To be 24, creative and in love (or at least it felt like love): That’s the subject of The Souvenir, a rich, heartbreaking memoir by British director Joanna Hogg, who emerges with one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of the year. To make it, Hogg reached out to the actor who, in 1986, starred in her film-school thesis: Tilda Swinton. Would Swinton play Hogg’s onscreen mother? And would Swinton’s daughter, rising star Honor Swinton Byrne, step into Hogg’s own shoes? We sat down with the three of them to discuss their journey into the past.
Time Out: Joanna, what has to happen in your head in order to decide to turn your life into a self-deprecating drama?
Joanna Hogg: A lot of gymnastics. [Laughs] It’s giving myself permission to reinvent. My memory’s not good enough for the story to pop out whole. I might get some things wrong, but I’m allowing it to become its own entity.
Time Out: Is it like therapy?
Joanna Hogg: The early stages were excruciating because I’m digging into that old self, who I never really liked much at the time. Even with thirty-odd years distance, I still don’t like her that much. And yet, there’s an urge to explore that person. What made her want to be a filmmaker?
Time Out: Tilda, you were there when it happened. Is she getting it right?
Tilda Swinton: Not getting it right is as important as getting it right. Maybe the reason why it’s so hard for you, Joanna, during the early stages is because it’s just you and—like Tintin—your little dog on your shoulder saying “That’s not right, that’s not right!” But once you start to talk to your collaborators, nobody minds that much. It’s like fumes, really. Maybe having me present was a way of giving yourself permission to go on fumes.
Time Out: I like the idea of fumes, in that you’re creating an atmosphere. Tilda, did you ever meet Joanna’s mother?
Tilda Swinton: Yes, plus we had actual voice recordings that Joanna shared with Honor and Tom [Burke, who plays Hogg’s junkie boyfriend, Anthony]. But it wasn’t really about material substance. It was more to do with energy.
Joanna Hogg: It’s like detective work.
Tilda Swinton: Your memory can be completely misleading. I recently found some letters from my mother which completely belie what I would have told you about the nature of our relationship: Oh, we had that kind of relationship! I had no idea. Life does that.
Photo: Courtesy of A24
Time Out: Honor, there’s a visual motif of you being alone at the typewriter, writing, creating. That’s very inspiring. Is being along—and being comfortable with that—something you already are?
Honor Swinton Byrne: Yes. Not so much with writing, but with drawing and painting, and being by yourself. I went to Africa for eight months right after we shot The Souvenir, which was lovely because I could come back to myself. After being in the body of a film student, I could use those skills to channel my own wave. That was important to me afterward.
Time Out: Why Africa?
Honor Swinton Byrne: Because I wanted to have an adventure independently and do my own thing. I was alone for eight months, which was good for me. It helped me grow up a little a bit and come back worldlier. I’d grown into somebody I liked more than when I left.
Tilda Swinton: Plus you were working.
Honor Swinton Byrne: Yes, I was working as a volunteer teacher.
Time Out: That’s a bit like filmmaking, right? It’s a family that changes over time.
Tilda Swinton: I think that’s really on the money. There’s also this trick to being that age, which is to find one’s tribe, but at the same time be individual and vulnerable. And it’s so easy to get side-blinded by people who are more authoritative.
Photograph: Courtesy of A24
Time Out: You’re talking about Anthony now.
Tilda Swinton: It’s such a relief when you’re that age to go: [Groan of relief] I can be slightly dominated by you and I can be a little bit weak and passive, because being a grown-up is so exhausting and new. I want to be independent and have agency in the world, but I wasn’t a child very long ago, and it would be nice to have a bit of a holiday and be a passenger for a bit. That’s part of his attraction.
Joanna Hogg: She starts off very independent and ambitious. She’s got a project that she wants to make, and has strong ideas. And yet you see her being taken by a man who, by coincidence, is passionate about cinema. That’s so irresistible.
Time Out: Do you miss being young?
Tilda Swinton: [Laughs] We have guilty moments of nostalgia for the early ’80s.
Joanna Hogg: I miss not having email.
Tilda Swinton: I feel like that we were really able to encounter each other—like, really meet other people. These days, it’s tricky. It’s not impossible but there are so many distractions. So many ways of not knowing other people and thus, not knowing yourself. There was less of a break pad in those days for us. I was someone who was pretty engaged politically. We felt like that could actually make a difference.
Time Out: Honor, you must have heard this before. Was doing an ’80s period film alien to you?
Honor Swinton Byrne: I like to think it came quite naturally to me!
Tilda Swinton: It’s different now. When we marched, it made an impact and was really heard. There were Thatcher nonsenses that got repealed. We felt we had something to do with that. Today, there’s a sense that things are sewn up in a hermetic way. Then, we felt like there were edges to things.
The Souvenir is now playing. Read our five-star review.