Great Britain

Make Up director Claire Oakley: 'I was worried people might think we were making a porno'

A few years ago, the writer-director Claire Oakley wrote a script for a short film, based on one of her dreams. “It was just a girl, following another girl, through some streets in a foreign town,” she explains, via Zoom, from her home in east London. She submitted it to a writers’ scheme and was accepted on to a retreat in Croatia with 20 other writer-directors, all of whom had to read each other’s work. “This guy came up to me on the first day, and said: ‘Oh, so you’re a lesbian, then.’ And I was like: what? He thought the work was about female desire. And I didn’t know what he was talking about, thought he was really weird, and didn’t speak to him for the rest of the week.” At the time, Oakley explains, she was in a heterosexual relationship. “I was actually married to a man.”

She is now married to a woman. Back in Croatia, the thought had “not ever really popped into my conscious mind”, and the short film was never made. “I could never figure out what was happening, or why she was following someone, so it never came to fruition,” she says. “Then about five years passed, and things changed in my life, and I came out, and during all that, I thought back to him, and his interpretation of that piece of work, and realised that maybe he’d been completely right.”

That nascent short film idea eventually came back to life and morphed into Make Up, Oakley’s debut feature, a wonderfully unsettling film about discovery and freedom that has attracted much buzz on the festival circuit. It tells the story of Ruth, a young woman from Derby who moves to to stay with her boyfriendon the caravan site in Cornwall where he works. It is eerie and twisting, touching on horror, thriller and sexual psychodrama (there is a scene involving an acrylic nail that leaves audiences wincing). And it is difficult to talk about without spoiling it; part of the thrill is not knowing where the story will go. “That was always my intention when I was writing it; that it would be something that took you down a path and surprised you, in the same way that it surprised her,” says Oakley. “It’s not autobiographical at all, but it is a very personal story to me, and so her journey does in some way replicate mine.”

As Make Up was funded by Creative England, it had to be set in England, which meant the idea needed reworking. “My short film had been in this foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. That was quite an important part of it, that she was an outsider in this foreign place.” Oakley grew up in London, but spent a lot of time in Cornwall as a teenager, and that made it a natural choice for the setting. Ruth is from Derby, 13 hours away by bus, and her inability to understand the workers’ in-jokes flecked with Cornish words marks her out as someone who does not belong. They made the film over five weeks in April, on a tight budget, living on the caravan park where they also shot, near St Ives. “The park was open to the public while we were doing it, because we couldn’t afford to take it over,” Oakley says, laughing. “It was really useful for the party scene, because half of the people who were there were just people who happened to be staying on the park.”

Have the people who run the park seen the film yet? “No, I don’t think so. We sent them the script very, very early on, when we were trying to secure the park as a location, and I don’t think they ever read it, thankfully.” There is a particularly vivid scene in the shower block. “When we were shooting the sex scenes, I was like: God, I really hope they don’t walk in because they’re going to think we’re making a porno, and we’re going to get chucked out,” she laughs. “The most embarrassing person was my dad, because he worked on the shoot. He was the person that I least wanted there, on those scenes.” Her dad, a retired builder, has worked on all the short films Oakley has made, and did the weather-related special effects on Make Up. “He’s always looking for a project,” she says. The rest of the crew were surprised to find out he was her father. “They’d go: ‘What? She never talks to you.’ I had to remain focused.”

The film’s looming, ever-present static caravans are wrapped in plastic, ready to be fumigated, which makes for a creepy, clinical backdrop to the unfolding mystery. “That’s not actually how they fumigate vans,” Oakley admits. “I thought we could get away with a little creative licence.” Actually, she was inspired by a 1972 painting by the artist Maria Lassnig, called Self-Portrait Under Plastic, that she had seen at an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool. “She has a plastic bag over her head, trying to breathe through this plastic. It felt really expressive of a certain kind of suffocated femininity, and someone trying to express themselves but not being able to. I was really struck by it.”

Early reviews of the film have picked up on its queer themes. “I wasn’t conscious of making a coming-out film,” says Oakley. “For me, it was more about the process of self-exploration, and the idea that you can know yourself so little.” She talks about a survey she read that analysed 25 years of magazines aimed at women and young girls. “The quality that was most purported as being something we should follow was self-control. So control of your appetite, control of what you’re wearing, control of your body, and your desires, particularly. That really struck a chord with me because it did feel like how I’d grown up, and how I’d been taught to be, my whole life.” It made her think about the consequences of that repression. “For me, it was always just about her discovering this other side to herself. It was more about freedom and being in touch with your own sexual desires, whatever they may be.”

Oakley, 35, studied English at Edinburgh University, but did not harbour any desires to be a director back then. “I hadn’t had any contact with anyone in the industry, and had no idea that it could be a job. I was never a film geek growing up,” she says. She suspects, though, that she was at least a bit interested in that world, “because when I was about 10, I tried to remake, shot by shot, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. She was director, cinematographer and costume designer, and cast herself as Robin Hood, while her sister played the Sheriff of Nottingham. The camera broke before it could ever be committed to tape, so no footage exists for the archives.

In 2014, along with three other women, Oakley formed the collective Cinesisters, to bring female directors together. “Directing is quite a lonely job, and you don’t really know each other. You’re working on your own, and you know of other female directors, but you don’t know how to meet them,” she explains. It has grown from four members to 170, and there are monthly meetings, where people share their stories and skills, practical tips and experiences. “I think there have always been lots of female directors around, it’s just that they haven’t been getting work. And now we are getting more work. But it’s definitely not 50/50 still.”


As a student in Edinburgh, when the idea of making films first began to occur to Oakley, she and a group of friends would hire equipment at weekends, and help each other to make short films, in another sort of collective. She credits the city’s cinemas with introducing her to arthouse films. “Maybe it’s just a bit lazy, but because I didn’t go to film school, there are definitely films that people talk about that everyone has seen or studied and I’m like: what? What is that film? Then I go home and watch it.” It took her years of working on sets as a runner and assistant, though, to admit that she really wanted to direct herself. “It was a slow process. I guess a bit like my coming out story,” she says, smiling. “I seem to come at things quite slowly.”

Make Up is released on 31 July

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