Q&A: Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells is one of the most promising voices in British cinema

NYU alum Charlotte Wells speaks to WSN on directing her first feature film, working with actors Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, and her cinematic influences.

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NYU alum Charlotte Wells speaks about her directorial debut. (Courtesy of A24)

Stephanie Wong, Film & TV Editor

Charlotte Wells’ subtle yet mesmerizing debut feature film, “Aftersun,” is an introspective exploration of one girl’s relationship with her late father. Wells’ filmography — consisting mostly of short films that she made as part of the NYU Tisch Graduate Film program — had already been drawing attention prior to “Aftersun.” Her shorts have been screened at various festivals worldwide; her second short film “Laps” won the Short Film Special Jury Prize for Editing at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. 

WSN sat down with Wells to talk about her process writing “Aftersun,” her artistic influences, and what advice she has to give to fellow filmmakers from NYU. 

[Read more: NYFF 60 Review: ‘Aftersun’ is a tender exploration of the intimate space between a daughter and father]

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: What initial idea did the writing for “Aftersun” stem from?

Wells: There were lots of different starting points so it’s hard to pinpoint one exactly. In a lot of ways, the film is a continuation of ideas that I began exploring in my very first short film, “Tuesday.” I did an independent study with my professor in my last year at film school where we started exploring those ideas a little more; she would send me off to watch films that were similar thematically or in characters. 

Ultimately, I was flipping through some old holiday albums and I think that’s where the idea really crystallized. I was struck by how young my dad looked — I was probably around the age that he was in the photographs. And so the idea persisted. I continued to work on it and took myself on a holiday after finishing film school to Cypress with one of my classmates. From there, it just became a thing. It was a long journey to get to the final script.

WSN: Did the story of the film change a lot throughout the writing process?

Wells: Yeah! I think when I conceived of it in those early days it was a little bit more straightforward. I focused on a father and daughter on holiday and the trials and tribulations of their relationship, with Calum being a young father and balancing that with being a young person. Over the course of writing, I used my own memories to form that first outline of the script and reflected on my past. I think that process of reflection itself became a part of the story.

WSN: You said that a lot of the film is based around your own experiences and acts as an emotional autobiography of sorts. What do you think you — aged 11, like Sophie in the film — would think upon seeing the film you’ve made today?

Wells: That’s an interesting question. I think my 11-year-old self would probably feel bored? I kind of look to Frankie Corio when I think about that question. Frankie was so unexpectedly moved by the film as a cinemagoer — like, outside of her own experience working with the film. It really surprised me. Who knows? Maybe 11-year-old me would also surprise me in that way too.

[Read more: Q&A: Frankie Corio speaks about her debut acting role in ‘Aftersun’]

WSN: I was talking to Frankie earlier. She said that while the whole filmmaking process was underway, you intentionally kept a lot of the script vague to her to kind of preserve that innocence that was key to her character in the film. What was your thought process behind that?

Wells: Yeah, my casting director Lucy Pardee recommended that I not share a script with Frankie so that no scene would become overlearned and not be at risk of sounding too “written.” So when we did share a script, it was going to be in the context of Paul Mescal and Frankie sitting around a table in the two weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting, when we were all getting to know each other. But, I redacted it because it felt unnecessary to do that in the limited time that we had, and because I think it made more sense that Frankie had no clue of what was happening with Calum. Otherwise, I think there may have been a risk of it impacting her performance. 

I think it was also constructive for Paul that Frankie not know, because it forced him to protect her in the same way that the character, Calum, protects Sophie. There were moments on set where that had a really practical application. For example, that scene where Calum spits on the mirror. They were both on set and we see — as the camera pans back to Calum in the shot — at the end of the scene, Frankie would get up from the bed and leave the room with Paul together. They would remain outside the room together and we would reset. Paul had to shift from being in that internal space that allowed him to play that intense scene, back to playfully hanging out with Frankie. To some degree, that reflects what that character had to do in that moment, so it all played into itself.

WSN: Were there any challenges when directing Frankie, who hadn’t had any prior acting experience?

Wells: Not really. It was a pleasure, honestly. There were moments that were challenging, like trying to help her get to where she needed, but that was rare. She soaked up the dialogue immediately. Though, there were some scenes where she struggled to appreciate their intentions. 

The curse and gift of having a kid on set is that time is so limited, so there’s this strain on production to get through the material with the enforced breaks that come with working with a child actor. It would sometimes come inconveniently when we were in the rhythm and in the middle of shooting something — but it also forced us to be present. If Frankie ever needed help to get through something, it was really easy to push all of that out of my mind and super nice to have a reason to. 

It doesn’t matter if you get a scene if it isn’t good, so it forced me to calm down and be present with her. Sometimes she found it in her own words. Sometimes it meant really talking through the intention of what she was saying. But, every so often, she surprised us in the best ways possible with her performance in the film. She was astounding.

WSN: How did the decision to cast Paul Mescal come about? Had you seen his performance in “Normal People” prior to casting him?

Wells: I had! When his name first came up, I watched everything of his I could get my hands on: interviews, clips online and music videos. I liked the idea of casting him very much. I remember sitting and watching a music video of Paul on my kitchen table and thinking, “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” And then he was unavailable, which was hard, so I had to push the idea of casting him out of my mind and start thinking about other options. 

Fortunately, though, our dates shifted and we still hadn’t quite cracked the casting of Calum yet, so he came back into consideration. I was able to chat with him, and we had an amazing first conversation where he was just so thoughtful and passionate about the script, empathetic towards the character, and so willing to do whatever he needed to do to make the role work. He put in so much work on set to build a genuine connection with Frankie, and I think I could see from the first meeting we had that he cares deeply about the film. 

WSN: I remember Frankie telling me earlier that her and Paul would get waffles and pancakes together a lot outside of filming.

Wells: [laughs] Yes, they were basically on holiday together. 

WSN: What other films or filmmakers would you say influenced “Aftersun”?

Wells: So many! “Alice in the Cities” by Win Wenders, Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” Chantal Akerman’s shorts and features, Claire Denis, Edward Yang, Ingmar Bergman, just to name a few.

WSN: Do you cite anyone in particular as a primary influence of yours when it comes to filmmaking?

Wells: I don’t think so? I think I like being inspired by images, camera movements and scenes in other people’s work. I think some of my references that I just listed are more obvious in my work than others. When I look at my films, I do see something that runs through them all, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. I think it is some reflection of how I see the world and how I make films. But, I’m never trying to directly emulate anyone, beyond being like, “I love this scene and I want to be inspired by it.” So far, I’ve been quite sure of what I’ve wanted to say.

WSN: Are there any particular scenes in “Aftersun” that, as you say, were inspired by images you’ve seen in other works?

Wells: Oh, for sure. There was the tai-chi scene between Sophie and Calum — that was inspired by the exercise scene in “Alice in the Cities.” I definitely had “Somewhere” in mind during the underwater scene. The 365-degree pan around the room was inspired by Chantal Akerman’s 1972 short, “La Chambre,” which was shot in New York. In “Aftersun,” we don’t stay in the room but cut to the airport — that’s an example of taking something from another filmmaker but making it my own. I’m always thinking about Lynne Ramsay when I’m capturing details, like really specific gestures. I think she’s such a master at it; I never quite figured out precisely what makes her images so evocative.

One thing I’m still learning is the difference between words on a page that convey a specific sensation and how to transfer that to the screen. There are plenty of places where I was successfully able to do that in the film, but there’s others that I could never quite work out how to draw off the page. I think that will definitely affect the way I write going forward — just to have a better sense of what does translate and what doesn’t. 

WSN: Going back to the meditative scenes, like with the tai-chi, a specific aspect of your film that really struck me were the scenes that were dedicated just to the characters breathing and taking in those moments in time. What was your thought process behind those scenes?

Wells: I started playing a lot with breathing in my last short — it was the opening and provided a rhythm. I’m really interested in physical motion and breathing ties into that. As I continued to develop the script, I began to write in breaths as a way of tying together time in a certain sense. I also read an article about footsteps in Chantal Akerman’s work — I remember thinking, “That’s kind of an articulation of what I think I might be trying to do with breath.” It was nice to read a formalized version of that. It made me better able to articulate my intention with breaths in this film. It is something that carries from beginning to end, and evolves. I like how much it forces an audience to lean in. 

WSN: A lot of aspiring indie filmmakers at NYU read our publication, and I’m sure they’d love to hear about your journey as a fellow filmmaker from NYU. What was the process like going from making your shorts into your own feature film?

Wells: I think there are three key elements to that. One is that I developed a really close group of collaborators at NYU — we all work reciprocally on each other’s work. We continue to stay in touch and work together. Everybody directs and everybody has another thing, whether that’s producing, or shooting, or editing, or production design and costumes. I think there’s something really nice about that, because it allows us to all go quite far with very little. I think that was essential to moving through shorts, especially.

I was very lucky that one of my shorts got into Sundance. It wasn’t Sundance per se that made the difference, but I can’t not acknowledge the impact that it had. While it may not have opened doors, it presented a lot of them. When my second short film got into Sundance, one of my classmates from several years above me — because I was in the dual-degree program, which tends to attract more producers than it does directors — shared my work with their colleagues. That was also very much part of the network that NYU provided. Through sharing my work, I eventually found my producer.

Also, I’m British and very fortunate to come from a place that has national funding, which gave me access to money that I think would have otherwise been much harder to come by, had it been exclusively financed here.

Finally, I never said no to a meeting. It was a huge investment of my time, and I didn’t always connect with people. But, I think that if you’re open and you meet with as many people as you can, it does eventually lead to meaningful connections, and I think that’s all you can really look for in this industry — people that you connect, and share similar tastes and work ethic with.

Contact Stephanie Wong at [email protected]yunews.com.