Sometimes a director makes their feature film debut, and the movie is so transcendent that it seems impossible that it’s their first film. Charlotte Wells may be making her debut with Aftersun, but this gorgeous film about a father and daughter on holiday in Turkey will capture your heart like a film from a seasoned filmmaker. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are perfect as Calum and Sophie, as the young father tries to keep his precocious daughter from witnessing his mental health issues.
Wells uses a unique structure for the film, with an adult Sophie looking back on her memories of the holiday with her young father and continually having a dreamlike sequence of seeing flashes of him across a crowded rave. Aftersun also contains snippets of home video style footage filmed by Sophie and Calum on their holiday to further play with the idea of memory and perspective. All of this combines for an impactful end of the film as the audience comes to realize why Sophie is so fascinated by this specific week spent with her father.
Wells is a Scottish director and producer based in New York City. She graduated from NYU’s MBA/MFA dual degree program, where she wrote and directed three short films, which screened at festivals. She was a Fellow at the 2020 Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Labs developing Aftersun.
Mescal is an Irish actor who earned a British Academy Television Award as well as an Emmy nomination for his role in the television show Normal People, based on the Sally Rooney novel. Before making his screen debut, he attended The Lir Academy at Trinity College Dublin and had roles in several theatre productions in Dublin. He made his first film appearance in The Lost Daughter last year and is also starring in the 2022 releases Carmen and God’s Creatures.Aftersun has appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival. I sat down with Wells and Mescal recently to chat about working with a child actor, filming in Turkey, and seeing reactions to Aftersun.
Nicole Ackman: First of all, congratulations on the film.
Charlotte Wells: Thank you.
NA: Now that it’s screened at Cannes, Telluride, TIFF and more, was there anything about the audience reactions that have surprised either of you?
CW: I mean, I was surprised when people responded so strongly and positively to it on the first screening. I had never really given consideration to what would happen when the credits rolled. I was just so anxious getting to that point. Finishing the film was a real rush up to Cannes. And then Toronto has actually been the first time we’ve really had the opportunity to directly engage with the audience. So we’ve been able to read about responses and hear secondhand, sometimes firsthand, people’s responses. But I think what was really nice about the [screening and Q&A] is that we got to hear from audience members and got to answer questions. Then you start to get a sense of how people are responding and what they’re thinking about, and what they’re drawn to. It’s nice.
Paul Mescal: I don’t know if it has changed. It’s broad strokes, but I feel like the movie is constantly moving for the audience, and that’s really a satisfying thing to be on the other side of and out and watching.
NA: So Paul, you were also in Normal People, so this is not your first role that deals with mental illness. What has drawn you to these sorts of roles?
PM: I think that’s one part of all those characters, and I feel like that’s not the thing that is drawing me to it. But I find that there’s something cathartic in the playing of that sometimes. And sometimes not. Sometimes it’s really difficult. But I think maybe what I’m aiming for is some form of conflict or a roundedness of the people that I play as much as possible. Calum is a fully rounded man and has got his positive traits and negative traits. And Connell’s probably the same. So I don’t think I’m pursuing a kind of template of the sad young man. I’m still figuring out what it is about those roles that I enjoy. I think that’s a wobbly answer, but yeah.
NA: I think one of the best things about the movie is how authentic the bond between Calum and Sophie feels. So, both as a director and an actor, how did you go about building that bond so that it could feel natural?
CW: As a director, giving them time and stepping away and allowing them to form a real bond. I didn’t need to be in the middle of that. [To Paul] You were closer to Frankie than I was on set. Fortunately, we were given the time. We had a couple of weeks leading up to production. And I remember being in development and asking for that time after we had secured the casting. I remember saying, “I’d really love two weeks to spend with these guys and for them to get to know each other.”
PM: And also, I think weirdly one of those blessings in disguise was I remember tech wreck and stuff like that. Those two weeks weren’t essentially fully protected from…You had to go to other…
CW: Oh yeah. I had a vision of spending two weeks with you guys. And I, in the end, had two hours every morning between nine and 11 or nine and 10:30. We would spend time together and get to know each other and work on scenes in a very broad way. But most of that time, I was preoccupied with the technical aspects of the prep.
PM: So Frankie and I hung out, which was great.
NA: Speaking of Frankie, what was it like also working with a young actor in their first big role and working with a young actor on a film that deals with some heavy topics?
CW: She wasn’t really aware of that. We did two read-throughs of the script together. She never had a copy of the script, and in that read-through, we had a redacted version of the script that removed any scene she wasn’t in. For her, I tried to just make out about this fun holiday between a father and a daughter. That’s what we were doing. And of course, there are some moments where it ebbs and flows, but that was the focus, to protect her from that. I think it played into the performance. That was a shared goal of ours, which was to protect her from it, and sometimes that was tough. And I think tough for Paul because there are scenes where she is there, and Calum was having an individual disconnected experience, and that’s one thing in the scene. But when we call cut, Frankie is just bouncing around and…
PM: Yeah. I just don’t think we could afford to be precious with how we worked. And I was actually really grateful for that because it kind of highlights the kind of craft a little bit more that you’re trying to, by highlighting the difficulty, protecting Frankie and Sophie, from what Calum and what we are trying to do. I think it forces the performances, or I definitely feel like I benefited from hiding stuff from her because that’s how people behave. You never indicate if you’re trying to protect someone from information. Or if you’re feeling upset and you don’t want them to see it, you don’t do the kind of things that you sometimes see actors do where you show, but you’re not really showing up. You really try to make it invisible.
NA: One of the best things about the film is how well it does at showing and not telling the audience what its characters are experiencing. I know that a lot of the narrative is from Sophie’s perspective, but then we have these scenes with Calum where he’s by himself. A lot of those are no dialogue scenes. So how were you trying to build this inner world for this character that you only got to reveal in these very specific moments?
PM: I love those moments because they feel like high stakes. I don’t know if you feel this as well, Charlotte, but when you get a few moments, there’s a lot of, when we were filming, there was this kind of pressure around this in a good way. I think pressure can be really useful when you’re filming. And through conversations that I think me and Charlie had before filming, which were really useful because once we got there, it’s kind of you roll with what we get at the day. So, a lot of the kind of conversations about Calum’s inner landscape were done weeks before.
Being in those kinds of more private moments on set, I really enjoyed it because it was just me and Charlie. And there’s a focus then fully put on Calum, whereas I think when Frankie was there, it’s about, we’ve got two hours or we’ve got an hour and a half before she needs to take a break. It was just a different dynamic, which I really enjoyed, and also just the pressure of having to deliver because if those moments don’t land, the audience doesn’t really know where they stand with him. So I’m really proud of those.
CW: And there was time because Frankie wasn’t there, we had time to try things and do different takes and play with the feeling of it.
NA: I would love to hear more about why you decided to structure the film the way that you did.
CW: Me too. I mean, me too. It just had to be the structure of the film. It’s funny. There was the holiday, but everything else, all the ways I made this impossibly hard for myself, they were coming from a really sincere place of expression and memory and the process of writing influencing what I was writing. The rave wasn’t in the outline. But it was the first thing I wrote, or it was certainly in the first draft of the script. It was one of those amazing discoveries while you’re writing. And then I added the DV [camcorder], and I remember the day I did that, I met my editor for a drink, and I was like, “Just did something crazy.”
But then you have all these elements, and they were very thoughtfully positioned in the script, but I also knew we would take them into the edit and have the ability to move them and build something out of these different blocks. So it was, on the one hand, very methodical. And on the other, it allowed for rearranging.
NA: How did you decide to include these home video sequences, and what was the process of putting those together like?
CW: I like them as an idea of a very literal point of view. One character of another, and then you can step back and… There’s a scene where Calum is watching footage that she has taken of him, and you have these layers of gaze. So there was that on the one hand. On the other hand, they acted as anchors to what really happened on the holiday, these factual records.
I had a vision of them being so carefree and fun to shoot on set, forgetting you still have a film production around you. And that they probably should be recorded with a microphone and not just DV camera sound. Although they weren’t always, but it was still always the actors who held the camera. They always operated that. I read one review that complimented Greg’s very authentic camera work…
PM: I saw that too.
CW: With the DV footage, and I laughed. But yeah, I tried to create as much of an environment as possible of it just being home holiday footage.
PM: There was one day that we actually got to roam around with it, and that was one of my highlights actually, just the three of us walking around. And that’s the, like the size of your head bit.
CW: Which is in the film. Big head.
PM: Yeah. Big head.
CW: Big head was my shorthand for that. There was one afternoon when production went awry. Just various things unfolded that left us with this window of time and I was like, “Let’s go.” You know what? I grabbed a few T-shirts so we could do some T-shirt changes so they could be positioned wherever in the film.
PM: That was so fun.
CW: And maybe the hardest cut that…I only thought of this today, but there was one thing I maybe wish were in the film, which is there, on that same day, there is a sequence where Frankie describes how palm trees grow that are cut down.
CW: And it’s amazing. It’s really special. And it was just one of those…
PM: Yeah, yeah. I remember.
CW: …moments that we discovered. So we tried to keep it as authentic as we could, the capturing of those.
NA: That’s awesome. Were there any works that you were inspired by when putting this together? And Paul, are there any figures or performances that influenced your portrayal of Calum?
CW: So many. I spent years working on this, and everything I watched and read fed into it. When I started out, there were some more obvious touchstones. There was Alice in the Cities and there was Tomboy. And then, I started watching all the works of Thomas Davis. And that was an amazing discovery of cinema that I just hadn’t seen. What he does with these movements of music and picture just so special. Chantal Akerman. There’s this short from the seventies called La Chambre that inspired the 360-degree pan toward the end of a film. There’s Claire Denis. There’s Taiwanese New Wave, which Greg loves and introduced me to. There’s so much that fed into this.
PM: I think one that was maybe too on the nose and obvious in recent memory, something like C’mon, C’mon in terms of that construction of a very kind of personal relationship between Joaquin and that wonderful actor… What’s the amazing kid… Woody or something?
NA: Woody Norman, yeah.
PM: Wonderful. And then there’s probably a lot of my own parents in that because I’m not a father yet. And then the mold of some, a character like Willy Loman [from Death of a Salesman], even though they’re very different, is that kind of idealized version of self-versus-reality, which I think Calum has as well.
NA: Absolutely. I also know that you guys filmed on-location in Turkey. What was it like getting to go there and actually be immersed in the holiday as you were filming it?
CW: Surreal, but it fed into it too. You discover things, you feel things, you smell things, you see things that you want to capture that help build out the environment and that feeling of being on holiday. So it was amazing to have so much time there.
PM: Yeah. It’s like an un-tortured version of the method. It’s like a nice version of it.
NA: What does it mean for both of you now to be seeing the film go to festivals and inching toward its release? Have any of your thoughts and feelings on the film changed since you made it?
CW: I have had one recent… It’s not even a new thought. It’s just a thought that’s been kind of crystallized, or it’s moved from theory to reality, which is the film builds toward one feeling at the end, but I think there are different paths to reach it. I think that it’s become increasingly clear in sharing it that people take different routes through the film. But mostly, it’s just really nice to be on the other side of having made it and sharing it and speaking about it and hearing people’s responses and hearing that people feel moved by it is more than I ever could have asked for.
PM: It’s also just a huge honor to be up at these festivals that you kind of…In drama school, you’re looking at what the program for these festivals are going to be, and to be suddenly involved with pretty much all of the major ones since Cannes, it’s really, what? It’s insane.
CW: It’s not something either of us is taking for granted at any moment. It’s amazing.
NA: What do we have to look forward to coming up from both of you?
CW: More from Paul than for me.
PM: I’m waiting to find out what Charlie’s doing! I’m going back to the stage around Christmas in Streetcar Named Desire, then a couple of movies coming out next year. And I’m waiting for Charlie to call and put me in the next thing, whatever that is.
NA: Cool. I will definitely be anxiously waiting to see what you do next…
CW: Yeah, me too, me too. It’s just, I don’t know. I’m trying to enjoy this moment. I’m trying to enjoy being on the other side of this film. It’s been so much of my life for a long time. I’m looking forward to discovering what’s next for myself and starting all over again.
NA: I guess that’s the issue with ending one film is that then…
CW: It really is. You’re starting from scratch. It doesn’t get any easier.
NA: Do you feel that you’ve learned things on this film that you’ll be able to take forward?
CW: Everything, but I don’t think anything changes that the starting point has to come from within. You can learn the mechanics, but you can’t really learn the need to express something.
Aftersun will be in select theaters from A24 on October 21.
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