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Within Memory: Writer/Director Charlotte Wells on Aftersun

Frankie Cario and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.Frankie Cario and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.

Charlotte Wells has been saying that her first feature, which she calls “emotionally autobiographical,” was inspired by leafing through a family album and realizing how young her father was when she was born. A bittersweet aura permeates Aftersun, in which Sophie, just turned 11, spends a week before the start of term with her father, 30-going-on-31 Calum, on vacation at a Turkish hotel, just across the road from the all-inclusive resort where they sneak food from the buffet. Like Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) in Sofia Coppola’s similarly liminal and hotel-set Somewhere, Calum’s arm is initially in a cast—the presumed vestige of a mysterious drinking injury—and father and daughter interact tentatively and tenderly around the gaping void of a lifetime of misunderstanding.

Sophie is played by Scottish newcomer Frankie Corio, cast from an open call, and the moody Calum is Paul Mescal, whose boyishly unformed face would not be out of place among the lads in Blur on tour circa “Girls & Boys.” (The film is set in the time of Wells’s own childhood, with a soundtrack full of Cool Britannia signifiers: Catatonia, the Lightning Seeds, Steps, All Saints, Chumbawamba.) While the older teens make out and shout “lager, lager, lager,” Paul and Sophie lounge poolside and play in the arcade. Sophie carries a camcorder, turning the present into memories that she reflects on as an adult in flash-forward sequences. Calum practices tai chi, to his daughter’s embarrassment; on a day tour to the ancient Pamukkale mud baths, Sophie starts to goof around and mirror his mannerisms, so he takes the opportunity to teach her some poses. So much of the movie is contained in this interaction: the genuine affection between the two, filtered through play; the realization that this is what growing up is, that you start out imitating your parents, not knowing where it will lead, and begin to think you’ve been tricked.

The Scotland-born, New York–based Wells was developing Aftersun when she was named one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for 2018 on the strength of her student shorts Tuesday (2015), about a child of divorce visiting her father’s flat; Laps (2016), about a subway groping; and Blue Christmas (2017), a period story inspired by her family history. Like Eliza Hittman, Wells and her colleagues— including Aftersun’s DP Gregory Oke and editor Blair McClendon—apply the sensual and elliptical style of a Claire Denis or Lucrecia Martel to more quotidian and domestic stories. (Wells also happily acknowledges the influence of another first feature shot in the Mediterranean by a British filmmaker concerned with family and memory, Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated.) But at the same time, Aftersun takes a couple of big emotional swings, particularly on the soundtrack: A crucial scene hinges on R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and “Under Pressure” plays during one of the strobe-lit rave club fantasy scenes that hint at Calum’s inner recklessness and darkness.

A film of intimate sensitivity and gut-punching scope, Aftersun was a programming coup for Ava Cahen in her first year as artistic director of Cannes Critics’ Week, where it had its world premiere to popular acclaim. A24 bought the film at the festival, and Wells has been doing the fall festival circuit ahead of a theatrical release beginning October 21.

Filmmaker: It occurred to me at a certain point in preparing for this interview just how many things you do in Aftersun that you would probably try to talk a first-time feature filmmaker out of attempting. This movie stars an 11-year-old child, who had never acted before and is nearly in every scene. It’s a period film shot in a foreign country with important scenes written around specific songs. So, I wanted to go back to where it all began, with film school and your shorts, to see how you developed as a filmmaker to the point where you could take this on. You were initially on the producing track at NYU, a dual MFA/MBA. Did you learn anything on that that was useful for getting this project going?

Wells: I mean, what I learned is, I wanted to direct movies. I came into film school wanting to produce and finished as—I actually don’t know what I graduated as. NYU doesn’t really do that so much. But yeah, I went in with the intention of producing, with some kind of intellectual conviction that producing would satisfy my many interests. [I started] in the business school, and then, in the course of being in the film school in the second year, I directed a film and it all shifted from there. I had a really amazing collaboration with my DP on that film and with the crew. I found it creatively satisfying beyond anything I felt was really possible. It’s like I found the thing I never really thought I’d find.

The fact that I started at producing isn’t irrelevant to the fact that I wrote something that was so ambitious in a lot of practical ways, all the ones you mentioned. Because I do strongly believe in not writing and producing at the same time—you know, like not producing while I’m writing, not trying to write something that is very achievable with very little. I wrote the story as I felt it, and fortunately had producers who were behind me. That comes down to not being afraid to write what’s necessary for this story, and then having a team who believed in it sufficiently to support making all those parts of it come together. [I] built those relationships after being introduced to them through shorts, through the network of MBA [and] MFA colleagues who are out in the world, well positioned to help me in development roles and [at] financing companies, to introduce me to people, which is how I met my producer [Adele Romanski]—you know, the snowball effect of meeting to meeting to meeting.

Filmmaker: Tuesday is pretty similar in a lot of ways to Aftersun. There’s a central father/daughter relationship, a troubled child of divorce holding space for an absent dad and imagining or wishing she’d tried to care for him. It opens with her mending a sweater. Later, she goes and restrings a guitar. So, she’s fixing things. But in Aftersun, you’ve left Edinburgh and added this framing perspective. It seems like a development or extrapolation from that initial dynamic.

Wells: I think of Tuesday, and also Blue Christmas, as the foundation on which this film was built in ways I realized—and in many ways that I didn’t until much later, [like] when I realized I had stolen the ending from Blue Christmas, and my editor thought I was crazy for not having realized that from the second that I wrote it. I think I’m chasing similar things each time. I had no idea what I was doing on Tuesday at all, but immediately, as soon as I was on set and working with Sam [Grandchamp], my friend who shot it, I was really drawn to the visual possibilities of working with the camera to tell a story.

In Tuesday, I’m thinking specifically about the last shot, where she leaves and the camera floats through the road and catches up with her at the window. It’s funny, this directing thing—that was just an idea that I had, and it wasn’t based on having seen a lot of films at that point. It was reaching to express something and discovering through film and the camera that suddenly I had the tools to do it, that they were at my disposal. Tuesday, on a surface level, is also about grief. I suppose at that point in life I was thinking back and dealing with the death of my father. Shortly before shooting, I saw [Agustina Comedi’s] Silence is a Falling Body. It is a doc, a woman’s exploration of her father and footage that he shot, both of her childhood and of this former life that she discovered after his death. It has an amazing scene at the end that opens up the film back on her that was kind of amazing when thinking about making this film. It was a really interesting point of reference so close to production.

Craftwise, I don’t know. I think Aftersun feels like such a huge step forward. We had so much more time and, with Greg[ory Oke], who shot it, we were really able to put in the work to think about how we wanted to shoot it, how we wanted to communicate each perspective and point of view, while holding this overarching adult Sophie frame. But starting to fracture fantasy and reality was something that I first touched on in Blue Christmas.

Filmmaker: In both Tuesday and Laps, you’re doing a lot of handheld, in Laps especially. It’s very claustrophobic, and I imagine that a lot of the subway shots were probably stolen. The style of Aftersun maintains the intimate and somewhat snatched glimpses, but it feels more drawn out in its editing rhythms. I guess maybe that’s a false impression based on the brevity of short films versus a feature. But it seems like your sense of pacing has maybe changed at feature length?

Wells: Laps actually wasn’t handheld. Laps was all shot on the tripod on the subway. It’s frantic, and the cutting is very fast, but it was shot on sticks by Greg. And Laps is funny: It sits a little bit outside of the other two as far as Aftersun is concerned, but it was my first collaboration with Greg and takes place in the New York City subway, which gives it such an intense feeling. But it’s also relevant, especially in the moments where it plays with whether something is really happening as you’re seeing it or if it’s not.

I think my taste changed. I started watching a lot more. We all did, and by we, I mean Greg and Blair [McClendon], my editor. We went to film school together: Greg worked on all my shorts in different capacities—he production designed Blue Christmas beautifully—and Blair and I started working together from Laps. So, our tastes all evolved. Mine certainly did. Greg started watching a lot of Taiwanese New Wave films, and I think that started to influence how long we were interested in holding shots, though I think I have a natural inclination toward that. Some of that is in Tuesday, now I come to think about it—using duration for a purpose, like having her sit on the couch at the end and wondering, how long is it right to hold it, and how long do I think I can hold it from an audience perspective? The first cut of Aftersun was two and a half hours long, and I was willing to sit on that bus with them from the airport to the hotel for 10 minutes. And my producer said, “Never deliver a cut of this film over two hours ever again.” But I like watching, you know? I like taking time, I like watching people thinking, which is always something Blair is very cognizant of. There’s something so compelling about looking for those moments where actors really seem like they’re thinking. So, I think it was just a natural evolution of making and watching films, gravitating toward what you like and what serves the story. Duration serves different stories in different ways.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about vacation films and the overlaps between organizing the logistics of a production and planning a vacation for a trip, and about how you wrote for locations and found locations, and if the script had to change around the geography of what you had in front of you—the layout of the resorts, the pools, the cabanas.

Wells: We did a scout down the southwest coast of Turkey and covered many different places. Ultimately, you realize you’re chasing, and what we found ourselves chasing were three things that ultimately drew me to the town that we shot in. One was that I just found myself chasing the two-shot that I had in the script, when his arm is in the bucket after he’s cut it trying to take off his cast. She was originally on the bed, and three seconds before shooting, we put her in the chair because it was a better shot. But I had this idea of this two-shot, and it felt really important. I don’t know that it holds. It works and it’s beautiful. It felt more important in this script, somehow, but I was chasing the ability to shoot that shot, and rooms in these types of hotels aren’t big. We found this room that would serve this shot in this hotel. So, that was one thing. The other is that this town where we shot was filled with paragliders, which was amazing and felt like it would really enhance the feeling of the film. They’re just there all the time. You don’t need to pay for 150 paragliders to descend every day; there are just this constant stream of them, cruising through the sky and skimming mountains. Then, when we were looking at hotels there, we came across this small pool with the skylight for the kiss between the two kids. That was originally written as though the others were kind of hidden around the bushes around a smaller outdoor pool, and they would emerge from the greenery at the end. Then, we came across this location and saw the possibility. Greg brought his 16mm camera with him, and we shot a little bit thinking about the possibility of the reflection and how we would shoot that kiss.

Those are the deciding factors for why we shot where we did—and then, of course, the hotel. Once it came to the resort, we were lucky. One of the hardest parts of filmmaking for me is, sometimes I have a very clear shot in mind, but it dissipates the second I try to reach for it in a meaningful way. I think it’s clear, but it isn’t really clear. Like the reflection shot in the TV, where the DV is linked up to real time, then the plug gets pulled. I had a very clear idea of the layout of the room that isn’t really a room that exists when you try to articulate it. It requires a strange L shape. But in the end, the rest of that scene plays out in a reflection rather than just in a fraction offscreen, which is how it was written—which is infinitely, infinitely better. It’s the reflection that makes that so special.

We were able to build a lot of spaces. The bathroom in the film is like a bathroom inside a bathroom. The tiling, everything was designed by us and by Billur [Turan], our production designer. The hotel room was also a room within a room. We had a lot of control over the spaces. Working with a Turkish crew, there were lots of challenges with working in a culture that takes some time to understand and adapt to, but there’s also this amazing ability to accomplish anything. The game room is actually a restaurant. She built this amazing three-dimensional mural on the wall of this ancient site. I love this idea of having an ancient site represented in foam inside a resort. Why go to the real place when you can have it on the wall next to the pool table, you know? Which was also inspired by some of the locations that we saw. I realized on this shoot location is one of the most creative jobs in filmmaking, in a way I hadn’t appreciated before.

Filmmaker: My totally uninformed impression was that it wouldn’t have been hard to find a place in Turkey with 25-year-old arcade games.

Wells: Those arcade games were extremely hard to find. Then, once we had the original arcade games, we couldn’t shoot them anyway because the screens operated 25 frames a second, so the whole thing is totally out of sync.

Filmmaker: So, that’s why we never see the games play.

Wells: That’s why we never see the two games in the corner play, because the screens would be flickering like crazy and we couldn’t shoot the whole film at 25 or 30 [frames per second].

Filmmaker: I also wonder if there’s different licensing for content than the apparatus.

Wells: There is, and my producers would love to discuss that at length with you.

Filmmaker: This is, I assume, the largest set you’ve ever led.

Wells: Yeah.

Filmmaker: How do you even go about doing that?

Wells: We worked with a production services company in Turkey that often works on international projects. What made the production culture aspect difficult was that we had Frankie, and Frankie was bound to her local Scottish council’s rules regarding when she could work, and they were very strict. They required a lot of accommodation in a way that I think is different than if you had a child actor in Turkey. So, we couldn’t 100 percent operate on a Turkish production schedule, because everything was centered around Frankie. Ideally, when you go to another country, you play by their rules, but the production had to center around Frankie, which made it really challenging for everybody. Our AD spent so long getting the schedule right to accommodate having her on camera for four hours a day, which included mic-ing up, talking to me, rehearsals. That was the most challenging part of it. Otherwise, I didn’t really know anybody, and in the end, I knew many people. It was a great crew. Everybody worked extraordinarily hard under difficult COVID circumstances. We came over with five of us—two producers, me, my DP, costume designer—and everybody else was Turkish.

Filmmaker: You talked earlier about the camcorder-in-the-mirror scene at the exact halfway point of the film, and we return to the opening shot. It’s this crucial moment where Sophie asks Calum what he thought his life would be like when he was her age. It’s playing on the hotel TV, next to which is a stack of paperbacks, and among all of Calum’s books on meditation there is a collection of the writings of Margaret Tait.

Wells: I actually discovered the work of Margaret Tait relatively recently. I think Blue Black Permanent was on MUBI a few years ago. A friend asked if I’d seen it, and I hadn’t. I was aware of her name—the Glasgow Film Festival has an award with her name attached to it—but I really didn’t know her work. She was the first woman to direct a narrative feature film in Scotland, in 1992, right at the end of her career. At that point, she had been working alone in this studio in Edinburgh making her own films, portraits of people from Orkney, where she was from. There is a really interesting history of Scottish filmmakers who were out on their own, who had very strong artistic intentions and beliefs, who didn’t always make it through the system, like Bill Douglas and [Bill] Forsyth. It’s a cool cinematic lineage to have, and as I got to know Margaret Tait’s work, of which there’s a lot, it felt like a nice nod.

Filmmaker: On the soundtrack, for both “Losing My Religion” and “Under Pressure,” was there a plan B for those scenes?

Wells: No. I mean, I was asked for a plan B. It was really hard to find a plan B for those tracks. “Losing My Religion” was obviously an early conversation that was cleared before we shot it. What’s so tough about using music, as I learned on this, is that there is going to be a temptation to overread every single lyric in every single song that you place in a film, especially a film like this. And it’s really tricky what you’re willing to invite, because sometimes you just like a song, and it feels so on the nose. Even [with] Catatonia[’s “Road Rage,”] it was a very happy accident in the edit that that ended up running over the pan of the vista from the hotel room and the lyrics in the song. The timing falls away at exactly the right moment and in the right place, but I’m also aware how forced that can feel. And I think we were always dancing a really delicate line in so many ways with music and lyrics, especially. But “Losing My Religion,” I didn’t even overthink. It was always in the script. It’s a song I knew word for word as a kid, and when I was asked to find alts, it was tough to find something that felt right.

“Under Pressure” was really different because I had no intention of including that song in the film in any preconceived way. It was just in the edit one night. I pulled it in and I don’t know why, it may even have been as a joke. I blared it on top of our temp score, and it immediately worked. And it was, as somebody who watched it and provided some notes on the cut said, “A capital C choice.” Again, it was a really fine line. Can we get away with lyrics that are so unbelievably literal? I tend to shy away from that, but I think at a certain point you have to be willing to commit to an earnestness. It wasn’t clear if we would be able to clear that, and it is to the infinite credit of our music supervisor, Lucy Bright, that we did. But I have no idea what we would’ve done [if she didn’t]—but you know, that’s not true. There were versions of just score that I think could’ve carried through—you have some music in the hotel, then it just peels back to score. Ultimately, that’s what it would’ve been: It wouldn’t have been another song, just score.

Filmmaker: This movie has a very specific cultural context in that it’s about a British family on a Mediterranean packaged vacation, which does have a minor cinematic canon. The movie that I thought of most was Morvern Callar, particularly the nightclub scenes.

Wells: Morvern Callar is a strong point of reference for those nightclub scenes. I’ve definitely been through them frame by frame. These were the types of holidays I was on growing up, these packaged holidays. One thing that always fascinated me about these holidays is that the greatest cultural transference seemed to be within people from [the same places]—for me personally, as a kid, meeting other people from the UK and Ireland and learning about other places much closer to home than the place that you’re in. There’s a very limited opportunity on these types of holidays to meaningfully engage with the culture specific to where you are, whether that’s Turkey or Portugal or Greece, and that was something I wanted to depict. In the script, this idea that these hotels that confine them was stronger than it ultimately is in the film. Some of the resorts that we visited have a stronger feeling of that than others. There’s two locations within the film, but we shot across many, many more hotels than that to piece them together.

I was interested in this idea of these people getting on a plane, being dropped off in the same place and really not breaking out of that but, at a certain point in the story, letting them out into the expanse, the beauty of the location. In the end, that breaks out a little bit sooner because it served the cut and story better, and I wasn’t going to hold onto that idea if it wasn’t ultimately serving the film. I had many great times in places like this as a kid and wanted to depict some of the specific memories—the feeling of walking at night, these lights on the ground, the heat in the air, that feeling of summer. That’s why I was happy to sit on that bus for 10 minutes in the beginning of the film, because for me, that is such a striking memory of those holidays: looking at these lights go by, and you have no context for where you are because it’s dark, and you have this anticipation of what’s ahead, but also, the knowledge that in a week you’ll be sitting on that same bus returning home.

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