A remote off-season Cornish caravan park may not sound like the most exciting location for a psychological thriller, and yet in writer-director Claire Oakley’s debut feature, Make Up, this isolated, windswept locale takes on a hypnotic, haunting power.
Populated by rows of identical caravans and with secrets hiding around every corner, it’s the perfect setting for this fish-out-of-water story of Ruth (played by Molly Windsor), an out-of-towner who comes to spend the off season with her boyfriend who works at the park.
Ruth immediately finds herself out of place and, convinced her boyfriend is having an affair with the glamorous Jade (Stefanie Martini), begins to lose her grip on reality. As she becomes increasingly drawn to Jade, Ruth finds herself confronting feelings that she has never experienced before.
“We found the location a year before we shot because I really wanted to write the script to the location and make it very specific,” says Oakley. “I was looking for a closed community, that meant [Ruth] could feel like an outsider coming in.
“I was also interested in there being a dialect that she maybe wasn’t part of. And so Cornwall and a caravan park just seemed like it could work. It seems to be this perfect reflection of her psychological state and her journey. It’s a story where she’s trying to figure out what’s unique and different about her. For her to be surrounded by identical things somehow felt exciting in a sort of metaphorical sense.”
While Make Up is firmly bedded into its real-world location, it has its roots in a less corporeal realm. “I wrote a short film about eight years ago that was based on a dream I had, about a girl following another girl through a foreign street,” Oakley recalls. “It was quite atmospheric and strange.”
That screenplay was eventually selected for a writing lab in Croatia and, while she was there, she had a conversation with a fellow lab attendee that offered a new perspective on her vision. “I was in a heterosexual relationship; I was married to a guy. And [during the lab] another director came up to me and he asked whether I was a lesbian. I was really surprised, but he said he’d read my work as a piece about female desire. I had not written it in that way consciously. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Time passed, and I never made that short,” she continues. “Partly because I could never work out what it was really all about. And then things changed in my own life – I came out [as gay] and I looked back at what he’d said to me and wondered if he’d been completely right all along.
“So I went back to the story and started developing it, looking at how these unconscious fears and desires can operate within you. The things we long for and the things we fear, and how your mind can play tricks on you and take you on a wild journey.”
As Ruth spends more time on her own in the park, succumbing to paranoia and confusion about her emerging desires, the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred. With so much left unsaid, Oakley illustrates Ruth’s inner turmoil with visual and aural cues: cinematographer Nick Cooke lingers on the cacophonous neon lights of the empty arcade and the black expanse of the rolling sea. The colour red is a recurring motif; natural sounds become ever more intense.
“That was the biggest challenge in such an interior film, to find ways to express [Ruth’s rollercoaster of emotions],” says Oakley. “That’s where the idea of using more surreal, symbolic imagery came about. I wanted to express the heightened pieces of her unconscious and her fantasies, and show what was happening underneath the quite mundane reality she was living. I went very carefully through every scene from an emotional perspective, and worked out what I wanted the characters and the audience to be feeling at each point. So I could then relay that to Molly [Windsor].”
Working from Oakley’s pared-back screenplay, Windsor gives a brutally honest performance as a young girl struggling to understand who she is, and where she fits into her own life. Having seen the actress in her BAFTA TV award-winning performance in 2017 BBC drama Three Girls, Oakley had her in mind from early on.
“We needed someone who was, in some ways, unvarnished and raw. I don’t think the film would have worked at all if you felt like [Ruth] really did know what she wants, or that she was just playing everyone around her. We did see around 200 girls, but Molly did an incredible self tape that was totally different from all the others; very pared back, very natural. And when I met her, I realised that she’s very wise and thinks extremely deeply about things. And she totally understood the character and what we were trying to do.”
Perhaps most crucial to enabling an audience to connect with Ruth on a deep level is the film’s evocative soundscape, created by Oakley and sound designer Ania Przygoda, which blends natural and man-made sounds.
“I knew I wanted to do a lot with sound and music to get into her head,” says Oakley. “I had this idea that sounds could start out quite real and, as she becomes more in touch with her psyche and the feelings, it would drift more into the surreal and becomes overwhelming at points.
“I had planned initially not to have any music in the film. It would all be done through natural sound,” she continues. “When we were cutting the film, it felt like there were moments that could be amplified with music, that we needed to connect with [Ruth] more deeply. We sent [composer] Ben Salisbury the almost-finished film, and he came on board with the understanding that the music was going to be secondary to the sound design.
“He respected that balance, so the music never became overpowering, and he used instruments that were also very natural. We used this instrument called the Waterphone, which is this bizarre instrument often used in 70s horror films that’s also been used to call Orca whales underwater. It felt exactly right for the film, like it could be a natural sound in that environment; you can’t quite tell if it’s an instrument, wind or rain. It really helps the film become an immersive experience, which was what I always wanted.”