Returning to her past again, two years after receiving high critical marks for her film The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg follows it up with the rare independent sequel.
In the aftermath of her tumultuous relationship with the troubled Anthony (Tom Burke), Hogg-surrogate Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) pushes herself into her passion – filmmaking. The Souvenir Part II sees Hogg pulling back meta layers to great success, as noted in our rave review for the film.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Hogg about the process of making this follow-up feature to such a personal story, and how the idea for this film evolved from when she first imagined The Souvenir as a two-part project back in the 1980s.
Mitchell Beaupre: The Souvenir Part II stands very well on its own, but watching it in conjunction with the first part is such a rewarding experience because you see the whole evolution. Was the plan always for this to be a story made up of two distinct parts?
Joanna Hogg: Yes, it was. I wrote Part I and Part II together. In my mind, when writing them, it always felt like one piece of work, but there was this division between one and two. I’m always so curious what someone’s reaction is when seeing them back-to-back. I’m not going to interview you about that, but I’m always curious about that experience of seeing the two together, as opposed to one on one day and the other on another day.
MB: The approach of the two films reminded me a lot of Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, in the way each of those films pulls back to reveal another meta layer. Did you have any specific inspiration you were drawing from in terms of the structure of these two films and how they relate to one another?
JH: I love Kiarostami. I think I’ve watched all of his films, and it’s such a shame that he’s not around to be making any more. I’m sure those films were there somewhere in my subconscious because they had a huge impression on me.
In terms of how my ideas were constructed with the two parts, it evolved over time. We shot Part I and then had to wait to shoot Part II because we couldn’t do them back-to-back. I was worried about that because I wanted it to be one piece of work that moved from one to the other without a break in between. Certainly, I didn’t want the chance to look back on Part I before doing Part II.
However, in the end that was a good thing because I found that the experience of shooting Part I gave me so many ideas for the second part. I was living that experience that Julie does, of what happens when you, for example, construct an apartment that you lived in for a period of your life in an artificial way within a film set. I found that so uncanny and strange. I enjoyed that sensation of almost making a documentary of the shoot of Part I with Part II.
MB: I know you have a bit of an unconventional writing style that’s more open to fluidity. With that in mind, how did Part II shift when you made it from how you initially imagined it to be when you first wrote it?
JH: I can’t remember now, and I made the conscious decision not to look back at the document that I wrote for Part II when I wrote Part I. I’m curious to see now, actually, if there’s any difference. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t have the film within the film in that document. That was an idea that came later. I also think the ending of Part II came later, as we were shooting it. I’m sure there were a lot of things that came from the inspiration of shooting Part I.
MB: You’ve said that this project was always about remembering as much as possible from this period of time, but that Part II became more about invention and imagination. Could you tell me about that?
JH: In making this film, I was using my own experience of shooting Part I, but also I was inventing what Julie did that I didn’t do in my own life. In that way, it completely took off into new terrain. Perhaps not completely, because I was still looking to my school days and graduation, where I went back to that point in time in the early-to-mid 1980s. It was like a time travel back to there, where I ignored all of the intervening years. It was sort of like being a student again, and to develop those ideas that I started to think about back then, which included doing the two parts of The Souvenir.
MB: A lot of films about filmmaking often hold the director up as this sort of mythical figure who does everything all by themselves, but something I love in this film is the attention it gives to every part of the crew. You see how much of a collaborative experience it is, where you’re giving specific focus to people like the DP and the editor.
JH: I was really interested in that. I enjoyed developing these other characters as part of a challenge for Julie to express herself with all of these ideas around her, not necessarily always in a positive way. I really liked exploring something like her attachment with her editor, Max, and how she makes that attachment with him because editing is such an incredibly intense process, which leads us to that idea of falling in love with somebody in such an intense creative period of your life. Maybe she falls in love with him, but it’s also the sort of creativity surrounding it.
MB: Speaking of that, something I love about all of your films is the way you portray desire. It’s often subtle, and far more realistic, in how it’s expressed through body language and facial expressions far more than it is through words. You see it there with Joe Alwyn’s character, and also earlier with Charlie Heaton.
JH: Yeah, it’s just not something I think of from the outside. I’m always interested in what are sometimes quite awkward moments of two people discovering how they’re feeling about each other and how that can be imagined. As you’re asking me about that, I’m really interested in developing those ideas further in future films. I like trying to capture the atmosphere of attraction, but that the attraction could be imagined in the eye of the beholder, or the other way around.
MB: There’s a scene where Julie is with her mother, Rosalind, and she asks her how she felt about Anthony’s death. Rosalind says “I felt through you”, which to me came across as this impactful expression of empathy. As a filmmaker, is part of your goal to create that empathy for the audience, especially in a film like this that is so much through Julie’s POV?
JH: Without sounding like I don’t care what the audience thinks, because obviously I do incredibly so, I think my way of caring for what the audience is going to feel is by attaching myself very strongly to the ideas behind something. It’s actually interesting that you say that moment is Rosalind’s empathy, because I think it’s also Rosalind’s inability to express her own feelings, which Julie has inherited in many ways.
MB: Oh yeah, that’s really interesting. I definitely see that.
JH: That was one of the instances where I wanted the actors to express what they say in a very specific way. Sometimes it’s more a journey of discovering what they’re going to say, and it comes from the voices of my actors. In that case, though, it was something my mother said to me. I had that very much in my mind when we were doing that. I found it to be my process of keying into my own feelings about something, and then hopefully the audience will empathize with that and will understand.
MB: While so much of this story is from your own personal experience, we also see Honor Swinton Byrne coming into her own more in the role this time around. What was that collaborative process like with her, and how did it help to create Julie as this fusion between both of your ideas?
JH: Honor very much made Julie her own, moving on from Part I and learning so much in the intervening year. We’d been observing each other in different ways, and seeing a frustration within Julie’s enclosed, introverted nature, and her difficulty in expressing herself. I harbored a great desire for Honor to burst out as well, just as Julie does. The intention was always that Julie would change and would move through this grief that she’s experienced.
Honor was very present, perhaps even more so in Part II, and was more a party to where the story was going. With Part I, she didn’t see anything that was written down. She didn’t know where the story was going, where it would end up, because it didn’t seem right for the character. That changed with Part II, as Julie has much more agency and she knows where she’s going. She knows she wants to be a filmmaker. So, this time around Honor did see what I’d written down, and where it all was leading to.
MB: One of the other key pieces of casting comes with Richard Ayoade, who gets a bit more to do in this film and is deservedly being shouted out as a scene-stealer. How did you work with him to develop this character, particularly going into the second film?
JH: It was really fun and interesting to work with him. It was always the plan that Patrick would in Part II make the big musical he talked about in Part I and then he becomes this sort of strange mentor to Julie where he’s able to speak truth to her. Richard did a lot of research for the character. He’s obviously a director himself, so he knows everything when it comes to being a filmmaker, but it was also fun for both of us to think of a director that was different from either of us.
We were trying to capture this aura of a certain visionary director of that 1980s period. We looked at a number of interviews from different directors, from different countries. We looked at French directors, American directors, British directors. We created a sort of amalgam of these artists who were all very much a product of that time.
MB: There’s a great scene with him where he’s trying to get some notes on his work, and he’s practically begging everyone to tell them how his film makes them feel because they’re just giving him vague answers. Is there anything in particular that you would hope for people to feel when watching The Souvenir Part II, or is it more just about wanting people to feel something strongly, no matter what that feeling is?
JH: Yeah, it’s impossible to prescribe what anyone’s going to feel, but I certainly like for people to be invested in this journey. I get great satisfaction out of people who say they laughed a lot in the film. That’s something really nice. I leave it all behind now for the people to make their judgements and their feelings.
MB: Is there any film you’ve seen recently that made you really feel something?
JH: I think Nomadland was the last film that I really cried during.
MB: What was it about that film that really resonated for you?
JH: I think it was the documentary aspect of it, which is something I’m always really interested in – putting people in the frame who aren’t performers, but have a story to tell. Hearing those stories within the film was incredibly moving. Having them talking about life and mortality and everything, that really choked me up.
The Souvenir Part II is out in select theaters now.