Charlotte Wells, Paul Mescal discuss ‘Aftersun’ and its broader themes of reflection and memory

Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells and Irish actor Paul Mescal sit down to discuss ‘Aftersun’ and their experiences in making the movie and taking it across the globe

January 06, 2023 05:33 pm | Updated 05:40 pm IST

Charlotte Wells (left); Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in a still from ‘Aftersun’ (right)

Charlotte Wells (left); Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in a still from ‘Aftersun’ (right) | Photo Credit: Emma McIntyre and Sarah Makharine

A young father, Calum Paterson [Paul Mescal], and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie Patterson [Frankie Corio], go on a one-week holiday to a Turkish resort. Set in the late 1990s, time freezes for both Calum and Sophie when they are together. Over the course of the trip, the father and daughter learn and discover what is known and common, and what is unknown and uncommon between them. They create memories that would last for a lifetime. Memories that Sophie tries to capture in real-time by filming her father on a camera.

Much later in her life, when she is at a crossroads, perhaps at the same age as Calum when they went on a vacation, Sophie revisits the memory of her father to understand him and her own feelings better. An autobiographical fiction, the movie is seen through the perspective of a young Sophie, and there is a secondary point of view we get through the adult Sophie.

Aftersun received a two-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, where it also won a jury prize last year. Recalling the memorable moment, Charlotte Wells has a tongue-in-cheek response: “I was just so confused as to why people weren’t leaving. And what was taking them so long to leave the cinema,” she laughs. “It really took a moment to understand what was happening.”

Connecting over a video call from London, where Aftersun was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival in October 2022, Wells and Mescal agree that the movie just grew on the audience with which they watched at Cannes. “There is something about sharing a movie with an audience for the first time and getting the desired response. It’s deeply satisfying,” says Mescal.

Excerpts from an edited interview:

Charlotte, you had earlier made a short film called Tuesday, which was also about a father and daughter. At what point did you decide to explore this relationship further in Aftersun?

Charlotte: It was a continuation of sorts, to be honest. I conceived this movie right after finishing that short film, and before I made two other shorts. And I’ve just been steadily working on it [Aftersun] since then, while pursuing other things and making short films.

Now that it has been going on for a while, I don’t remember the exact starting point. But there were lots of moments of inspiration that fed into the early idea: a young father and daughter on a holiday. They are young enough to be mistaken as siblings. Over the course of writing, I think it became more personal and this process of reflecting on memories became increasingly interwoven into the script.

Paul, when you got this offer, was there a moment in the script that you felt you could relate to on a personal level? 

Paul: I wanted to be involved in the film early on, after the first couple of days after reading the script. It wasn’t a moment, but it was the essence of the film, and what it was working towards at a deeper level. When I I read the script for the first time, it was exactly what I saw for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival. The feelings matched.

You said that, “seeing someone try to succeed to be a good father and sometimes failing is truly tragic, and really moving.” Like in the movie, you are too young to be playing a father. Did you find it difficult to understand Calum?

Paul: Calum is an excellent father. I spoke to Charlotte early on and we agreed that it is one of the things he’s best at: being a father. I think seeing him want to be the version of a father he has mapped out in his head doesn’t necessarily make him a bad father. It shows his human nature.

I think we have the idea of labelling our parents as one thing, like “this is my dad” and “that is my mom”. And this movie illustrates that there is so much going on beneath the surface for our parents.

Charlotte, was it emotionally draining for you to relive memories that you had with your father?

Charlotte: I don’t think so. It really happened so slowly during the course of writing. I was never trying to recreate the holiday I had. It really is a fictional movie. It’s just that my own memory has formed the skeleton of the first draft of the script. And I saw this as a nice opportunity to reflect back on those memories.

Was there a realisation about yourself?

Charlotte: I don’t think I undertook the process of looking back to arrive at an understanding. I do think that there was some meaning for me in the process of making this movie. And spending time reflecting on that relationship. Ultimately, I wanted to create a version inspired by it in a positive way.

There are plenty of shots in Aftersun where you only get to see the reflection of the father and daughter. Sometimes we see their reflection on television, in the mirror, on a table and whatnot. Was this a conscious aesthetic choice, given that the film’s larger theme seems to be reflection?

Charlotte: Absolutely. Our cinematographer [Gregory Oke] is interested in shooting through mirrors and frames, something more abstract. It definitely has some connection to the idea of memory and looking back. It also made us look into a few scenes to show what it is when you look through it with a specific lens.

One of the things that truly work in Aftersun is the chemistry between Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio. Was that something that you guys worked on?

Paul: A true relationship between two people is not something you can plan. It was helped greatly by the fact we were able to rehearse. But essentially, it was the time for me, Charlotte, and Frankie, to get to know each other and build trust. Once the foundation was set, it only became stronger. To try and accelerate a relationship that is believable between father and daughter in two weeks is quite challenging. I’m just grateful that it was there with Frankie.

Do you take something out from your characters, Paul?

Paul: It takes me a long time to reflect on the parts I play. I haven’t seen a movie like this [Aftersun] in a while. You try to analyse yourself while watching this movie, like how I remember my parents and myself.

Paul, you said in an interview that you “just want to focus on independent cinema”...

Paul: I feel like I have shot myself in the foot with that quote [laughs]. But I think what I mean by that is that it is incredibly satisfying as an actor to be part of a film of this nature that allows you to share an intimate relationship with the director and the rest of the actors. But I don’t think that is exclusive to independent cinema. I think it is an association I have with it. I also think it is important to stretch different muscles; I would like to do an action movie. But it’s all relative and depends on trusting the instinct of what I want to do creatively at that moment. That is the luxury of being an actor.

Aftersun is currently streaming on MUBI India

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