Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells’s debut, Aftersun, about a father-daughter holiday at a Turkish beach resort in the late 1990s, is the low-budget movie that roared. It’s been nominated for four Baftas, including Best British Film and Leading Actor for her 26-year-old star Paul Mescal (of Normal People fame). And now Mescal has been Oscar-nominated.
It’s marvellous to see an arthouse film reaching so many people, but the scrutiny can be hard; the film is loosely inspired by Wells’s relationship with her father.
“I’m an incredibly private person, even with people I know,” she admits. “And I’ve put myself in this wild position of immense vulnerability on screen. For the most part, writing is a completely silent, individual process. It’s just you in your head, at your computer or in a cafe, spending too much money on endless coffee. It's been tricky to navigate. But there are some things I’ve drawn a firm line on. Just so there’s some sense of something for myself.”
In the film single dad Calum (Mescal), is determined to create a memorable holiday for his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (played by brilliant newcomer Frankie Corio). But it’s clear Calum is depressed. Twenty years later, Sophie looks back at holiday Polaroids and camcorder footage, trying to piece together what happened.
It’s a moment Wells understands. At film school in New York in 2015, she found herself looking at photos of a joyful two-week holiday she spent, age 10, with her father in Turkey and was struck by how young her father looked. She decided to write a story about a positive single father/daughter relationship - rather than the traditional “deadbeat dad” you often see on screen. “I wanted the relationship to be loving and intimate from the first frame.”
She doesn’t talk directly about what happened with her own father but says the film is “emotionally autobiographical”. She wanted “to capture the warmth and love of that within the context of the grief that I experienced and maybe hadn’t fully dealt with when I was a teenager”. Watching her earlier short film, Tuesday, about a schoolgirl who visits her father’s ominously empty house, feels like an important piece of the jigsaw.
“I've been kind of waging a battle over the course of talking about this,” she says, taking a tactical sip of tea. “The emotion of Aftersun is very much mine. And it's been a journey to figure out how to talk about that and sever the strictly autobiographical link people are inclined to draw, because I don't see it that way.”
She screened the film for her mother before Cannes. “I wanted her to have the chance to see it before sitting in a room with 400 people. And yeah, I think there’s just a lot of joy and pride about the film in the family.”
Aftersun is not linear - the film flashes forward, there are puzzling jump-cuts, recreating Calum’s mental state. The sequence where Wells intercuts Sophie at a rave with her “last dance” with her dad at the holiday resort, to the sound of David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure, is devastating (only later did Wells realise how apt the lyrics are).
She is touched by responses to the film. “Because it’s anchored in Sophie’s point of view, I thought more about the Sophies in the world than the Calums, which was a fairly huge underestimation. I’ve had feedback from daughters, fathers, parents, feedback from people who have suffered from depression or struggled with other mental health issues. And those have been some of the most meaningful interactions with audiences I've had.”
With her boyish crop, Wells looks younger than 35. Today she’s wearing the blue and white marble-pattern shirt she bought on a drunken whim at Cannes (where Aftersun won the 2022 Critic’s Week Award). If you squint she could be the adult version of her young screen protagonist Sophie.
Though Wells has been careful to stress that Calum and Sophie are fictional characters, her own mother mistook child-actor Frankie for Charlotte at Cannes. “Which is strange because she was 11,” Wells says wryly.
Tellingly Wells bleached her dark hair blonde just before she filmed Aftersun in February 2021. “It took a year to grow out,” she groans. “It cycled through a few colours that year.”
Frankie, who stuns with her incredibly natural performance, was picked from 800 applicants, while Mescal was always first choice.
Did she see a quality in him that recalled her father? “You’re constantly in this subconscious cycle of the push and pool of casting, towards or against the point of inspiration. And consciously, I will always choose to cast against, but subconsciously, I'm constantly pulled back … Paul’s name came up. I watched all the footage I could get my hands on: videos, adverts, interviews beyond Normal People. And he felt right.”
Because of Covid restrictions, Mescal sent her a tape of himself smoking and dancing to Blur (which became the film’s opening). Later he met Frankie on Zoom and the chemistry was through the roof.
Wells praises Mescal’s warmth and intelligence but if anything she played down his heartthrob status on screen. She’s wary of shooting beauty for beauty’s sake.
In the scene where Calum weeps, she films Mescal facing the wall, rather than focusing on his face. “There is no future in front of Calum. He feels enclosed and boxed in. But, in fact,” she smiles, “it’s one of the most aesthetically beautiful shots in the film.”
Does she worry about the media’s obsession with Mescal? “He’s got his head screwed on. He knows what he wants. He's interested in good work and being a great actor. So long as those are the priorities he’ll be just fine.”
The ending of Aftersun is enigmatic. Does Calum go back to a life of debt and unemployment or make a darker choice? As he exits the airport, it feels like he’s entering a Hades-style underworld. It comes as no surprise that Wells studied classics at King’s College London then did an MA at Oxford.
She grew up in Edinburgh. Her parents separated when she was young but co-parented. In Aftersun there’s a lovely moment when Calum tells Sophie her mother will always be family to him. “That was the relationship my parents had, they were always really close friends. And that’s a pretty special thing to see growing up.”
Armed with a Cineworld £9.99 film pass, Wells watched film obsessively. “My dad would push me towards films a little bit outside of the mainstream. And the Edinburgh Film Festival really opened things up. I remember the first time I went to three films a day.”
After university she worked with a school friend who started a post-production company. “I ran it for a couple of years. And used that to pivot into the film-producing program at NYU.”
Her short film, Laps, about a woman assaulted on the subway (based on an experience that happened to Wells), won a jury prize at Sundance and introduced her to producer Adele Romanski of Pastel (the company she co-founded with Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight).
When Wells pitched Aftersun, Pastel were onboard. The film took seven years to make. There hasn’t been much time for sleep and exercise; Wells talks enviously of her brother who is a fantastic swimmer. She lives in New York but is here often (her mother is based in the south east).
She has no idea what’s next. “I have a page of 10 ideas that are no more than one sentence.” Though she’s open to adapting a novel. “Ali Smith wrote that great book [Girl Meets Boy], based on one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”
Wells is quick to credit female directors who influenced her - Lynne Ramsay, Joanna Hogg, Sally Potter, Margaret Tate. “The success of this film is not unrelated to the path they forged.” She’s frustrated not to see more women directors recognised at the Oscars and Césars this year. “That’s the reality of the systemic problems that endure in the industry.”
You need a core of steel to direct, she acknowledges. “That’s never the most enjoyable part of the job, when you are pushing for that little bit more when everybody’s exhausted. And it’s always a judgment call of whether that ask was worth it.”
A serious auteur, Wells can be a snappy dresser. At the British Independent Film Awards, her maroon suit worn with the marble-pattern shirt drew praise. The Baftas are in two weeks. Does she worry about what to wear?
“I do, and I haven’t. I need to figure that out when I get back to New York,” she laughs.
The Bafta Awards take place on Sunday February 19. Aftersun is in select UK cinemas and on MUBI now