Welcome to the Directors UK Podcast!
This episode comes from our member event with Charlotte Wells, director of the critically acclaimed debut feature Aftersun — which has been nominated for multiple British Independent Film Awards, including Best Debut Director.
Charlotte spoke to fellow filmmaker Barry Jenkins, also a producer on the film, about portraying the father-daughter relationship, getting her visual style across, and her experiences from prep through to the edit.
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Barry Jenkins: Charlotte, talk to me about how the project came to be and why it was set in the place that it was set?
Charlotte Wells: Why? Yes. It’s been a long time, like, and it’s funny, because the longer this goes on, the longer it has been [laughs]. It’s going to be coming up for 8 years fairly soon. I think it was about 7 years ago I made my first short, and I think in a lot of ways this was a continuation of that, at least in spirit, and not consciously, not even in a way I think I really understood until quite recently, but it is certainly an exploration or continued exploration of similar themes. And yeah, we came toward the end of film school and it was that time where people start talking about features and I’d really only just made one short, and still figuring out what I was doing, because I was there as a producer and defected, kind of, to directing after having a really fulfilling experience making that first short film.
I took what was called an independent study with a professor and we just talked about father-daughter dynamic type films and I began to think about what this might be and it started off as something quite fictional, a bit more conventionally structured. But over the course of writing, I kind of used my own memories and experiences to form that skeleton outline of the first draft of the script. And I think, at a certain point, the process that I had put myself through, remembering, became part of the fabric of this film and I think it was always heading in that direction, honestly, it just took a long time for me to figure out exactly what interested me most in this, because it evolved over time.
Barry Jenkins: One of the things you mentioned is this dynamic of father-daughter films, and it does feel like, cinema as a whole – it’s only a little over a century year old, the medium itself - released this form of storytelling through images, but it seems to be dominated by men making films about mothers, or at least it feels like that sort of genre has many more entries than this. Was that something that you thought about or considered? I know the movie’s rooted in some personal aspects, but it is interesting because there’s not many places of uncharted territory and I do think this is one of them.
Charlotte Wells: Yeah, I think I had some awareness that it was less charted and that the type of father I wanted to write was less charted, and if I wasn’t aware of that in the beginning, I became increasingly aware of it as I progressed and started to think about traps that I might fall into or clichés I might succumb to without realising it. And that was true I think, like when I talk about that earlier, fictional, more fictional, more conventional, version of the script, it fell more into that… like, a relationship that becomes somehow more honest over the course of the film, you know? And in realising that I was falling into that, it clarified for me that that wasn’t what I wanted it to be. and I wanted it to start off with a really warm, intimate, loving place and that the conflict wasn’t primarily going to be derived from their relationship, it was going to come from their individual experiences outside of the time they spend together.
Barry Jenkins: I just want to be really clear - the earlier version of the script was more fictionalised or less fictionalised?
Charlotte Wells: More. And it wasn’t even a script, it was the idea. It was, like, an earlier version of the idea, because once I actually finally, finally wrote the script after years of trying, it was in essence the same film. I mean, it came along way from that first draft, but the essence of the film is very much the same. It still is dealing in memory. It’s still about sorting through the past, trying to maybe reach for something, but the idea was, yeah, a bit more-, it was more fictional, I think. And it’s funny to say it like that, because I know we talk a lot about this being personal and how autobiographical, I suppose, it was of sorts and, in a way, that early version and this version are on parr when I think about, like, did this stuff happen in this order? The answer is no to both versions and yet-, and my own, kind of, memories from people and place also would have informed that version, but I think the difference Is that it-, this version builds to a feeling and that feeling is very much mine, whereas the other version was telling a story about two characters on a trip, you know?
Barry Jenkins: The way you are using the word fictional is very interesting, because there’s nothing that says fiction can’t get to truth. But it sounds like when you use the word ‘fictional’ in regards to the other version of the script, it’s almost like made up or make believe, and those traditions are something you can be drawn into and it sounds like getting closer to yourself was a natural way to get away from that.
This film for me is also somewhat in dialogue with Celine Sciamma’s last film, Petite Maman, and I remember her doing Q&A’s about that film and saying that film was a progression for her for getting away from the notion that drama had to have conflict to be essential or invigorating. And I think watching this film, there’s something about it. There is conflict, but it’s not the traditional conflict that we associate with dramatic storytelling. Was that a conscious decision? Did that evolve when you moved from this more fictional story that was moving on an A to B to C character arc, or was this something that was part of your intentions from the beginning?
Charlotte Wells: No, I think it’s a really interesting question that, like, gets to the heart of all writing, which-, and there’s different ways to phrase it and this is like, at least what I learned in film school. Everyone had, like, a different way of getting at this. What’s the story? What’s the revelation? What’s the conflict? What questions are your audience asking? What is the suspense? And I think they’re all getting at the same thing and they’re slightly different ways in to a question that’s important to ask, which is: What keeps somebody watching? Which on the one hand, I don’t feel, like, is a question we should ever ask, but people do and I do when I write, at points, when I’m trying to find some type of clarity for myself.
And so yeah, there was a point at which I removed a lot of conflict from the script, even the script I did have, not some previous unwritten version, but the script that I did have still followed, I think, some more typical tendency toward a three-act structure that looked to build conflict from within the relationship that would, kind of, explode at a certain point. And it’s funny, because the beats of that still exist. The lost mask in that early draft was the first domino to fall and it’s not that that’s still untrue, they still have these moments, you know, they still have a day where they’re constantly missing each other that culminates in karaoke and them spending the night apart, but it’s not overplayed.
I tried really hard not to make it of greater importance than it would have been to the characters in the moment, you know? The next day, she was like that and she brushes it off and it’s not such a big deal, you know? It’s a bigger deal to him that he let that happen, but not really to her, so I didn’t want to, like, give too much weight to those moments in the script and it was partly also having gone through various lab, you know, environments, receiving feedback that was constantly pushing me toward more tension in the relationship. And I think sometimes the best feedback is the feedback you disagree with, because it, again, it’s all about hard finding out for yourself what your own intention is and it’s hard, and sometimes you hear something and you just think ‘No. That isn’t what I want this to be.’, and that was what happened and the last draft of the script-, there were two major, major rewrites I think. One was centred around the character of Calum and one was about removing the more obvious or typical sources of tension and conflict between the two characters.
Barry Jenkins: We could keep going down this thread. It’s interesting, in the Q and A’s we’ve done, I think we’re heading places that we haven’t headed before.
Charlotte Wells: Yeah.
Barry Jenkins: I did want to talk about casting a little bit, because I think anybody who sees the film comes away just taken with Frankie and Paul’s performances. And it’s cool because you’re working in the tradition of another celebrated Scottish filmmaker, Lynne Ramsay, who is known for pairing traditional actors, or actors with careers, and I guess what you would call non-actors, people from the real world, and blending those performance styles within the same work to create something that I think is almost this third rail of performance. Maybe that can be achieved by heightened technique, but I think is best got out of this collision of trained performance and unbridled energy. Was Lynne a reference for the pairing, for building the cast of Aftersun, and tell me about casting Paul and Frankie in the lead roles?
Charlotte Wells: That’s interesting in terms of casting, and I’m not sure I thought about it…
Barry Jenkins: You’re thinking about it now [laughs].
Charlotte Wells: I’m thinking about it. I’m working through her films and I’m, like, well she was working with her family for a long time on shorts and I’m, like, ‘When did she first blend?’ Maybe Ratcatcher, I don’t know.
Barry Jenkins: In Gasman, she’s already blending I think.
Charlotte Wells: Yes. That’s-,
Barry Jenkins: She made her family into actors.
Charlotte Wells: It’s a perfect short.
Barry Jenkins: It is a perfect short. ‘Get off my daddy’s knee!’
Charlotte Wells: [laughs] No. Again. Again. Again.
Barry Jenkins: Let’s continue.
Charlotte Wells: Okay. Okay. Casting.
Barry Jenkins: Casting Paul and Frankie.
Charlotte Wells: Yes, so yes. I don’t think I was thinking of Lynne Ramsay specifically in regard to casting, but I certainly am always in many other facets of filmmaking. Yes, like, I’m interested in working with non-professional actors. I think it’s always a gift, you know. There’s also a huge responsibility that comes with that, in terms of, like, indoctrinating people into this industry, especially young people where you have some degree of control over their experience in this one instance and then not really thereafter, you know, and I felt that as soon as we started casting Sophie, because that’s where we started. I worked with Lucy Pardee, who’s an amazing casting director, who also works with Lynne Ramsay among many other people, and we started there.
We knew it would be the hardest role to cast. It was a 6 month long process. We had submissions from 800 kids. It was the height of the second wave of Covid and our access was very limited, so we had to be quite resourceful about how we spread the word and that ended up being through social media, still through schools and sports clubs, but, you know, you’re writing to people, rather than showing up and meeting people, so even though it was 800, it would have been, I imagine, many times more than that had we, kind of, been in pre-pandemic world, but nonetheless we met some amazing kids and we gave them these exercises to do to record at home and then eventually that progressed to meeting some of them on Zoom, and we tried to give them an opportunity to grow with the process and show us something new every time, and build confidence, and that culminated in meeting 16 kids in person in Glasgow, February of last year, and one of them was Frankie and Frankie-, it’s funny thinking back to all her original tapes, because that was definitely the kid that we met.
She’s, like, utterly embarrassed by the photographs that her mum submitted. She’s wearing a very specific look that she only ever wore once that was for that photo, and I think she was somewhat misrepresented by it, but she was just amazing. She was amazing. She did these exercises with Lucy and she, like, would flip between really quite different emotional states really quickly and wouldn’t carry it over and wouldn’t let it hold her down when it was time to move on, and I think that’s a really special trait and she’s a very special kid. And at that point, once we started to have a sense of who Sophie was, we looked to cast Calum and that was also open to non-professional actors, but again, Covid was really a huge challenge in that and our focus had been on Sophie, but in that process our eyes were open, always, they always are, but I think there was an appeal to combining, especially for a kid who had never performed before, to bring a professional actor who could, you know, be a guide in that and Paul’s name came up very early, but he wasn’t available.
I remember watching videos, like, anything I could get my hands on, other than of course Normal People, which had come out the year before, and just being very enamoured by the idea, but then having to pursue other thoughts in the casting process, until our dates shifted and he became available and we shared the script and we just had a really great conversation. The kind of conversation you always look to have with anyone in life. The kind that you leave, kind of, levitating knowing that you’ve just made a connection that was meaningful and he was a huge partner in it, you know, a partner to me. A partner to Frankie. We all liked each other very much and that just changes everything. It just makes it so much easier.
Barry Jenkins: I always like to say, because I’ve worked with children over the last few projects, especially with a non-actor who’s a child, that the actor in the scene is helping you. They have no choice, because you call action and you relinquish all control, all power.
Charlotte Wells: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: And with someone who’s not used to performing, all predictability. And so it takes a really understanding and caring and empathetic actor and Paul has all those qualities in spades. I don’t know if that was a part of casting here, but I imagine it certainly helped the rapport between him and Frankie. As a producer, I had a feeling the project was going to be beautiful and was going to work, but when the child actress carries so much of the film, you just don’t know until you see that kid. And when Frankie’s tapes came through, I thought ‘Oh, the movie’s going to work. We’re good to go.’ I mean Paul was a nice cherry on top, but once we had Frankie I was like, ‘The movie’s gonna go.’ It’s amazing that the two of them work so well together.
The other thing you mentioned that I thought shows how thoughtful and caring you are as an artist and as a human being, you’re absolutely right, when you bring a kid into the showbiz world, you do feel this sense of responsibility. The kid in Moonlight, Alex Hibbert, who plays the kid in the first chapter of that story, he’s like 19 years old now, and he’s booked many films and multiple series of television, and he’s a provider for his mum and his family. He’s done so well with this and it makes me so proud, more proud than the awards that Moonlight won, that this kid who wasn’t an actor came into our process, drank it all up. I feel the same thing with you and Frankie. What’s up with Scotland?
Charlotte Wells: Yes. I mean it’s really nice to know that that’s a possibility honestly. That, like, it can be a really positive experience and just continue, you know? Not that there won’t be blocks like there are in growing up, but-, yes.
Barry Jenkins: It can be, but you have to put the right energy into it and everything about you is putting the right energy. I was gonna say: What’s up with Scotland? I watched this random television show on HBO called The Head, and there was this young woman in it called Catherine O’Donelly and she was working as a barista and this director randomly saw her and said ‘Hey, come and audition for this show.’ She didn’t realise it was the lead. She’s fantastic. I had lunch with her, and she described this whole performance workshopping they have across the county, and that’s where she took up acting, and she’s amazing. So you could have found a Calum by doing a live search, but I’m glad you found Paul.
Charlotte Wells: I’m glad I found Paul, too. I know, and his accent is so convincing. My cousins in Edinburgh-,
Barry Jenkins: Because he is not a Scot.
Charlotte Wells: He’s not a Scot, but I mean, you know, it’s funny, because that was something in the casting process that was an interesting learning curve. Right at the beginning, I was like ‘He has to be Scottish, like, it’s just non-negotiable. He has to be.’ Sometimes you learn that other things are more important, you know, like who the person is and what he brings and, ultimately, he had what I was really looking for in the character, you know, and, at the end of the day, was able to be Scottish in the role. Frankie didn’t know that he wasn’t for a little while and he always stayed in accent with her, right until the last day of the shoot, and he said that when he stopped, when he dropped the accent, he found it really hard. It took him a few days to adjust in talking to Frankie, because he had really held it the whole time.
Barry Jenkins: Oh my goodness.
Charlotte Wells: I know. I’m glad that-, Obviously now it’s easy to say that I’m glad it was these two, but I was glad it was these two from the day they arrived on set.
Barry Jenkins: In a film like this that is personal and is so idiosyncratic, singular, your approach to visual storytelling is very unique and the movie kind of lives within you, so I think your sense of purpose, your vision, is what houses these things, is what grounds them, so I think that your intention is enough that someone with Paul’s talents can crawl inside the character.
To the people watching, there’s a Q and A box, I promise I’m not going to keep running my mouth. I’m going to start pulling questions from the Q and A box in a few moments.
Charlotte, in preparation for this, I went back and looked through all the notes I sent you over watching the many cuts of this film and I want to talk about that and how much faith and trust you put in the audience, both in the quietness and the stillness of the piece, and in the balance between showing and telling. Because some of my early notes on this film, they were aggressive. I remember saying that only one character should be involved in the rave scene and you didn’t reply to that notes document for a while. When I was a young filmmaker, if I had gotten a note like that, I would have rejected it outright. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. If I get a note, I try it. If it comes from someone I respect and trust, I try it. Your reply to me after two months was ‘Thank you for the very thorough and detailed notes, I want you to know I’m very grateful. I tried them all. I didn’t take many, but they pushed me in directions that helped evolve the film.’ I was like, ‘Fair game.’
Charlotte Wells: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: Where did you get the confidence in your voice?
Charlotte Wells: That’s my editor in the room, because my editor was like, ‘No. We’re not trying anything. Absolutely not. No notes’, so we’re a good balance, because I will try it, I will try everything. I think, like, I remember one of your later notes was all about the balcony and I forget exactly what it was, but I remember having a balcony sequence in the project and it being the reason we got to that shot, which slowly zooms over sleeping Sophie in the opening and reaches Calum dancing on the balcony. It plays out in one. That wasn’t in the cut until the last couple of weeks, which is wild, because it’s such a seminal moment in the film in terms of its visual language and in terms of giving the audience the confidence, I hope, that we as filmmakers knew what we were doing and that, you know, if you lean in with us, then we’re going to take you somewhere.
We’d also, like, I didn’t really shoot what I didn’t-, I didn’t over cut the script and I think it’s important to have enough to work with, because you never execute properly and goodness knows, we did not execute fully, but we had enough to make it work and there was also-,
Barry Jenkins: Do you teach that to the young filmmakers? Because every filmmaker goes though that, even Martin Scorcese at this point. You’re never going to bat one thousand.
Charlotte Wells: No.
Barry Jenkins: You’re never going to put every penalty in the back of the net.
Charlotte Wells: No. It’s impossible. It’s impossible, so you have to have enough to cover yourself and I’m not talking about, like, extraneous scenes that you don’t want in the film. In fact that was exactly my point, I never shot anything I didn’t - I wouldn’t have wanted in the film, but I also didn’t make it so lean that you would have to execute perfectly, you know, because you can’t. It’s just not possible and, yes, so the rave-, I mean, you’re the only person to give that note actually about the rave and I think, like, that one is interesting specifically, because the rave and Calum were the two biggest challenges with the script. The rave was so weird on the page. I’m amazed anybody let me go forward with it, and I didn’t know if it would work. I wanted to find out by making it, rather than self-editing the script to something that was more likely to make sense, but it always built to this dance sequence. This, like, dance sequence that splits reality and fantasy to some degree, which is what I did in my last short film, which I didn’t realise until the edit, ridiculously, and I just never knew how the film ended without that, which made taking the rave apart so difficult and it was also terrifying, because it had to work. If it didn’t work, we didn’t really have a film. We certainly didn’t have a good film and, yes, so some things were easy to have confidence in, because we had to. It had to be blind faith that we were going somewhere, because there was no film without it. And I was working with an editor who had heaps of it, and we were a good balance for each other, because he never lost-, I remember we watched the first assembly cut together that was, like, two and a half hours long and he’s like, ‘Charlie, I’m only going to say it to you once, I think you made a good film.’, and, you know, now the work begins.
Barry Jenkins: It’s so important to hear that.
Charlotte Wells: Yes, because it was a mess. It was a total disaster, you know, it was so far off the film it became, but knowing that he really thought it was there, it was, it was just incredibly important and, yes, so I think notes are essential and I do try them. I try all of them. I think you have to and sometimes, I was talking to your editor about this recently. Joy was talking about, sometimes picking your moment for when to share a note, you know, because the director’s not always ready to take it or hear it and sometimes you need to sit with something for a while before you think, ‘Okay, you know, I’m going to try this.’ And in fact, I think when we did that LA feedback screening, she was the one who suggested that the film opened the way that it does and I was like ‘Hell no. Absolutely not. No. No. No. Not in a million years,’ and then Adele, our producer, was like, ‘I’m literally going to come to New York and sit in that room until I watched you try that out,’ and she came to New York, we would have tried it anyway eventually, she came to New York and she was like ‘Have you tried it yet?’, and we were like ‘Oh, we just haven’t got round to it yet, Adele,’ and she’s like ‘Try it right now.’ And we tried it right there and, like, Blair and I are ready to be proven right and we were proven very wrong, very quickly, because it was clear just immediately on hit and play that it was going to work.
Barry Jenkins: That’s how it happens, especially when everyone cares about not finding a film they want you to make, but finding the best version of the film you’ve made.
Charlotte Wells: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: And I think that’s what those notes were about and why Adele felt passionate enough to get on a plane and come see you. I have some more stuff I want to talk about, but when I sent my request for Q&As the box boosted up by 10 questions. Are you good, are you good for some audience questions?
Charlotte Wells: Yes, let’s do it.
Barry Jenkins: I’ll go with the first one from Irene, ‘I would like to ask Charlotte why she decided not to show her main protagonist in her life as an adult more?’
Charlotte Wells: Good question, which I would almost rephrase as, ‘Why did you choose to show us so much of your protagonist in her adult life?’, because there is more of her than there was, you know, like I don’t know, this is like the kind of thing, do I say this or not? The first draft of the script, the first full draft, had the adult version of Sophie, kind of sitting within the scenes on the holiday, in a kind of Christmas Carol type of way, and over the course of the film became a little bit more interactive with the place and people. And it just didn’t feel like it was elevating anything, so it came out. And one of the scenes from that draft was her waking up in the middle of the night, or being awake in the middle of the night, not necessarily waking up, and it always stayed, and it always stayed in the script. I thought it was a little nuts, and I never thought it would really work, and sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t and sometimes I did, and when I didn’t that was actually something that Adele always really liked. And that is the kind of thing that you think, OK, I’ll shoot it because maybe it will be great, maybe it won’t work and then we don’t need to use it. That’s the kind of thing where I am thinking about not over-editing.
But I never wanted a really conventional present timeline. Margaret Tait — who we have this kind of like acknowledgement to in the stack of books in the film and that on the TV show that played out in the reflection — made a film, her only narrative feature film called Blue Black Permanent, which is not a dissimilar story, by coincidence, and it does have a timeline very much set in the present day, of a woman speaking to her romantic partner, telling the story of her mother. And it kind of dips in and out. I was interested in whether I could tell the story without that, and whether I could create a really strong feeling of memory without overly presenting it. And it’s like, I think about the other end of the spectrum, Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, which opens with this steady cam shot down a street, which is very much in disrepair and it’s raining, and it turns slowly into this dilapidated house with the roof caved in, and then it just cross-fades to many years earlier, a young boy sitting on the stairs of that same house. And that’s all he needs to do, this is a memory, you know, and you never see anybody. And so, it was just a huge conversation, like, the push and pull of how much we see of adults, you know, like she’s reflected in that image in the opening scene and then we eventually find her on the couch at the end. That was also not in the original script, the original script began and ended in a rave. So, all you saw of adult Sophie was the rave and that scene where she wakes up. But, you know, we developed the script and considered what was too little and what was too much, at least from my perspective, and I added that scene at the end to anchor it. And we talked a lot about that during notes, like there were cuts where that scene was the opening shot and when do you need to see her. We never wanted to feel, like at the end, when you pan away from the TV, that it was some big a-ha moment, you know. We wanted to be sure to have a really deep-seated sense that this is from her perspective, it is not some reveal, we are not playing a trick and disclosing our hand.
Barry Jenkins: It’s amazing, it’s almost like a coffee grinder, you’re just literally 2 clicks this way and the coffee tastes totally different, 3 clicks that way and the coffee tastes totally different.
Charlotte Wells: To you, Barry, you love your coffee!
Barry Jenkins: Exactly. I want to go more concrete, more process for the next question and we’ll bounce back and forth. Erin says, ‘Beautiful film, it really stayed with me. Can you talk about your prep? How much were you storyboarding and blocking and diagramming, and how much were you finding things in the space with the actors?’
Charlotte Wells: Blocking, I maybe half learnt to do on this film, very much thrown in the deep end, having previously made films with like, nine of my friends. The first day I think we had seventy extras, like, seven cast members and it was just my worst nightmare. But what we really did was, Greg, the cinematographer, and I spoke for months leading up to production, we’d start on page one, right where I’m sitting, and we started shot lists, and as soon as we got a few pages in almost everything we had done up to that point became irrelevant, because it was less about coming up with a definitive shot list, as it was discovering for ourselves the language of the film and the script. Like, Greg is very rigorous about script and story, that’s always the most important thing, and he’s also a filmmaker, an amazing writer and that’s his focus. And so, we spent hours, we got maybe half-way through the script before we arrived in Turkey, and maybe about another 25% of the way through it, and then we were just- every morning and every night, like, sitting and talking about shots and our approach and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. And that was also a collaborative process with the production designer, because we were setting up rooms to accommodate shots. You know, like, I chose the location because I had this idea of a two shot of Calum with his arm in a bucket, sitting on the bath while he is taking the cast off, and Sophie lying on the bed, but she ends up on a chair, which was a last-minute decision because it looked better.
Which is all to say we put in a tremendous amount of preparation, so that, when we got to a point when we hadn’t shot listed, or we got to a point when something was just not working, we knew what to do. And, like, we didn’t have rules, we were very anti-rule, we had no rule, but we definitely had strategies and ideas. Maybe it’s just semantic at the end of the day, but plan B was always just do what feels right. And that was most relevant when shooting Calum alone, which were the most difficult scenes to approach because we wanted to convey this idea that these scenes are through Sophie’s point of view, adult Sophie’s point of view, and that they are to some degree maybe imagined, or imagined with some gaps filled in later. But we wanted to keep him arms-length, kind of abstracted or obstructed from view in some way. But sometimes it didn’t work, and it was just about figuring out what felt right. We only storyboarded the most technical parts. We storyboarded the rave, we storyboarded elaborate underwater sequences that aren’t in the final cut.
Barry Jenkins: It’s interesting, and it’s totally fine for those sequences to not be in the final cut. But they are in the final cut, I remember, there are some scenes from Moonlight that aren’t in the film, and I was apologising to Mahershala and he said, ‘Oh, they aren’t in the cut, but they are in the performance’, so I think the energy of those sequences is very much in the film.
That answer actually bridges onto a very interesting next question that’s in the Q&A box, from Rita Osei. Rita says, ‘Loved your film’, Peter Greenaway says, ‘We have a cinema based on text, straight from the bookstore, and what the industry needs to do is move towards a truly visual media.’ Do you see yourself ever making a feature film without using a screenplay?
Charlotte Wells: No? I don’t think so? I mean, I don’t know, what is your take on that?
Barry Jenkins: It’s interesting, it’s funny, based on your last answer I was going to comment that, very different projects, but the Underground Railroad, we had a similar situation where, because of some logistics and budget and last-minute changes, we could only storyboard, or shot list, the first three episodes we filmed, which were out of sequence, which were episodes 1, 2 and 10, purely because of the location we were at, and then everything else we kind of just winged it. Just like you guys, we would just meet up on weekends or at night and try to figure out just how the next episode needed to feel like. But this really beautiful thing came out of it, and I’ll get to the answer now. The Tennessee section of the film was only meant to be- of the show, excuse me, knock-on-wood, it’s a TV show.
Charlotte Wells: It’s a film diary, that’s the thing though.
Barry Jenkins: The Tennessee section was only meant to be one episode. But in making it, the actor who played Jasper, did such a wonderful job that we found ourselves creating story on the fly, but out of the energy of what was happening on set. And, ultimately, we didn’t realise what we were doing but we built a whole hour based just around him and then completed the second half of the episode, another hour, based upon Peter Mullan, another one of your country men. Peter and Joe’s performances. So I don’t know, intentionally would never do that, would never do that. Even though I endorse the question. I do think film is a visual medium, if I just was concerned about telling stories I would be writing novels, and yet, I do think you need a skeleton to hang the visuals off of. To me that’s something written, whether it’s a script or a treatment or an outline or whatever it is.
Charlotte Wells: Yes, that’s the thing, like, what is a screenplay? Like, my screenplay opened with a shot of a battery rolling down the back of a bus, then being gradually passed back up and you got a sense of everyone who was on this holiday until it reaches Calum and Sophie. And so many people were like, ‘What? Get rid of that, why on earth is that in your script?’ And I was like, ‘That was my favourite part of the script.’ Again, sadly not in the film so difficult to execute as it turns out. I think there needs to be a framework and people work in different ways. I mean, you have Joanna Hogg, who as I understand it, works from like a much more conventional screenplay, that has key points to it but is more discovered on set with actors. I definitely write very visually, so this screenplay at least wasn’t just dialogue and bare description, and I don’t think yours are either, because I have some of them here as reference points.
Barry Jenkins: There’s quite a few questions about a particular topic, so I’m going to use one question, but I think it will address many of your questions in here. Luca Nappa asked, ‘I’d like to know more about the process of filming the tape recorder footage in the film, as Francesca Corio had to not only act in them but also operate the tape recorder. Was it harder to film those scenes? Did they choose a particular workflow for this or was there some improv involved?’
Charlotte Wells: No, they were so fun to shoot, and I always thought they would be. It is still a film set, which I forgot it would be, you still have to have a sound mixer, I definitely tried to talk my way out of that. And, everyone, was like, ‘Charlie, absolutely not.’ Poor sound guys always get the worst deal, and my DP is also a very talented sound guy, he was always looking out for the sound team. There were still productions, we still had monitors, but as far as possible I would try to close the door and let the actors be alone. Like, when she is recording his arm cast in the shower, I think it made it easier for her having the camcorder, it’s like giving an actor an action, I think it allows you to be a bit more instinctive in some ways because there is this other thing happening. Frankie found those scenes, I don’t know, I can’t speak for her, she did very well in those scenes, and they were always really exciting to watch, there’s like photographs of being on set, when she did the one on the boat, because I couldn’t even see her, there was no way for me to really be there, so Greg and I would share a headphone and there’s this picture of us listening, because we know that it’s amazing, we can hear it. It doesn’t matter what she is recording, as long as it’s not the rest of the crew, which sometimes it was. They were just really freeing. Many of them were scripted, a few of them weren’t, and there’s so much amazing stuff. There’s one really special moment in particular that I wish I could just release at some point, of Frankie talking about how palm trees grow. And one is in the film, the scene where Calum says she has a big head, that was just caught on the fly. Production had ground to a halt one day because our bus had broken down before it arrived on the set and I just grabbed the actors, grabbed a couple of changes of clothes and we just ran before anyone could stop us and then we recorded some footage. Those moments were just really special and very pure. It’s where the line between self and performance is probably, for Frankie, most blurred. You know, Paul again is a professional actor and thinks very much in character but Frankie is just out there having fun, and while Frankie is an amazing actor, she truly is in a way I never expected to find, I think so much of the job of working with kids is just giving them space, and that was a really easy way to give them space.
Barry Jenkins: I have to compliment you there, because I think there’s a wonderful performance in everyone, actor or non-actor. I think it takes a really empathetic human being, empathetic director to help that person realise that. You said, she went to places I couldn’t even believe or expect. I think you went to those places with her, I think that your direction, your guidance helped her get there. I didn’t mean to cut you off, but the thought was there and I wanted to make sure I got it over.
Charlotte Wells: No, and do you know, some of those were the most satisfying moments on set because I think there were moments where Frankie did struggle. She just thought the dialogue was, in her words, ‘Cringe.’ [Barry laughs] Total troll, absolute troll. Or she just wasn’t connecting to it, and like, you are under this crazy time pressure and film sets are very stressful places and it feels like life or death. If Frankie was struggling with something it would just force me to push it all away and just sit down and really be present with her, because she was never going to get there if she could feel my stress. It was kind of a gift to be forced to do that for myself as well rather than just helping her. And, when I could, when I did, it was an amazing feeling, you know, feeling like it was a collaboration and we got there together. Those were definitely some of my favourite moments on set.
Barry Jenkins: There are quite a few questions about how we came together and how long it took to make the film. We were just about to get the hook, but I will just blast through that one and say that both Adele and I watch a lot of short films and unofficially, our company, Pastel, we look to make first and second features, that’s kind of been our thing, you know, people who are more established think we are too small to work with or we don’t have the chops, I don’t know, but we are happy to play in this space. So, we were in New York, making If Beale Street Could Talk, and Adele met up with Charlotte. With things like this, Adele or Mark will mention it to me, I’d seen Charlotte’s shorts, and yeah, that sounds cool, let’s do it. It’s not about me getting my voice into your film, now once it’s in the can, then, you know what I’m saying, eh, I’m going to send notes until the cows come home, but never in a forceful way. And, so the process began back in 2018 or 2017 maybe, just with that first coffee between Charlotte and Adele and then we just kept tabs. It took Charlotte a while to get a script together.
Charlotte Wells: I spent that first coffee just pitching my friends projects, that was like, ‘Let me tell you about what my friends are doing, they’re great.’
Barry Jenkins: Nah, we need you, we need you. And I’m so happy that we stuck with you, and that you had faith to stick with us. I was going to read one more question, I saw the text box pop up. We’re just having a good time, we could do this all day. OK, do you want to choose it, because I want to ask all of them, but I can’t, I don’t know. Can you see them, Charlotte? You choose which question you want to answer.
Charlotte Wells: Yes, I can see it. I mean I can answer, this is like a really practical question. How long was the shoot and how long was the edit? Obviously, there is a straight-forward answer to that question, which is the shoot was 6 weeks, we shot 5-day weeks, so we had like 28, 29 days in the end.
Barry Jenkins: But how many forest spires almost burnt down the shoot? [laughs]
Charlotte Wells: How many natural disasters did we experience? At least one. And, then we edited for 7 months, and, like, I have to say, production wasn’t so different from shorts. It was obviously a huge step up, there were a lot more people, but I realised quite quickly that I had to keep my attention focused on probably the same number of people as my attention would have been focused on in shorts. Just to kind of be clear and communicative and those are just the people around you the most every day.
Editing was so different, that was the hardest part. The most that I learned, apart from now on the kind of having the opportunity to share and release the film. Editing was a really huge learning curve and process and I have been working professionally editing short form stuff, more commercial stuff for a living for the past few years, and it was just like so different, and it really was writing. You think of editing, and you think of it being quite technical and sitting at a keyboard, and it just wasn’t, it was exactly the same as writing a script. It was having index cards up on the wall, and it was sitting with my editor and just talking. Sometimes we would watch films, and some days we learned to juggle, and some days we went for a long lunch. But it was all work, and it was all working through the story and the characters. Figuring out what was most important and what you had to bargain with for yourself and then let go of, in the end. I’m lucky to have an editor that is a really good friend and is incredibly talented and that we could withstand each other for 7 months, because it’s a long time. But it was the part of the process that caught me most off-guard in how much stamina it requires, I think, after you have given so much of yourself in production, that is really the beginning. What began as infinite in some ways narrows down once on the page, then it’s infinite again and you shoot, and you cast and you find places and you’re left with however many hours of footage, and then it’s infinite again when you get to the edit, because there’s so many ways you can take things. It was 7 months and it felt longer.
Barry Jenkins: I just want to follow up with two quick things. One, there is nothing funny about forest fires, however, a film is an impossible thing, an impossible thing, and even the most delicate film has to overcome the most improbable obstacles and that was the case for this film.
Charlotte Wells: And you know that day, I thought, it was the only day we had done something and I was like, I wanted to do that area and we spent time in the morning, and I was like I am going to make time to come back to this tonight. We had never made a day, you know, and I was like we are going to make our day and we are going to come back to this shot and we got back within one take, and then it was like, surprise, there’s a forest fire on it’s way.
Barry Jenkins: And then one last thing I want to say, just to piggyback your words, you started your answer by saying it wasn’t the shoot, production wasn’t more difficult than making a short film, and I fully endorse that. I think that’s why with Pastel, Adele and I, when we see a short film and we see that this filmmaker in 4 days can make something so potent, why couldn’t they make something as potent over 30 days. So, if you are a young filmmaker watching this and you have aspirations of making features, if you have made a great short, that is enough, I feel, that is enough, and if you then have a feature script and someone says they believe in your short, they should also believe in your feature script. If you are trying to figure out- because State side, I always hear, ‘Ah, but I need to meet this agent, I need to meet that, blah, blah, blah.’ No, you need to just make something that is really potent and then find people who believe in you, because if you can do it in 4 days, you can do it in 30, which was the case here.
Charlotte Wells: If you have the people who believe in you, like, that’s the hardest part, and I was really lucky to have these guys. But that’s what you need. I can’t imagine any other way.
Barry Jenkins: We’re done, I promise, we won’t keep talking, I promise!
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