Charlotte Wells on Aftersun: “Grief Doesn’t Exist without the Joy”

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Aftersun, 2022
Aftersun, 2022(Film still)

“It’s very much fiction, but rooted in experience and memory,” says the Scottish filmmaker of her debut feature – a tender, harrowing portrait of a father-daughter relationship starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio

Charlotte Wells might have heard me weeping at the premiere of her film. “There was someone behind me crying quite audibly,” says the Scottish director, who was still putting the finishing touches to her feature debut, Aftersun, when it crash-landed at Cannes back in May. She’s been forced to play grief counsellor to scores of traumatised viewers ever since.

Visibly nervous on stage with her stars – Paul Mescal and 12-year-old newcomer Frankie Corio – Wells prefaced the film at Cannes by saying it put “all of my dreams, my past and present, my hopes, fears and ambitions on a 50-foot screen”. “Be gentle with me,” she seemed to be saying, but a little under two hours later it was the rest of us that needed support, the audience rising unsteadily to its feet for a two-minute standing ovation. I was thunderstruck. It was like a meteor had smashed in through the roof and landed square in my lap, all glowing embers of grief I didn’t know what to do with.

Wells’ film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, Sophie (Corio) who goes on holiday with her dad, Calum (Mescal), to Turkey sometime in the late 1990s. It’s the sort of package-holiday experience that will be familiar to many Brits of a certain age, from the Euro-dancing dads to the constant drilling work that soundtracks the days spent poolside. Against this backdrop of modestly budgeted fun, it slowly transpires that Calum is depressed, a fact that is just starting to dawn on Sophie despite her father’s best attempts to conceal it from her. Through flash-forwards to the present, we see that the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now a parent herself, is revisiting this moment some 20 years distant through old camcorder footage and her own scattered memories. “Sophie is trying to piece [her father] back together in some ways,” says Wells, who devises clever shots with cinematographer Gregory Oke to part-mask Calum’s appearance through the film, rendering him a semi-ghostly presence. “We worked hard to keep Calum at arm’s length, to keep more physical distance between him and the camera in order to create the feeling that he is in some sense unknowable.”

In a way, it’s gaps like these that make Aftersun linger so powerfully in the mind, allowing Sophie’s reminisces to harmonise and dissolve with our own. “I think inherent in whatever style it is that I have there is space for people to bring their own experiences,” says Wells, who folds deft coming-of-age elements into the story (at one point, Sophie sees two teenage boys kissing in a doorway, an early hint about her own burgeoning sexuality). “It’s both conscious and not: I’m not writing and thinking how can I create that space, but I think when you avoid a certain kind of exposition it does create ambiguity and people will fill that ambiguity with their own experiences, their own reference points that they enter the cinema with.”

Adding another layer to the film’s fractured narrative, Sophie’s memories are interrupted by brief, dreamlike sequences which place her on a crowded dancefloor facing her dad, whose strobe-lit moves look like fearful contortions from a Francis Bacon painting. But to feel the full emotional weight of Wells’ film, we need first to understand the touching father-daughter bond at its core, as embodied by Mescal and Corio. Corio was chosen from over 800 applicants asked by Wells and her casting director, Lucy Pardee, to submit videos of themselves hanging out at home with their families, doing normal family stuff. Corio’s audition tape bagged her an audience in person, where she showed the qualities that she would eventually bring to the role. “Frankie just blew us away with her acting,” says Wells. “I’d expected to find a kid who would be themselves and I’d capture that as best I could, but Frankie could really step outside of herself and tap into specific emotions when asked, and then shake that off quite quickly and move to something else. She’s extremely special in that way.”

Corio and Mescal had two weeks in Turkey to get to know each other before filming began, and their easy rapport on screen is a thing of beauty. The Normal People star, who described the role as a “dress rehearsal for being a dad”, was given a brief backstory for Calum, then granted space to make the character his own. “There was an understanding between us that he would add his own nuances and understanding of Calum to his performance,” says Wells. “It was important that he felt some ownership over who he was, since he was the one playing the character.” It’s a quietly brilliant performance, full of complex emotional shading lurking just beneath the affable face that Calum presents to his daughter. And yet the highs they share on the trip are no less real for it, from heckling the dreary in-house entertainers to impromptu games of water polo in the pool.

“I think [their relationship is] very loving,” says Wells. “They’re like partners in crime, and they both look up to one another in a certain way. He’s a really good father – I think he’s better at being a father than he is at just about being anything else. That was important to me about Calum, [because] the more common trope around single fathers in film, especially those separated from the child’s mother, is that they’re ‘deadbeat dads’, absent fathers. And I suppose Calum is absent in some ways, but when he’s present he’s very present.”

Wells was born and raised in Edinburgh, but moved to the US in 2012 to study film at New York University. In person, the director is quiet, shy and understandably protective of her privacy (“I don’t wanna talk about personal-personal stuff,” she says at one point, casually steering the conversation away from her own family life.) She speaks with a soft Scottish-American lilt in fully formed sentences, something that is vanishingly rare among people of her generation. That lucidity is everywhere in Aftersun, which paints its characters’ interior lives in quiet, telling strokes reminiscent of Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, who served as a producer on the film.

Even without knowing that Aftersun draws on elements of Wells’ own life, there is a sense of deep personal trauma being laid to rest here. The director was around the same age as adult Sophie when she started work on the film, and in one wordless scene, where Calum cries with his back turned to the camera, you can practically feel an unspoken wish on the director’s part to reach a hand through the screen and comfort him. Despite all this, we should be wary of labelling it a work of autobiography. “It’s very much fiction, but rooted in experience and memory,” says Wells. “It’s personal in that the feeling is mine and I allowed my own memories and anecdotes through all of childhood to form the kind of skeleton outline that I worked from to write the first draft. But after that point it did become very much about the story I was trying to tell, and that frequently required pushing it away from my own experience. Because I was never on this [trip]; I was never trying to recreate a single holiday.”

The film’s most dazzling sequence involves a dance between Calum and Sophie set to Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure, an inspired moment whose source Wells says she can’t remember. “It’s the strangest thing,” she says. “I think the day I really sat down to write the script in earnest those [dance] scenes just appeared, almost by someone else’s hand. I’m almost certain the original outline didn’t include them. For whatever reason I felt compelled to situate Sophie as an adult in that space. The song I brought in late one night in the edit, I don’t know why. And I’ve always liked strobes. It’s a very surreal feeling being under strobe lighting, where you have an incomplete image of things that move from one point to another.”

It’s a scene that serves as both a celebration of Calum and Sophie’s love and a heart-stopping goodbye, underlining what was good about their relationship and what cannot be undone. Ultimately, says Wells, her film is about “what you carry forward”, an idea she held close while fine-tuning her script over the film’s development. Early drafts of the screenplay, she explains, were “a lot more filled with drama and tension and conflict”, qualities which others involved in the project encouraged her to ratchet up. “At a certain point I realised I was gonna take it all away,” says Wells, “because I didn’t want to lose the joy of it. If I could go back and change anything it might be to make even more joy, to give myself more scenes to work with to capture that feeling, because the grief doesn’t exist without the joy, and the joy is what is most remembered.”

Aftersun is out in UK cinemas now.