Aftersun: Charlotte Wells On The Poetry of Memory

Aftersun: Charlotte Wells On The Poetry of Memory

Charlotte Wells may well be announcing herself as one of the most exciting British filmmakers working today with her feature debut, Aftersun. Xuanlin Tham meets the writer-director to unpack the tender, vulnerable power of the singular film.

In Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, a daughter, Sophie, is trying to understand her father, Calum, through a microcosm of their impermanent time together: her childhood memories of the sun-weary holiday they spent at a Turkish resort. The film is a rumination on what it means to remember someone, but also to imagine who they were when you weren’t looking; it is an incredibly truthful (which is to say, truthfully amorphous) cinematic translation of how attempting to narrativise the past is like attempting to grasp a ghost. To watch it is to collectively trace the topographies of memory’s paradoxes: at once intimate yet incomprehensibly vast, sometimes stunningly precise and other times opaque.

French author Paul Géraldy wrote that memory is a poet, not a historian. In service of grief, memory is indeed a lyrical, aching, searching thing, a deeply human compulsion to find what’s slipped through our fingers, if only to somehow hold it again. I speak to Wells on a rather unusual day: after not seeing my parents for three years, I arrived home after a very long flight to find my father watching camcorder footage from a family holiday ten years ago, my tooth-gapped smiles unrecognisably familiar on screen. I share this with Wells over the phone, to which she replies, “You’re living the film.” It’s a serendipitous omen for a conversation about a film so personal to her, yet one that holds so much space for its audience within its contours. 

It might be the most objectively real version of memory in the film, but the camcorder footage draws more attention to what it can’t capture; Aftersun seems to find more emotional truth in the imagination required to fill in its gaps. How do you think imagination, memory, and truth interact?

That's not an easy question. What inspired the DV is one video of me as a kid, on DV: it's me, my dad, and his friend sitting round a table playing chess, and our heads are all cut off. It's just our torsos. It's absurd, and it’s all I have. I feel that DV was used like home video footage because it felt like you had the luxury to roll it away that you didn't have with more expensive media. It tended to capture really banal stuff: like spaces, like, ‘here's a room’. I have quite a bit of DV recording from being a teenager on holiday, and I would just obsessively record place. 

It's interesting what you're saying about what’s not there. [DV] provides anchors, but anchors that lack so much of what you want to see when you look back. You question why it felt important to shoot what you did, when you did. Constructing the film was the process of discovering for myself that it was a memory piece, which it wasn't necessarily when I first conceived of it, and [of] allowing these things to interplay: using the DV as a point of view, an “objective” record of what happened, and also recreating scenes from the character’s memory, and then also imagining what it was that Calum was experiencing beyond Sophie's gaze. 

In contrast to the DV footage’s “objective” reality, there's the way that the camera moves to follow Calum and Sophie together. Some of these shots are so slow to construct; it takes a long time for the camera’s focus to settle. It felt like the spectral presence of adult Sophie was guiding the search, but how did you know what to look for? 

Thank you for observing that, because that was very much our intention – but it's one that you don't expect many people to consciously perceive. But you hope it somehow seeps into their experience of watching the film, so it builds to a point where when you meet adult Sophie, you understand that it's not some revelation from her point of view, but something you have slowly become acquainted with. 

I had a pretty good understanding of point of view by the time I began my conversations with Greg [Oke, Aftersun’s cinematographer], but I became much more able to articulate it when we began to talk about shooting strategy. Greg is also a writer and director, and he's very meticulous in his approach to shooting as it relates to character and narrative. Many of our favourite shots are choreographed both in terms of people and camera, working together to lead you through the scene. I think a moving master shot is perfection when you can do it, but it's one of the most difficult things to pull off. We were forced into an economy we didn't necessarily intend because of shooting constraints; sometimes we had to figure out a way to shoot a scene in one shot, because that's all we had time for. But we had laid such a strong foundation [with] our style, and while we didn't have rules, we had frameworks for each point of view within the film. 

You feel adult Sophie's perspective more strongly in scenes where Calum is alone, and you get the sense of somebody searching for information they may never find. Young Sophie is seeing things very directly, images that form the basis of memories that everything else is extrapolated from. What was challenging about that was I really wanted Sophie to be a kid; I didn't want her to have that precocious quality you often see children have in films. However, her gaze lingers a lot longer than a kid's would. In reality, you see something for half a second, and [it] stays with you for the rest of your life. But the only way to really convey that in film is to linger. Then, we're starting to put this adult perspective onto a kid. In our case, I think we had a bit of license to do that, because the film was dealing in memory. 

You've talked about how Aftersun’s rave sequences wrote themselves because they were so integral to the process of sifting through memory. But how did the imagery of the rave come to you? It’s a very different world from the rest of the film. 

Sonically, a lot of the credit for that goes to Jovan, our sound designer, who really took those scenes and transformed them. So, Blair [McClendon, Aftersun’s editor] made a short film that I produced, that Greg shot – we all went to film school together, and we all do more than one thing – which opens with a nightclub sequence with strobe lights. We shot that film about seven months before I was able to write the script [for Aftersun], which means the film was just about finished by the time I sat down. 

That image was lodged in my mind, and it found its way onto the page. It’s often the case that I see something that inspires me, and it finds its way in; rarely does it stay in, though. It's often just a launching point to write for the day, and the original source of inspiration either fades entirely or to the point where it's unrecognisable. But that really expanded far beyond its point of inspiration. It became inextricable, insofar as when I was tempted to remove that layer of the film because it was messy and challenging and nobody really knew if it would work, I couldn't. Because that was the climax. There was no ending without it that felt like it meant anything to me. 

Aftersun isn’t really about closure, but the love and the pain of searching for answers even if they never come. Is filmmaking, to you, a surrender to this lack of destination? 

There is a lot of surrender. I think if you want absolute control, you should paint, or find an art form where you have more control. But filmmaking is inherently very collaborative, and that is what I love. I love the surprises, and what is unexpected, and the discovery. I don't think you ever know how your film is gonna end until you make it, and I think that's the joy in it. It is a process of reckoning, and sometimes bargaining, and sometimes surrender. 

More than anything else, what I learned over the course of making this film is I love doing this; and even on the hardest of days, there's nowhere else I wanted to be. I felt like the best version of myself when I was on set, and had this incredibly clear sense of purpose, surrounded by people who I had a lot of respect and admiration for. It is an incredibly tough process. One that is also filled with the privilege of being able to do [it]. And I can't imagine doing it for something I didn't care so deeply about. Which is probably why I'm not in a rush to make another one. But I hopefully will, eventually. 

Aftersun is playing in UK cinemas now.

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