Interview with Claire Oakley: ‘If you’re constantly focused on how others perceive you, you lose touch with how you perceive yourself’

Behind the scenes of Make Up (2019). Director Claire Oakley is standing on a beach, the sand and grassy hill behind her is out of focus. Claire is white, has light brown hair to her collar and wears round brown glasses. She has on a black coat and a black beanie hat, it looks breezy. She is holding a large black sheet which is covering a camera.
Photo: Jonny Birch/BAFTA

British director and screenwriter, Claire Oakley, has made her feature film debut, Make Up, which tells the story of an 18-year-old girl called Ruth (Molly Windsor) who visits her boyfriend (Joseph Quinn) in a Cornish caravan park where he is a member of the maintenance staff. After she discovers strands of red hair on his sweater, along with a lipstick stain on their caravan’s window, feelings of jealousy begin to swirl in the depths of Ruth’s chest that transform into something more, sparking an augmenting anxiety that drives her to search for answers without directly confronting her boyfriend. This surrealist film delves into elements of body horror and psychological thrill, yielding a full-body feminist manifesto as a coming-of-age film. With the film’s release, Screen Queens was able to chat with Oakley on genre-bending, portraying female desire, the question of traditional femininity, and much more.

SQ: The film debuts a sexual awakening in probably the most unique way I’ve ever seen… Where did the idea for surrealism, body horror, psychothriller-like elements come into conjuring the film in the first place?

CO: Well I think it comes from just trying to tell the story of Ruth’s, the lead character’s heightened inner life. And the big challenge in the script was trying to find ways to express her unconscious and her fears, her desires, her obsessions—everything that was going on inside her head. And in sort of trying to express that, I allowed myself to range freely through the genres in order to show her inner world. And it just felt like I had to use kind of, much more surreal imagery to express what was going on, which is what led me to all these genres. But it never really came from the…it wasn’t an idea to mix genres; it was much more trying to express her mind, what was going on in her mind, and this journey that it was on, because it’s much more of an interior journey. 

Make Up (2019). Half of a girl's face is visible as a reflection in a mirror, she is white and has long straight  brown hair and blue eyes. She looks into the mirror with a sombre expression, the rest of the frame is out of focus, lighting is soft yellow.
Curzon Artificial Eye

SQ: So it was more of an organic byproduct. 

CO: Yeah, exactly. But I also liked the idea of playing with the audience’s expectations, and taking the audience on a journey where you’re never really sure what’s going to come next, and using these familiar tropes in different ways to express her feelings and desires.

SQ: And part of the way you filmed it—in being inside Ruth’s mind—it’s very much a female-centric narrative. The story is revolving around desire— how did you approach the depiction of female desire on-screen? It’s a very contentious topic in film today.

CO: I did a lot of research for it while I was writing. I was looking at ideas about teenage girls and desire from a theoretical analysis or point of view, and I was reading about the fact that girls much more than boys are asked to control so many aspects of themselves, like the way you look, the way you dress, your weight, your appetite. The idea is to make yourself desirable, and in doing that, I was interested in how you might lose touch with your own desires. If you’re constantly focused on how others perceive you, you lose touch with how you perceive yourself. I also read that a lot of teenage girls, when they’re having their first or early sexual encounters, prioritize the boys’ feelings, and the boys experience the satisfaction of their own, which again kind of ties into the idea for me of how this affects your self-expression and your self-knowledge, and if we live in a culture that doesn’t value our experiences and our natural instincts and desires, then how does that affect us psychologically? As I was reading and while I was writing, I was looking at repression and the way the mind makes us play tricks on ourselves. So I think that the way I tried then to express desire is complex and confusing and you know, there are points in the film where this character doesn’t know what’s happening, she’s confused, there are a lot of red herrings or tricks in the film, and I think that was trying to replicate what might be going on in her head on the journey towards discovering what she discovers about herself and her desires.

SQ: In that process, Ruth, in interacting with Jade and interacting with her boyfriend—there is a natural shift between jealousy and desire. So in a way, they go hand-in-hand. Do you think there was a turning point when she realizes this shift or is it something that you think that is melded together? It’s super fascinating the way that plays out.

CO: Yeah, I was really interested in that because it’s kind of what happened to me when I was coming out. I was in a relationship at the time—serious relationship, with a guy— we were married, and the very first instinct of my desires for women started through jealousy. I would kind of allow myself in some ways to fantasize about women I could be jealous of, like his ex-girlfriend or people I knew he found attractive. So there was this weird development in my own head in that it started that way, and then grew into something of its own, so I was interested in bringing that into the story. I think it [jealousy] also can be used as a little bit of an excuse. If you think someone else is cheating on you, a part of you can be like, “Well, I can pursue my own journey as well. If that’s what you’re doing, I’m going to head there too.” And then you might switch from understanding these feelings as jealousy to understanding them as desire, but I think it’s a slow process. I mean, there’s a scene in the film where she goes to Jade’s and they’re smoking and then they dance, and I think quite a lot happens in that scene, where she’s sort of allowing her- well, she’s not policing her own feelings in such a strong way. Maybe that’s a turning point, I would say.

SQ: Yeah, and perhaps the ambiguity is something that is emerging in lesbian/queer women films because a lot of the time, even in its depiction on-screen, the question is that, “is it friendship now? or something else?” And all these different feelings are confusing, but maybe ambiguity itself is a hallmark of this lesbian imaginaire emerging on-screen. Something that comes out of that in this film though is the way that femininity is portrayed. She [Ruth] goes to Jade’s house, in her caravan, and there’s this interaction with make-up [the name of the film] and wigs and such—how did the idea to bring these elements in the film come about? Incorporating these very traditionally feminine elements as symbols of Ruth’s sexual awakening. 

CO: I was interested in using very traditional ways in which we express our femininity—long hair, long painted nails, lipstick marks on the mirrors, and seeing how they feel for the main character Ruth throughout the story as she changes as kind of progresses. At points in the story, they feel quite “Other” or quite scary or sinister. There are points where it’s quite exciting and forms a bond between the two girls, and there are points like at the end when she puts the wig on, it’s quite empowering. I was interested in looking at these different ways these feminine tropes can feel, and sometimes they’re quite suffocating and sometimes they’re the opposite. 

I wanted to use them in that way to explore the way in which people can feel completely different. There are ways in which our culture packages femininity and that can sometimes feel horrible and too much like being pigeon-holed, or that you might not conform to that. And then at other points, it can feel quite fun and empowering and sexy, and people enjoy taking advantage of it, so I was interested in looking at the different ways it can feel. 

Make Up (2019). Ruth, the brown haired girl, is in a darkened room illuminated with a purple light in the background. She wears a plain white shirt and her hair is laying lank over her face and shoulders. Her face is angled down, her expression is blank, but she seems sad.
Curzon Artificial Eye

SQ: That’s interesting because what plays into those aspects of the film really well is the cinematography. I’m thinking mainly about Jade’s apartment—that scene that you mentioned with the smoking, and then the spectral lighting of the caravan, when Ruth goes in and sees the undergoing work and maybe suspects that something is going on in there;  then at the end with the red light and smoke on the beach. Did you have ideas before on how these would look, with the surrealist plays on the cinematography? What sort of things did you pull inspiration from?

CO: Yeah, we did have specific ideas. Particularly, it sort of stemmed from the idea of the quite strong slew of British films that are set in bleak locations where everything is quite grey [laughs] and cloudy and partly because that’s just the weather here [laughs]. It all feels kind of a bit bleak. Although it was a caravan park, it was out of season, and there was a bleakness to it, I didn’t want that to be the only note because it’s a story about a teenager with a lot going on, so I felt like it needed to be more colorful and fantastical and surreal at times. So that’s where it came from, and then we—my cinematographer, Nick Cooke, and I— we mostly looked at photographers, not so much at a film. One of the main ones we looked at was an American photographer called Tom Hido who takes pictures of suburbia, it’s always at twilight, the air is thick with mist and fog and there is normally one neon light coming from a distance, and they’re kind of murky and nostalgic. And what I liked about them was that his photographs feel more like a state of mind than they do the place. I loved the idea that you could create an atmosphere and a take on a place that felt so subjective and reflected the point of view and the state of mind of the person in that place than the place itself. Then we started just using colors really— the color red in the film— we worked quite hard with, across departments with costume design. We only used red in scenes where Ruth feels desire, where the scenes of her with her boyfriend are blue or grey. And gradually we see these little pops of red—the red hair or the red nails. Also we start to see the clothes on Jade or red in the scenes that Jade’s in, and that builds and grows, and towards the end, it’s almost completely washed with red, when we have the fire scene. 

Make Up (2019). Ruth is standing outside at night, seemingly in a field of tall grass that comes up to her chest, and there is a metal pylon in the background. Ruth is wearing a black sweatshirt and is looking sideways, her face illuminated by some source of yellow light in the distance.
Curzon Artificial Eye

SQ: It’s cool how it’s coded then. No matter what we talk about in the story, you can’t ignore the fact that it entirely takes place in a caravan park. In that way, it sort of has this “No Exit” vibe—it’s not sequestered to one room, but to one campsite. At what point in your filmmaking process did you decide that it was going to be entirely set in this location?

Quite early on, I wanted it to feel like she was an outsider coming into a close-knit community. I was looking for somewhere that would feel very insular and quite isolated, and I wanted it to be near nature. Caravan parks in the UK are usually set in these beautiful locations, right on the edge of the sea, or sort of these natural beauty spots. As soon as I had the idea for the caravan park, it seemed to tick a lot of boxes. And then more than that, metaphorically, it was really exciting to me because you’ve got these rows of prefabricated, identical vans, sitting in raw nature, and that seemed to reflect the story a bit where Ruth has to make the decision between leading this prefabricated, quite conservative, maybe a bit fake life, or following or her raw instincts. So that was quite interesting in itself, and I was going to be able to express the scenes in the film with the setting, and it’s also sort of fun because you can make the caravan park into a maze and it has the potential to be quite spooky and creepy. 

SQ: Well Claire, you have a remarkable debut here. We’re excited to be able to follow your career from the early stages, as you have such a dynamic style. What is next for you?

CO: I’m working on a couple of things, some of them in super early stages. I want to do something that is going to be based on the environment, but I’m not quite sure yet what that will become. Then the other thing I’m working on is the adaptation of a book, called English Animals, which is a debut novel that came out a couple of years ago by a woman called Laura Kay, and I’m adapting that in the moment, and it’s the story of a Slovakian girl that comes to live with a quite eccentric British couple, and looking at the relationships between the three of them.

by Ariel Klinghoffer

Ariel K. is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with other things like film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are some of the strongest forms of activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favorite favorite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favorite book is Normal People, and her favorite candy is Kinder Bueno white. Twitter: @qqnenfeu. Letterboxd: @qqnenfeu

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