It’s not often an indie film – particularly a directorial debut – becomes one of the most anticipated features of the year. For some, a combination of luck and star power can propel them forward, but for others, it’s their ability to turn a specific experience into a familiar one that makes people stop and take notice. There is no doubt that for Aftersun, written and directed by Charlotte Wells, it is the latter.
It’s not hard to see why. Aftersun is a tale of sun-faded memories that will likely leave you reaching for the tissues. Set during a holiday to Turkey in the late 90s, it depicts the complex father-daughter relationship between 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and 31-year-old Calum (Paul Mescal).
Corio has a magnetic quality to her performance that is given the space to shine against Mescal’s subtler but similarly skillful portrayal. The Normal People star melts into a perfect Edinburgh accent modelled after his co-star’s own father.
Wells masterfully weaves layers upon layers of emotion into the film. It is both warm and playful while a sense of underlying pain hums throughout, lending to the heartrending yet tender ache audiences are left with when the credits roll.
SNACK caught up with Charlotte Wells and Frankie Corio ahead of Aftersun’s UK release.
It’s hard to believe that this is your first film, Frankie! What was the process like for you?
Frankie Corio: Exciting, but also confusing. How am I supposed to know anything about acting or what it’s like on a film set? [laughs] But it’s really exciting getting to see how different things are done and obviously getting to be in the film.
How was it getting to know the character of Sophie? Was there anything that you (and Paul) did to get into that father-daughter vibe?
Frankie: Before we turned into Calum and Sophie we had a handshake. I can’t remember it. Actually, if he came up to me and asked me to do it, I’d probably remember it, but I can’t right now.
Charlotte Wells: Oh, you did! I forgot about your handshake. Lucy Pardee, our casting director, had suggested they have a routine that they do as they become the characters, to kind of separate reality from the fiction of the film. It was totally between them and often out of my eye line, which is part of why I don’t remember it. Pretty cool.
Although the film is universally relatable, some parts feel very specifically Scottish, like when Sophie orders a Fanta Lemon with her all-inclusive band. Do you feel that the international audience’s connected to that differently, and how do you feel that that’s going to change with the UK release?
Charlotte: I thought it would have a more limited reach because of the specificity of that experience, but it doesn’t. I think it amplifies the experience if you know to pick up on a detail, like a Fanta Lemon, but it doesn’t detract from it if you don’t. Which is kind of miraculous but I’m not sure why.
I have to admit, the music in the film is way more accessible than I thought it was. I thought it was really specifically British. The Macarena scene was actually a decision between Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Macarena’. I had wanted ‘Saturday Night’, and my American producer (Adele Romanski), who was the first collaborator on board this project, said to me, ‘I’m just saying it, people know Macarena internationally and they don’t know what the other track is you’re talking about.’ I was like, I don’t care. And in the end, we actually couldn’t clear ‘Saturday Night’ in time. I think that within the context of how many people have responded to the film, it was the right decision.
I’ll always go for specificity in detail. And I think this has been affirming because now I’ll have the confidence to do it in the future, without feeling like I’m alienating other people.
One thing that struck me was the sense of unease that was present throughout the whole film, even in the playful, silly moments. Frankie, how did you feel filming it? Did you know this was something going on?
Frankie: No. Paul and Charlie hid it from me. Had to protect my child-ness. I think that was right, though, because I wouldn’t have understood it at all. Like, in the happy scenes, I never saw any sadness in them. I wasn’t there for the sad, depressing scenes they’d shoot with just Paul. I wouldn’t get it. When I watched the film it all came together, and then I realised why I wouldn’t have been allowed to watch it if I wasn’t in it. I would never have watched it because of how dodgy it is [laughs].
Charlotte: It didn’t make sense for Frankie to know because she didn’t have to know. The scenes that are happy are happy, they only feel a little bit sad because they are represented in the film as a memory, and they’re complicated by the fact you have two points of view of them.
So, it felt important that those scenes be uncomplicated when we shot them, and they can then be complicated by either camera or editing or music or other parts of the craft of filmmaking, but not in the performances. It just seemed most straightforward for Frankie, but also for Paul, because he had to keep it from her to some degree in the same way Calum had to keep it from Sophie. And so it all fed into each other as part of the process.
You give a lot of agency to Sophie’s perspective, even though there are insights into Calum’s world too. In your short film, Tuesday, the driving force is also a young girl’s perspective. Do you feel that’s important in your filmmaking?
Charlotte: I think that’s a tricky question to answer. The point of view and perspective is very complicated in this film. In Tuesday, the point of view is a bit more absolute until the very, very last moment of the film. I mean, it’s coming from me. It’s just inherent in who I am and what it is I have to say, I think.
It is interesting when you think about it. For example, there’s a scene where Sophie’s looking at Laura, the teenage girl. Greg Oke (cinematographer) and I spoke a lot about how we were going to shoot that scene because I imagined her standing behind Laura, but then suddenly that felt very objectifying, like it was playing into a gaze that we wanted to work against. And so we put a lot of consideration into what the gaze was when the point of view was direct. We’d have to interrogate how we might initially gravitate towards things because they fulfil a convention that we’re so used to seeing on screen, so much so that we don’t think about where it came from and why.
Aftersun was one of the Galas at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and it’s such a shame it won’t be shown at the Filmhouse following its closure. What does the closure mean to you, not just personally but also for Scottish cinema in general?
Charlotte: Obviously, there’s a personal aspect, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a loss of a community space and a place of discovery and access for younger people who are looking for film, or who might not be looking but discover it.
I really hope a solution can be found for the Filmhouse. If not in that physical space – which would be a great loss because we all have a lot of affinity and attachment to it but – I feel it’s more important to have a space that can still exist. It means a lot to me. It means a lot to the country, frankly.