Aftersun, the directorial debut from Scottish, New York-based director Charlotte Wells, is an intimate film bound more by fragments than a clear-cut narrative. The story centers a young, single father named Calum (Paul Mescal) and his daughter Sophie’s Turkish vacation circa the 1990s—which Sophie (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects upon in her adult years, 20 years on. Told through the perspective of a child on the cusp of adolescence, Wells’s film leaves much unsaid about Calum’s apparent struggles—and the depths of the father-daughter relationship at its heart. Despite incorporating MiniDV footage into its DNA (one of many time-specific aspects, such as the many instantly iconic needle drops) and stitching the past and present, Aftersun is both a film rooted in nostalgia and a timeless portrait of the way childhood memories, down to the most fleeting details, shape us.
After emerging from International Critics Week as one of the most talked-about films at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Aftersun has been hailed as a top debut in recent history, and for good reason. Wells spoke with W about fusing personal experiences with external factors to craft Aftersun, communicating point of view through framing, and her affinity for Terence Davies’s 1992 sophomore feature, The Long Day Closes.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
No. I mean, I definitely stood up at age 14 in an English class and talked about wanting to direct films, but I forgot about it for 12 to 15 years. It just seemed so outside the realm of possibility. It wasn’t something I felt like I could pursue. Then I found my way back, ultimately through producing, which is what I came to New York and film school looking to do—and through that process, directed my first short.
You’ve described Aftersun as being “emotionally autobiographical.” Could you tell me a little about that?
I allowed, in the early stages of the film, my own memories and anecdotes from holidays and throughout childhood to inform the skeleton outline of the script. The process of digging through my past eventually infiltrated the film itself, and it took on this retroactive gaze. I suppose that is the sense in which it is emotionally autobiographical, it ultimately builds to a feeling that is mine. Beyond that early outline, I was very clear that the film was always fiction; I was never on this holiday, it wasn’t my experience. These characters—while their starting point was certainly inspired by me and my dad—were ultimately infused by many different people, fictional and otherwise. As you move toward production, the story diverges from this place of self in a way that allows you to put yourself on the page in a way that feels very exposing, but less exposing once you get to the final film, because it has transformed into its own thing.
Speaking of actors, what qualities were you looking for when casting Sophie and Calum? And how did you land on Paul Mescal and Francesca Corio?
What drew me to Paul was how open, warm, friendly, and thoughtful he was. That felt important to the character, in terms of innate feeling and quality, that it feels surprising that he’s struggling. Paul brought a lot of warmth and stability—and physical stability—to his portrayal of Calum that allowed for that to slowly reveal itself over the course of the film.
[Sophie] was written on the page as this kid who feels more comfortable in a world with adults than kids, who’s got a bit of an attitude and is goofy. She was really silly, surprising, and could act, which astounded us when we first met her. She was such a wonderful surprise in that room in Glasgow in February of last year. So much of it was about the rapport Sophie and Paul built. They just had a couple of weeks together before we shot and built a genuine relationship and friendship.
The film feels like a recollection of fragmented memories, and memory is, of course, at the core of your film since it’s the only way for Sophie to reflect on this fleeting moment. Could you talk about exploring the function of memory in the film?
It was tricky. There’s a version of this film that could have just been the holiday, and that version was, at times, tempting to make. But it was not ultimately what I had to say. The process of looking back, searching, and reassessing was so interwoven. It was clear that memory was inextricable from the script.
I watched many other films that deal in memory and considered how it was approached and how you give some sense of authorship to it. We talked a lot about how meaningful or not meaningful it was to feel that I personally was the author of this, that there was a strong connection between the filmmaker and the story on screen, and how do you communicate that? And is it important?
For the Freeze Frame column, you chose a scene from Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes. It’s a sequence set to Debbie Reynolds’s “Tammy” and composed of overhead shots of locations important to the young character, Bud—such as a movie theater, church, and school. What about that film, and particularly this moment, is so impactful for you?
[Cinematographer] Greg [Oke] saw Distant Voices, Still Lives, so he called me and told me I had to watch it as soon as I could. I have such an affinity for The Long Day Closes because it was the first of [Davies’s movies] that I saw. It has such an elegant way in to how it presents the film as a memory, which is the opening shot, and which I probably should’ve chosen, as it relates to [Aftersun]. There’s no other reference to any other timeline, that [opening scene] is all he needed to do to communicate that this is a memory. I’ve heard him talk about cutting for emotion and using emotion as a way to cut from one moment to another, that it isn’t about linear time. He doesn’t really have an interest in [the sequence of what happens]. I first watched the film after I had made my last short and I feel grateful for that—or it would have been some terrible attempt to rip off Terence Davies, which I don’t think anyone should ever try to do.
What about Davies is so intriguing to you?
[Davies] has such a particular style. He is so particular in how he writes. I have this book, which is the scripts from the five autobiographical films dealing very closely with his family. When I was asked to choose this scene, [the “Tammy” sequence] was the first one that came to mind when I pulled it up in the book. It isn’t exactly as it winds up in the film, but it felt so inspiring and freeing to think about using music like that, not being held by place or time, and using a camera as your tool to transition across a series of overhead shots. It’s set to this very sweet, sincere song about love, which you feel as this thing that he isn’t going to have in a way that he sees his family have in the film. It’s a sequence I think about a lot. I don’t know if it changed, but reinforced how I thought about music within film.
You also sent a clip from Terence Davies’s 1976 short film, Children. Both of the Davies scenes capture poetic moments that have no dialogue. Aftersun often does the same, lingering in these moments that have been underscored only by music. How do you approach communicating meaning in these types of mundane moments?
I think and write quite visually, and I’m very detail-oriented in that way. I think the most creatively exciting part of the process is shot listing. Then you get to the set and sometimes you discover something further, like the reflection on the TV. What was written into the script insofar as there’s a TV, the DV is playing live on it when it’s connected, and you see [Frankie] moving around behind the TV in the slither of the screen. Once the plug is pulled in the scripts, you see the bottom of their feet as they sit on the bed and talk, but we didn’t have the physical space to do that. I’m not sure the physical space exists to achieve whatever shot exactly was written in the script. It’s a combination of the way that I approach images and the collaboration that I have with Greg and his interests and being open to discovery on set and discovering something better than you had planned.