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“Arrogance and Confidence Comes with Film School and That Age”: Joanna Hogg on The Souvenir, Shooting 16mm and Film School

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir

There are many movies about making movies, far fewer about film school. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (the first in a diptych—part two is supposed to shoot this summer) grounds itself in the early ’80s at the UK’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), where Hogg herself went to school. It was there that she experienced a tumultuous relationship, dramatized here as the story of clean-living Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a student who falls for Anthony (Tom Burke) after they meet at a party. All well and good, but what Julie doesn’t clock is that Anthony is a heroin addict.

A real-life mother and daughter play mother and daughter (Swinton Byrne’s mother is indeed Tilda), grounding this autobiographical work. This isn’t just smart casting but a reunion: back in the ’80s, Tilda Swinton was the star of Hogg’s thesis film, Caprice, and her casting here as the mother of Hogg’s fictional stand-in brings things dizzyingly full circle. Adroitly deploying ellipses in the narrative, Hogg avoids the usual cyclical (and hence predictable) drunk/sober/relapse/repeat structure unavoidably inherent to any addiction narrative. Hogg briefly discussed her time in film school and some of the tech behind The Souvenir, out this Friday from A24,

Filmmaker: We’re working on our next issue, which has a section about film schools, which made me think about film school a lot more than I usually do. So I wanted to ask if you could talk a bit about your time at NFTS. You had your short that you made with Tilda and it was rejected as “frivolous.” My understanding from some very quick research is that when you came in, you were sort of the second generation. The first generation in the ’70s, when it was established, was a little more loosey-goosey.

Hogg: It sounded a lot more exciting, actually.

Filmmaker: You came in at a moment of greater aspirational corporatization. And your movie make it fairly clear that you had a fairly tough time with these kind of panels of inquisitors. I also looked up the alumni from your years and I was a little bit surprised to find out that Nick Park was in your age bracket, more or less. He was ‘85.

Hogg: I was earlier. I was ’81, actually.

Filmmaker: It says on Wikipedia that your graduation was in ’86, that’s why I missed it.

Hogg; Therein lies the tale. I wasn’t allowed to graduate until then. I went there in 1981, so I was 21. I was quite young to get in—that’s no indication of my abilities, just that there were people coming from university, but also coming from other professions. I think Terence Davies, who was at the film school before me, had been an accountant before. In my year, I think I was the youngest. There was someone who was 40, who seemed incredibly, incredibly old. And then there were other people, a lot of students around 30.

I didn’t quite know what to expect. The first year was quite structured. You did directing exercises, but you were also learning about working in different roles, so you’d be a sound recordist and a camera person. It was the second year that you really start to make your own projects. As soon as you arrive, the thing that you are preoccupied with is what you’re going to graduate with, looking ahead and thinking, what’s going to create an impression at the end of your time there? And you’re right: in the early ’70s, when the film school began, there was no sense of how a student should be at the school. There was a pool of equipment you could just borrow and go off and make films. I expected a bit more of that kind of rock and roll attitude when I arrived. I thought it’d be a bit more like art school, although I hadn’t been to art school—but my sense of what art school was like, that you could try out ideas and fail and learn from your mistakes, and that you could experiment. I imagined I was going to be experimenting.

Very soon after arriving, after this very structured year of exercises, it became apparent that it wasn’t just about experimenting: that you had to apply to make films, and you had to convince a body of tutors of your project, that you had to go through a whole lot of hoops to get anything made, and they didn’t make that easy. Their idea was to make it as tough for you as a student as it would be when you leave in the professional world, that it would be a mirror for the professional world. I didn’t really agree with that approach, because I think in order to learn, you’ve got to try something and not always know what that thing that you’re going to try is, just to make work. So yeah, I struggled with that. Partly the struggle was not being very good at that time in articulating what it was that I wanted to make, so I would constantly come up against these sort of heads of department meeting that you’d have to have to get a project passed. And then I was involved in this relationship that I’m depicting in The Souvenir, which was a big distraction from film school. I was up against this relationship that was all-consuming, and then also not very like-minded tutors who I felt a little bit at sea with. So I was generally at sea.

Filmmaker: The film students seem modeled on particular contemporaries of yours.

Hogg: There were a number of filmmakers I was thinking about, not all British necessarily. There was Carax, who’s a little bit later, but I thought about when he made his first films and just straight away wanting to paint on a big canvas. There were a number of filmmakers, and the odd filmmaker that I came across at film school, who I thought was quite arrogant and quite intimidating, in a way, in their confidence in what they wanted to make. But I also suffered from that myself, and so is Julie in the next part. There was a point at film school where I thought, “Well, I can make films better than Spielberg and I’m going to show the world what I can do,” you know? That kind of arrogance and confidence comes with film school and that age.

Filmmaker: Leading up to your premiere at Sundance, you were nice enough to write a mini-essay for our website. Re-reading it, I was going to ask you about the abandoned RAF hangar that you found, where you also recreated the school’s soundstage. How did that come about?

Hogg: Luckily, a location manager found it. I didn’t know at that point that it was going to be an aircraft hangar, just a big building that had enormous doors, like studio doors. I had an image from Singin’ in the Rain that was my reference, and as soon as I saw photographs of this place, before I actually went and visited it, I knew that was going to be the place. Then it was a question of negotiating and being able to film there. It was by no means a sound stage. It hadn’t been used for a number of years and was covered in pigeon shit and in really bad condition. But you could see the doors, and the fact that they opened out to countryside was a very lucky thing to find.

Filmmaker: It’s my understanding that the BFI right now is very supportive of filmmakers choosing to shoot on film, or at least that’s what I read.

Hogg: I’m going to quote that back to them. There’s a bit of a resurgence going on—I don’t know if it’s the same here in New York, but a lot of people are working on film. It’s being encouraged to a certain extent in the UK. It was important to me to shoot at least part of The Souvenir in 16 millimeter because that’s the medium of a film school student in the 1980’s. That’s what we were shooting on. We do shoot digitally as well. There are some scenes that are shot with a digital camera—not the full sensor, we used the 16 mill sensor.

Filmmaker: What did you primarily use digital for? I did not catch the transition.

Hogg: It’s very subtle. I’m glad you didn’t catch it, in a way. The beginning of the film up until the point where Julie meets Anthony at the Grand Hotel is 16 millimeter. There’s that moment where it’s like the film running out, it goes to white, and then it goes into the hotel. From there on, it’s digital for quite a long period of time, interspersed with Super 8 film that I shot from the ’80s and some sequences that we shot with a Bolex. So I’m sort of very much using the different textures, even if you didn’t notice.

Filmmaker: Was your Super 8 in good shape?

Hogg: I was really pleased with how it came out. It had just been lying around—maybe that was a good thing, that it had been lying around and I hadn’t been using or playing it.I had it digitized a while ago and it didn’t look so great digitized, but then, when Technicolor got their hands on it and re-digitized it, they did a really good job.

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