Aftersun Charlotte Wells interview

Charlotte Wells spoke to us about her sublime feature debut, Aftersun

An interview with the Scottish filmmaker about her American film school experience, working with Sundance and what it took to bring this personal, reflective film to the big screen.

In Charlotte Wells’ sublime feature debut Aftersun, single Scotsman Calum (Paul Mescal) is on holiday at a Turkish resort with Sophie (Frankie Corio), his 11-year-old daughter from his previous relationship. This holiday is a consolation prize of the separation, but Sophie doesn’t seem to mind. Calum is a good dad: he’s tender and fun. But in protecting his inner turmoil from Sophie, he becomes unknowable to her.

Throughout the holiday, the pair film each other on Calum’s Panasonic Mini-DV camera. He then watches and rewatches the footage alone, in his hotel bed. I found myself wondering: What’s behind the compulsion to look at pictures and videos of a vacation that’s not over yet? Perhaps this is a way for Calum to review his work, so to speak. He’s watching the dailies of his holiday, hoping that Sophie’s memories of it will be as bright and benign as they look plugged into the cube BEKO TV.

As with any archive, however, there’s a fallacy in approaching home movies as confirmation of our memories, despite the influence of archives on our recollections themselves. An archive can reveal as much as it conceals. Aftersun isn’t a mere nostalgia trip, however. Intercut with the sun-soaked holiday are scenes of a grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson Hall) dancing at a rave. An unaged Calum turns up in these scenes, too, dancing and thrashing. Is Sophie hallucinating? Or are her memories converging? Maybe when we dance, we can’t help but think of our first audience: the ones that taught us to walk so that we could one day dance. 

Aftersun dramatizes the melancholy of a day well spent that nonetheless leaves you feeling disappointed. It may feel like fatigue, but it could also be the creeping knowledge that, as good as it is, it can’t last.

We spoke to the film’s director Charlotte Wells the day after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. She spoke about her beginnings, her influences and the film’s particular structure. 

Sarah Foulkes: My first question is really about your trajectory. So you went to NYU for your MFA and made some shorts, one of which was LAPS. And that got into Sundance. And by then you had already written the script for Aftersun and submitted it to the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab? And then from there you got the attention of PASTEL and BBC Film?

Charlotte Wells: In 2013, I started the MBA and MFA at NYU, which is really a producing program and that’s what I wanted to do. You start in the business school, but in the second year you go into the film school. You don’t have to, but most people do make a film. And I made a film. And I really enjoyed making a film. I had a really lovely collaboration with the cinematographer. I don’t know, I gravitated quite quickly to the visual capacity of the medium. My attention started to turn a little bit away from producing, which I continue to do. 

And so I made another short film called LAPS, right at the end of my third year at NYU, which played at Sundance. If not exactly opening doors, it definitely presented a lot of doors. And then I made another short, which premiered here actually, called Blue Christmas, which was the first time I had a chance to shoot on film, thanks to a very generous collaboration with the school and KODAK. It’s funny, actually, I hadn’t thought about this timeline wise, but I actually conceived of this before I’d even made that second short. But really very, very early days.

SF: Just gestating. 

CW: Yeah. Like, “Oh, father and daughter on holiday, let me start watching movies about fathers and daughters, or movies about holidays.” I started to think a little bit more about what that might be. And then after film school, I kind of continued to work on this idea and eventually, eventually, eventually wrote it. 

SF: Did the Sundance Screenwriters Lab open doors to Barry Jenkins and (his production company) PASTEL?

CW: They were actually already on board. Shortly after TIFF five years ago, I met Adele Romanski from PASTEL, who is one of my producers, and we stayed in touch. We’d get breakfast or a coffee whenever we were in the same place. And I just perpetually promised her this script that never came. It did come. It just took longer than the two weeks I first promised. I was like “Two weeks, give me two weeks.” I knew the lightning would strike. And I knew it would take two weeks to write. It just took two years for those two weeks to come. And that is ultimately how it was written, but with years of foundational work and character work and world-building work. And excavating my own memories. Yeah, so PASTEL were the first people I sent the script to. 

SF: And you met them at TIFF?

CW: I met them after TIFF, but it was kind of through the sharing of people that I met here. Because I was in the MBA/MFA program, I have classmates who are on the development and financing side of film. So it was actually through one of them, who pushed the snowball down the hill that led to various meetings and introductions. And then we took it to Sundance lab in January 2020, which was amazing and really did transform the project. And then I went through the virtual Director’s Lab, which transformed it again. That was kinda the last big shift in the script. 

SF: So how long from the first draft to starting production?

CW: Let’s see, I wrote the first draft in early 2019. I shared it in late 2019. So from August 2019 to wrapping in August 2021. A couple of years. A year if you take out the pandemic. Actually, it’s funny because I’ve been to TIFF a few times before, and these memories that are very specific to the place come back to you when you’re here. And I was at TIFF when I received the email back from PASTEL that they had read the script and wanted to talk. I remember coming out of Atlantiques, reading the email and being like, “Oh my God, okay cool.”

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun

SF: So you live in New York, you studied in New York, and it sounds like it’s the birthplace of your film career and imagination. But you’re Scottish. And it’s a very Scottish film. Very “Brits on the continent.”

CW: “Brits on the continent” is definitely how I would describe the film, too.

SF: But I also feel like there are a lot of American influences. I thought a lot about Somewhere (by Sofia Coppola).

CW: Yeah. I think I’m somewhere floating in the middle of the Atlantic. I am Scottish. I grew up there. All of my formative experiences were there for the most part. The film is very Scottish at heart, and British. And many of my influences are European. Obviously, I think that’s true of many filmmakers, I guess. But I did learn to make films in the U.S, and I think it’s not insignificant. NYU specifically is very multidisciplinary, and you have to turn your hand to everything. It just gives you a really wide view of filmmaking. And my collaborators all do really different things. Like my editor and my cinematographer, they’re both film school colleagues. One is American. One is English. And Greg also directs, he shoots, he does many other things. He plays music and composes. Blair is an editor. He’s also documentarian and a narrative filmmaker. Everybody does lots of things. And I think it just creates a really special environment in the process. 

But yeah, references. There was a whole scene that we essentially ripped off from Kelly Reichardt that didn’t make it into the film just because it wasn’t as good as Kelly Reichardt, but it was a shamelessly Kelly Reichardt scene from Old Joy.

SF: In the tub?

CW: Yeah, there’s this scene at the cold spring that sat between the Tai Chi and the mud baths. And it was just (narratively) redundant in the end. It was in my two-and-a-half-hour cut that nobody ever wanted to see. That was our very first cut and my producers were like, “Never send us a cut over two hours again.” It wasn’t a film that needed to be over two hours. But it was this really beautiful scene in which the environment just kind of enveloped them. It was near running water. There’s rain in that scene. So yeah, Kelly Reichardt, Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. 

Somewhere is a little bit misleading as a reference. Early on Somewhere, Alice in the Cities and Tomboy were three films that I spent a lot of time thinking about in that first wave of thinking about the idea and the cast. I don’t know, maybe that was Somewhere-inspired. The cast was based on a specific memory and it feels like the most obvious nod to Somewhere. If not the underwater scene. We probably had visual references to that on set. I mean, I love that film. I really do like the patience that it has with its shots, the time it takes. But I think in Somewhere there’s this sense that she is looking after her father in a certain way. There are moments like that in the film where that kind of shift happens, but it was really important to me that Sophie be a kid, you know. That she feels like a 10 or 11-year-old kid and is goofy like a kid, and awkward like a kid and annoying like a kid, you know? So that was actually like a point at which I tried to differentiate the characters. 

SF: Have you seen Petite Maman

CW: Not yet. I still haven’t seen it. I was still making the film when it was released and I was just not in the space to be watching anything. I feel like I’m just catching up. 

SF: I won’t spoil it, but I definitely see echoes. This sense of trying to get to know your parents as they were when they were your age.

So when I first read about the film, the blurb is something like “Sophia reflects on a holiday she took when she was 11.” So I was imagining voiceover.

CW: It was suggested to me.

SF: Yeah. Or a scene where she’s like talking to her children about their grandfather, or whatever. 

CW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SF: And that really is not the film. It’s almost misleading. Because it’s really more about the memories. And then there are these beautiful rave scenes. You said that it had been suggested to you. Was the older Sophie ever a more fleshed out character?

CW: Yeah, I was asked this last night. Somebody asked me, “Were you ever tempted to have more of her in the film?” And I said that I was tempted to have less. Like, I think…I don’t know, do I say this? I guess I’ll say this. In the very, very first draft of the film, Adult Sophie was occasionally present in the holiday space in A Christmas Carol kind of fashion that eventually built into some kind of interaction. It started off as kind of observational. But it just didn’t feel like it was adding anything. It didn’t feel like it contributed to the feeling of the film. And then there were versions of the script where it was really just the rave, you know? And then it was like, modulating. Okay, maybe I need to give people a little bit more. 

And then there’s that scene with the partner in the bedroom that felt so insane to me. I can’t believe it’s still in the cut. There was something about that scene that just kind of emerged. Like, I don’t think it was in my outline. There were a few things like that. The rave is also a little bit like that — these really amazing discoveries during writing that just felt right. And so I wasn’t interested in somebody looking out of a window and then kind of flashing back. Or telling somebody a story. I really wanted it to be like a feeling, but I do think you need to anchor memory. I mean like The Long Day Closes is kind of an interesting example because that is so obviously somebody’s memory, but it’s all done in that opening shot where you go down this dilapidated alley and then it transforms. That’s all he needed to do. And so it was a really big challenge. Do I think there could have been less? I don’t know. It’s always modulating to have an audience on board, you know? ■

Aftersun (directed by Charlotte Wells)

Aftersun opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 28.

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