How Charlotte Wells made her debut film, Aftersun

This week, Charlotte Wells joined Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir to talk about her remarkable debut feature film Aftersun

They discuss structuring an unstructured film, working with actors, developing on-set relationships, her writing process and why it took eight years to get Aftersun made.

After making her first film, while studying, ‘everything changed. I found this thing I loved more than anything. That I could direct all of my obsessive energy toward. I made a short film called Tuesday. And it was creatively satisfying in ways I had never anticipated.’

During her last year at film school, everyone was focused on features. ‘I didn’t take a writing class, but I did independent study with this professor, and I walked in with this idea of a father and a daughter on holiday. And we watched movies about fathers and daughters. And at that point, I sent myself on holiday to Cyprus, alone.’

Getting Inspired

During her two weeks away, Charlotte ‘had some fantasy of writing the whole script… And, of course, I came back with two pages.

They were the only two pages I had for about two years, so they were great.’ The trip was somewhat of a writing retreat though, because even though she only wrote two pages, she was staying in ‘the environment that I wanted to set this film. And many of the observations I made, I drew from that trip.’

Taking The Next Steps

The story took eight years to write, but over the years she worked ‘a lot on world-building and trying to write. I was laying the foundations. I wrote it very quickly and spent six months pretending to redraft’ it before sending it over to a producer.

After reading it, the producer was on board. The script ‘went through pretty significant rewrites. But the heart of this film was that relationship with my producer; and my cinematographer and my editor, who were friends from film school.’

Writing the Script

‘I worked on an outline that I wrote the first draft from. In my head, I was holding the relationship, how their perspectives on each other contradict their perspectives on themselves, and how they evolve over the course of the film. Holding so much in my head was one of the hardest parts of writing.’

She said that she desperately needed a ‘fourth dimension to be able to visualise the film, so came up with a very complicated index card colour-coded system. That first draft, I wrote mostly on instinct.’

Working with Actors

Something that Charlotte was really looking forward to while making this film, was the opportunity to get to know and build trust with her actors. ‘I was looking for, especially in the actor who was going to play Callum, a real partner in developing and portraying that character.

And Paul is so good. I was able to hand over my file on Callum and then let him use that as a foundation on which to build and find his own empathy for Callum.’

But so much of the production was centred around Frankie. ‘She turned 11 on set and had never acted before. Her hours were incredibly constrained by her local education authority.’ She was allowed to be on camera for four hours a day, with ‘extremely specific breaks and on camera rehearsing, which meant being in hair and makeup mic’d up talking to me as if the camera wasn’t real.’

Creating the Shots

‘We started months before we got to Turkey and it was really about developing the visual language of the film. It wasn’t just shot listing, it was figuring out how we could use the camera to express the point of view, establish Sophie as an adult and the overarching point of view of the film.

We got through maybe half to two-thirds and had really extensive and expensive shot lists. And what happened was, inevitably, we would get to set and take too much time and we would have to consolidate drastically sometimes – like eight shots into one.’

Learning on Set

Charlotte admits that she didn’t ‘know many things. If a scene wasn’t working, I would breathe and think if I had to capture this scene in a single image, without any dialogue, what would it be? And I would shoot it. That’s probably the single most practical thing that I would do.’

When something wasn’t working and she needed to figure it out, it was easier to just focus on that one image because it would be able to serve the purpose of what she was trying to communicate.

For more from Charlotte Wells, listen here.

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