When Paul Mescal Nabs an Oscar Nomination for Your First Film: Chatting 'Aftersun' with Charlotte Wells

Like the rest of the world, writer/director Charlotte Wells was drawn to Paul Mescal’s warmth, openness, playfulness and charm when casting her debut feature.
Sarah Ward
Published on February 27, 2023

A film about memories, Aftersun is impossible to forget. Floating across the screen like it's sweeping in from a dream, it's too raw, too personal, too deeply felt and too tactile. Within its frames, 11-year-old Sophie (debutant Frankie Corio) enjoys a sunny late-90s getaway to Turkey with her father Calum (Paul Mescal, The Lost Daughter), cementing recollections that'll linger decades afterwards. In telling this "emotionally autobiographical" tale, as she's called it, Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells crafts a movie that's rich, resonant and haunting from its very first moments to its equally stunning and beautiful finale. 

Since the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Aftersun certainly hasn't been forgotten by the film world. Nearing a year later, it's still the talk of the industry — deservedly so. The list of accolades and nominations to its name keeps growing almost daily. A Cannes Critics' Week Jury Prize, five Independent Spirit nods, a Gotham Award, seven British Independent Film Awards and nine more nominations, the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer: they're among the movie's ever-expanding list of gongs. So too is the Directors Guild of America's coveted prize for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film. And, of course, there's Mescal's Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor, a feat that the Normal People star achieved in just his third big-screen role.

Making her feature directorial debut after shorts Tuesday, Laps and Blue Christmas, Wells didn't contemplate anything that'd follow simply making Aftersun. "With shorts, it most often ends at its premiere. You're so fortunate to have gotten to the point where you're showing the film with an audience at a festival that that is the end of the road, really," she tells Concrete Playground. 

"I had naively not thought about what came after making the film. I thought about the response only really in the narrative sense, about how legible the film was in its themes and its characters, and its intentions," she advises. "It's been really special. I don't think you set out to make films to get that type of award recognition, but it's been really nice to see the work recognised, and the work of my collaborators recognised."

Special truly is the word for Aftersun, and for everything that it brings to the screen. It applies to the so-intimate-you-could-be-there look and feel, the heartwrenching use of a coming-of-age tale to ponder loss and depression, the meticulously specific yet also timeless use of 90s minutiae — songs like 'Macarena', 'Losing My Religion' and 'Tubthumping', plus Catatonia's 'Road Rage', All Saints' 'Never Ever' and Blur's 'Tender' as well — and Corio and Mescal's sublime performances. 

With the film now in cinemas Down Under, and still buzzing around the international awards circuit, too, we spoke to Wells about her journey with Aftersun — including what it's like to direct Paul Mescal to an Oscar nomination, and finding her perfect cast to begin with.



"We focused our attention first on casting Sophie, because we knew she would very likely be a discovery, somebody who'd never acted before, and that it would take time — which it did, it took about six months. And towards the end of that process, we started to consider Calum in earnest, and Paul's name came up. 

Obviously, I'd seen him in Normal People. It was about a year after that had premiered during the early days of the pandemic, and I watched everything that I could get my hands on. I was drawn, I think, just to his warmth and capacity for vulnerability, and his openness and playfulness and charm.

You know, I was watching interviews, really anything and everything. There was like an Instagram video of him singing Sia, and reading a children's book — everything. I don't think I've said that to him. 

Then we had the opportunity to meet and to talk. There was a period where he wasn't available, so we had to dispel the idea, but it came back around because our dates had moved. Then we had the chance to meet, and we just had a really great conversation and connected. He was so thoughtful in the way that he spoke about the script and the character. 

It's always a leap of faith at every step of the process, from the second the script leaves your inbox, to bring on collaborators, particularly for a project like this. It was so long in the making, in the writing, and so personal in so many ways, and casting is a really big leap of faith — it's when things start to become concrete in a certain way. 

It was a leap of faith really well taken, and I feel really proud to stand beside those two when we present the film to people, when we're at awards together. It was a really good experience, and they connected in such a profound and unexpected way. I don't think anybody foresaw the relationship that they would build to be as real in some way as it was."



"I can tell you what it felt in the moment that it happened, because I was on the phone with a couple of my producers. Paul rang the moment that it happened, and we both just jumped up and down around our respective apartments, yelling and swearing — and then took this moment just to appreciate the absurdity of the moment, and also the experience that we had together, which really was like a creative partnership and collaboration."

There was a lot of trust that we placed in each other, I think. It really worked both ways. He put a lot of trust in me that I was creating meaning out of sequences of images, and things that may not be shot the way he'd imagined they'd shot — great stretches of dialogue shot while he was 50 feet away, sitting on a float out at sea for pivotal scenes in the film. 

He really trusted that I knew what I was doing in crafting this and building it, and allowing the feeling to shine through. I trusted him to just bring so much empathy to that character and to find meanings in unexpected places, and warmth in unexpected places. 

It was just a really special collaboration, and it feels like an amazing accomplishment on everyone's part in the film. And his performance being recognised, you know, it's such a small team. There weren't a lot of us. It was a really intimate film, and it's just very exciting and really, really nice."



"We worked with [casting director] Lucy Pardee, who has worked with [Fish Tank and American Honey director] Andrea Arnold and [Birth and Under the Skin filmmaker] Jonathan Glazer, and has this amazing reputation for discovering new talent. She was my guide through that process, really. 

We had almost 800 submissions. These kids would submit various videos, and ideally we allowed them the space to grow with the process and become more comfortable in front of their camera at home. So, when we got into the casting room in-person — we met 16 of them — it felt like a natural step, a natural point of evolution in the process, even though that was still a new experience for them and for me too, really. 

That's where Frankie really stood out. That's where she was able to sit in front of the camera and become somebody different, and respond to direction, I suppose. And conjure emotional states that weren't what she was feeling in the moment, and then just shake them off when the exercise was over and cartwheel out the room.

She was really, really, special and funny and never let me off easy in the best possible way. She's amazing to be around. She has so much energy."



"It was all about specificity in detail. The colours were just right. The length of the sleeves were just right, and that was down to our costume designer. The size of the tiles were just right or, if they weren't, we knew and we made a choice. There was just so much attention to detail in every department, and yet Greg [Gregory Oke, Aftersun's cinematographer] and I spoke about this, because we didn't want to excessively draw attention to detail.

I think music is the most significant signifier of the period in the film. I played into a little bit, and enjoyed playing into a little bit. At the same time, I didn't want to always choose mega hits, because if I did I couldn't pay attention to the scene at hand. I wanted to choose things that were pop, and that felt real to the location, and also draw from slightly older tracks, too, because it's not only songs from 1997–8 that you would be hearing in 1997–8.

We wanted it to feel really present and rich, and vibrant. 'Present' was our overriding adjective for the feel of the film, even though it was set in the past. We used our own holiday photographs as the basis of the look, the turquoise blues and the magenta skins and the rich blacks, quite saturated. We literally just handed holiday photographs to my colourist. I had been on one holiday to Turkey as a kid, and the photographs for that were the basis for the look for the film, and the types of tones that we went for.

The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg's film, the first one had come out when we made the film. The second came out devastatingly in post. That was definitely a cue for how to portray a period that just felt very lived in and authentic, and never drawing attention to itself where it didn't need to, but just serving the story and the feel of the film."


Aftersun is now screening in Australia and New Zealand cinemas. Read our full review.

Images: Sarah Makharine.

Published on February 27, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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