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How ‘Aftersun’ Made ‘Under Pressure’ Its Own

Director Charlotte Wells and editor Blair McClendon discuss transforming the film's final needle drop.

AFTERSUN, from left: Frankie Corio, Paul Mescal, 2022. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection


Courtesy Everett Collection

While most of “Aftersun” chronicles the vacation a young girl named Sophie (Frankie Corrio) and her father Calum (Paul Mescal) take to a Turkish resort one ’90s-tastic summer, that’s not the story of the film. Technically, “Aftersun” is about Sophie as an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall) remembering their time in Turkey, many years on, when her father is no longer in the picture.

The film avoids a traditional flashback structure, showing only snatches of the adult Sophie — in slice-of-life moments where she watches videos from the trip; in an impressionistic, recurring sequence set at a rave — before diving back into the flow of Sophie’s childhood memories and what might’ve happened around them. The difference between showing us a character reminiscing and placing us inside the subjective experience of that reminiscence is the difference between doing a backflip on a trampoline and landing a triple lutz, in ice skates, on that same trampoline — but “Aftersun” pulls it off, with full marks.

Music makes it possible, but music is always tricky. When used in film, it has a way of evoking specific times and cultural trends (as “La Macarena” does earlier in “Aftersun”), expressing a character’s inner state (there’s a whole other essay to be written about Sophie’s karaoke go-to being REM’s “Losing My Religion”), or offering up an interconnected relationship between image and sound that creates a whole different, other emotion for the audience (Blur’s “Tender” certainly qualifies here). “Aftersun” uses its final needle drop, Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” to do all three, grounding the audience in the specific nature of Sophie’s relationship to Calum through a true feat of editing.

Director Charlotte Wells and editor Blair McClendon always knew that they’d make use of a needle drop for Sophie and Calum’s dance on their last night in Turkey and the adult Sophie’s memory of the same — a pop track that they would abstract or fragment in some way. “Because we were going to be in this space of ’90s pop music that lots of people would recognize and would have associations with, we needed ways to alienate that sound from whatever your direct idea of it was,” McClendon told IndieWire. “We were always thinking, ‘How do you get away from the music just being the music? Because the thing that this movie really demands of you is that you be paying attention in a certain way. At every moment where the music starts to take over, is there a way to make sure it’s not just being the pop song, so that it is still set somewhere within this [fictional] world?”

Which makes the choice of this particular Queen/Bowie bop all the more ambitious. “Under Pressure” has collected all manner of personal associations since its 1981 release, many of them from its uses in film and television. As McClendon put it, “What’s always difficult when you’re doing a needle drop is you have to go one way or the other. You either don’t use the real song that everybody remembers from that moment and then there’s always something a little off about it, or you use [the original recording] and now you’re coming up against all of the associations with this very famous song.”

The editing rhythm that McClendon and Wells establish throughout the “Under Pressure” sequence strips those associations away. It begins at the resort, the photography incredibly warm and saturated in the Turkish evening, where “Aftersun” lingers for a good 30 seconds, before Calum dancing away leads us to him dancing through the much cooler, more fragmented rave footage. The two lines of action are then intercut with each other, the rave footage gradually taking over as the quality of the song changes and even degrades, becoming something else entirely inside of the painfully splintered space of Sophie’s mind.

Perhaps because of the stature of “Under Pressure,” McClendon and Wells first cut it in almost as a joke, off an early assembly of the scene that only had the most temporary of temp scores. According to McClendon, Wells suggested the track “half-jokingly” —“there were lots of songs that we joked about being in this film,” he said. Then Wells cut the song in, along with some temporary drones and distortion noises. “We were like, ‘Oh no, that actually might be the answer,’” McClendon said.

In part, “Under Pressure” is the answer because the remix used in the film (by “Aftersun” score composer Oliver Coates) slowly breaks the iconic song down, elevating completely new emotions out of the isolated vocals, dissonant drones, and a low, frantic cello underneath. The adjustments do to the song what the whole of “Aftersun” is doing to the images we see of Sophie and Calum on holiday: Wells and McClendon are taking material that seems simple and unremarkable on the surface, and then slowly transforming our awareness of it into something that exists entirely through Sophie’s perspective — that exists not just as her memories but her act of remembering. In this version of “Under Pressure,” we’re hearing the sonic equivalent of a sense of loss.

AFTERSUN, from left: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, 2022. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection


Courtesy Everett Collection

The roughest, most distorted, most vocals-isolated part of the “Under Pressure” cue occurs over the rave footage. It’s deliberately difficult to tell what’s actually happening amid the strobing lights, but we see the adult Sophie move across the dance floor to find Calum. She seems by turns to cling to and repel him, sees him seeing her as an adult and as a child. But whatever the action and emotion, the viewer can never quite grasp or make sense of the whole of it, especially not with Freddie Mercury screaming, “Why can’t we give love one more chance?” over and over again.

Not even Wells realized initially how right the song’s lyrics are for her protagonist. “I don’t think that even occurred to me until several times of listening to it,” she told IndieWire. “It was more about the emotion in the vocal performance. I think that’s why I brought it in, if not just to entertain Blair.”

But the lyrics do line up to Sophie’s relationship to Calum with an almost eerie precision, from the fact that this is their last dance to Sophie’s grief being one of the many things “Under Pressure” might describe as “the terror of knowing what this world is about.” So much so that Wells was worried it would be too on-the-nose.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, maybe this isn’t possible. Can we possibly get away with this?,’” she said. “And our assistant editor’s husband gave us some feedback on the cut. He said, ‘It’s a choice with a Capital ‘C.’” And it is walking a very fine line and it could easily tip in the wrong direction. And we just kept the faith that we could hold it just at the line that it needed to be held at.”

Balance felt especially important because of the ways in which the “Under Pressure” sequence advances the audience’s understanding of Sophie and Calum’s relationship. There’s been a mounting sense of importance to the images of Calum and Sophie’s vacation up to this point, an accumulating set of details that feel important through the way the camera and the edit linger over them, through the wider view that makes the polaroid and DV footage Sophie and Calum themselves take feel truly ephemeral, or through flashes that transpose artifacts, like the rug Calum buys, into the present day. The film’s building pressure, as it were, without fully tipping its hand as to the context of the adult Sophie’s memories. This was important to McClendon. “From the perspective of [adult Sophie] in the film, there’s nothing in that movie [about the holiday] that, the moment she’s thinking about it, does not also recall its outcome.”
But the “Under Pressure” sequence is where the film finally plays its hand. By gradually fragmenting the music, images, and flow of time throughout the sequence, Wells and McClendon make the experience of listening to the euphoric needle drop as complicated as the memories Sophie is sifting through, and as painful as the things she’ll never find inside them.

The shift in what we know about Sophie and Calum in the “Under Pressure” sequence is the necessary context that gives the film’s ending its power. For as much as Sophie is continually squeezing more and sometimes new meanings out of the finite amount of footage she has of her father — and the “Under Pressure” sequence is the apex of that — the film ends with Calum, frozen in time, also pointing a camera at his daughter. There’s a visual dialogue between two people remembering through matching images and shot compositions, and yet there’s also a final, weighty awareness of Sophie as an adult that the “Under Pressure” sequence has provided. We not only see these two people viewing each other across time, but feel Sophie recognizing some aspect of her father so much later in life, even as he heads down the hallway and back into darkness.

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