The story behind ‘Make Up’, the dazzling indie horror film about a battle between desire and repression

Writer-director Claire Oakley speaks to NME about her thrilling, prickly watch of a debut film

Make Up, the debut feature from British writer-director Claire Oakley, is one of this summer’s most dazzling films. An inventive hybrid of psychological horror and coming-of-age story, it’s a thrilling, prickly watch with an authentic queer thread running right through it. Molly Windsor, who won a BAFTA for her performance in Three Girls, the BBC’s dramatisation of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, is brilliant as central character Ruth, a shy teenager from Derby dealing with a seismic life change.

Soon after she arrives at the remote Cornish holiday park where her boyfriend has been working all summer, Ruth finds a strand of red hair on his clothes and suspects him of cheating. However, it turns out that the mysterious girl with red hair that Ruth keeps glimpsing isn’t someone she’s jealous of at all. And soon, she finds herself haunted by some much more shocking and perplexing images.

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Here, Oakley discusses the very personal origins of the film and explains why it had to be set somewhere that felt “separate” from the rest of the UK.

I read that the initial idea for Make Up came from a dream. How did it take shape exactly?

“Well, the dream was super-simple – it was just me following a girl through the streets of a foreign town. I could never quite reach out to her – you know how dreams can trick you? – and never quite see who she was. I was kind of interested in that, so I started writing it as a short film about eight or nine years ago. Then I went off to this filmmakers’ lab in Croatia where we’d all read one another’s work and give feedback, and this guy read the short film and said: ‘So you’re a lesbian then?’”

Wow.

“I know. I was in a very happy heterosexual relationship at the time, so I was really surprised and just thought he was really weird. I never made that short film, but about five years later things had changed in my personal life and I was looking back and thinking that maybe he was completely right. You know, maybe I had unconsciously written something about my own sort of hidden desires? So I went back to that story and started developing it further. I was really interested in the idea of your unconscious desires coming up to the surface and this sort of battle between them and repression.”

How did the psychological horror and body-horror elements find their way into the script?

“Well, the story I was wanting to tell is very interior – almost novelistic – so the whole challenge of the script really was to find ways in which to dramatise Ruth’s story and make it visual. In trying to express her heightened inner life alongside what is quite a mundane reality, I started thinking of more surreal ways of showing her fears and desires which I guess slipped into the horror genre. It was never really my intention to, you know, blend the coming-of-age drama with a more heightened horror or body-horror. It was all coming from the character and how best to express what was going on inside her head.”

Molly Windsor in ‘Make Up’. Credit: Press

How did this fear become such an integral part of Ruth’s experience?

“That was really from my own personal experience, I suppose. When I was coming out, I was actually married and in a heterosexual relationship. So it was definitely a scary moment for me: I thought I knew who I was and had made some pretty big life choices and then this very different thing was happening. I didn’t know why or what was going on and in a way, your mind plays tricks on itself. So those were the ideas I was looking at, and it just sort of morphed into a bit of body-horror and thriller-y stuff in the script.”

Because Ruth is such an insular character, was it vital to cast an actress who can express a lot in a very subtle way?

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“Ruth had to feel quite naive so that you believe that she didn’t know what was going on in her own head. I didn’t want the audience to feel like she was cunning or understood or was playing tricks in any way – that was just not the story at all. As soon as the casting director, Olivia Scott-Webb, saw a draft of the script, she sent me a link to Molly in Three Girls. We cast the film a bit later, several drafts down the line, and saw 200 girls for the role but Molly was always the one. Her first take was amazing – she was just exactly how I had pictured the character.”

What made you decide to set the film in a remote Cornish location?

“It was always going to be set in a sort of foreign place where Ruth couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know the town. But when we got financing for the film, it was through Creative England, which meant we had to shoot it in England. So then I started thinking about where in England could make Ruth feel like an outsider coming into a very tight community. I knew I wanted the film to be set on the coast and I spent quite a lot of time in Cornwall as a teenager, so it felt perfect to me. There’s quite a nationalistic sort of feeling down there that makes it feel separate from the rest of the UK. And there is also a Cornish language, which very few people speak now, but which has definitely filtered down into the everyday dialect a bit.”

Finally, what do you hope people might take away from the film?

“Well, when it premiered, this guy came up to me and said his cousin had come out last year. It had been a big deal among his family, but he personally hadn’t ever known why it was such a big deal – he felt like everyone was overreacting. But having watched Make Up, he said he now understood it more from his cousin’s perspective and appreciated what a big journey it was for him. So that was really lovely: to open someone’s eyes to an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have understood.”

‘Make Up’ is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from July 31

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