For most audiences in the U.S., the new film “The Souvenir” will make for not one but two major discoveries. One is the raw, emotional performance by its 21-year-old star in her first significant screen role. The other is its 59-year-old writer-director making her fourth feature film.
The film is about a young woman (Honor Swinton Byrne) in early 1980s London, hesitantly moving toward self-discovery and struggling to find her artistic voice in film school. She meets an older man named Anthony (Tom Burke), a seeming sophisticate with an air of intrigue, and soon he is staying in her apartment and they are locked in a tempestuous, all-consuming relationship. Along the way, she gains a newfound strength and sense of self.
The story is based in the experiences of filmmaker Joanna Hogg and a relationship she had in film school. Hogg had a successful career directing British television dramas before making her first feature, “Unrelated,” in 2008, followed by “Archipelago” in 2010 and “Exhibition” in 2013. Speaking to Hogg’s international stature despite being little-known in the U.S. up to now, Martin Scorsese and his producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff signed on as executive producers on “The Souvenir.”
All three of Hogg’s previous features were personal to varying degrees, but with nowhere near the exactitude of “The Souvenir.” Nevertheless, while Hogg notes that some of the movie is extremely accurate, down to specific words and phrases, she is now hard pressed to recall exactly what is true and what has been shrouded by memory.
“It’s not easy to answer because I’m a little bit confused myself now,” the London-based Hogg said recently while tucked into a back corner of a hotel lounge during a recent stop in Los Angeles. “Because having spent all that time remembering and then re-imagining, in a way you’re almost in danger of forgetting what actually happened.”
The movie is a breakthrough performance for Honor Swinton Byrne in the lead role. She previously appeared briefly in 2009’s “I Am Love,” which starred her mother, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton. Hogg and Swinton have known each other since they were both children, and Swinton was very much a part of Hogg’s life during the period covered by the film.
Hogg is also godmother to Swinton Byrne. Hogg was visiting Swinton, who was already cast in the role of Julie’s mother, only a few weeks before production was to begin, not yet having cast her lead role. She and Swinton Byrne saw each other in passing on a train platform and after a brief conversation, Hogg realized she had found her actress at last.
“I hadn’t not wanted to act,” said Swinton Byrne, recently on the phone from an airport returning to England from Rome. “I think it was just one of those things I always wanted to try, along with almost everything else.”
On being cast by Hogg, Swinton Byrne added, “I still don’t really understand what she saw in me. But I think it was something about feeling kind of like an outsider and feeling a little bit wobbly in life and trying to find what I was good at and what my passions were. I don’t know exactly what I said, but I think something hidden in there inspired her to cast me.”
“I was looking for someone who didn’t inhabit the space in front of the camera, someone who was much more comfortable behind the camera because she’s a filmmaker,” said Hogg. “So I wasn’t looking for a performer, I was looking for an artist and I found that incredibly difficult because I would meet a lot of actresses and they felt like actors.
“And with Honor, although she’s not a filmmaker, she writes and she’s very creative,” Hogg said. “So there was something I saw in her that connected with myself, with my younger self.”
“The Souvenir” is the first of a two-part project. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — where it picked up the world cinema dramatic grand jury prize — there were titters in the audience at the final title card announcing part two was “coming soon.”
But there will be a part two and the next film does go into production soon, with Robert Pattinson joining the cast. Following its completion, however, Swinton Byrne has no immediate plans to act again.
From her first feature, “Unrelated,” Hogg has developed an unusual production method. Rather than a conventional screenplay, she writes a more literary document including images and descriptions of the scenes.
Burke saw the document, as well as other artifacts Hogg had from her real-life relationship. Swinton Byrne did not see any sort of script but did see Hogg’s journals and notebooks from that time for preparation. Shooting the scenes in chronological story order, the actors largely work out the dialogue for themselves, with some prompts from Hogg.
For Hogg, this process both frees the actors and also shakes loose much of the structure that she found limiting during her time working in television.
“I can’t quite understand why more people don’t work this way because of what you get,” said Swinton, on the phone from a boat in Venice, Italy. “You get real people really behaving in real time and really responding to one another.”
I can’t quite understand why more people don’t work this way because of what you get.
As a testimony to Hogg’s unusual methods, in one of the film’s most electrifying scenes, Julie confronts Anthony over a transgression, and during the course of the argument tests the boundaries of her burgeoning self-possession before retreating.
“When I’ve watched the film with an audience, during that scene there is a kind of group ‘ugh’ when she starts apologizing,” said Burke, on the phone from a car on his way to rehearsal for Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm” onstage in London. “And I think that’s why the scene is so affecting, there wasn’t anything that was forced, that just came out. It’s a very original kind of confrontation, but that’s what Joanna wants; you’re not going in there with a preconceived idea.”
Actress Alice McMillan, in the role of Julie’s friend Elisa, is essentially playing Swinton’s part in the story, including appearing in Julie’s student film at the end of “The Souvenir,” reciting from Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” as Swinton once did for Hogg. (Swinton also appeared in Hogg’s 1986 short film “Caprice,” billed as Matilda Swinton.)
Swinton compared the experience of participating in “The Souvenir” to Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 movie “Synecdoche, New York” in which a group of people make a play of their lives, noting the moment she came to the set that was an exacting recreation of the apartment Hogg lived in during that time. Photographs taken then by Hogg were used to create the views of the London skyline from the set’s windows.
“The thing I find so interesting about Joanna is that whether she knew or not at the time, she was preparing for this film even when she was living through the times that inspired it,” Swinton said.
“Lo and behold, Joanna had all this information, all this material that she had been collating even while living through the events that the film depicts,” Swinton added. “So on some level I believe that she unconsciously made a deal with herself, ‘I will one day make a film of this’ and now she’s done it. And is doing it.”
Hogg is so consumed by preparations for the continued exploration of the story of her own artistic awakening that she hasn’t had much time to take in the widespread acclaim for part one of “The Souvenir.” How exactly the two films will relate to one another is still coming together, even in her own mind.
“I see them as separate stories, but they obviously completely connect,” said Hogg. “So maybe until I finish the second one, I won’t know exactly the answer to that, but I am aware of wanting to make it a film in its own right and that people could see the second one without having seen the first one. I’m not sure, which is why I’m so uneasy about this stage because I’ve got so much more work to do.”
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