Claire Oakley photographed for the FT © Gabby Laurent

Eight years ago, Claire Oakley arrived at a workshop with a short film screenplay that told the story of a woman following another woman. “On the first day, this guy came up to me and was like, ‘Oh, so you’re a lesbian then.’ I was really shocked. I didn’t know what he was getting it from,” she says over videoconference from her home in Hackney, east London. “He’d read the film that I’d written as a sort of expression of female desire. [I] didn’t know what he was talking about.” After all, Oakley was married to a man.

Subconscious desire is the heart of her debut feature film Make Up, a coming-of-age story fusing horror, thriller and romance. It stars the brilliant Molly Windsor (who won a Bafta for best actress in Three Girls, a TV drama about child abuse) as Ruth, an 18-year-old who arrives at a Cornwall caravan park to live with her boyfriend.

Wind whips through the sand dunes as the holiday resort empties and her days blur into a claustrophobic domesticity. Loneliness slides into paranoia, with the screams of rutting foxes and the creaking of buildings adding to the unease. One day Ruth finds a red hair, sparking doubts about her boyfriend, while at the same time she is dazzled by another campsite worker, Jade. 

Though there are elements of grotesque body horror in the film, it is essentially a psychological mystery as Ruth discovers her attraction to women. This echoes Oakley’s own life. After her marriage ended, she came out at the age of 31 and is now married to a woman (full disclosure, an FT journalist). 

Oakley, who comes across as serious and thoughtful, was influenced by Stefan Zweig’s novella Fear, “about a woman, fear and paranoia”. But she wanted her protagonist to be young, as that is a time when friendship, sex and sexuality loom large, yet to be crowded out by the rush of work and family. 

Growing up in a middle-class home in Hammersmith, west London, Oakley says she did not meet an openly gay person until she was in her twenties, while also feeling like an outsider — which, she now reflects, may have been due to her burgeoning sexuality. She worries, though, that seeing work, including her own, through an autobiographical lens can inhibit the viewer from bringing their own stories to it. “That, to me, is what’s enjoyable about art,” she says. “It expands your knowledge and horizons, rather than [teaching] you that one person has something [that] happened to them.”

Her movie education started at the arts cinemas at university in Edinburgh, where she made a short film, an experience she “loved”. After graduating, she began running for commercials directors. “I had printed out loads of CVs and put them in special green envelopes that I thought would catch people’s attention. I didn’t even really know at the time the difference between a commercials company and a film company, and I just put these through the letterboxes and the first one to give me a job was a commercials company.”

It was only after a couple of years that she imagined a career making films herself was possible. “I suddenly felt for the first time ever I was among people who understood me and who had the same interests as me, and I felt like I’d found a creative family. I started watching films and hearing about films and discovering work that I would never have seen before.” Her lucky break came when she was invited to assist John Crowley on Boy A, a TV drama, and the Michael Caine film Is Anybody There?

She went on to make a series of short films. The 2010 short Beautiful Enough echoes the dark palette of Make Up, and explores impossible ideals of beauty, juxtaposing the sweetness of a young girl with the disturbingly grotesque.

Molly Windsor as Ruth in ‘Make Up’, a Cornish-set coming-of-age story set that fuses romance with horror and thriller elements

Make Up was developed and financed through iFeatures, a scheme for emerging talent run by Creative England, BBC Films and the BFI. Curzon Artificial Eye bought the UK and Irish rights to show the film in cinemas and on its video-on-demand service, Curzon Home Cinema, which has continued to release new work while cinemas are closed. Make Up will also show on BBC iPlayer in the autumn. Oakley is disappointed to miss out on film festivals, as well as live audiences. “I’ve been working towards it for probably 10 years. But at the same time I’m aware of other people whose debut films have not been able to shoot.” Even so, she would like audiences to view it on the big screen. “It’s an immersive film. Everything is less immersive when it’s in someone’s sitting room rather than in that black box of a cinema.” 

Many of the contemporary British directors Oakley admires are women, including Sarah Gavron and Andrea Arnold, whom she sees as paving the way in the industry for her generation. “I feel lucky I wasn’t trying to make my career 10 years ago.” In 2014, she co-founded Cinesisters, a collective of female directors, which now has 175 members. “Over the last five years, we’ve seen more of our members moving from making short films to getting prestigious TV gigs, or their first feature films.” Nonetheless, she says, the situation in the industry “is far from equal”. 

Do her ambitions stretch beyond the UK? “It would be nice to go [to the US] with a bit of clout. I’ve got the opportunity through the support of the BBC and the BFI to develop my own voice and make my own work, and I don’t think the Americans would be giving me that opportunity right now.”

Currently, she is working on a feature film, adapted from the Laura Kaye novel English Animals, and is developing a series for TV which she says is “a way of writing something that’s longer-format, and getting deeper into storylines and characters”.

We discuss our shared obsession with Michaela Coel’s television series I May Destroy You, now on BBC iPlayer, an explicit and disturbing drama about race, rape, London life and much more. “I find myself waking up in the morning thinking about all the characters and what they’re up to, how brilliantly written it is and how she’s managed to look at every possible perspective around the subject of consent.”

Does Oakley think the “female gaze” is a useful prism to view films? The sex scene in Make Up is animalistic and fleshy. “When you point a camera at people who are simulating sex . . . there are lots of sort of complex things [and] I just tried to be respectful and make sure that it was serving the story. Just because I’m a female, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have a female gaze.”

Later, she emails me to expand on that. The priority, she insists, is to show the world as the film’s protagonist experiences it. “I get confused when people speak of a ‘female gaze’,” she writes, “because it suggests that there is some kind of shared, engendered way in which we all look at the world and I don’t feel that is true. It is much more complicated than just that.”

‘Make Up’ is available on Curzon Home Cinema from July 31

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