‘Aftersun’ Director Charlotte Wells on the Poignant Journey of Making Her Semi-Autobiographical Debut Film

TheWrap magazine: “The film comes together for people at completely different points,” says the filmmaker

Charlotte Wells directing "Aftersun"
Charlotte Wells directing "Aftersun"

A version of this story about “Aftersun” director Charlotte Wells first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Charlotte Wells’ assured debut feature “Aftersun” —an impressionistic, sometimes non-linear story about a young father (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, (Frankie Corio) on holiday at a Turkish resort in the 1990s—is a fervently emotional sneak-attack film that somehow manages to scrub all sentimentality out of its intimate narrative. Visceral yet unhurried, and sporting remarkable technique to boot (it’s no wonder “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins serves as a producer), the film has already won Wells honors from the National Society of Film Critics (making her one of only a handful of women ever to be honored Best Director by the group), New York Film Critics Circle, the Gotham Independent Film Award, and the British Independent Film Award groups for breakthrough film.

You’ve recently said that Aftersun is kind of an emotional autobiography rather than a literal one. What was the jumping off point to creating this film?
I think my description of how personal this film is has evolved through speaking about it and considering the real meaning of autobiography. But it’s true, I do stand by that, although I think it has generally confused people as a statement. Although the events in the film that transpire don’t reflect a seven-day holiday that I took with my dad, the feeling the film builds toward, in that it’s ultimately expressing love, is mine. I’d only made one short film, but I allowed myself to be inspired by the idea of this young father and daughter on holiday. It was a relationship I felt like I hadn’t seen portrayed very often. And the film becoming about memory and grief was really a discovery in the process, using my own memories to form the outline that I worked from. That just became an inextricable part.

One of the wonderful things about the 1990s setting in the film is that you kind of momentarily forget when it’s set, except for the signifiers: camcorders, the R.E.M. karaoke song. It felt like setting it in the modern day might rupture some of the delicacy.
I appreciate you saying that it’s at points easy to forget, because I never wanted it to take such precedence on the screen that it felt distracting or gratuitously over-represented. It should feel as present as possible. That was our guiding word between me and the cinematographer (Gregory Oke). We wanted to create the sense that you’re back in some disconnected time.

What was the significance of using Turkey as the backdrop for these British characters?
There were a couple of reasons, one of which is that I had been on holiday in Turkey around the age (of Sophie) at that point. And I had many photographs from that trip. I also liked the idea of them going to this culture quite distinct from their own and yet not interacting with it. Also, once they finally break out of the confines of the hotel environment, you have these gorgeous locations.

Paul Mescal has said that about 95% of the dialogue in the film is scripted, which is amazing. It’s so gorgeously imprecise at times, especially in Frankie Corio’s scenes.
I really like writing kid dialogue because kids aren’t really self-conscious. They say things that make no sense at all or aren’t absurdly earnest or saccharine. I think there’s some leeway in that. And then it was a case of spending a little bit of time with Frankie during our prep period and tweaking things to better suit her rhythms of speech. And then ultimately, in not sharing the script with her but instead running through lines before we shot, everything felt very fresh.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in “Aftersun”/A24

Is it true that you made ’90s playlists for your leads?
I’d been building playlists for myself over the course of writing and it seemed like a nice thing to do for them. Paul’s was a combination of music from earlier ’90s and ’80s, too. Frankie’s was very much bubblegum pop of the late ’90s. Paul was open to it, but Frankie had zero interest in that whatsoever. (Laughs) Her parents were very excited to introduce her to the music of the ’90s and she was a very reluctant participant. She was just such a kid of 2021 at that point. She loves what she loves.

What’s the most interesting or poignant response you’ve gotten to the film?
I think the most interesting one is seeing that the film comes together for people at completely different points. Poignant, I think, has been people who have shared their experiences with depression and mental health struggles, who have spoken that the film is a meaningful representation that was reflective of how they experienced it. That’s been really moving. That’s what it’s all about, connecting with people in that way.

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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Photo by Corina Marie for TheWrap