if I’m lucky I’ll get a Saturday and Sunday to work on where the story goes from there, because I’ll learn a lot from the journey, because I’ll see how characters are interacting, or I’ll think, “Maybe I’m interested in seeing a bit more vulnerability of a particular characters,” so I’ll invent a scene that shows that vulnerability that I want to see. 

It makes me think of “Archipelago,” where there’s a scene where the Edward character is talking to the painting teacher, and the painting teacher reveals his own struggle as an artist and as a young man. That was a scene that I thought I needed part of the way through the shoot, and didn’t realize what was going to come out it actually, so sometimes I’m just allowing space for things to breathe and move, and really just to keep the whole thing alive. 

Working in that approach, would you say your actors become islands themselves, being isolated to the point where the world of the film becomes the only thing that surround them? 

In a way, yes, and they’re also experiencing the story in an intimate, more intense way, because we’re all living near each other, in front of the camera and behind the camera, so the story becomes quite real for everybody in a way. Normally everyone would be going off to their different homes and then they’d come back the next day to work, but we’re all together all the time this way. So it’s quite intense, but it’s very rewarding.

How did the logistics of working and living together change for “The Souvenir,” since it was an artificial set rather than a space in the real world like in your previous films?

It did because we were all living in houses around the air base where we were shooting. When I was first thinking about the story, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how I could contain it, and be able to shoot in story order. I wasn’t sure how the island was going to be created, and then it became clear that of course, we needed to build the apartment, we needed a film school, and that the apartment could be within the film school, and so gradually, it became clear that I could have an island for this film that takes place over a much wider time span. 

Both in "Archipelago" and “The Souvenir,” paintings have great emotional significance. Since you are painters yourself, how those that other facet of your artistic personality influences you work in film, philosophically or aesthetically?

It influences it in a way that’s very hard to describe, but I find the act of painting myself very inspirational. When I’m working on the ideas and when I’m writing. With “Exhibition,” I painted the structure of the film. It helped me to see where I was going and what I wanted the shape of the film to be, and even if I’m not always painting the structure, I’m often drawing in my notebook, so I like doing diagrams of the shape of the film and the shape of story. I suppose it’s because I’m a visual person. Those diagrams and those drawings really help me find where I’m going. 

What do you paint when you are painting the structure of a film? Do you create characters and landscapes or key inspirations?

More abstract than that, actually. I was actually doing shapes, and I guess I suppose a form of diagram, but I was actually using watercolor on watercolor paper, so it was a combination of watercolor and charcoal and pencil. It’s hard to describe, but there were shapes and a sense of something developing, a shape developing, and somehow I visualize the whole film in an abstract way.

What’s the significance of the title painting at the center of “The Souvenir”? Was that a painting that you always loved, or did you come across it at a particular point in your life like Julie in the film?

I was taken to see that painting by the man that inspired the story, and it was before the relationship, and it was very near the beginning of knowing this man. He took me to the Wallis Collection to see that painting, and just like Julie at the end of “The Souvenir,” I was given a postcard of it by him.

When you’re working in elusive manner where the moving parts are constantly up in the air, what is are your instructions to the actors? What are the conversations that you have with them when they have what seems to be a lot of creative freedom?

They do and they don’t have freedom. It’s a challenge to describe how the process is, because it’s not always the same every day, and then it’s different depending on whether its an actor or not an actor, or on their personality, but it’s a process that happens as we’re shooting. So if we’re doing a take, I’ll start the particular take for a scene in often quite a loose way to begin with, and then rather like, while we’re on the art painting analogy, it’s sort of like sculpting a scene.

I usually start off, but that’s not always the case, it can happen the other way around. It can feel quite chaotic at the beginning, and actors don’t know where they’re going to move, and I want them to use their own instincts. It’s quite messy that first frame, often, and then it’s a process of refining it and then limiting it, and then maybe the dialogue also gets reduced or someone comes in from a different place. 

I find, again, being visual as a filmmaker, I have to see it in front of me sometimes to know what I want to do with the scene. I need to see the actors moving around and then I know, “Yes, you’ve just got to stay seated,” or “You come out at this point after that person said that line.” It’s a process, but it’s a very active, a very alive thing that happens. 

After working for so long within the constraints of television and then leaving that behind, when did you start feeling like you were on the right track to become the filmmaker that you wanted to be?

It was when I was making “Unrelated” that I felt like there was something clicking, there was something going on that I really liked, and that I wanted to continue in that vein, in that way of working. Actually, about a year before making “Unrelated” I had been working on a one-off television piece from a series, and during the making of that work, I became very frustrated with the limits of television of that time. The television landscape now is very different, but back then, in the kind of television series work I was doing, I wasn’t able to be that creative with the scripts that I was given or casts that I was given. I could choose how to shoot a scene, the mise-en-scène, within limits. In television then, it was very much about mid-shot, and you mustn’t shoot too far away, so then after the frustration of that, then I felt that, “Well it’s not or never,” in terms of making a film. At the same time, I was discovering other ways of creating work; I was painting and drawing, which I hadn’t done since I was a teenager, so doors were starting to open. 

Would you be inclined to return to television at all?

I’m much more interested now. I think there’s some really interesting work going on in TV. It’s a very different landscape now.

"The Souvenir" / A24

What are your memories of being a film school student? In the film, Julie struggles to find her voice as an artist amidst the emotional turmoil she’s facing at home. 

It was a very difficult time actually, because I was involved in this relationship. That meant there was a tension between my home life and my student life, so I never felt engaged in student life, which I wanted to be. It wasn’t so clear to me then, but I was definitely never in the right place somehow. So if I was in the relationship at home, or if I was at film school, I always felt I had to be in the other place, so it meant that I never fully engaged as a film student. Only after this relationship ended did things start to happen in my work at film school.

Like Julie, were you at first interested in making films completely unrelated to your own experience? 

I was only 21 when I went to film school, I was a lot younger than a lot of my fellow students, and there was no way I could have that outside view of myself at that age, and therefore have a clear enough view of where I was in the world in order to put that into a film. My inspirations were very much outside my own experience, just like Julie.

Several years ago you mentioned in an interview that you had started a film club in London to screen repertory titles and films that are rarely seen. Are you still involved?

It’s a little quiet at the moment, because of what’s going on with my own filmmaking, and then Adam Roberts, my partner in A Nos Amours is also quite busy, but we’re always talking to each other and we’re always discussing future plans, but we haven’t yet found an idea since having the two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman. We’re not sure what we’re going to do next, but we’ll come up with something soon. I feel it’s hard to find the time for everything.

What do you find fulfilling or compelling about showcasing or championing other filmmaker’s work? 

It’s a nice break from my own work, and looking at myself and my own filmmaking, and I’m obviously very interested in other people’s work. It wasn’t just Chantal Akerman, we were showing films by many other filmmakers. It was really nourishing and also satisfying, particularly to show a younger generation of filmmakers or just a younger generation of people these works in the cinema, and know that often they hadn’t seen that particular work, either before at all or certainly within the cinema context, so that was really exciting, to see the response from particularly a younger generation. 

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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