Resurrecting momentous events in her personal history—including the physical spaces where they occurred—deftly-introspective British moviemaker Joanna Hogg created The Souvenir, a semi-autobiographical drama which centers around a film student drowning in a detrimental love affair.
From the outset, Hogg was unaware that making the film would entail building a replica of the apartment she lived in during the 1980s, a period during which she navigated the waters of artistic identity and tempestuous romance. Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at Sundance 2019, The Souvenir will have a sequel that will use the same simulated playground.
It was never Hogg’s intention to painstakingly recreate her former abode.
Her initial idea was to shoot inside her old home in the Knightsbridge neighborhood of London. But that hope was soon extinguished when her production designer, Stéphane Collonge, wasn’t even allowed to have a look around the place to have a frame of reference to work from. In hindsight, she admits filming there wouldn’t have given them the freedom they required: “It would’ve been too small for us,” Hogg says. “The crew and I would’ve all gone mad in the original apartment.”
This restriction required that they construct every detail not from reality, but from recollection. Aware that memory is never completely reliable, Hogg armed herself with photographs she’d taken while she lived there. These stills ignited her subconscious. “Who knows how accurate it is in the end, but it’s something that sprung out of my memory and Stéphane’s imagination,” says Hogg.
To construct the two-story apartment, the team scouted a Royal Air Force aircraft hangar in the village of West Raynham, Norfolk. Collonge, who has worked on all of Hogg’s features, described the hangar as “derelict” with vegetation growing indoors. Yet, because of its massive size, which is bigger than the gargantuan 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, it posed an opportunity ripe for creative manipulation.
Initially, the decision to build the set from scratch was a practical one. They needed somewhere that could fit the film school Hogg’s character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), attends as well as her ex-residence. As Hogg became more interested in the stylization of the story, the idea of rebuilding the apartment became intriguing on a meta level.
“The two things [home and school] are inside each other,” says Hogg. Since the film school needed to have a big studio in which the students made films, a setting that matched the hangar’s aesthetic, it made sense for the apartment to be constructed in that same space. She adds: “I don’t want to reveal anything about the second part, but the connection of those two locations becomes more relevant in part two with projects that Julie will make.”
It was a huge undertaking, Collonge notes, to fit the film school within the hangar. They erected Portakabins, renovated part of the RAF-base-turned-studio and partitioned it into the school offices and editing corridor.
As the set pieces began to take shape, Hogg was flooded with increasingly clearer mental images of what these significant sites from her earlier life looked like. “As it was being constructed we continued to adapt it as these memories came back. It was quite a powerful thing,” she recalls. One example was the apartment’s kitchen. Although it was just a framework, when Hogg walked into it for the first time she immediately knew the duplicate was too wide. It would need to be narrower.
Proportions were quite different from her real place. The set was nearly twice as big to account for the camera and crew, given that they didn’t want to fragment it. Hogg and Collonge decided not to float the walls, as is often done in productions shooting on indoor sets. Collonge explains: “We decided never to do that, because it served the purpose of the story and the sort of bubble that we were creating. We still wanted to have a 360-degree complete environment. I had to make the rooms bigger in a specific way, because you’re sort of saving the corners. You’re twisting the space and making it deeper, but also narrower, so it works for camera. It’s a bit of a sculpting job.” He also had to ensure the shooting crew could fit comfortably and have enough room to do wide shots.
Numerous objects from Hogg’s life made it onto the screen. “I did bring things in, including pieces of furniture that were mine and were in that original flat,” Hogg says. Among those is Julie’s gold baroque bed: “It’s in storage now, waiting for part two of The Souvenir. I don’t use it anymore, but I still kept it. That’s the actual bed that I had back then.”
Books, photographs and other pieces of furniture also came from Hogg’s past, but one element that really showed her commitment to the project, explains Collogne, was the use of real film school applications she completed as a young woman. Hogg also encouraged her lead Swinton Byrne to bring some personal belongings on set, so that she could feel that the fictional site was hers as well.
Now Hogg is curious to know if people perceive Julie’s handcrafted apartment as slightly artificial or as real. “Some people who’ve seen the film have told me they think it’s a real location, so I find that interesting and flattering in a way,” she says. “It’s very much a credit to Stéphane and our cinematographer, David Raedeker, that it feels so real. But of course, when you know what happens behind the scenes you don’t see it as that reality in the same kind of way.”
A major visual trick Hogg and her team used to enhance authenticity involved the views seen outside the windows. While she lived in Knightsbridge in the ’80s, Hogg focused on still photography and took countless images that now serve as the vistas in the movie. “I was a photographer before I was a filmmaker so I was constantly taking photographs, and back then I was shooting everything mostly on 35mm color slide film,” she explains. “I kept everything I ever photographed and kept the slides of views looking outside the apartment, looking at different skies at different times of the year and different viewpoints from the forth floor.”
She was intent on using her original 35mm pictures because she felt there was something emotive about these images captured at exactly the point in time when the story occurs. It means the reconstructed apartment looks out onto real views from that era. Collonge says, “She had so much material. We scanned the original slides in high resolution and we realized that we had enough visual material to reconstruct the cityscape 360 degrees.”
After pondering over how to make those still images believable backdrops, back projection became Hogg and Collonge’s chosen method. To that end, achieving the correct viewpoint was a daunting task. “It felt very important to me that the perspective be what I remembered when I was in that flat all those years ago,” says Hogg. According to Collonge, the main issue with the projections was that due to budget constraints, each floor of the apartment had to be built as a separate set: “We couldn’t afford to have all the sets on the platform or on rostrums, only the top one.”
Having the set at ground level meant the artifice could have been exposed if not shot delicately. “It’s meant to be at the top of a building and when you build a set on the ground you end up seeing the actual floor of the studio,” explains the seasoned production designer. For cinematographer David Raedeker, perspective was also a difficult feat to pull off. “We had to shoot inside the apartment, in a very specific angle,” Raedeker says. “We couldn’t just shoot freely because when you have the backdrops—which are obviously flat and five meters or 15 feet away from the walls of the set—and you pan, you don’t get a parallax shift. You have to be extremely careful not to make it too obvious that it’s just a backdrop.” Hogg sums it up: “It’s quite challenging to do that when you’re relying on back projection as we did and also building the flat. It’s on two levels, but it was too expensive to build the apartment as two levels on top of one another, so they’re two separate sets. It’s a trick of the eye.”
For instance, there’s a corridor leading to the elevator with a staircase going down to nothing. The production had to be careful to avoid showing such seams. “You only see the characters exiting the elevator, we couldn’t follow them,” says Collonge. Ideally, he thinks both sets should be lifted to prevent the risk of the ground floor of the studio being visible on screen. Nevertheless, Collonge doesn’t believe these limitations hurt the film because the focus was put on other details that add realism, like having the doors of the elevator open with an occasional delay as they would in the real world. Still, if it’s possible to have both sets on a platform for part two Collonge believes it would add great depth to the shots.
Before back projection was chosen for the backdrops, the crew considered the possibility of using Translight or front projection, but ruled it out in favor of back projection because, according to Raedeker, it reacts to various lighting conditions, whereas Translight is limiting. “It was very difficult to get proper illumination from the back projections,” says Raedeker, who only works with high speeds and Ultra Prime 16mm lenses. “We shot at low light levels—so low that when you looked right in the apartment it was actually quite dark, just to get a good exposure out of the backdrops.”
Despite the constraints, Raedeker was able to achieve specific lighting effects according to Hogg’s requests—from a sunny day with sharp sunlight streaming through the windows to a typical foggy London day. “He made it feel three-dimensional and real, though sometimes we would go for a more heightened atmosphere,” says Hogg.
Hogg and Raedeker also decided early on to shoot certain segments of The Souvenir in 16mm and others on digital, with the Alexa Mini, but using the 16mm or 35mm chip. This allowed for two different types of visual aesthetics. The film switches from the tangible Super 16mm stock to its 16mm digital counterpart when Julie first meets her troubled love interest at a posh hotel bar. At that point, colors turn much flatter and the film’s visuals become stagnant. Later, to shoot scenes in which the couple takes a vacation to Venice, the crew kept the Alexa but changed to a 35mm chip—so there would be crispness to the shots, as opposed to the soft focus most would associate with the dreamlike feel of the aquatic Adriatic city. “We thought Venice should have a much clearer, sharper feel than other parts of the story, because somehow it’s almost the opposite to what one does in a dream sequence,” Hogg explains. “These choices are all subtle and I don’t know how clear they are to most people. But even if they’re not clear there are textural differences in the film.”
Hogg believes that by combining celluloid, digital sequences and other materials from her personal archives, she and her team were able to prompt a dialogue between these different mediums—many of which were popular in the ’80s. She feels this interaction between distinct brushes within the same painting gave them a sense of what the rest of the film should be.
Crafting The Souvenir almost entirely inside the hangar was an experiment both satisfying and enlightening for Hogg in her efforts to push the boundaries of creative control. “There was something reassuring about this space that we could adapt,” she says. Within the realm of her intimate cinematic kingdom, Hogg found possibilities galore to summon the rooms and halls that once housed her heartbreak and joy.
“My previous three films were all about location, and a lot of inspiration and emotion came from the particular places where we shot those films in. But this was different,” Hogg muses. “I wondered myself how it was going to be, working with the actors and with the story, but I found it moving to work in this space that we constructed. In an uncanny way, it was as if, by constructing something so clearly from my memory, we built an atmosphere. I wasn’t in an aircraft hanger inside a set… it was the real place.” MM
The Souvenir opens in theaters May 17, 2019, courtesy of A24. All images courtesy of A24.