Director Charlotte Wells and star Paul Mescal on acclaimed new Scottish feature film Aftersun
When she was a teenage film fan in Edinburgh she would happily blow all her spare money on the city’s annual celebration of cinema.
Now the writer and director Charlotte Wells is trying to get her head around the surreal situation of her debut feature opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival in its 75th anniversary year.
The Edinburgh-born filmmaker has been propelled into the limelight with Aftersun, a touching family drama focusing on a package holiday in Turkey enjoyed by a divorced father from the city and his teenage daughter.
Wells has already won huge acclaim from critics for the film’s depiction of the close relationship between Calum, played by Normal People star Paul Mescal and Sophie, 12-year-old Frankie Corio in her screen debut, who was chosen for the part out of more than 800 teenagers applicants.
The opening night gala, which marked the return of a full-scale EIFF to August after a 15-year hiatus, was a homecoming for Wells, who now lives in New York, where she moved to study filmmaking.
Wells said: “I think it was between 2004 and 2006, that I really blew all of my money as a teenager on film festival tickets.
"I would go to multiple films every day, I remember seeing directors like Kevin Smith and Joss Wheedon and my friend I had would sit on the floor at the cinema at Fountainbridge waiting for the box office to open to hustle for tickets.
"It is incredibly surreal to be opening the festival now. It is hard to put into words how much that means.
"It has actually really crept up on me more and more over the last few weeks as I’ve drawn up a list of friends and family who I wanted to come. A lot of people have helped me get where I am.
"I really loved growing up in Edinburgh having everything happening at once every summer, feeling the energy of each festival bouncing off each other, and being exposed to different forms of art and culture at once.
Mescal, a first-time visitor to the city, said: “I don’t really know why I’ve never been to Edinburgh before.
"When I was at drama school I was always threatening to come over and couch surf.
"I’m only here for a flying visit, but I was able to walk round the city a bit. The atmosphere was just incredible and the fact it is Charlie’s home town makes it even more special.”
Wells, who made three short films before Aftersun, said she started working on what would become her debut feature around seven years ago.
She has spoken of how the film, partly seen from the perspective of Sophie looking back on the holiday 20 years later, is “emotionally autobiographical.”
She said: “I was flipping through old holiday albums when I was home.
"My parents were quite young and I was struck that when I started to reach the age they were in those photos how young they looked.
"What emerged began as a more traditionally-structured film about a father and daughter on holiday with the confines of a kind of British resort abroad.
“The father-daughter relationship was always at the core of it. I pulled from all sorts of memories from my own childhood and youth, not just from holidays. It's definitely fiction, but it’s inspired by my own memories and relationships.”
Mescal said: “I got sent the script by my agents on a Friday, I read it a couple times over the weekend and was very keen to meet Charlie as soon as possible.
"I think it’s important if you’re really enthusiastic about something to let the filmmaker know that you feel passionately about it. It’s one of the only powers you have as an actor. I just really wanted to be in it.
"There was a lot of show-don’t-tell in terms of the essence of Charlie’s screenplay. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to really let the audience in. I knew in the context of the film that those brief glimpses into his inner life would be really important for Calum.
"It was very clear to me that this was a beautiful character written with a huge amount of love. When I met Charlie I just knew that she was a brilliant filmmaker.”
Wells recalled the “extensive” search for an actress to play 11-year-old Sophie in the film, with the part going to Livingston schoolgirl Corio, who was 10 when she won the role.
She said: “Frankie brought a lot of herself to the character, but she also met the character on the page. That’s what’s so special about her.
"I thought we were just looking for the character I had written but Frankie could do so much more than that.
"She is phenomenally talented and that was clear as soon as we had her in the room.”
Mescal said: “In my head, it felt that I would be acting with a child who had never acted before, but right from the first chemistry meeting it really did feel like Frankie was acting.
“I felt a weird duty of care in introducing Frankie to this world and watching her be so good. I was like ‘oh my god – I’m kind of scared for you and thrilled for you at the same time.’
"Working with Frankie was really invigorating. I had a great time with her and I have a huge amount of love for her.”
Wells added: “The relationship between the two characters is very loving. It was important to me that he was a good dad and not an absent dad even though he doesn’t live with Sophie all the time. She has a lot of fun with him and loves him very much. That was always the heart of the relationship I was interested in portraying.”
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