Aftersun is a movie with afterglow – a seemingly low-key indie that glows brightly on the screen, fires directly into the emotions and burns vividly in the memory.
Written and directed by Charlotte Wells, this first feature from the Scottish filmmaker stars Paul Mescal as Calum, a father turning 31 on holiday in the mid-late ’90s with his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie. She’s played, in her first acting role, by Frankie Corio, a preternaturally gifted newcomer from outside Edinburgh.
Calum is young enough to be mistaken for Sophie’s brother but old enough to be separated from her mum. Adding to the feeling we have of his isolation: the sense that the depression that’s blurring in from the edges of the frame is beginning to define him. As he tells a diving instructor at their Turkish resort, he can’t see himself at 40.
“I’m surprised I made it to 30,” Calum says, 26-year-old Irishman Mescal acting in the same Edinburgh accent as Corio and Wells.
The story’s events (and, even more powerfully, non-events) are often filtered through the gaze of Sophie. Dad recorded on the era-specific DV camera he lets her play with. Dad reflected in the black mirror of the TV in their hotel room or spied on the balcony, through the net curtains, smoking or dancing in silence.
Dad remembered by adult Sophie, roughly the same age Calum was on their holiday and now with a daughter of her own, as she thinks back to what might have been their final holiday together. To quote Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 banger Under Pressure, used in a climactic, devastatingly powerful, strobe-strafed dance sequence: “This is our last dance.” Even if you’ve listened to that 42-year-old radio staple a 1000 times before, you’ve never heard the lyrics like this before.
Since its premiere at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, that Aftersun afterglow has only burned brighter and brighter, flaring last month when it was anointed film of 2022 by both Sight & Sound and The Guardian.
It was a sensation at October’s London Film Festival, critically acclaimed when it hit cinemas in November and, at December’s British Independent Film Awards, dominated the event with seven awards, notably Best British Independent Film and three further nods for Wells: Best Director, The Douglas Hickox Award for Best Debut Director and Best Screenplay.
And, as awards season gets properly underway, the momentum continues. At the recently announced BAFTA longlists, Aftersun features eight times, with Wells again appearing across the Director, Original Screenplay and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer categories.
I zoomed with Charlotte Wells in her apartment in New York, where she studied film at NYU and the city that’s been her home for the past decade. We speak during her leading man’s hot-ticket run on stage at London’s Almeida Theatre, in A Streetcar Named Desire (“I saw it last week, it’s fantastic”), and the day before he’s announced as starring in Ridley Scott’s sequel to his 2000 Oscar-winning epic Gladiator. Talk about an Aftersun afterburn.
Just as importantly, we speak on the day that her remarkable, magical debut feature launched on streaming platform MUBI.
Congratulations on your film, Charlotte, and on the reaction. Anecdotally, Aftersun seems to speak directly and personally to audiences, whether or not they have experience of the situations depicted. How has it felt having such an intimate connection with a huge, obviously anonymous audience?
My hope for the film, as has been my hope for all the films I’ve made, is that they find a meaningful connection with a handful of people. Having parallel experiences to those depicted in the film helps, whether that’s being on holiday in Turkey with your father and enduring karaoke. But what has been most surprising in this is that it certainly hasn’t been required. And the film’s feeling has connected with far more people than that. Why? I don’t have a sufficient answer for that. But it’s been incredibly special to see. I didn’t expect it to reach quite so far.
It also rewards repeated viewing. Watching it for a second time, with my own daughter, sparked an intimate discussion about mental health and fatherhood. How important is it for you that Aftersun can be a mirror, and also a conversation starter?
I think that comes down to feeling connected to any piece of art that you consume. That’s what the best art does. It’s very flattering to think that this is in that league in terms of, yeah, providing a mirror – and if not a mirror to yourself, perhaps to people that you know, or to your experiences.
I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to ever think about what it would mean to have people see this film, to have fathers and daughters see this film together, and discuss it – and have it open up conversations that have never been had or difficult to broach. And it’s a wonderful thing.
Even having this conversation, it still blows my mind! And it’s been seven months since we screened at Cannes. But, really, when you put it that way, this film just surpassed our expectations immediately. So everything since has been such a discovery.
When and what was the starting point for the script?
It’s hard to give a concise answer to that question because I don’t really know. So my answer tends to shift depending on the day. But I began working on it at the end of film school. I’d made one short film, and it was also a film about grief – it’s called Tuesday, and I shot it in Edinburgh. And I think [Aftersun] was, in many ways that I didn’t even recognise until quite recently, a continuation of that.
I’d also been flipping through old holiday albums and found this picture of me sitting by a pool in Spain, maybe aged around five or six. There’s this very beautiful woman right behind me. And it spurred this idea of: what if I was not the subject of this picture? What if there was a whole other world that I was unaware of on these holidays?
What was the answer?
I don’t think that was true in this case. But it was the spark [for] what at first was that story: a young man balancing being a parent and a young man. It just took me a long time to figure out what it really was, and what it was to me. And what it was to me was something very personal.
It’s very difficult to wake up one morning and set out to expose yourself in that way. Even though I do consider the film fiction and I do stand by that, it’s still very personal. And it takes time to get there. In ultimately using my own memories to form the outline that I worked from, and spending those years remembering and writing, it became a film about memory. I think that was always what it was supposed to be. It just took a while to get there.
What made Frankie Corio your Sophie?
Oh, so much, so much. Her talent, first and foremost. She really stood out in the [audition] room. We met so many incredibly special kids. But what Frankie had more than anybody else was an ability to conjure these emotional states that she wasn’t feeling – and then to drop them once the game or the exercise was over, and then to conjure another.
Frankie’s also very funny, and amazing to be around, and wild, and didn’t listen to a word I said in the audition room! I mean, she did in terms of the directing. But she was just a mile-a-minute. She’s just so special, so open and so smart. And her family are all of those things, too. I feel so grateful that we found her. And we really worked to find her. It was a process, and a long one. But it couldn’t have been anyone else, that’s for sure.
Frankie and Paul had two weeks hanging out prior to filming. Where was that, what did they do and what change did you see in their relationship at the end of that fortnight?
It was at the bigger of the two hotels in the film, which is where we were all staying for the first half of our time there. It helped to be on set, and to be able to explore some of the locations that we were shooting in – for example, the mini amphitheatre stage where karaoke takes place.
On day two of spending time together, we sat there and we shared some music with each other. And eventually, at some point, a week or so later, I was up on that stage doing a horrendous rendition of [R.E.M.’s] Losing My Religion and trying to coax Frankie to join me. Which eventually, very reluctantly, she did, saving it for when it really counted.
So your strategy was…
…let’s just spend time together and not worry too much about the script… That’s where some of my favourite moments in the film emerged from. Most of our time was also spent playing pool, which Frankie had never played before. Which was an oversight on my part in terms of her prep before Turkey. One afternoon we were sitting by the pool table and I grabbed the DV camera. But its battery was dead, as it perpetually was because it was a 20-year-old battery. And she said: “It’s fine, I’ll just record it in my mind camera.”
Which ended up on screen, right?
It was such an obviously special moment – she was draped across Paul and right up in his face. I was like: “OK, we’re gonna write that into the script, because that’s clearly a gift.”
So there were moments of discovery during those two weeks. And they just got to know each other, in a way that made me kind of envious… But that was what mattered. That was my job, really: give them the space.
But that was only two weeks, and then we shot for six. One of the last things we shot was the ride from the airport to the hotel, where she’s sleeping, kind of on his lap, and she was [in real life] sleeping on his lap. We shot it late at night, she was tired and she just fell asleep!
That’s strong onscreen chemistry right there.
They couldn’t have done that after two weeks – that took two months. But the relationship they formed was real. It’s not parental, but it was real, and they really enjoyed each other. We all did. That made a world of difference. You hear stories of actors who don’t get along, but have this amazing chemistry onscreen. But I can’t imagine how miserable that must be! It’s already hard enough. So I feel really grateful that we all got along.
You landed Paul at a great time in his off-like-a-rocket career. And for someone who’s only 26, he does a great job of convincingly playing both a dad and someone in their thirties. Why did he want to make your film?
I can’t speak for him, but I think he saw a challenge in portraying a father so soon after breaking out as a teenager [and playing] someone a little bit younger than he was in reality. But again, it couldn’t now have been anybody else.
In an interview in the New York Times, Paul talked about how “I found [Calum’s] private moments really upsetting.” Specifically, he discussed the scene where he was sitting on the bed, naked and crying intensely, and how he said to you: “I know we’re shooting on film, but I think we should run it for as long as possible. Because once it starts, it will be hard for me to stop.” What are your memories of filming that scene?
It was very intimate. We cleared the set, there were a handful of us in the room… I mean, so much of a director’s job [on set], or how I perceive it at least, was to give the actors space. Space to fill. The characters space to move on set. Just space in every form.
And that was a moment where there’s a lot of trust at play. We spoke a little bit about it, and he trusted that I would make sure that we got it. And not [push it], and know when that line arrived. And, yeah, it was very moving and very intense. I feel a lot of gratitude for his willingness to do that.
There are other moments, a bit less defined, that foreshadow Calum’s possible fate – or illustrate his state of mind – as Sophie starts to get a sense of her dad as this fully-formed but also flawed person. For example, him spitting toothpaste on the mirror as she flops on the bed and, essentially, describes a feeling like depression. Would it be fair to say that the film is as much about male depression as it is about memory, coming-of-age and grief?
Yes, I think that’s fair to say. Although as Paul has so nicely spoke of in the past, Calum can’t necessarily articulate what is wrong. He doesn’t fully understand his struggle. And of course, depression, can co-exist with other mental health problems. But generally I do think that statement is fair and it was an aspect of the script I worked hard to appropriately represent.
After we screened at Cannes, the first person who spoke to me was this young guy. He shared that that was something that he struggled with, and something that somebody in his family struggled with. I remember being so immediately taken aback by how legible that had been to him, and really appreciative that that was the first person I ran into. Those continue to be the most meaningful interactions that I have in terms of response to the film: people to whom it’s spoken to really directly, and felt like an authentic portrayal of that experience in some way.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack. You’ve got Britpop era-adjacent indie-disco classics such as Lightning Seeds’ Lucky You and Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping for scene-setting and atmos. The usage of Blur’s Tender is particularly fantastic, though, the way you pitch down the tempo on the vocals, as if letting us hear inside Calum’s head. But let’s focus on the placement of Under Pressure in the rave scene: a song whose impact might have been dulled by overfamiliarity, but that takes on a whole new meaning here. How and why did it work there?
Again, like somewhat divine inspiration. I don’t know why we pulled it in. It was late, we were still assembling the film, and the rave was the last thing that we broached, because we knew the film would live or die in it. And it was hard to cut.
I knew of the stripped-back vocal version of Under Pressure – I would listen to it from time to time, because I adore it and I adore Queen. So I brought it in, just to have something to cut to, to have something to give rhythm to those sequences. And that was just the first thing that we pulled in. But I had no idea consciously if those lyrics aligned with what was happening on the film until I hit play.
Maybe it was just an amazing gift from fate, and it worked. But we also thought we might be raving mad – and if somebody had told us we were, we would have nodded and removed it, probably.
But they didn’t. Our producers, the only two people who saw that cut, liked it. They felt that it did work, and that we needed to go back and make the rest of the film build adequately to that point.
What makes MUBI a good partner for you with this film?
I remember talking about MUBI with Blair [McClendon], my editor, in the edit room as a dream partner for the film, because we’ve both been such fans. I’ve definitely been using a shared account for a while! Not anymore!
MUBI know film and they love film. They’ve been such champions of discovery – I’ve discovered filmmakers on MUBI: I saw [pioneering Scottish filmmaker and poet] Margaret Tait [whose book Poems, Stories and Writings is part of Calum’s holiday reading] on MUBI for the first time. Their curation is just so good. So it was really exciting to learn how present they were in this theatrical world and how they’ve been growing that part of their business.
That just gives them the opportunity to support films like this. Films that… [Actually,] I don’t want to articulate the type of film this is in that way. But films that do well to have really passionate advocates and champions behind them. And they have been so passionate about this film, and they were from the day that I met them in Cannes. I’ll never forget the moment that I saw Cate [Kane] and Kevin [Chan] from their acquisitions team after the screening, and the looks on their faces. It was one of the highlights from last year.
So, yeah, they have amazing taste, a lot of passion and a really great team.
Finally: what’s next, Charlotte?
I don’t know. Early retirement? [Laughs] No, I don’t know. I’m both terrified and thrilled to sit in front of a blank page in another couple of months and discover what’s next. But that’s how I want it to go. I want to be faced with that page and see what it is that I have to say and express next.
That’s where it comes from. It’s not about making films just to increase my number of grey hairs. It’s about expression. So I’m not sure what that’s going to be yet. But I’m looking forward to it, and I can’t wait to be back on set. That’s where I find the clearest purpose and joy in all of this.
Aftersun is streaming exclusively on MUBI now. MUBI is currently offering THE FACE readers 30 days for free