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Joanna Hogg ('The Souvenir'): An essential director

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For the prestigious British magazine Sight and Sound, and although the awards season has not done it justice, 'The Souvenir' was the best movie of 2019. And if something matches all the praises the new movie has received from Joanna Hogg, who won the Grand Jury Prize in the last edition of the Sundance Festival, it is in that its history runs as naturally as life itself. That has a soul. For something the director has become one of the most interesting author voices of our time, and one of the most fascinating thanks to an original method of creation based on improvisation that, in its latest production, joins an exorcisation of its own demons of youth.

Debut in the cinema of Honor Swinton-Byrnedaughter of Tilda Swinton (who plays her mother in fiction), 'The Souvenir' introduces us to young Julie, luck of alter ego of Hogg, an aspiring filmmaker who tries to find her voice and who suddenly sees her life altered by a love affair with a man older than her that hides behind its hypnotic charisma a multitude of problems and addictions. Based on his own memories, especially in a real relationship he had when he was barely twenty years old, history combines the personal and the professional, the reflections on the toxicity of dependent love and the difficulties in building his own path as an artist. Talking to the director, we understand that all these ideas that come from both her words and her silences are a consequence of a story that breathes on its own more than something written in a script. His memories come alive in another context, in the mouth of other people, crossing the boundaries of the real and represented in a story full of soul.

The film is unlikely to be released in commercial movie theaters in our country, but this Friday the Cine Doré in Madrid gives the opportunity to see it on big screen On the occasion of this essential event, we published the conversation we had with Joanna Hogg in the framework of the last edition of the Seville Festival, which dedicated a retrospective in which 'The Souvenir' was included. The director tells us how he moved his personal experiences to fiction, how he ordered to rebuild his old flat to create a more real immersion in his memories and also about his curious method of working with actors and actresses.

Why did you decide to start from this personal experience?
I have written movies before from my personal experiences, but this is the first time I have looked back, that I have reflected on my past. A few years ago, thinking about what project I wanted to do, I realized that I had this story in my head for too long, and it seemed like a good time to carry it out, to explore my beginnings as a filmmaker. I was interested in focusing so much on the story of a young director who is looking for her own voice as well as the love relationship in which she is involved. In my previous film, 'Exhibition', I also treated this balance between life and work in a certain way, it is something that has always interested me. Here he is back in the center, but from another time.

Have you ever said that you tried to make this movie in the late 80's and you couldn't. Are you glad you waited 30 years?
It is true! But I don't think I would have had any perspective on this story back then. I don't even think I could have carried it forward.

It would have been a very different movie, right?
Definitely.

Has it given you the opportunity to reflect on those beginnings?
I'm still reflecting on it, in fact. I was clear that I wanted to introduce Julie as a very compassionate person and very open to different people, who has to deal with how to articulate what she wants to tell. But what happens to him is that he knows a man, perhaps at the worst possible time, who questions what she is doing. At the beginning of the film he has a very clear idea of ​​what he wants to do, of the type of social cinema he wants to develop. A very particular type of cinema, very European. But he loses all that trust because of the relationship. Sometimes I wonder if, had I not met that man, I would have finished that project that I was so passionate about Sunderland. It would have been an interesting start in my career as a filmmaker.

Was it your intention to speak from the personal of toxic relationships?
It's an interesting perspective, because now we talk about these toxic relationships, but while preparing the script I didn't think that way at all. It was more about a personal experience I had, I hadn't made that judgment myself, about whether or not it was a toxic relationship. I don't even think I saw it that way! But people started responding to the movie like that and it was quite shocking to hear it, because they were questioning the relationship in which I was involved. No, that was not my intention when making the movie. The motivation was always to show the journey of a young woman to become a film director.

Have these reactions changed your perspective on that relationship in any way?
I am not sure, because I am still immersed in the second film, which for me is an inseparable part of the first, so I have not yet left the project to be able to reflect on it with a better perspective or cold mind.

imageA24

I had the feeling that the movie was moving forward as memory itself, with gaps and sudden jumps and confusion. Did you put it that way?
It's interesting, because you're not the first person to tell me this, but the truth is that, when I prepared it, I didn't think of it as a succession of memories in that regard. It was rather my way of telling the story, because I thought that, more than in my previous films, it had a certain linearity, a narrative moving in the same direction. But I think what you observe is completely correct, I just don't see it that way, surely because I understand that the basis of my cinema is to capture moments. Although there is a story that begins and ends, with a beginning and an end, in my cinema there is a certain fragmentary quality.

Did you try to be very rigorous with the facts or leave room for creative licenses?
My intention was that everything be as rigorous as possible. And there were times when I was very frustrated with my own memory, because I didn't remember certain details that I wanted, and I really wanted to be very faithful to that particular stage of my life. But I soon realized that memory is like quicksand: you can't capture it completely, you can only build a story with what you remember. Of course, while we were filming the movie, more and more memories were coming to me, which I was incorporating into the movie as I went along. But all the time, maybe because I was being too self-critical, I was angry that I couldn't remember anymore.

I have read that you even rebuilt your old apartment.
Yes it is! And to do that I had to rely a lot on my memory too, because we couldn't go back to the place in question. We base the design on photographs and my memories about the apartment. It was very interesting to reconstruct something without having the original evidence. In fact, I lived it as a very powerful experience. As the carpenters were building the space, more and more details came to my mind, like a room was narrower, so we could adapt the design on the fly. The whole process and the final result were very impressive. When everything was built, other memories returned too. It made me realize that our memory is not only that which first comes to mind, but there are many memories buried in your mind and sometimes they need a stimulus like this to reappear.

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Was Tilda Swinton an important part of these memories?
Absolutely. Tilda was someone important at a certain stage of my life, and even got to know the man with whom I had the relationship on which the film is based. In addition, he acted in some of my films at the institute. In fact, the film that Julie is shooting at the end of 'The Souvenir', is based on a project we did together at that time and that we never finished, because, well, what happened happened. So it was also interesting to choose your daughter to play a role that was somehow between me and her mother. There are many mixed connections in that character.

Was it intended to bring them both together or just a coincidence?
Not even a coincidence, the truth is that I chose Tilda for the role of the mother without having yet chosen the daughter. The intention was not to do so, but time was on us because I found it very difficult to find Julie. It never crossed my mind that, as I already had Tilda, I could also include his daughter. That came quite late, and now I think I wish it had occurred to me before, because it was a very stressful period with the castings. What happened was that, two weeks before filming, I went to visit Tilda to Scotland to talk about her role and met Honor. We had a fairly long conversation and I realized that it could be interesting as Julie.

What did you like about her?
For the protagonist, I was looking for someone who seemed taken from the 80s, because young women are very different now. I wanted a person as old fashioned, with a strange point and who was not particularly comfortable in front of the camera. It is not what is conventionally sought in a movie, but it is what I wanted.

You have worked a lot with non-professional actors, so it fit your profile.
Yes, the truth is that I love it. I like the adventure of not knowing how everything will work out, what they will bring to the action. I am not very adventurous in other aspects of my life, but as a filmmaker I like to be this way. I find it very exciting.

imageJoanna Hogg on the set of 'The Souvenir'

You have a very curious method in your work with the cast, very open to improvisation. How have you continued exploring it in 'The Souvenir'?
It is a way of working that comes naturally to me, and that I try to instill in the actors and non-actors so that they also enjoy this process. They have to be open to risk and the adventure involved. Sometimes you don't know how they will react. I write my version of the script, where I describe the scene, the psychology of the characters, what is happening in your head … All those things you do not see, but try not to write what they are going to say between them. I prepare some phrases that are very important – there are certain dialogues in 'The Souvenir' that had to be said with the words, the tone and the intention that the story required – but most of the time I only prepare the scene frame and not words that come from the mouths of the characters. I have experimented a lot with dialogue scripts and the problem is that it forces them to think too much about what they have to say. I prefer that the moments breathe on their own. So I always look for everything to be more spontaneous, for history to be alive.

And it feels that way, for example, how words are interrupted and stepped on many times.
Yes, because they don't know what comes next at every moment. What I do is repeat the same scene as many times as necessary and I advise you not to say something that has come out, to look for something else that fits more. That way I am sculpting the scene as we shot it. and not from the script.

It also looks like a love letter to the cinema, especially the one you were passionate about at the time. Is that so?
It is somewhat inevitable, because the protagonist is a movie lover and there are references to what she sees and what she likes, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were filmmakers that I discovered thanks to the relationship with Anthony. I decided that these references would be the movies that I loved when I started being a filmmaker. I remembered the movies I saw at age 19, which is Julie's age at the beginning of the movie, such as Chris Petit's 'Radio On' or Ken Loach's 'Kes'. But I would not say that I deliberately refer to other films, they appear organically.

Is it a way to reconnect with your cinephilia?
Yes, it made me think about it a lot.

imageA24

In the movie it is said that cinema is like breathing: it cannot be taught. Do you agree?
Yes I am. It was a challenge to study in a film school, and I am sure that I learned things, but the best way to learn a language is to engage in conversations and meet people. Cinema consists in collaborating with other people, in developing ideas through action. I am not too academic, really, but someone who enjoys elements such as improvisation and adventure. I like to roll and see what happens.

I see that in the movie, but at the same time there is incredible precision in the ideas it conveys and the story telling.
I think that should be the fault of my past as a photographer. I am very interested in the framing and composition of the image, but, as I said, also people and life.

You are already preparing the second part, 'The Souvenir: Part II'. What can you tell us?
I'm afraid not much! Naturally, I cannot say much about this sequel, mainly because I am still discovering what it is, what it is going to become. Now I am in the assembly process, constantly wondering what I am doing and making decisions about what I want to be part of the story and what not … Wow, I cannot be very precise on the subject.

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Lisa Durant

Lisa has been a freelance journalist who has worked for various print magazine online. After years of spent working in the field of journalism, she took a plunge and founded Asap Land sharing the latest news bulletins from the field of Business and Technology as well as general headlines. She writes mostly the General US Headlines and Business News.

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