The Distance in Your Eyes: Charlotte Wells Discusses "Aftersun"

The Scottish filmmaker reflects on the delicate rhythm of her debut feature, where childhood memories meet present-day longing.
Caitlin Quinlan

Charlotte Wells's Aftersun is now showing exclusively on MUBI starting January 6, 2023, in many countries—including the United Kingdom, Mexico, and India—in the series Debuts. Wells recently joined the MUBI Podcast for a special episode on Aftersun's soundtrack; click here to listen.

It’s a slippery thing, memory. Faded by the years or sharpened by trauma, the things we remember have a tendency to wax and wane tantalizingly in and out of focus. Reaching out into the gulf of her memories in Charlotte Wells’s debut feature Aftersun is Sophie, a protagonist split across two eras. There’s the late 1990s of her childhood, in particular one summer holiday spent with her father Calum (Paul Mescal), and the present day, where home movies and ephemera from the trip offer something akin to that longed-for hold on the past.

Aftersun lingers on the holiday itself, the lazy days passing at the chosen Turkish resort where then-11-year-old Sophie’s (Frankie Corio) fledgling, pre-adolescent confidence begins to emerge in tandem with the deepening of her father’s intimate melancholy. For the majority of the film, we are situated inside of Sophie’s recollections of the trip, apart from the moments when her consciousness jolts her back to the present like she has been stirred from sleep. These moments, when childhood reminiscence and adult longing combine, are Wells’s most devastating invocations of remembrance. For Sophie, waxing and waning is the image of her father and his sadness, the tragedy it will inevitably become. In hazy memories, Calum is veiled behind panes of glass, blurred by camera footage, or stoppered by the aberrant ellipsis of nightclub strobe lighting, a dream image Sophie finds herself caught in again and again. 

Aftersun, even in its fiction, feels like an attempt to create an emotional artifact of a time, a place, a person—something, perhaps, we all long to do in our grief for what has been lost. Despite the specificity of its central relationship, the film invites a universality in its meditations on family, girlhood, loss, love, and pain (and a particularly British universality in its odes to Fanta Lemon and other once-revered snacks from abroad). Mescal and newcomer Corio impart an easy familial intimacy, both playful and awkward, to this father-daughter dynamic; their relationship is as comforting as it is perpetually unsteady. This tone is enhanced by the film's rhythm, which evokes breathing: sometimes erratic and uncertain, other times as easy as in sleep. When I spoke to Wells, the film had just had its London premiere following its debut in Cannes and then Edinburgh earlier this year, where the critical response was overwhelmingly applauding. Deservedly so, for this precious piece of filmmaking has been crafted with great skill and empathy and makes legible something that is often loose and intangible in our minds. Within the evanescence of memory, Wells leans in and holds on tight.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to start by talking about evocations of memory in the film. There is the intimate memory of Sophie and then a kind of collective memory, especially for British audiences I think, of familiar holidays, music, experiences. Why was memory such a necessary tool for this film?

CHARLOTTE WELLS: When I first conceived of the idea, it was more straightforward. I envisioned a film about a young father and his daughter on holiday, a father who might be mistaken for her brother, and who were very much partners in crime. And while the seed of that endured, I think the process of allowing my own memories and recollections, and my own relationship with my dad, began to seep into the structure of the film. The first outline was two pages, organized by day, and didn't include the nightclub rave. But in writing, the rave emerged. And I think that is reflective of the process and ultimately is integral to what the film accumulates to. And so even though at points it was tempting to remove that frame, I couldn't because that's ultimately what the film became about. And as I sought out references, one of the things I was looking to explore with memory was how filmmakers portray memory and how they allow audiences in. 

Shooting was another part of it and developing a strategy with Greg [Oke], my cinematographer, was important in determining how to differentiate points of view within the film and create an impression that adult Sophie is the overarching point of view and other points of view are secondary to that in some way. And then the final piece was the edit where we had to make this work. There are sequences in the film that I think go a long way to creating a sense of the film's memory and those really were discovered in the edit. They were initially cut to solve problems that we had with our footage, not necessarily technical problems, but just pacing problems or character challenges or whatever it was. But ultimately, it's impossible to imagine the film without those things, because I think they do go a long way to portraying the film as memory.

NOTEBOOK: When you say you were tempted to remove that framework, was that out of an impulse to avoid vulnerability or overexposure, perhaps?

WELLS: I think what is personal in the film is a relationship in a lot of ways, so that was there regardless. And I didn't think about overexposing myself because I didn't imagine anybody ever seeing the film—probably for the best during the making of it. It was more a fear that the form wouldn't hold, or that the film would not be legible. Or that what was very strange and abstract on the page—this recurring refrain of the rave, with which the original script both open and closed—would be too confusing.

NOTEBOOK: When it comes to this idea of collective memory, were you conscious of the minutiae that might resonate with people?

WELLS: That isn't something that crossed my mind when I was making the film. I was interested in representing details that I remembered. It's not that I avoided the thought, and when I read responses to the film, which occasionally I do, and people take note of details like Fanta Lemon, it makes me extraordinarily happy. And I suppose I did assume other people would connect with that aspect of it and I chose those details not because they were incredibly specific to me, but because they are shared. I mean, I didn't choose them because they are shared, but I have them because they are shared, you know. Many of us drank Fanta Lemon and ate Magnum Almonds as soon as we left British shores because they were unavailable at home. Those were the details that left an impression, the same as getting on the bus at the airport and driving in the dead of night and seeing light set into the hills and having no sense of the landscape that you're in until the sun rises in the morning.

NOTEBOOK: There are so many ways I think the film has resonated with people, not just through those specific, smaller details, but clearly in these broader emotional ways too.

WELLS: I think that's reflective of the space in the film, but I think there's also many paths through the film, in a strange, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-to-reach-the-same-conclusion kind of way. The first time we screened it in a feedback screening, collectively the room understood it far beyond what we expected. Every individual contributed some part of that; no individual stood up and articulated every nuance of the film from beginning to end, but collectively the room did.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the song choices in the film? Some of them very much play into this idea of collective memory, songs that I feel like I’ve known for my whole life.

WELLS: There were different strands to that. I had a playlist that I worked from that included some songs that I had a desire to include, some of which I did, and some of which just never found the right place. I think in a film this quiet, it's so easy to read into the lyrics when they are prominent and that's a real problem often. And so sometimes you can lean into that and sometimes you can lean away, but it's a difficult thing to navigate. My editor, Blair McClendon, chose songs from that playlist and from one that our music supervisor, Lucy Bright, put together. Blair doesn't care about British pop music at all so he would choose songs that served the scene. And then there were other really surprising, unexpected discoveries, like “Under Pressure” which I had no intention of using in this film and is probably the track that does the most heavy lifting. 

NOTEBOOK: That’s a song that I’ve probably heard a million times but I’d never really read the lyrics properly. I definitely leaned into the lyrics there—“love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night.” It’s perfect. The use of “Losing My Religion” too.

WELLS: That was one that was in the script. I was asked to come up with alternatives in case we couldn't clear it and I really struggled. I really struggled to come up with something else that felt appropriate. And that was where the lyrics felt most present, for obvious reasons, but that isn't why I chose the song, I didn't choose it for his lyrics. I chose it because it was probably the first song I ever knew all the lyrics to, but maybe some subconscious part of my brain knew that it would also be appropriate.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned your editor, Blair McClendon, and I’m perhaps most interested by the rhythm and pacing of the film. There are a lot of longer takes, moments where the film really lingers in a scene and you feel this great sense of presence in the moment. There are also some shorter, quicker cuts that create a more jagged cadence. How did you think about crafting this rhythm in the edit?

WELLS: Some transitions were scripted. I also work as an editor of more commercial content, but I think in cuts and I write in cuts sometimes, and pre-lap and post-lap sound. The sequence where they arrive at the hotel and he's on the phone, and then it cuts to him tying her laces but the phone conversation carries over, that was also scripted. There were moments like that where I had a sense of the flow and transitions between the scenes. And I think a lot about transitions, and my cinematographer presses me to think a lot about transitions even at the script stage. 

Otherwise, it was just the work of editing. I mean, the first cut was two and a half hours, and it was very straightforwardly representative of the script and included every scene we shot and was a mess. And then it was shaping it, and it took a lot of experimentation to find its pace. The end is almost unchanged from the assembly and by the end, I mean, the last forty minutes of the film, it just always worked and flowed. It was always the first half, two thirds, that caused us the most problems and took the most tries to give the audience confidence that we knew where we were going, even though they did not. I think you also have to hope your audience is content just to watch these two people with great chemistry be on holiday together because that is what the opening of the film is. You're planting things and you're setting up arcs, many arcs, that you'll come back to, but you're asking the audience just to be with them for a good while. And just creating sequences that flowed. If they lingered, they lingered for a really good reason, like the smoking on the balcony at the beginning to kind of pull the audience along.

NOTEBOOK: There are lots of moments like that scene where we see Calum from behind or through a window or in a mirror. It’s apparent why we’re seeing him in this reflective way, but I was curious about your take on shooting the character like this, like he’s behind a veil almost.

WELLS: Yeah, that was with much intention. For me, those scenes of Calum alone are to some degree imagined, maybe imagined and informed by information acquired later or some vague sense of, maybe Sophie's asleep, and she vaguely hears the door open, and what might he have been doing. And so to communicate that—not that we expected an audience to be able to articulate per se what we were doing—but to create that impression, we decided to shoot Calum held more at arm's length than anything else in the film, which meant physical distance between the camera and him, which meant wider-angle lenses, which meant shooting through mirrors, or glass, or allowing walls to obstruct our view of him so that he is never seen clearly. Even at the end, as he sits on the bed sobbing, he is shot from behind. That one’s interesting because on the page he was facing the window and framed from behind and silhouetted because it would have looked very pretty, but Greg argued, rightly, that we shouldn't be chasing pretty shots when there was a more appropriate shot for the character and the moment in the film, which was to box him in against a wall. It is, as it happens, a gorgeous shot in the end, but we were determined to shoot him in that way because it was important to us that ultimately Calum does remain unknowable. I'm sure there are some audiences that are frustrated by that but that is the journey of the film; it ultimately doesn't matter or negate what is knowable about him.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask about the way the film merges a coming-of-age narrative for Sophie with this more nostalgic, emotional portrait of her father. Why was it important for these stories to work together?

WELLS: It’s an interesting question because I was never sure if that would work, and whether I was making two films and not one. Because the coming-of-age arc existed even in the most removed, fictional, conventional version of the story, and it endured, and it was always very clear, and it was never problematic, or difficult to understand. And there were more nuanced moments that I wasn't always sure whether I was effectively communicating. But it was legible because we're very used to seeing that type of story onscreen. It just always felt right to keep it in. Of the many things the film is about, one was this idea of shared joy and private melancholy, or individual experiences not being mutually exclusive with a different type of shared experience. And so the arc with the teens and Michael and some sense of a burgeoning awareness of body and sexuality endured, and those were details I was interested in capturing just as much as the Fanta Lemon.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about working with Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal on drawing out these nuances?

WELLS: They're both really good. I had a sense of what I was looking for in performance, which is funny because I knew at the time as we did take after take after take that I would eventually be in the edit room and have no idea why I wanted another take. And that was absolutely true. But in the moment, you're attuned to absolutely every gesture and inflection and piece of the environment on screen. It was always about pursuing a fairly natural performance and pattern of speech, it was about giving Frankie the space to be as comfortable as possible in front of the camera and capturing the playfulness that they had, that the teens had with Frankie too, and trying to capture some of that onscreen. 

We were also under so much intense pressure with time because Frankie is a child. There often wasn't that much time to really play with performance but when we did, and when we could, it was a lot of fun. It was really satisfying. It felt like time slowed down just for a moment when you had the opportunity to give a different intention or try something new or ask one to surprise the other in some way. Or just to let the camera roll and see what happened after the scene reached its natural kind of script conclusion. With the karaoke scene, I have been curious these past few days to ask Frankie a little about how conscious she was of the journey that she takes the audience on, but I'm a little afraid to so I haven't yet. I am afraid to have her overthink what she does.

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