Charlotte Wells on Aftersun, The Guardian’s best film of the year: ‘The grief expressed is mine’ – The Guardian

Why do you think the film has had such an impact on people?

I don’t know. Cannes [where the film premiered] was such a shock. The response was wholly unexpected, both for what it was and because I had never considered what it might be. Which is a naivete I will only have this once and feel so grateful for. We had just been rushing to get to the finish line. We’d spoken a lot in the edit room about the film’s legibility and how it might connect with audiences, but without any thought to what that meant. We never considered what the critical response would be. I don’t think we ever thought very many people would see the film, which was a reasonable expectation.

Does it speak to an audience hunger for films that aren’t too prescriptive?

That would be nice if that were true. One thing that struck me was the second we finished screening in Cannes, this young man came up to me and shared his own and his mother’s experience with depression. And it was so striking.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.
Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun. Photograph: Sarah Makharine

The film is certainly open, and I have seen people bring many different kinds of experiences to it, but that was certainly an unintended expression – yet it was so immediately legible to this young man. It meant so much that it connected that personally and so specifically. There is an openness and language around mental health in younger people that didn’t exist when I was a teenager.

After another screening, somebody who probably doesn’t watch films like this very often said: “Where I’m from, there’s a saying: ‘Why do young men die? Because they want to.’” The film connected with him in a way that felt like it reached way beyond like an arthouse film legibility to something far more raw. Those are always the most meaningful responses, where they elicit some kind of recognition in people that is nothing to do with film.

Yet for all the universality out of specificity, there are very fundamental themes that a lot of people can connect with, and a core parental relationship that I don’t think is unique. Even if the one portrayed on screen [between a young father, Calum, and his daughter, Sophie] is one less often portrayed on screen.

I read too much about the film; it’s not good. People try to box it in, in terms of distributor or the support that I received. But I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the form conforming to anything other than pursuing which films interested me. So its accessibility has been a really nice surprise.

I always want to make films that way. I think you have to chase what interests you. I don’t think about making films for other people. Which isn’t to say you don’t consider the audience, but consciously trying to cater to other people while using it as a medium of self-expression seems a dangerous path to walk.

Do you think the ubiquity of video today changes how people will remember their parents?

Yes. I don’t have any video of my dad at all. I have a torso on an hour’s worth of digital video playing chess. All of our heads are framed out of screen because the chess board is more interesting. I think that’s kind of perfect in its own horribly sad way. My generation has more than the generation before, and this current generation record more than ever. And yet sometimes I still forget to point the camera at things that you might wish you had later on. I don’t think that feeling necessarily would ever change, of always reaching for something you don’t quite have. The feeling of chasing somebody lost.

Wells, second right, with her Aftersun cast and crew at the British Independent Film Awards.
Wells, second right, with her Aftersun cast and crew at the British Independent Film Awards. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

It was interesting watching Frankie [Corio, 11, who plays Sophie] interact with the camcorder physically, because it had the same curiosity for her that it had for me at that age, but just coming from a completely different point of view. It was so limiting in a way for her, whereas for me, it felt of infinite possibility.

And I think people who had memorable experiences at the point when the film takes place and who have records on that same type of media and a relationship to seeing that kind of footage may have the strongest connection to the film.

How have you navigated the sudden interest in your own life story?

I’m enjoying this conversation, which like makes me vulnerable to being too honest. It’s been difficult to navigate and I start to question what autobiography even means. I suppose I like to put Aftersun in a “personal film-making” bucket.

I enjoyed figuring out the film as a story and making choices that served a film. And I enjoyed figuring out who these characters were, that were unquestionably based on myself and my dad, and our character traits were the basis of Callum and Sophie’s character traits. But at the same time, I like film-making and in this script it was always about serving this film.

It’s funny hearing people describe it as my memory because that it truly is not. The events that were in the script that were closely based on a conversation or an interaction – many of them aren’t in the final film. I think that’s because I am keen to serve the film and not my own past and whatever I’m exorcising with my own past is still the core of the film. The emotion of the film and the grief expressed is mine. And that’s a really easy thing to admit because, as I said, this to me was a form of expression and that is what I was ultimately expressing.

But in terms of: did this happen, or was I on this holiday? The answer is no. I’ve started to push more against autobiography, the more I see people inclined to draw a one-to-one relationship between me and the film. It’s difficult. I have that impulse too. When you watch something, you immediately look up: is this the creator? But I have a very different take on that impulse now. A lot of work went into this as a film, and that work is often discounted by saying: this is just what happened.

You’ve said that film can express feelings in a way words and still images cannot. There’s an amazing moment in the film in which a Polaroid develops; have you looked into the psychology and chemistry of what moving images do to the brain?

No. But I’m interested in how different forms of art best communicate different things. I think there’s like an immense power in a photograph and in a song and in a painted portrait or prose. Which is why I keep reading unadaptable books, like The Comforters by Muriel Spark. I can’t help think about adaptation, but only want to be reading things that probably shouldn’t be adapted.

Aftersun. Photograph: Sarah Makharine

Sometimes I feel frustrated by how much emotion can be communicated in a still photograph or a three-and-a-half minute song, when you have to work so hard to get to that amount of feeling in film over 90 minutes. But I do think it allows for something else. Combining music, sound and picture allows you to do a lot of contradictory things at the same time. And I’m interested in contradictory things: people and emotions. I think there’s something in film that allows you to just use all of these layers and tools at your disposal to express something a bit more messy.

Which films have moved you in the way people have been moved by yours?

There were a few documentaries that we were watching leading up to production: SilenceIs a Falling Body, which mostly uses DV footage a woman found of her father after he died. That’s phenomenal. Terence Davis’s trilogy. Chantel Akerman I adore, especially News from Home. Edward Yang.

Murmur of the Hearts by Sylvia Chang was the last film that I sobbed at in the way that people describe sobbing at this film. It has a dream ghost-type sequence for a departed parent. I saw that in the midst of writing this and was inconsolable.

In terms of sucker punch, when I saw Carol, Todd Haynes’s film, I knew nothing about it going in and hadn’t read the book. There was something in that film that I had never seen before. I was really, really unexpectedly moved. It was like seeing something of myself on screen that I hadn’t expressed.

Do you find people who have lost a parent are more moved by Aftersun?

I think so. I see so many readings on the film and I’m very reluctant to invalidate them because the core expression is kind of similar, regardless of your take. But I think there is one line through the film that is closer to mine, and I think that’s the one.

Does the power of film ever frighten you?

Lots about this frightens me at the moment, quite frankly. I made Aftersun in a vacuum with my friends and then it reaches people and makes them feel strongly. It’s very weird being a physical player in that. People want the connection between artist and art to be so strong. I do wish it could be completely anonymous in some ways. It’s very hard to imagine making another film right now.