Director Charlotte Wells On ‘Aftersun’ And The Accumulation & Artifacts Of Memory [NYFF]

Jan 30, 2023

Every moment makes a memory, one that’s finite and fading but also leaves a trace behind of who we once were and what we once knew. All that we recall of our experiences, what lingers of them, exists somewhere between reality and our perception of it: between what was said, what was seen, what was felt, and what could be understood only later. 
Looking back on childhood, especially, demands the reconciliation of certain temporal, spatial, and also emotional tensions: between a past that formed us in more ways than we realized and a present that affords us time and distance from which to remember, to forget, and perhaps to see things more clearly. Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells’ debut feature “Aftersun,” about a father and daughter on vacation, heightens this memory play with other formalistic tensions, gradually materializing as an examination of the gulf between what can be directly preserved — in slow-developing Polaroids, grainy camcorder footage, and the film’s own, haunted 35mm frames — and what swirls, elusive yet ineffable, in the many spaces between its characters.
READ MORE: ‘Aftersun’ Review: Paul Mescal Elevates A Hazy, ‘90s-Nostalgic Memory That’s All About The Vibes [Cannes]
Unfolding mainly in the 1990s, “Aftersun” (in select theaters this week, then expanding; via A24) follows pre-teen Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio) and her divorced father Calum (“Normal People” star Paul Mescal) on a trip to a Turkish holiday resort. Both are approaching precipices of a kind — Sophie’s turning 11 and soon to feel the uncertain stirrings of adolescence; Calum is about to be 32 and withdrawing, quietly, into a depression he tries to shield his daughter from. But they navigate this vacation with a cheerful, leisurely kind of detachment, whether scuba diving together or lounging by the hotel pool. 
Paying particular heed to the tides of light and shadow that softly ebb and flow across their film’s frames (a fixation on the haunting power of reflection they share with “Aftersun” producer Barry Jenkins, and before him Wong Kar-wai), Wells and cinematographer Gregory Oke establish a delicate atmosphere suffused with deep emotion — one made more mysterious and profound by Wells’ interspersing of scenes from the perspective of an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), who scans over the miniDV footage she and her father once recorded as if looking for answers to questions she can’t express. 
After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the French Touch Prize of the Jury, “Aftersun” made its way to the New York Film Festival as a Main Slate selection. For Wells, who’s based in New York and wrote and directed her three previous short films as a student in the MBA/MFA dual-degree program at NYU, the NYFF premiere registered as a kind of a homecoming. Midway through the festival, a few hours before speaking with writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve about the role of remembrance in their films, Wells sat down in Lincoln Center for an interview about “Aftersun,” its sense of emotional accumulation, and that seismic final needle-drop.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Its last question and answer contain some spoilers for “Aftersun.” 
How have you been enjoying NYFF this year? I understand you’re based in the city.Yeah, I’ve been in New York for almost ten years now, so it’s very nice to have a festival be local, but it’s also different from other festival experiences I’ve been having recently. I have attended NYFF in the past, and it is surreal being up at Lincoln Center.
Have you had the chance to see anything else playing at the festival this year?I saw “Showing Up” and “Stars at Noon.” I loved them both. They played quite late at Cannes, so I missed them there. And they’re both beautiful. I mean, Kelly Reichardt and Claire Denis are two of my favorite filmmakers, and I think they’re two extremely strong films.
In “Stars at Noon,” I was so taken with Denis’ way of filming actors’ bodies, including that scene where Margaret Qualley’s character grips Joe Alwyn’s back when they’re in bed together, leaving a trace.Right, right: the handprint.
Having seen “Aftersun” recently as well, I thought about these emotive moments you create through how you position your actors, such as the sequences when Paul Mescal’s character is shot in darkness from behind, his torso heaving with sobs.What’s so funny about that, specifically, is that there was an entire scene in “Aftersun” where Sophie slapped suntan lotion on his back and left a handprint. And it burns. There’s a burnt handprint left on his back. Both the moment she does it, and the moment that he realizes there’s a handprint on his back, just didn’t make the final cut for reasons of scenes and pace and everything else. But it’s a real shame, because it’s a detail I really loved. But so it goes, in the edit.
You collaborated closely with editor Blair McClendon, as you have on past projects. As this film capturing the fluidity of memory and perception, “Aftersun” has this delicate flow that for a time almost conceals its emotional undertow and accumulation. What can you tell me about any elements of finding this film in the edit?There are two parts to that. There’s not many questions relating to the edit I would answer this way, but the accumulation, I think, was script-led. Even though I’m most interested in building to a feeling, I’m very methodical in how I write, and in how I think about the edit, and very aware of where things have to be placed in order to accumulate to something. The last big redraft I did centered on Calum, because Sophie was always so clear, and her coming-of-age arc was very clear and legible. And Calum was always more difficult to find, the balance of him as this charming, playful, loving father, and also as this person who individually is struggling. The last draft of the script I did, I had index cards for every scene, and I laid out at first just those scenes with Calum alone, to track for myself what moments are building to where we land at the end.
And so, when we got into the edit, it was the same process. Starting from the beginning, I printed out the script for us to reference during the edit, and I consulted it once, right at the end. I was like, “What was the script?” In a way, you’re starting all over again with the footage that you have. The script is filled with this infinite possibility, and then you go into production and that possibility becomes very finite. You choose locations, you choose actors, you shoot a scene. Then, suddenly, in the edit, it becomes infinite all over again, because you can cut things in any number of ways.
It’s so funny. You think of editing as this technical craft, but really it’s inside your head. It really is writing, all over again, and it has the pains and tortures of writing. And we had those index cards up on the wall, and most of our time was spent staring at them and talking. Technically, you can execute something very fast. But it’s about where things are and what images cut to other images. How do you derive meaning from an image not in and of itself but by what comes next?
The gradual progression of the film has that quality of allowing you to think more about what you’ve watched in hindsight as one image fades into another.And allowing an image to suddenly recontextualize everything that came before it, too. That’s scary to do, because you have to trust that an audience holds onto things enough to allow something new to offer new meaning to something they’ve already seen. There’s a lot of trust in the audience in this. We never wanted to over-explain ourselves and we hoped that they would be along with us.
More from this interview on page two.

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