First time filmmaker Claire Oakley discusses the dream that inspired her stylised, genre bending coming-of-age film, Make Up.
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Claire Oakley’s debut feature, Make Up, is a coming-of-age drama that often feels like a horror film, because Oakley immerses us in the terror, confusion, and ecstasy of discovering your identity. Eighteen-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor) is a sullen, uncertain young woman when we meet her: she arrives in a small Cornish caravan park in the dead of night, alone but soon to be joined by her boyfriend, Tom (Joseph Quinn). Tom is from the area, but Ruth is not, and we learn little about her background or why she chose to uproot her life and move to such a remote part of the country. Our sense is that Ruth — all scraggly hair and plain, oversized clothes — doesn’t really know who she is, and so we don’t either.
Ruth’s discovery of a single red hair in the trailer she shares with her boyfriend leads her to suspect he’s cheating on her — but her investigation of this possible affair is really just a subconscious excuse to explore her own burgeoning desires. The object of Ruth’s affection (although she doesn’t realise it yet) is the park outcast, Jade (Stefanie Martini), a confident, beautiful, and slightly older woman who Ruth works with. Jade is shunned by the community for ambiguous reasons, although Ruth takes a liking to her and feels at home in Jade’s trailer, which is warm, colourful, and cosy. There, makeup artist Jade encourages Ruth to try on wigs, lipstick, and eyeshadow, and the slightly formless Ruth begins to work out what she wants, both stylistically and sexually.
From the horrific sound of foxes screaming on Ruth’s first night at the park, to the overwhelming noise of the ocean and wind, Oakley crafts a chilling atmosphere that might trick you into thinking Make Up will end in murder rather than romance. There are even surreal scenes that feel less literal and more like journeys into Ruth’s subconscious fears: a spooky peek inside an empty, fumigated van; an odd scene of Ruth spying two women having sex in a bathroom stall and watching through the crack under the door. Oakley says the film was based on a dream she had before she came out, that she retroactively realised may have been a subconscious indication of lesbian desire. Thus, with Make Up, she brings us into Ruth’s subconscious, from her nightmares to her passionate dreams.
I spoke to Oakley over Zoom about the inspiration for Make Up, choosing the film’s bold colour scheme, and how the visual style became less objective and more psychological once she started shooting.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Make Up?
Claire Oakley: The initial idea came about nearly ten years ago. I had a dream that really struck me. It was really simple, like a mood dream. I was following a girl through these streets, and I could never quite reach her or figure out who she was. I tried to write that into a short film, and I got on to a lab where you go for a week to develop your story. I arrived there, and we’d all read each other’s work. This one other director assumed that it was a story about lesbian desire. At the time, I didn’t think that at all. I was in a heterosexual relationship, and I’d never questioned my sexuality. It quite surprised me.
Years passed, and things changed in my own life: I had come out. I went back to that story because I remembered what that guy said about it. I looked at the short script, and that was enough of a spark to start developing the story into something about the unconscious and how you hide things from yourself.
7R: You had your own coming out experience later in life than Ruth does. Why did you decide to write about an eighteen-year-old character?
Claire Oakley: That moment where you move away from home for the first time and you’re in your first relationship seemed really rich, especially because I was interested in accessing her fantastical life, her dreams, her desires.
That inner life of a teenager seemed really exciting and rich. It’s maybe less contained and developed than an adult. It’s also quite an uncertain age. I liked the idea of the lead character being quite out of her comfort zone and alone, so her being younger and having left home for the first time for this strange place seemed right for the story.
7R: One thing I loved about the film is it doesn’t really pick a genre, but borrows from several, particularly horror. Were you inspired by horror? Why did you want to include horror elements?
Claire Oakley: It was a lot of fun bringing in elements of body horror, thriller, as well as coming-of-age drama. It developed naturally from the story and trying to describe that inner world. I realised as I was writing, after a couple of drafts, that in order to really show her journey, it was going to be necessary to move into a more surreal space. Then, I freed myself to use any genre.
The inspiration came less from watching other horror movies, and more from trying to describe her emotional and psychological journey. There were parts of her journey where she’s filled with fear, and a lot of the story is about her being scared of her own desires. To express that fear and confusion, it felt natural to use horror.
7R: Why did you choose to set the film in Cornwall?
Claire Oakley: It was always someone in a foreign place where [Ruth] couldn’t speak the language and she was an outsider. When we got funding, it was through Creative England, so the film had to be shot in England. I was looking for somewhere that would be a very close-knit community, quite isolated, and had its own dialect and rhythms.
The caravan park really fitted. It can be pretty spooky there. I liked the idea that it was this vast natural landscape, with the beach and the sand dunes. That seemed to replicate her journey in the story: is she going to live this contained life in these square little boxes, or follow her instincts and natural ideas? In this landscape, you have both these little boxes and this raw, natural environment.
7R: Did you do much production design work on the exteriors of that caravan park?
Claire Oakley: No, it was really just placing objects in the shots. As the film continues, it becomes more and more off season, so we removed things like the beach toys and washing lines and put in more machinery and piping, or things that would be used for repairs. We couldn’t do a huge amount to the caravans themselves, apart from, obviously, the plastic in which we wrapped the vans [that are being fumigated in the movie].
7R: What about the interiors of the trailers? How did you work with your production designer to create the inside of Ruth and Tom’s home, and in contrast, the inside of Jade’s home?
Claire Oakley: We had a clear plan that everything to do with Tom would be a colder greyish blue, and everything to do with Jade would be warmer. Jade has this background that she mentions briefly in one of the scenes, where she came to the park to look after her nan, and then her nan died. We felt that the van might have had a lot of old lady bits and pieces. We could use stuff that wasn’t necessarily Jade’s taste in the van to give a bit of texture to her story.
With Ruth and Tom’s van, we were able to kind of do what we liked because it was one of the worker vans, not one of the vans that you could rent. We ended up buying two identical caravans. We had one outside in situ, and then we cut up the other one and used it as a set with removable walls. We decorated them exactly the same. We had one of the caravans on a set and one of them outside, so we had a bit of rain cover and flexibility. We could get the camera into those tight spaces.
7R: I really loved the use of colour throughout the whole film, especially the reds. How did you think about the film’s colour scheme?
Claire Oakley: I wanted red to only appear in scenes where Ruth feels desire. At the beginning of the film, with Tom, there’s barely any red. Then, she finds the red hair, and from that point onward, you start to see more and more flecks of red in the film, especially in scenes with Jade. As her desires build, and she starts to understand them better, by the end of the film, there are scenes which are completely drenched in red. That was fun to plan across all the departments, from costume to production design. In the [colour] grade afterwards, we picked out all the reds and made them really bright so you could really feel them.
In terms of prep with Nick Cooke, my DoP [Director of Photography, who also shot Limbo], we didn’t really look at many other films. We did look at Jessica Hausner’s Hotel as a reference, because it’s very atmospheric and all set in one place. Story-wise, it wasn’t that similar, but she uses the hotel as a kind of labyrinth, which is what we were trying to do with the caravan park. Other than that, we used photographs as reference — really only one photographer, Todd Hido, an American photographer who photographs suburbia, mostly at twilight. There’s a mysterious atmosphere to the places, and it feels quite psychological, like a state of mind rather than a place. That was something we were trying to drum up in all of our shots.
7R: How did you work out how to use framing in Make Up?
Claire Oakley: The framing actually changed over the shoot. We initially thought we would use a lot of wide shots and that we would have more of an observational style, stood back a bit and let things play. But as we started shooting and working with the actors, it felt natural to be a bit closer.
In prep, we decided the whole film would be very composed and static, and in the end, we decided to use quite a lot of handheld and steadicam. It morphed over the shoot, mainly because Molly was so good, and it felt right for the story to be with her and close to her as much as possible.
7R: The filmmaking became more subjective to Ruth’s experience?
Claire Oakley: Yeah, exactly. In the edit, it evolved again to become even more subjective. There’s a lot of little flashes in the cut where we see something that she’s thinking about, and that wasn’t in the script. We found that in the edit and started chopping up little bits of scenes and dropping them in. I wasn’t planning on using any music at all, just using sound design from the weather and environment. But there were moments in the film once we cut it where I felt it was going to be more powerful if we could feel the emotions of Ruth’s character a little more. We decided to use music, as well, and brought a composer in quite late.
7R: Can you talk a bit about the sound design process? I loved the sound design and how unsettling it is.
Claire Oakley: The idea was that everything would start quite real, the sounds she hears and the environment she’s in. And over the course of the story, as the genre starts to morph and change, the realism gets left behind, and the sound design would replicate that. We could be more inventive and subjective and psychological. A lot of it was written in the script because I was aware sound design was going to be vital in telling her story.
A caravan park holds a lot of [sound design] opportunities because you can kind of hear what’s going on in other vans. You’re in a mini town, but you’re also in nature, and the weather feels very close because the walls of the vans are extremely thin.
7R: What kinds of things did you do to make the sound design more subjective?
Claire Oakley: The wind was a big thing. And that grows as her confusion and spiralling obsession grows. There are shots where, in the visuals, there’s not much wind at all, but we use quite a lot of it [in the sound mix] to make her feel like she’s in this swirling atmosphere. The sound of the sea was also a big thing in the background of a lot of shots, and it grows over the course of the film.
The sound of the foxes crying was always in the script, but it worked out quite well. We used more than was in the script [to make it into] a repeated motif. Over the course of the film, they seem to mean different things to her at different points. They’re unnerving at the beginning, and then they become jumpy and scary when she’s exploring that empty van that’s being fumigated.
7R: What were you looking for when casting Ruth and Jade? Those two characters are quite different, but they balance each other in a really complementary way.
Claire Oakley: Jade’s character is a makeup artist. When we were casting, we just gave a couple of scenes, not the whole script. A lot of actors came in with some more traditional vision of what a makeup artist is: she cares a lot about her appearance and is less down to earth or grounded. When Stefanie [Martini] came in, she gave a very different interpretation, She’s from the West Country [where the film is set], and her [interpretation of a] makeup artist seemed very real and grounded, as if she could be living on a caravan park. There was something quite caring and deep about her. You could believe this story that she had been there to look after her nan. It wasn’t all surface.
For Ruth, I was looking for someone who had to be naive in a lot of ways and not know herself very well, but at the same time, have depth and a sort of consciousness that, at times, feels mysterious and unknowable, because she doesn’t know herself. She also had to have a willingness to explore those depths. I definitely didn’t want anyone who could seem sophisticated, cunning, or manipulative, because what she does in the story — cheating on her boyfriend and abandoning him — is not perfect behaviour. I wanted the audience to go on that journey with her and be sympathetic towards her, which needed a naivete. Molly had that.
She [Molly] gave an incredible self tape very early on in our casting. What was really appealing to me was what she was doing when she wasn’t speaking the lines. It wasn’t necessarily about her delivery. You felt you could watch her face and understand a lot of what that character was going through, which was really important because she doesn’t have much dialogue in the film.
7R: What about the design of Ruth and Jade, their makeup and costume? They’re sort of opposites in that regard, too.
Claire Oakley: With Ruth’s character, she doesn’t really wear any makeup, certainly when she arrives. Her hair’s all straggly, and she wears tracksuit bottoms and doesn’t care much about her appearance. We didn’t want her to be cool. She’s not scraggy in a cool way, but it was more that, perhaps, she doesn’t have the confidence to dress up, or she’s still half a child in a way. She hasn’t thought about herself and who she is and what clothes she might like. She’s a bit thrown together.
With Jade, the colours were quite important. She wears a lot of red, which increases over the course of the film. We wanted her to be slightly sexy but not in an overt way. Her confidence was something we wanted to show most of all. In a sort of opposite way to Molly, she knows herself. She’s not trying to be showy with the way she dresses, but it has a confidence to it.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the iFeatures programme and how that helped develop this film?
Claire Oakley: It is a year-long development programme. At the beginning, you submit an outline, and then you write a script over the course of a year. That’s with the notes and input of execs at the BBC, the BFI, and Creative England, plus my producer. They organise workshops for you, as well.
It’s very involved, and it was very high pressure. I write quite well under pressure, so it really worked for me. The script changed quite a lot over the course of [the process]. That was due to the execs picking up on things that are in the story and saying, “That’s interesting,” and you end up pursuing that more. Certainly, the coming out element of the story grew. When I first pitched the project, there was no love scene at the end and [the coming out element] was more hidden. They gave me the confidence to bring that out more in the story.
7R: Could you tell me a bit about your own organisation, Cinesisters?
Claire Okaley: It’s a group of female directors, a peer-to-peer mentoring group, where we meet once a month. Now we’ve got nearly 200 members, so we don’t all meet once a month. But we help each other with sharing knowledge and experience, and we do talks. If someone’s just shot a TV series under COVID-19 restrictions, she might talk to everyone about that experience. The aim is we’re all growing together. It’s a shame not to be able to meet in person at the moment, but we’re still struggling on with it.
7R: When did that start?
Claire Oakley: 2014, and it was just four of us. The first year or so we just met in each other’s sitting rooms.
7R: How did you feel it has shaped your filmmaking?
Claire Oakley: Part of the group is we have writers-workshop-type things where each month, someone can offer up their script, and a group of us will read it and give notes back. I did that with Make Up about twice over the course of writing it. It was really helpful just to have a sounding board that wasn’t the execs, [because the execs] knew the project really well. It’s really nice knowing more people in the industry. Directing is quite a lonely job, and you only get to do it about every five years if you’re making features and on a good trajectory. It’s important to know other filmmakers and form a community.
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