Director Charlotte Wells On Aftersun, Paul Mescal And The ‘Under Pressure’ Sequence

"When we put together the first assembly cut, there was much about the film that did not yet work, but the ending always did," says the Scottish filmmaker
Director Charlotte Wells On Aftersun, Paul Mescal And The ‘Under Pressure’ Sequence

There’s a sadness lurking at the edges of Aftersun, director Charlotte Wells’s heartwarming tale of a father-daughter vacation so lovingly rendered that it turns heartwrenching in hindsight. It’s imperceptible at first. The film is composed of endless sunlit frames as each lazy day slips languidly into the next. Calum (Paul Mescal, who has been nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards) and 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) lounge by the hotel pool, apply suntan lotion on each other and watch paragliders float across the sky. It’s only when the film’s framing device is revealed — the now-adult Sophie desperately reaching back into her youth, overwriting the once-fond memory of a holiday with the furious urgency of being able to remember it, compulsively scouring scenes for signs she missed as a child — that Aftersun reveals itself to be a devastating ode to loss. Loosely basing the film on her own childhood, Wells doesn’t fill in all the gaps between past and present but her rich character studies contain enough detail that, like Sophie, we find ourselves straining to piece together the jagged fragments of a memory, realising too late how deep they’ve cut. Calum became a father young — strangers mistake him and Sophie for siblings — which accounts for their strong bond, but also his gnawing guilt at being unable to give her a more comfortable life. Sophie is now the age he was, and a parent herself, but this point in her future has brought her right back to the past, to the questions she’ll never have answers to. 

Wells, who directed three short films before her debut feature, talks about toggling between different timelines and visual mediums, setting Aftersun in the Nineties and that devastating ending: 

What I love about the movie is that it really prods you to see your parent as a person in their own right, which can sometimes be really hard to do. What was the starting point for this idea?

There were a couple of different ones. My first short film, Tuesday (2015), was in the same world, just expressing the same feeling of grief. And I think I realised once I had finished that, that I still had more to say. It was toward the end of film school and I was thinking a little bit more consciously about what this feature was. I was flipping through holiday albums and was struck by how young my dad looked on the holidays that I was with him. I was approaching the age he was. And it’s exactly what you said, that when you’re a kid, you confine the adults in your life to the role that they perform for you, and it’s really hard to see them aside from that. As the memory framing of the film came in, it became an opportunity to reflect on that and to reevaluate an experience from a new point of view. I was thinking about what that experience was like for him as well. 

Director Charlotte Wells On Aftersun, Paul Mescal And The ‘Under Pressure’ Sequence
Aftersun Review: Sublime, Heartwarming And Heartbreaking

A lot of the film toggles between reality, the filmed version of that reality, and memory. You see some conversations through Sophie’s camcorder and some in reflective surfaces like a television screen, which reminds you that you’re watching the echo of a moment and not the moment itself. What kind of conversations did you have with your cinematographer?

Many. Many extensive conversations. It probably took us an hour per page to even sketch out a shot list. I think reflections play into memory very nicely. I think (cinematographer) Gregory (Oke) too is drawn towards shooting things through surfaces. The television was in the script, and the reflection didn't originally play out in the TV - the idea was that they’d be offscreen, but the geography of the room wasn’t set up in a way that would’ve allowed that shot, and so instead Greg found a positioning that allowed for the camera to be turned off and then for you to see them on the bed, which was obviously much better. And then you have Frankie, saying, “I’ll just record you in my mind camera,” which was very much a line that she came up with. There’s just so many layers of memory and perspective and refraction and abstraction.

Other conversations are focused on point of view and meant to communicate that adult Sophie is the overarching point of view in the film, and within that, there are these secondary points of view like young Sophie’s direct point of view, she’s logging memories that will later be images in fragments, like a hand over the sunbed, or a earring. And then there are these shots of Calum alone, where we held him at arm’s length, we shot him from a greater physical distance and also obstructed him from view, shot his back, shot parts of him coming in and out of frame, but never too clearly, because you could never see him ever looking back too clearly.

Frankie’s a gifted actress. How did you find her and how did you work with her to build this character?

We found her from a pool of around 800 kids. We had a flier and we just sent it everywhere that we could. It was during the height of the second wave of Covid, and so it was hard to get access to the types of spaces you’d normally look to cast. We asked these kids to do various exercises over the course of casting and it culminated in meeting 16 in person in February 2021 in Glasgow. And Frankie just had this amazing ability to act, to move between different emotional states and moods, and never carry something over once the exercise ended. I think that’s a really special skill.

Then it was just about really giving her the space, giving her the space and the comfort and allowing her to build a relationship with Paul, so that she was able to do that in front of the camera. Working with kids is always unpredictable and there’s always a stress around how limited their hours are, but Frankie always surprised us in the best ways. And Paul really enjoyed working with her too. It was nice to have a combination of a professional actor and someone who had never done it before. They both learned from each other.

With Paul, we had conversations on the phone leading up to his arrival in Turkey. It was important that we had laid the groundwork ahead of time. I told him what my understanding and idea of the character’s backstory was, and specifically how I imagined he was struggling. I offered that as a foundation and then gave control of that character to Paul to bring to life to and to build a version of that character that he could access, and that he empathised with. It’s really nice when I hear Paul talk about the character because he talks about him with such love in a way that I don’t often hear actors speak of their characters.

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun.
Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun.

There are these moments in the film, where you really see this facade of Calum trying to be the perfect father crumble a little bit, whether it’s him not wanting to do karaoke with Sophie, or him not reacting well when people are singing happy birthday to him. To me, one that was really jarring was when he is passed out on the hotel bed naked and then Sophie walks in. How did you calibrate the scale of these moments?

It’s an interesting question, because it’s walking a very fine line in the film, and it was a huge challenge in the script writing process - having to unveil his struggle slowly and coherently over the course of the film. I wrote out every scene on an index card and I just lay down on the floor at the end. But I began with just scenes of Calum alone, so that I had a really clear sense in my head of what first starts to clue the audience in on what might be wrong or even the idea that something is wrong, that this isn’t quite as straightforward as it looks on the surface. And then it was thinking about how that would unfold over the course of each day on the holiday. Then I had to think about how we’d organise the shoot in terms of the days we had. When we got to the edit there was a little bit of finessing and rearranging to be able to do that effectively. And it was the challenge of the edit, just as it was in the writing, to get that balance right. 

A lot of the scenes, hotel room scenes between Calum and Sophie, play out in complete silence. Why was that important?

A lot of it is memory. And that feeling tends to inspire more uncorrupted dialogue or specific details. And so the silence in many of those scenes is feeling versus wording the specifics of a given moment, whether it’s the feeling of him applying cleanser to her face with cotton wool, or the feeling of laying in his lap as she goes to sleep. It’s about capturing an impression of a moment that may have been remembered.

I have to ask you about the soundtrack because it’s so full of these 90s gems like Macarena and then Losing my Religion. How did you curate it?

It was a combination of playlists I’d been working with and building up for years, trying to sneak in some tracks I loved, seeing if they fit. Often they didn’t, and I just had to let them go. My editor is American, and does not care for British pop music from the 1990s, so he would just grab stuff from that playlist, and from a playlist that our music supervisor Lucy Bright put together, and throw it in. It was often really well-placed, because he wasn’t tracing a feeling of nostalgia or pursuing a track that he had some personal connection to. He was always very focused on serving the scene and nothing else. There were some things that were just very happy accidents. ‘Under Pressure’ is one of those songs that I never imagined being filmed and brought in on a whim one night and it worked in a very unexpected way. But I always knew that music was going to be essential to this as an indicator of period, as an assessor of mood, and it was a lot of fun and very fortunate to capture that one.

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun.
Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun.

I was going to ask you about ‘Under Pressure’, because it’s such a stunning use of song and the whole climax is incredible. Was the sequence shot the way it was on paper, or did it change?

Yeah, that’s one of the moments in the film that’s almost exactly as it was written. I mean it was written in a way that was probably quite hard to follow, honestly, because it cut back and forth between the hotel and the rave. But, it’s very close to as it was written, and it’s actually quite close to the climax of my last short film, which is also a dance sequence and also fractures a kind of fantasy of sorts. It was always my favourite part of that film. I wondered whether this framing device of Sophie at a rave was going to work and the answer had to be yes because I could never figure out another way to end this film. All of it was ultimately about reaching that moment and that feeling. So I’m glad that it worked, and when we put together the first assembly cut, there was much about the film that did not yet work, but the ending always did. And so it became, ‘How do you build toward that? How do you earth that moment? How do you have people sufficiently invested at that point that they really feel something when they see that unfold?’

What part of the assembly cut didn’t work?

It didn't work because it was two-and-a-half hours long, and our producer said, ‘Please never deliver a cut that is over two hours for this film, specifically, ever again.’ It was just very clumsy. It was every single scene that we shot in script order without any shaping. And then we cut things that were extraneous, there were some scenes that just didn’t fit quite within the world of the film, for whatever reason. Our editor, Blair McClendon, came up with the idea of letting the dialogue flow over into music, which he first used in the sky sequence. We reused that in other parts of the film that had caused us problems for a long time. One of those was after the characters are in the carpet shop, they come back to the hotel, she goes off to spend some time with the teens, he’s practicing tai-chi in his bedroom. For a long time, that scene was incredibly challenging, just for a variety of practical reasons. It didn’t quite fit together, and that was another place that Blair applied this strategy of allowing music to pull the audience through this sequence that felt a bit more impressionistic. And that’s where the film starts to do quite well and we start to feel it turn because it really does create a sensation of memory and looking back and something not quite flowing.

So much of editing wasn’t done at a keyboard. It was Blair and I staring at index cards on the wall, discussing what moments should be in and how arcs were paced and played out over the course of the film. It was very much a talking exercise and a thinking exercise, than it was a technical exercise. Early on, there was a cut that made it seem like this was Calum’s story, and we realised it was simply because we were opening and closing on Calum’s face in almost every scene. Once we shifted that, which was a really minor shift in practical terms, it re-oriented the story around Sophie, which is where it should have been all along.

I know that the film draws on your childhood and the details of your growing up. While you were shooting it, did it cause you to see things in a different light? And conversely, did translating your memories to film help you see the role of cinema as a preservation tool differently?

Yeah, it’s interesting. Memories are so amorphous. Even as they’re in your mind, when you try to recreate them, you’re adding a thousand more. And I was very conscious not to overwrite memories that I had by recreating them. I didn’t want to be thinking back to moments that meant something to me, and see the film instead of whatever it is that is preserved in my mind of that experience. So there were some things that I tried to block off and other things I failed to block off, so that is now my experience. And I think more than anything, what I said earlier stands true, which is that feeling is more enduring than the specific details. And that I preserved to some degree in making this.

Related Stories

No stories found.