When British auteur Joanna Hogg finally set about crafting what would become “The Souvenir” — a breakout hit for the filmmaker decades in the making — it seemed only natural that she would turn to her very first star, Tilda Swinton, to help tell a story loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences in film school. What came next, however, was a surprise to both of them. “The Souvenir” stars Honor Swinton Byrne (yes, Tilda’s daughter, in her first starring role) as a Hogg proxy: starry-eyed young film student Julie, whose life is thrown into turmoil when she falls in love with the secretive Anthony (Tom Burke).
For Hogg, it’s a personal (and occasionally painful) look back at a fraught time in her life. It’s also one that Swinton herself remembered clearly, having previously starred in Hogg’s first short, “Caprice,” which served as Hogg’s graduation film from the National Film and Television School in 1986. Casting Swinton as Julie’s mother (and, by extension, Hogg’s own mother) after over three decades apart was easy. Finding Julie was a bit harder.
“It made so much sense to have Tilda part of it, because she was part of the original story in many ways,” Hogg told IndieWire in a recent interview, during which she was joined by both Swinton and Swinton Byrne. “I wanted this feeling of going back into my history, and to make those connections with that time. It was just so wonderful that Tilda has her own memory of that time. We had all these frames of reference.”
Swinton herself can hardly believe it’s taken three decades for the old friends to work together again, but she can’t deny the sense that this whole thing has been weirdly fated from the start.
“There’s been this assumption, from the very beginning, that we would work together all the time,” Swinton said. “If anything, it’s very bemusing to us that we haven’t made a film for 35 years. I was that girl who was in her first films when she was at film school! If you’d suggested that there would be a 30-year gap, we would have said that’s just impossible. We’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop, and now it’s come at such a beautiful time, and now we have many plans.”
Hogg took her time making “The Souvenir” — she admitted she tends to work at a “snail’s pace,” especially compared to the prolific Swinton; “The Souvenir” is only her fourth feature — because of some of the emotion inherent to the story. The process was even more complex when she went about casting Julie.
“Normally, you look for an actor who’s going to be comfortable in front of the camera,” Hogg said. “I wanted the contrary, so I started to look at the possibilities of young women who may have not even considered acting. I was thinking about young filmmakers and writers and artists of different kinds, but I had only just started to explore that when I made a trip up to Scotland to talk to Tilda about her character. I was asking Tilda who did she know of the non-actor variety who might be able to get into the shoes of a young filmmaker.”
Swinton Byrne, who Hogg has of course known since she was born, happened to be with her mother that weekend as well. It was a serendipitous visit. “And then there was a young writer, sitting there, and we just,” Hogg stopped herself for a moment, “It all clicked.”
The newly minted actress (she was just 19 when they shot the film) has no bigger fan than her own mother, who couldn’t help but sing her praises, particularly as they apply to what Hogg needed for the film, for her Julie.
“You need a person who has sensitivity and who has awakeness, I am speaking about her as if she wasn’t present,” Swinton said with a laugh. “This is a very awake person, a very curious person. She’s someone who looks, and that, in a way, is what we were looking for, someone who looks and observes, and doesn’t necessarily go to her selfie face as a first recourse. Honor’s highly intelligent, as you can tell, and intelligent enough to be looking more than she’s looking for opportunities to be looked at. That was a rare thing.”
Asked what it was that she said that so entranced Hogg, Swinton Byrne still seemed a bit blown away by the turn of events. “I honestly have no idea,” Swinton Byrne said. “I have no idea what I said. I think we had very few conversations before I think you decided that you wanted me. But I honestly don’t know what I said, still. Just life.”
Hogg provided her own insight. “I was watching Honor, and talking with Honor, but it wasn’t so much the words, I just saw Honor for the first time in a particular way that connected with the story,” Hogg said, turning to her star. “I suppose I saw a bit of myself in you. That’s what it was.”
While Swinton Byrne is not an actor by trade — at least, she wasn’t when Hogg asked her to star in the film — she said she jumped at the chance. When asked if her first inclination was to say yes to the seemingly crazy ask, she didn’t pause before answering. “It was definitely to say yes,” Swinton Byrne said. “I was so excited. I was so surprised because I thought I’d never, ever be asked to do anything like that, ever. I was really, really surprised, and so I was really keen to do it. I thought it was a joke at first. I still kind of do.”
Hogg’s style of filmmaking has always tended to the more free-flowing, and so while Swinton Byrne walked into the project with some ideas of what it would entail — she is, after all, Tilda Swinton and playwright John Byrne’s daughter, she knows her way around a production — even she wasn’t totally prepared for what Hogg would throw at her. As Swinton explained, “What Joanna asks of all of the people in front of her camera is for them to bring themselves to bear, that we’re choosing what we say. We are, in a sense, writing the script as we go along.”
“I had no idea. I wasn’t quite ready,” Swinton Byrne admitted. “Well, no, I was very ready, but I really wasn’t aware of the journey. I’m so happy that I wasn’t. It was great. But I didn’t know what was to come.”
They shot the film in sequence, which helped keep Swinton Byrne in the right space emotionally, and Hogg generously shared piles of material from that period of her life, including diaries, film footage, and photographs. Really, though, the character that appears on the screen isn’t just Julie the character, or Hogg the young film student, or Swinton Byrne the actress. It’s all three.
“There was no clear line of what was ‘Julie,'” Hogg said. “You’re finding yourself in the character, but I don’t think one could pull it apart and work that out. It was a step-by-step process, and Honor was learning things about the other characters, and the story, in the scene.”
The filmmaker pointed to a pivotal sequence in which Julie and Anthony host a dinner for friends, during which Honor learns something shocking about her love. “That was part of the design, that Honor wouldn’t know what the story was going to be, so she could really live and breathe it as we shot it,” Hogg said. “Honor discovered that fact in that scene, and I always think it’s very difficult to act surprised, isn’t it? For any actor. I think it made it feel very real.”
Swinton Byrne remembered it well, adding, It was “so real.” She also recalled a number of scenes in the film, particularly “lively discussions and arguments” that were cut out of the final edit that challenged her during shooting. The biggest problem: learning how to not be herself when the camera was rolling.
“I had to react really not as myself, because Julie really wouldn’t react as Honor would react to some things,” Swinton Byrne said. “That was quite interesting, for the first few takes, because I tend to really, properly defend myself, or I like to think that I do. It was very, very interesting to press that down, and not smother it, but really constrain it and try to bring out something that wasn’t myself. It was very interesting, and it was very, very, very hard.”
Hogg knows it wasn’t easy. “It obviously felt hard for you, but observing that, it seemed like you knew how to do that,” Hogg said to her star. “That’s what I found extraordinary, that you’ve got something within you that you were able to do that. Sometimes I remember you just getting it straight away, so it wasn’t always a process like that. Honor’s so instinctive.
It paid off. The film debuted at Sundance after one of Hogg’s characteristically long edits (this time: eight months; she hopes to do something similar for the film’s already-announced sequel), where it was hailed as one of the best of the fest. Swinton Byrne was rightly anointed as the next great it girl, a breakout actress with some serious bonafides that made a clearly demanding role look easy and natural and right. Her mother thinks that capacity for such rich work has always been there, even when Honor was just a kid.
“Honor is the one who loves to go on scary rides,” Swinton said. “You have a bravery about throwing yourself at the scary rides when the fair comes around.” Hogg added, “And this was a pretty scary ride.”
While the future of Swinton Byrne’s burgeoning acting career is still a question mark — beyond, of course, her imminent turn in “The Souvenir: Part II,” which starts filming next month — Hogg has her own ideas for what’s next for her new muse. “I just want to encourage her in whatever she’s passionate in,” the filmmaker said, before admitting, “When I cast her as my younger self, I had a desire in her becoming a filmmaker herself. I thought, well, maybe if she steps into Julie’s shoes, that might be something that she becomes interested in. So, you know, who knows?”
When it comes to Hogg and the Swintons, anything is possible. It always has been.
A24 will release “The Souvenir” in theaters on Friday, May 17.