One of the most important elements of A24’s Aftersun is its ambiguity; the tender, stark story of a father-daughter vacation plays with memory, leaving small hints about the eventual fate of its protagonist but leaving things mostly up to the audience to fill in. As the writer-director of what has become one of this awards season’s biggest breakouts, Charlotte Wells has garnered a reputation for her devotion to that element of mystery. She keeps a hard line when it comes to over-explaining Aftersun‘s ending, resisting the urge to offer viewers the answers they often seek. “I will never deny somebody’s experience of the film,” says Wells. “I think the loss at the end resonates just as deeply for everyone, regardless of how you’re filling in the gaps in the story.”
Wells’ feature debut follows Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (young newcomer Frankie Corio) as they spend a week on a Turkish island. Calum, who is no longer with Sophie’s mother, pushes himself to give his daughter a memorable holiday while dealing with an increasingly obvious (to the viewer at least) bout of depression and anxiety. Their story is told through an adult Sophie’s memories — memories that, by the final frame, attempt to reconcile with the fact that it was the last time she saw her father. There is, however, one element of the record that Wells will always correct: “I don’t think that they are estranged in the film,” says Wells. “If I hear somebody describe this film as being about an ‘estranged’ father and daughter, it’s hard not to answer that their relationship is intimate and loving. I will refute something if it’s wildly at odds with the heart of the film.”
As the major awards shows loom, Wells spoke to THR about what the positive reception has been like, what she considers the most pivotal scenes and how she chose the tunes for the movie’s crucial musical moments.
This film has had a long, slow burn from its May debut at Cannes in May. Has the way you relate to the material changed at all as it gains traction?
When I saw Aftersun at the Telluride Film Festival, it was the first nice experience I had watching — and it was very clear that there was no need to watch it, perhaps ever again. (Laughs.) I did do a director’s commentary, which was completely surreal, but I don’t count that as watching so much as reliving what was happening beyond the frame. I’ve been speaking about the film so much that it strangely starts to feel like some abstraction that isn’t real. But during Telluride, I was reminded of it as a tangible thing again, and I’ve tried to hold that feeling with me since.
Calum’s story is one that invites a lot of debate, but can we assume that you have no internal debate about his life and what happens to him?
I had to know what all the answers were, I had to have a clear sense of my intention to make this film. I couldn’t be ambiguous with myself about what was happening or the film wouldn’t work — for anybody. But I knew that I was creating it in such a way that reads would vary. I will say that some people’s responses have been almost exactly aligned with my intentions.
One thing that isn’t up for debate is that the film slowly reveals Calum’s inner turmoil. Do you have a specific moment in which you chose to unveil that?
Every viewer has a different moment of realization. It’s hard not to think about how I constructed it. That first scene of Calum smoking on the balcony — what’s interesting to me from the filmmaker point of view is we chose that take really late in the process. It’s such an important moment in establishing the language of the film and indicating to the audience, “Hey, lean in here. Watch what’s happening. Don’t be afraid to look further.” When we went to Cannes and did the tech check, when Sophie’s breath crescendos during the scene, I remember thinking that it was too quiet. I found myself physically leaning out of my seat to hear it. And then I thought, “Oh, that was my intention.” (Laughs.)
What was the original version of that scene?
I originally imagined that it would cut to a shot of Calum standing on the railing outside, smoking a cigarette. It was a very precarious image, with him perched outrageously on the third-floor balcony. It was one of the earliest images I had in mind for the film, which is why it was so hard for me to let it go for the one we did use. That railing scene, which now comes a little bit later in the story, is to me the further unveiling of Calum’s private struggle. And then when he spits into the mirror, that is the moment when it becomes irrefutable. Up until that point, you could explain away his behavior: He can’t sleep because it’s hot, he’s somewhere new. But the moment he spits, rationalizations become difficult to justify.
In that moment, he’s listening to his daughter describe what sounds like symptoms of depression — her “bones are tired,” for example. Is there some self-loathing in Calum that maybe he’s passed on to her?
Well, what’s so tricky now that you ask that is her descriptions could be an indicator of a lifelong thing, or she could just be a kid who had a great day and now the adrenaline’s gone and she’s crashing. I had to constantly calibrate everything so that it didn’t push the narrative one way or the other. But that’s the kind of question that will become informed by every viewer’s own life experience.
There’s a key musical scene in Aftersun: Sophie singing a depressing rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Can you talk about that?
Getting permission for the music you want is a very real thing. Our music supervisor had originally asked me to come up with alternatives for “Losing My Religion,” which was a problem because I felt that nothing else would be remotely appropriate. The lyrics in that scene are going to be read into, it’s completely unavoidable. I had chosen that song instinctively; it was probably the first song I ever knew all the words to at age 5 or 6. That’s a completely absurd image now, but it’s the product of having had young parents, I’m sure. But it was a song I have strong emotions about, that I connect to my dad and I’m really grateful we got it. I also have to give credit to Frankie because we only had one and a half takes to get it. She hates that song, she wouldn’t rehearse it, and I had to sing it to try and encourage her to come onstage for the shot. Paul reminded me of that recently.
And what about the soul-crushing final scene set to “Under Pressure”?
When we filmed that scene in the warehouse, we used proper rave music but just to help the actors. I had been aware of this stripped-back version of “Under Pressure,” where you can hear David Bowie and Freddie Mercury really going for each other, and I pulled that into the edit — I don’t even know why I did it. I needed something to match the rhythm of the dance scene and it irrefutably worked. In some ways, it’s an outrageous exposition. It’s a heart-on-your-sleeve moment. But because we’d avoided that in the film for the most part, we figured we could get away with it. It felt like a gift to the viewer, like here’s a little bit more of a hint. It gives you closure that you are correct in the direction your mind has been spiraling.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.