Interview: Cinematographer David Raedeker and the Look of Toxic Love
The fourth film from British writer and director Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir, is an autobiographical study of the self, of how an artist is found and, by turn, finds themselves. With an at times painful degree of self examination, Hogg considers how a great love, a trying romance and emotional trauma can conspire to an artistic awakening. From pain there is perspective, and from perspective there is purpose.
To evoke the tumult of her experience, Hogg worked with cinematographer David Raedeker, bringing about a dramatic change in aesthetic when compared with her preceding three films. This collaboration between writer-director and cinematographer makes for a singular film, not only in the careers of each artist, but in British film.
We spoke to Raedeker about his work with Joanna Hogg.
“It often felt like a tightrope walk and kept me on my toes at all times,” says cinematographer David Raedeker, “but it was also, creatively, hugely fulfilling.” When Raedeker first met with Joanna Hogg to discuss a collaboration, he was well acquainted with the filmmaker’s signature style, shot through locked off, observational cameras. So when he suggested something radically different for her most personal work to date, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I suggested that we instead used more camera movement to match the natural flow of the story,” says Raedeker, knowing that due to Joanna’s way of working this would bring major technical challenges. Hogg’s films are born of her particular process, of a preference for long, liberated takes, which are known to run up to half an hour in order for the actors to fully submerge themselves in the scene. Hogg never rehearses, everything is improvised without repetition, guided along by a script outline. Locations and scenes will often change in response to an unexpected character development, following the intuition of the story as it develops. But to his surprise, Hogg embraced Raedeker’s new approach.
Those attuned to the ways in which a camera moves through a film will notice how Raedeker’s camera evolves along with the central romance between the film’s leads, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke). “The film starts handheld and once Julie is going out with Anthony the framing becomes more rigid,” explains Raedeker. “Whenever we came back to her friends, we used a handheld camera.” He goes on to explain how they used locked off camera positions to show the stagnation in the couple’s relationship, and handheld camera or a roving and panning camera to show the heroine’s progression and sense of freedom. Those less concerned with the mechanics of filmmaking will no doubt feel the changes in tone that these techniques bring, so subtly affecting are they.
The filmmaking seen in The Souvenir is distinguished from Hogg’s previous films, Unrelated, Archipelego and Exhibition, in more ways than this. “In all of her previous films until then, Joanna used a single digital format because of the freedom it gave her to shoot long takes and not worry about stock or technicalities too much. When I introduced the idea of different formats as textures within the film as a kind of collage, she was first reluctant,” says Raedeker, before revealing that, in the end, he and Hogg worked with a total of eight different formats.
As the camera’s energy reflected the couple’s tumultuous romance, so too did Raedeker’s choice of format. “We started on Super-16mm film to give the story a sense of Julie’s freedom and lightness,” he begins, “and when Julie meets Anthony we changed over to 16mm digital with its slightly more sterile quality.” As the relationship develops, glamorous highs like the couple’s trip to Venice, shot with 35mm digital, “which is much sharper with more detail, to show the dreamlike hyperreal aspect of this part of the story,” offer a pointed aesthetic contrast to the lows of an anxious young woman struggling to find confidence in herself and her artistic voice. “We used standard 16mm Bolex footage for Julie’s memories and Super-16mm black and white stock for her film school footage,” says Raedkeder, adding that these choices, along with the appearance of the 1:66:1 aspect ratio, were to pay homage to the 1980s period, a time when film school students shot their shorts on Super 16mm and in this ratio.
A great deal of the film was shot not on location, but on custom built sets. This meant creating a replica of Hogg’s flat during this period of her life, a Knightsbridge residence with big, open windows that look out onto a panoramic view of 1980s London. The sense of location is staggering, particularly considering that these scenes were shot over 100 miles away, on a set within a Royal Air Force aircraft hangar in the village of West Raynham, Norfolk. “I had to come up with a practical solution to make the view out of the windows look realistic,” says Raedeker.
“For the backdrop we stitched together hundreds of pictures of the skyline, which Joanna had taken in the ‘80s from her original flat and which had to cover a massive, 5m high and 50m long screen, which bent around the set." Inspired by Hogg’s photography, Raedeker explains that the best solution was to run a video back projection against a painted backdrop. “Partly,” he explains, “this was because of time and cost constraints and partly because of the creative possibilities it gave us. We ended up with a background most viewers don’t question, but which bears a slight artificiality, which Joanna very much liked.”
Between the multiple formats, the recreation of a Knightsbridge skyline, and the kinetic approach to shooting, up against Hogg’s search for improvisation and spontaneously, Raedeker faced some significant challenges on this film. But everything he and Hogg have done, every aesthetic choice they have made, is in service to a film of layered emotional resonance.
The Souvenir is part one of two, a work of disarming honesty from a uniquely British voice. “The final shot of The Souvenir, when Julie looks directly into the camera to acknowledge the viewer,” says Raedeker, “is a preview of what is yet to come and serves in a kind of Brechtian context to remind the audience they are watching an artifice and to reflect back onto themselves.” Part two will be released in the UK in 2020.
Winner of Sundance 2019's Grand Jury Prize, The Souvenir is the compelling, semi-autobiographical drama from award-winning director/writer Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition).
A young, quietly ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) embarks on her first serious love affair with a charismatic and mysterious man (Tom Burke). She tries to disentangle fact from fiction as she surrenders to the relationship, which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.