Charlotte Wells On The Surprise Success Of Her Festival Hit ‘Aftersun’:  “I’m A Little In Awe”

This year has been surprisingly brutal for cinema’s top-tier directors, and even now, when the awards season really should have settled on its frontrunners, there ‘s still an unusual lack of consensus about the big guns. At times like this, it’s worth stepping back to see where critical opinion is united, and this is where you’d find Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, the mesmerizing debut from a 35-year-old Scot that has graced almost every major international film festival in the six months since it debuted in in Critics Week in Cannes. To find a recent comparison, you’d have to look back to Barry Jenkins’ stealth hit Moonlight back in 2016, and it’s perhaps worth noting that Jenkins is one of the producers here.

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Inspired by, but not based on, the director’s experiences as the child of young parents, the ’90s-set film stars newcomer Francesca Corio as Sophie, an 11-year-old girl on a package holiday to Turkey with her father Calum (Paul Mescal). It’s a slow burn, but gradually its deceptively simple, almost docu-realist style starts to mutate into something much more sophisticated. Like a David Lynch movie, there are little clues, strange shifts, and an overall feeling that things are not quite right, building to an emotional climax that is felt rather than seen, employing Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ to devastating effect in a rave scene that will ensure no filmmakers will feel worthy of using that song for years to come.

When we meet, Wells still seems somewhat shell-shocked by her film’s progress in the world, and how its essence has translated so fluently into so many languages and been embraced by so many countries. Would she still have made such a personal film had she known that it would blow up in this way? “Yeah,” she says softly. “I mean, I didn’t choose to make this film. It came from a place of expression, and you don’t think about an audience at all when you begin to write something. I’m actually a little in awe of the fact that this film has — and could — reach so many people. So, no, I wouldn’t change anything.”

DEADLINE: What made you want to become a filmmaker?

CHARLOTTE WELLS: I originally wanted to be a producer. I was producing through film school, and in the process of being in that program I had the opportunity to write a short film [Tuesday, 2015]. I just had the most creatively satisfying experience making that collaboration with the cinematographer — Samuel Grandchamp, who’s a good friend. And that collaboration in particular, I think, was important because we constantly pushed each other. There was plenty we disagreed about, but we always reached a consensus that was in service of the film. It didn’t matter whose idea it was or who put it forward, it always got to a point where we agreed. It was just a very positive collaboration, and I discovered something in making it, and in that process I discovered the ability to express feelings, or intentions, in a form that I think serves me better than words. [Laughs] Like those I’m using now.

DEADLINE: You do seem to have found your style pretty quickly. Just from a cursory look at your shorts, you seem to know exactly what you want.

WELLS: Yeah, it’s funny. I can recognize it — as an onlooker — as a style, I suppose. I guess it’s just the way my brain works.

DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on that?

WELLS: I mean, I think quite visually in a way I didn’t expect. So, Tuesday was the first short film I made, and I remember, at the end, there’s this shot that we’d been holding for a long time. It’s on the lead character, sitting on a couch in the darkness, kind of lit by the orange sodium-vapor streetlight, which is a color of light I adore. I had this idea of the camera moving through the room after she leaves, and reaching the window. Almost phantom-like. And it really came from nowhere. It didn’t come from another film, it really didn’t. That was the image I conjured and it felt very effective. And I suddenly saw the camera as this tool, or language, or … I don’t really know how to describe it, but it just suits the way that I think about things. And through that there emerges a consistent style, even though, across the three shorts I’ve made, I worked with different cinematographers. I do think there is something that binds them, and maybe that’s just the way I think about images.

DEADLINE: They do seem tell stories that are largely off the screen, if you get my drift…

WELLS: Yeah, I do. I’m interested in things that are inherently contradictory. In people who do one thing and believe another. Of people who are, in some respect, in denial of something. Those are very internal stories, and so I think the challenge of making films is how to dramatize that, or externalize it in some way, which I think leads to films that are off the screen and are very subtle and there’s a quiet in them.

DEADLINE: Were the shorts all scripted or were any improvised?

WELLS: No, they were all entirely scripted. Even my second film, Laps, in which there’s only one line of dialogue, was fully scripted.

DEADLINE: How did you shoot that film? Was it on the fly?

WELLS: Yes, it was. There was one major, major rule at film school, and that rule was: Do not go near the New York City subway system. And I did, because I had a story to tell based on something that happened there. Not only did we shoot on the subway, but Gregory Oke, who also shot Aftersun, shot Laps, and we worked on a tripod and we shot most of it on an empty carriage at the terminal stop, with a few friends blocking the frame to create the impression of a busy train. But it does, for the most part, look like a busy train. And then there were points at which we actually did get on busy trains.

DEADLINE: Why do they tell you not shoot on trains? Is it about permits?

WELLS: Insurance. It’s a very large liability that you need to be able to cover to shoot at New York City subway, one that our insurance did not meet.

DEADLINE: Are you attracted to rule-breaking?

WELLS: I’m not! I’m such a rule-follower. I’m an inherent abider of rules. But I suppose that was one that I felt compelled to break.

DEADLINE: Was there anything about your background that suggested you might go into this line of work?

WELLS: I wanted to make films as a teenager, it just took me a long way to find my way back to it. It seemed so outside the realm of reality and possibility. And it was only through meeting people who were in the industry that it seemed like something that could be reached for.

DEADLINE: What were the films that inspired you?

WELLS: Growing up, I honestly just watched whatever was playing in the cinema. I had a £9.99 pass to Cineworld and watched whatever was screening there. I wasn’t really spending a lot of time in arthouse cinemas like the Filmhouse, in Edinburgh, until much later. And I think it was at the Edinburgh Film Festival that I started to see things beyond what was playing in mainstream cinemas. In the same year at Edinburgh I saw The Puffy Chair by the Duplass brothers and Little Miss Sunshine, and those occupy two polar ends of the independent film spectrum. Certainly the American independent film, in the case of those specific cases. Though there was obviously a lot of British cinema in Edinburgh, and international, too.

DEADLINE: I wouldn’t have guessed those two films.

WELLS: I mean, I’m not saying those are what inspired me to be a filmmaker, but they were certainly an introduction to something a little bit different.

DEADLINE: I was trying to imagine the influence of The Puffy Chair on Aftersun, but there clearly isn’t one.

WELLS: No, maybe not specifically. But I do really admire that micro-budget filmmaking that comes from an absolute compulsion to create with whatever resources you have to hand.

DEADLINE: Did you grow up in Edinburgh?

WELLS: I did.

DEADLINE: How did you end up in New York?

WELLS: Work, and film school. I worked in New York for a year and a half after graduating university. Then I came back to London and ran a business with a friend of mine, in the film industry, and I used that to apply to what’s quite a unique program at NYU – the MBA/MFA dual-degree in producing. So I started off in the business school and then moved into the film school. The second year and the third year is combined, so it was ultimately film school that took me back.

DEADLINE: How did that lead into making your first feature?

WELLS: It’s quite a small program, and, at the point at which I entered it, I was probably in the last class that knew everyone who had gone through it before, because it began in 2008. So I knew a lot of people were very well situated to help, because they were creative executives at production companies or working for financiers. I had a classmate a couple of years above me who was at Fox Searchlight, and when I had that second film, Laps, play at Sundance, she shared it with friends and colleagues in the industry. And the sharing of those shorts — which included Blue Christmas [2017], because that screened at TIFF that same year — led me to my producer Adele Romanski at Pastel, which is the company she owns with Barry Jenkins and Mark Ceryak. We stayed in touch after our first meeting, and I promised her the script. Eventually, two years later, I delivered it. We developed the script a lot over the subsequent two years or so. Obviously the pandemic got in the way, but we were always moving forward toward production.

DEADLINE: How did the pandemic affect the progress?

WELLS: Totally derailed it. [Laughs] Yeah, I think ideally we would’ve shot a year earlier. But I feel very grateful for that year. I was able, as a result, to go through the Sundance Directors’ Lab, which was entirely virtual. I’d been through the Writers’ Lab in person in January 2020, and it was the same cohort, so we all knew one another. That really was the last big shift in the script, but it was a very meaningful one.

DEADLINE: What kind of advice did you get from the Lab?

WELLS: Lots of practical advice about directing and prep, but much of it was script-oriented – script work and character work. There was always a lot of frustration around the character of Calum, and I was able to address that after that Directors’ Lab. I realized that it was important for me that the tension in the film should not be from within his relationship with Sophie, which was the subject of a lot of the feedback I received — I was told that there should be more tension from their relationship. And I think that sometimes when you hear something you disagree with, it clarifies your own position. And so I removed all the tension. There were many other pieces of advice I did take, but that was one that I pushed against. It’s still very subtle, but what I did after that was, I redrafted the script and I wrote out index cards for every scene, and I laid them on the floor. But I started with all of Calum’s private moments, so that I could, for myself, be very clear about how they tracked over the film. That was a big leap forward.

DEADLINE: What were those kinds of private moments?

WELLS: Like, he’s dancing on the balcony at the beginning. Practicing Tai Chi. Watching back video footage. The same piece of footage that, once, he finds kind of validation and solace in, and the second time, for many reasons, it is too painful for him to look at. There’s also the scene of him in the bath with the cloth over his face, which actually occurred much earlier in the original script. We moved it in the edit, but it’s still there. So I was just being clear about where these scenes were placed, what they told the audience, how they gradually unveiled the character’s private struggle away from his daughter and what they accumulated to.

DEADLINE: I noticed that he has a Margaret Tait book, by the TV set.

WELLS: Yeah. That’s just a quiet nod to a filmmaker, an artist, I have a lot of respect and admiration for. The first Scottish women to direct a feature film.

DEADLINE: Had you gone the other way, you might not have got Paul, because it seems that what attracted him to the role was the lack of conflict, being able to play a good father.

WELLS: Yeah, I think so. I think he was attracted to the central relationship and the fact that it wasn’t fueled by tension, that it didn’t follow an arc of a superficial relationship that turned sour only to arrive at a more meaningful relationship. That wasn’t the story I was interested in telling. It was very important to me that, right off the bat, this be a relationship that’s clearly filled with love.

DEADLINE: It’s such an impressionistic film. Did you achieve that by taking things away in the edit, or did you do that at script stage?

WELLS: Both. I didn’t shoot anything I didn’t want to be in the film. There isn’t some grand scene of exposition that would offer clarity — like, a very concrete type of clarity that perhaps some people are looking for, because I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Because I think if you have it, you put yourself in a position where you may be forced to use it. So there was never anything like that. But there is plenty that isn’t in the final cut, that was lost in service of the edit. And there were specifically, like, two or three scenes where music and picture work together, or the picture and score work together, where the cutting becomes a little bit more fragmented or traverses time and place. There were discoveries in the edit that were originally just strategies that we used to solve problems but which ended up being quite a meaningful strategy in terms of creating a sense of memory.

DEADLINE: There’s a very abrupt cut where we jump forward in time and see the rug that Calum has bought from a Turkish market stall. It now belongs to Sophie. Am I right to pick up on that as a portent of way this story is going?

WELLS: That it’s adult Sophie in that moment with the rug? Yeah. That moment always seemed a little crazy to me, both in the script and even in the film. The jump, so late in the course of action, throws us into a present moment that we don’t really otherwise experience in the film apart from right at the end. But it was always there, and I think I trusted that it felt right and I stopped second guessing it. And I also trusted my collaborators — they found it to be meaningful. It was a nice way to connect the past and the present through this object, this object which remains unchanged. That was something I was playing with a little in the film: the idea that objects, like places, can feel unchanged while people evolve.

DEADLINE: That’s the moment where I started feeling a sense of unease.

WELLS: Yeah, I think that’s reasonable. I mean, you understand the carpet is no longer with him. I think that tells you something quite clearly.

DEADLINE: Did you ever think of taking it out?

WELLS: I didn’t think of taking it out once the film was in the edit, but I thought of taking it out at the script stage. But there are things like that that you don’t take out in the script stage because you just don’t know. If there’s a doubt that something will work like that, I think you shoot it and then you give yourself the opportunity to decide later. And once it was in, it was very clear what it was doing. And it connected things together. If at that point in the film you were still unsure of who the woman is in the rave, it offers an answer there.

DEADLINE: Did you test-screen the film?

WELLS: We did. We did two test screenings. We did one in New York and one in L.A. — friends and family screenings, just to get people in a room. Because I think with a film like this, at a certain point, once you’ve been working on it, even for producers and financiers who are the main voices giving feedback, it becomes really hard at a certain point to know whether something is working. Especially something where you’re kind of cutting in the margins: they’re very fine cuts, but they make a very big difference. We learned quite early on that a small change would have quite a big ripple effect through the experience of watching the film. And so we did do feedback screenings, which were fascinating in different ways, because the room, collectively, completely understood the film. In a way we were quite shocked by, at the time. And I think, ultimately, indicated the potential for where we are now, which is that many people do connect with the film.

I didn’t fully understand the meaning of that then, but I do now. Which is that there are different paths through the film to reach the same conclusion. You can pick up on different details and still arrive at the same point. For the one we did in L.A., we replaced the original rave footage with stuff we had reshot, just to give it a little bit more clarity, and it didn’t work. That was interesting too, because the rave footage was so impressionistic — it was this kind of raw expression of feeling, and it couldn’t be too clear because then you couldn’t feel it. So we ended up using the original footage and incorporating, very selectively, moments from the reshot footage that we’d captured.

DEADLINE: How did it feel to show the film to an Edinburgh audience?

WELLS: It was terrifying. It was a room filled with everyone I had ever known up until the age of 19. Friends, family, teachers — everyone. It was really special. It’s hard to separate it from the personal experience of being in a room with so many people I love. But that that’s what it was for me. And it was in the place where this all began and in the place where I started watching films and fell in love with films. I could never have imagined that I would present a film in that festival, let alone, present it on opening night. And I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. It meant so much more to me than I even could have guessed.

What are your thoughts on what’s happened in Edinburgh recently, which the dissolving of the Edinburgh film festival and the closure of the Filmhouse?

WELLS: It’s devastating. I hope a solution can be found, and I’m sure there’ll be hope for the festival to reemerge. I worry so much about the cinemas, because they are the meeting point. They’re where I discovered film. They’re what presents an alternative form of cinema. And some of that is played in mainstream cinemas these days, which is testament to the work that places like the Filmhouse have done. And so it’s just such a cruel fate that they’ve suffered as a result of their success. I very much hope that it can be saved. I can’t imagine Edinburgh without the Filmhouse.

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