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  • “What happens when a person leaves or dies?” Charlotte Wells on her new movie, Aftersun


“What happens when a person leaves or dies?” Charlotte Wells on her new movie, Aftersun

Starring Paul Mescal in his most sophisticated role so far, 'Aftersun' has been collecting accolades thick and fast. We caught up with director Charlotte Wells at its Berlin premiere.


Given Aftersun’s subtle linearity and its pure cinema sensibilities, do you find it challenging to retrace the intent behind it?

I find it really challenging because the film is ultimately an expression of feeling. So much work went into constructing it – years of thought and collaboration. And it does feel strange to articulate the thought that went into building it, somehow reducing it to these affable elements that get summarised in a short conversation. These understandings are in a lot of ways hard-won realisations that now sound like they have such a straightforward intent. I don’t know that I could fully express how they were arrived at because it was such a long and extensive process.

The film is realistic in its depiction of a 1990s childhood but never falls into the trap of retromania or on-the-nose nostalgia. Were you conscious of potential pitfalls during the film’s production?

The camera is a textural and temporal element. It is also, more crucially, a perspective element.

I was very conscious of this. I don’t think everybody agrees that I succeeded, but I did my best to portray the period in a way that felt authentic. And there were details I didn’t include as a result, for example, a shot of a Walkman on a table that felt like it would have been signalling too much. Most signalling comes from the music, which was a choice. The film was always set in that particular period because that was when I was growing up, and that’s what I was interested in depicting. It didn’t come from arbitrarily setting it in the 1990s because that era has become part of the public consciousness again.

The era itself has become a meme…

Exactly. Although our costume designer was really specific to the era. It was interesting because he’s a little older than me, more of a peer to Callum than to Sophie (Aftersun’s characters), and he has such an eye for detail. He would buy new stuff and then replace collars or adjust sleeves to make sure that they were accurate. In terms of thinking of references from the 1990s, it didn’t ever occur to me to watch stuff from that era. What my director of photography, Gregory Oke, used were our childhood holiday photographs. Those were the basis of period references in terms of colour, wardrobe and in terms of sunlight. Everything emerged from the photographs.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in ‘Aftersun’. Image: A24.

There’s a sequence in which we see a pile of books including Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent. You’ve spoken about how its film adaptation and Tait have influenced you. Do you identify with a particular Scottish sensibility?

Scotland has a pretty amazing lineage of filmmakers. In many cases they were working without industry support and were independent-minded. Margaret Tait, Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth… Forsyth stopped making films because he was so disillusioned by the industry. And Lynne Ramsay was certainly a big part of my film discovery and education. It’s pretty special to have a group of people to be able to look to for reference and inspiration, even though the trajectory of many of those people seems like a highly frustrated one.

Your work shares Lynne Ramsay’s approach to showing memory, grief, and time. How much of an influence was she on you?

Lynne Ramsey’s shorts were among the first that I saw. They’re so good. Those were some of my earliest inspirations in terms of images. Her specificity is the basis of memory images. I’m still not sure how she does it because she does it so, so well and with her own eye. I don’t seek to emulate her because that’s a fool’s errand when you’re dealing with masters of the craft, but she’s certainly always in mind.

The VCR footage is beautiful. Not only does it create textural temporalities, but it also provides another narrative perspective from which to understand the unspoken elements of the characters’ experience. Was it something you had in mind from the get-go?

The camera is a textural and temporal element. It is also, more crucially, a perspective element. And perspective was one of the hardest pieces of my understanding of the script in terms of what I was doing with it and the rules around it – just for my own clarity. The Digital Video offered a direct point of view, or as direct as you can get. I was interested in how the characters saw each other, how their vision of each other might contradict their vision of themselves and the tension that created within their relationship. The DV was a really interesting tool because you could have Sophie record Callum and then he could play it back out of her view and see how she perceives him. He finds solace in it in one moment, and then later in the film does not. It seemed like a useful and interesting layer to have.

Image: A24

In a passing moment, immense emotions are shown – but the other person doesn’t see it.

Yes. It’s also this idea of memory and of holding different sides of a shared experience – what happens when one person leaves or dies? You’re left holding that experience by yourself. And I think the DV also, in a way, represents that single point of view of a moment where there were multiple points of view, you know?

How did you find the task of directing a child? Frankie Corio is mesmerising.

It was easy… and fun. The language around methods of acting isn’t present with a kid, you’re just talking and encouraging them to play. There’s so much pressure on a film set… it forced me to be really present and push all of that out in moments where she was struggling, because her feeling the pressure was never going to be constructive. That did force me to just slow down and breathe and forget about the ticking clock and help her through when she needed it. The rest of the time, it was about providing an environment that was as open and fun as possible for her to give the performance that we knewthat she could, without feeling like she was working. Frankie is a kid. I wanted that character to feel like a kid.

Perspective was one of the hardest pieces of my understanding of the script

The way score, soundtrack, and sound design interplay adds another textural layer to the film. Oliver Coates’s score is stunning – how did you come across his work?

He’s amazing. I knew that Greg, my cinematographer, was a big fan and I was familiar with some of the stuff that he had done with Mica Levi. In the beginning I wasn’t sure on I would include a score – I never had before. But one week into production, I knew I needed to. It then took a really long time to hone in on the right type of sound for the film.

I remember spending three days just playing music that didn’t really work, and then Blair [McClendon], my editor, asked me to come over to look at something he’d cut. And I just remember saying, “what is that music?” And he casually comments: “Oh, this? It’s just what I’ve been using to cut to.” To which I was like, “dude, why did you not tell me that you had found the sound of the film?!” We’d pulled up Éliane Radigue as a temp score. She was an early electronic music pioneer working with analogue synthesisers. So she became an important influence, not so much as a direct reference, but because Oliver’s understanding of what intuitively drew us to her work was really helpful. Oliver had an amazing way of working with layers. It was a really interesting and fluid process.

Charlotte Wells is a Scottish filmmaker based in New York. She studied at NYU, where she wrote and directed three short films and produced many more. Wells was a Fellow at the 2020 Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Labs with her first feature, Aftersun, which premiered in the Semaine de la Critiqueat Cannes in 2022.