For Charlotte Wells, memories can only be true for the person who carries them. Still, the Scottish filmmaker, 35, believes the way an event or interaction made us feeling is more important than its objective correctness.
“Feelings can last a little longer unadulterated than the details of a memory,” she told the Times in a recent video call from New York.
Inspired by her bond with her own late father, Wells’ stunning feature debut Aftersun is a subtly calibrated, emotionally devastating tapestry of such loving and complex memories. The film, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, hits theaters on Friday.
“I had to do that, and I used it as a reason to go back to a time I hadn’t thought about for a long time,” Wells said.
The autobiographical fiction of “Aftersun” awakens her innermost feelings, even if the characters and situations do not quite correspond to her reality: Here Wells’ mental memories of bygone days now construct the story of Calum (“Normal People” Paul Mescal) and Sophie (newcomer ). Frankie Corio), a young father, and his 11-year-old daughter on a sun-soaked holiday in a Turkish seaside resort.
Over the course of their week together, set in the late 1990s, Sophie gets glimpses of Calum’s quiet dissolution despite his efforts to maintain an air of strength one would expect from a parent. To achieve a formally stimulating effect, the main story of “Aftersun” is interspersed with candid home video footage recorded with the fictional family’s camcorder, as well as scenes with the adult Sophie at an otherworldly rave, in which she chases a vision of Calum.
“There’s something very emotionally effective when the main part of the film is a snapshot of their past relationship. And then trying to bring something into an imaginary present,” Mescal said.
These interlocking perspectives create a multi-faceted prism that shows how older Sophie remembers that vacation, what she didn’t know about Calum at the time, what was caught on camera, and how she sees him now that she’s his age.
“She is searching for a new understanding of her father with later knowledge, through her own lens as an adult and as a new parent, and through the love she still carries from him and from the time they had together,” Wells explained . “There’s a search for ways in which they are alike and a gradual understanding of how they differ.”
Aftersun was originally created as a sequel to her debut 2015 short, Tuesday, about a young girl who silently struggles with grief after the death of her father. This thematic ancestor eventually sparked her idea to travel further back into her life for a drama about a father-daughter adventure.
When Wells began looking through old photo albums, she was struck by how young her father looked in them, even though he was nearly her age when she conceived the project. She slowly rummaged through her memories, print and otherwise, to sketch the screenplay: “That’s why it took me so long to write it. Years of sifting through memories, anecdotes and details I wanted to include, not just from a vacation but from my entire childhood,” Wells recalls. “I had to organize them to allow for character development.”
The first element unlocked for Wells was the frame element of the rave, in which Sophie examines the past to understand her present. At one point, Wells even considered playing the adult Sophie himself. “It was important for this film that there was a clear sense of authorship,” Wells said, although she now agrees with her producers that that would have messed up the concept. “We wanted to let the audience know that while this isn’t a literal autobiography, this came from me, it’s rooted in my experience.”
The video that young Sophie shoots with a Calum consumer camera offers another perspective. Immortalized by the device, these impressions – in contrast to human memory – remain unchanged and, in a sense, final. “I remember liking it [the camera footage] as a factual record that provided a direct perspective from one character to another, which could then be reviewed by the other,” she said. “Calum looks at the rendition of Sophie, who unknown captures him earlier in the evening, and sees how she sees him or how she saw him at that moment.”
When he thinks of his own family’s amateur footage of special events, such as a lengthy video his parents made of their children unwrapping Christmas presents, Mescal agrees with Wells about the insights it contains. “What I love [home videos] is that they inherently feel private. They’re not for an audience,” the actor said. “As a result, nothing is uninteresting to the person holding the camera because a loved one is the subject.”
And while “Aftersun’s” story is deeply personal and specific, it still resonates with those whose relationships with their parents are different from Wells’s – like Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, who served as executive producer, and producer Adele Romanski .
“If you listen [Wells] When we talk about her approach to cinematic tools and her approach to building stories, it sounds like the human brain’s processes that move through emotions and move through moods,” Jenkins said. “It’s a magic trick she performs.”
“[She] has so much trust in the audience, recognizing collective experiences that we all remember and picking up on what one might argue is incredibly subtle, but ultimately so honest that one is never unsure of the space the film occupies.” adds Romanski.
Also, the Turkish location comes from a trip Wells made there when she was 10, a trip she couldn’t shake. “That vacation was at that point between childhood and adolescence and wasn’t complicated by the pursuit of teenagers,” she said, laughing.
In the film, Sophie is not entirely immune to the curiosity that older children evoke around them. But while Corio sees many parallels between her and the young protagonist she plays, she has yet to reconnect with this interest in spending time away from her father to blend in with the cool crowd.
“The way she acts is a little bit different than me. I don’t know what other people think when they see it, maybe they think we’re acting the same way,” Corio said via video call. “The fact that she hung out with teenagers who were on vacation wasn’t something I would do. I’d probably stay with my parents, but maybe it was different in the ’90s.”
Mescal, who was born in 1996, fondly recalls a teenage friend he made when he was about Sophie’s age, who confirmed his desire to be seen as more mature in the eyes of his peers. “We had an exchange student from Spain who I was totally in love with. He was the most amazing, charismatic 16-year-old guy,” Mescal recalled. “He played football with me and spent much of his time being kind and generous to me.”
For her part, what Wells saw in Mescal and Corio were performers who were physically and emotionally channeling their father and themselves.
“It was hard to cast that character too far away so I could still feel the connection I needed,” Wells said of Calum. “I wanted it to feel very warm and very solid, like Paul does both emotionally and physically.”
Similarly, on Corio, who was cast after her mother saw a post about the role on a teachers’ Facebook group, Wells admits that she accidentally looked for someone who mirrored her pre-pubescent self in looks and personality.
“My mom first saw Frankie at Cannes and thought now it was me, which is troubling on so many levels, not the least of which is that Frankie is 12 and I’m not,” Wells said. “I definitely cast a kid who looks a lot like me at that age.”
Working with Corio — and guiding her through the scenes in many cases, since Wells didn’t share the script with her youngest star — was “the greatest dress rehearsal of fatherhood,” Mescal said. That meant building a “watertight” relationship between Calum and Sophie, rather than delving into the film’s broader ideas about memory.
“I appreciate the tone of memory, nostalgia and melancholy when I watch it, but when I shot it I wasn’t focused on it. It was about making the present moment as rich as possible so that in the final edit it has the nostalgic effect of memory,” Mescal said. “For the memory to be clear, our job as actors in it is to make it as vivid as possible.”
When Mescal first saw “Aftersun” with audiences in Cannes, he realized what the director was up to. “I’m deeply moved by the film, and not in a purely negative sense,” Mescal remarked. “I felt full and empty at the same time.”
“He’s still growing up,” Mescal explained. “He just turned 30 and I don’t think I’ll fully understand who I am when I turn 30. If you’re a father too, I imagine it must be an alarming feeling to have these feelings inside you that you don’t particularly understand.”
Wells’ own father isn’t here to comment on how closely she, Mescal and Corio matched the real-life relationship the film is based on. On the other hand, as Wells himself would concede, her father’s memories of those years and that journey would inevitably be different from those that emerge in “Aftersun.”
“Memories of times together are held by more than one person, so what does it mean to be the final custodian of a memory of a shared experience? What does it mean to be the only person who remembers something that happened between more than one when the other perspective is lost?” Wells wondered. “It’s a strange feeling.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-21/aftersun-paul-mescal-charlotte-wells-frankie-corio Paul Mescal calls ‘Aftersun’ ‘dress rehearsal’ for fatherhood