Joanna Hogg in conversation with Anna Calvi
We’re celebrating the release of The Souvenir Part II, streaming exclusively on MUBI now. Watch with 30 days of MUBI for free here.
In the final moments of Joanna Hogg’s transcendently meta reflection on art and loss, The Souvenir Part II, film school graduate Julie (aluminous Honor Swinton-Byrne) has fully blossomed as a director in command of her craft. After being doubted, criticised and taken advantage of by her peers and ex-boyfriend, she’s now confidently presiding over a music video shoot on a cavernous, all-white soundstage. It’s a minimalist concept inspired by David Bowie’s Life on Mars: a rotating display of statuesque models in pastel suits and baby pink fur coats. At the centre is Mercury Prize-nominated musician Anna Calvi. “God, I wanna go home, but I wanna stay out there,” she sings, echoing Julie’s constant push-and-pull between risk and comfort.
Calvi contributed more than just a small cameo to The Souvenir films. Part I ends with her cathartic howls over a glissando sliding guitar – a song called Julie, which is still unavailable officially, much to the dismay of fans. The second song, Drive, is the one she performs in Part II. She and Hogg promise to drop the music video this time.
Beyond their collaborations, the two are connected by the themes of identity and sexuality that are intrinsic to their work. Hogg’s autobiographical two-parter about a young woman discovering freedom through filmmaking deeply resonated with Calvi. “Both The Souvenir films are about Julie letting go of any shackles, and that is something I was trying to get across in Hunter,” Calvi explains. “This feeling of being the fullest version of yourself, including the ugliness and the beauty.” Calling from their respective homes in London, the pair fall into an easy rhythm as they catch up, coming to the realisation that, surprisingly, their singular creative processes have quite a lot in common.
Crack: How did you first discover each other’s work?
Anna Calvi: I had seen Exhibition and I totally loved it. I was completely obsessed with it. Interestingly, the sound design of that film was really like nothing I’d heard before. It was the kind of film that I want to watch over and over again.
Joanna Hogg: You watched Exhibition, and then I saw you perform Lady Grinning Soul. Not live, unfortunately; I would’ve loved to have been there. But I saw the recording from the Royal Albert Hall, and I was so struck by your presence and the way you performed – just your whole energy. From there, I explored your music and got really excited about a possible collaboration. This was before we even met, or even knew it’d be possible to collaborate in any way. But I find that sometimes with my best collaborations – I just get excited.
AC: I was lucky enough to be in The Souvenir Part II, and I was really interested in watching you allow people to improvise. You weren’t controlling in a way that felt oppressive. It just felt that you had complete control to allow this beautiful thing to happen. I wonder what it was like to find that balance when you know exactly what you want, but also want it to bloom on its own.
JH: I think because I’d written something quite dense and detailed, it allows my other collaborators behind and in front of the camera to use their imagination. The writing doesn’t constrain them. I’m not afraid of other people’s ideas. There’s something about just creating the right energy that gives people – like yourself, when we did the pop video [in The Souvenir Part II] – space to find your own way in there. You have the richness of everyone’s journeys, but with a map. You know where to go.
AC: What I loved about that experience was this “Russian Doll” feeling of filming people making a pop video, when we actually are making a music video. You had someone who was a choreographer playing the choreographer, but I was asking him between takes, “What do you think about how I’m moving?” I didn’t even know anymore whether I was playing [a character], or whether I was saying it for myself. And I don’t think he knew either. We were both a bit confused. It was a really surreal experience.
JH: That pop video was loosely based on a pop video I shot in the late 80s for a band called Living in a Box. And Michael, the choreographer who you were talking to, was, in fact, the choreographer of that original pop video. I don’t know if I ever told you that.
AC: No, you didn’t! That’s so funny.
JH: I recast him because I really loved what he did for that original pop video. It never saw the light of day, unfortunately, because the record company didn’t like what I did. They thought I was making fun of the band so it never materialised. I approached him to work with you and he said, “I’m not really doing that kind of work anymore.” But I managed to persuade him to come back. So that may be part of his confusion with being thrust back into this world that he’d left long ago.
When I asked you to work on the music at the end of Part I, I thought the way it happened was so exciting. I’d finished editing the film and then asked you to look at it. And we decided together that you would create the music having literally just watched it on your own, and you responded to it musically, which is such a beautiful thing.
AC: I think it’s very much about instinct and that moment you feel something for the first time. You can never replay that moment. It was such an interesting thing for me, capturing how it made me feel at the end when these doors open and there’s this sense of wide space and possibility. I had my guitar on me and I just pressed record. What you hear is what I felt. You can’t always capture that first reaction to something, and I’m really glad that I did.
JH: Quite often, I have to do Q&As, so I always catch the end credits. I’ve listened to that piece many more times than I’ve watched the film. But I never tire of it, and it always gives me goosebumps. I can feel the emotion that you felt when you created that piece of music. That idea of not wasting that emotion after responding to something for the first time – I guess that’s my whole ethos when shooting a film. I don’t want the performers to try anything out unless I’ve got the camera running. I don’t want to miss that first go, even if that first take is chaotic and not exactly what I want. Sometimes you want that chaos. I don’t want to miss that opportunity to capture grappling our way through something.
AC: That’s so similar to what happens when you record music. The first moments are when you’re still figuring out what you’re doing, and there’s a lack of self-consciousness – that’s where the magic is. You can get a more polished performance that’s more correct, but it is often never as good as those first moments. It’s interesting to me that that could be something present in both film and music. I would love to have more opportunities with you to capture moments like that, the moment of instinct.
JH: I would really love that. And I really enjoyed all the conversations we had along the journey, especially when we were doing Part II. My first films had hardly any music – Exhibition had maybe one piece of music – so the works are getting more musical. And yet, I’ve always seen the creation of the work as a musical process. With Exhibition, I wanted the natural sounds to be like music. That’s exciting to me, to create music in different ways.
“That idea of not wasting that emotion after responding to something for the first time – that’s my whole ethos”
AC: How does it feel to see your films with music? Does it feel different from your earlier films?
JH: I think with my first films, I just didn’t want to use music in a way that influences how you feel, because it’s so powerful. It can either completely drown an image or support it. I suppose I’m interested in using music in unexpected places. I was very aware of that manipulative power it has, and so I thought, “OK, I’ll keep away from it.” Then gradually I enjoyed using it more and more.
AC: In a funny way, it reminds me that I have this thing about the bass guitar. When I was playing my first two albums live, I didn’t have a bass guitar. I was fascinated with this instrument but I was also very suspicious of it. When you don’t have a bass guitar, it feels like the music can go anywhere. It’s very ethereal. You put a bass in there, and it grounds everything. I was always like, “No, turn it down!” I like the idea of the music feeling as if it has potential to go in all possible directions. I’ve had this love-hate relationship with the bass guitar. I want you, but I don’t want you [laughs]. It slightly reminds me of what you’re saying about how music anchors the emotion.
JH: But as you’re describing your process with a bass guitar, I imagine that the piece of music itself is reflecting that idea of “I want you” and “I don’t want you”.
AC: I’m always about negative space – taking away gives you more. So when you bring something in, I [have to] really want it in there. I always want the listener to be desperately wanting it. It’s as if they’ve had loads of sweeties, and they can’t taste anything anymore. I want it to be like, “Oh my god, there it is!”
JH: Yes, I want that and it gets taken away again.
AC: There’s something about this low-end that really does that for me. It reminds me of when you see an orchestra play and hear the string section and it’s really beautiful, and you almost don’t realise you’re missing something. And then the brass comes in and suddenly there’s this power that you can feel in your body. That’s similar to how it feels when you bring low-end into a pop song. You get the same kind of thrill of the sound being filled out.
“I’m always about negative space. Taking away gives you more”
JH: I really get what you mean. I’m sound mixing a ghost film at the moment, and we’re creating a lot of wind sounds, sometimes using voice. My sound designer Jovan [Adjer] and I have experienced the same thing of wanting it to be really ethereal. If there’s any kind of bass note there, it pulls it down to earth, so we’re trying to keep it in the air. I’m just reminded of what you did with the music at the end of Part I, and how it goes into your track Drive. I really like how the two ends of the films speak to each other.
AC: It’s a song about wanting to be free. The line – “Is this all there is?” –made me think about Julie, in the sense of how exciting it is to watch her fulfil all that she’s capable of. I like the fact that it came together naturally. It really seemed to fit without much effort.
JH: What’s interesting is that Drive is the only contemporary music in Part II, but I love the fact that it doesn’t feel like a musical leap from the other tracks. I know it wasn’t something we necessarily talked about but it just fits into the palette of those other tracks, which range from Nico to The Psychedelic Furs. I’m not saying it feels of that time exactly, but it just works in relation to the rest of the music.
AC: When I was recording it, the inspiration was the classic David Bowie era. Actually, the whole time I was writing that song, I was trying to imagine myself as a female Iggy Pop. What would Iggy Pop do?
We’re celebrating the release of The Souvenir Part II, streaming exclusively on MUBI now. Watch with 30 days of MUBI for free here