Claire Oakley is a filmmaker from London. Her debut feature Make Up has been released by Curzon Artificial Eye and stars BAFTA winner Molly Windsor (BBC’s Three Girls). The film was produced by the BFI, BBC Films and Creative England through the iFeatures scheme and is currently playing at festivals including SXSW, BFI London Film Festival and Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Claire’s four short films have played at more than 50 festivals worldwide and have picked up several prizes internationally. She has been commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, Film London, Rankin and Universal Music and her previous work also includes an essay film shot entirely underwater, which she produced.
Claire was chosen as a Screen Star of Tomorrow, 2019 and is a graduate of Torino Film Lab, BFI Network, EIFF Talent Lab and iFeatures. In 2014 she co-founded Cinesisters, a peer-to-peer mentoring group for female directors. She is currently developing several feature films and a TV series.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Growing up, I liked films but I wasn’t mad about them, I certainly wasn’t a film geek and I never imagined that it could be my job. However, when I was about ten I did attempt to remake Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves scene-by-scene using my brother’s video camera, so there was clearly an interest, but it was short-lived because the camera broke.
I was interested in drama at school but I was too shy to act and although my teacher let me sit in on rehearsals, there wasn’t any opportunity for behind the scenes work so it wasn’t until I was at university (studying English Lit) that I had my first taste of filmmaking. Some friends and I decided to hire a camera (this was before iPhones or cheap cameras) and shoot the ideas we had. We worked on each other’s films as boom ops or DoP’s or whatever was needed, and although I loved being involved on their projects, I discovered that when it came to mine, I just wanted to do it all myself. So I ended up writing, directing, shooting and editing a short film. And although I messed a lot of things up (including importing all the footage at the wrong frame rate so the film is almost unwatchable), I loved it and by the time I left university I knew I wanted to work in film.
I started in the industry as a runner at a post-house, and then I ran at a commercials company, which is where I got a break: commercial directing duo called The Guard Brothers were making their debut film, The Uninvited, and they took me with them as an assistant. It was an incredible experience; I was making tea but I could watch everything, speak to different departments and just work it all out. Afterwards, I got a job working as John Crowley’s assistant on Boy A and Is Anybody There? and although I still wasn’t thinking about directing myself, I had fallen in love with the process of filmmaking.
In the following years I hustled all sorts of jobs but mostly worked as a freelance script reader writing reports for a whole bunch of companies like Working Title, Studio Canal, Pathé, BBC Films, BFI, EOne. I read over a thousand scripts and it was during this time I started developing my first short film. I didn’t want to “be a director” as such, that was still too scary, but I did want to make a film.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
The film was Beautiful Enough, my first short (if you don’t count the unwatchable university one). It was very basic: one girl in one room shot in one day. There were no costume changes, no lighting changes, no set changes, it was essentially just one scene. We made it for £200 and I would heartily recommend this simple, pragmatic approach to anyone. You can have a thousand fantastic ideas but unless you can get them made, they will never be films, and I was fed up of thinking about it and talking about it, I just wanted to make it.
I found a few people to help me including my parents, sister, my sister’s friends, my boyfriend, anyone I could enlist, and we just did it. It took ages to edit it but once I’d finished and had pulled all sorts of favours, I sent it off to film festivals. In total I sent it to 90 festivals and it only played at two. It was more than disappointing; I was kind of broken by it and I swore I would never direct again. But, for my sins, I had already written another short film and it was whilst I was looking for a director for it that I realised that no one else was going to do it the way I wanted to do it, and that was, finally, when I knew I wanted to be a director.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The biggest obstacle I faced was confidence. I hadn’t been to film school and I felt like an imposter in the industry. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it. I felt I didn’t know any of the technical lingo and camera stuff. I felt like I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I felt I hadn’t seen any of the cinema that all the film school people talked about. It took years to build up my confidence enough to even admit to myself that I wanted to make a film, and it took more years to be able to say in public that I was a filmmaker. Sometimes I still struggle with it.
The thing that kept me going through the doubts and rejections and failures (because you will face them, it is just part of the job) was my producer. It was vital to me not to go it alone, to have someone to show my work to, someone who was in the trenches with me, working and failing and suffering alongside me. For me that person was Emily Morgan, who I met soon after making my first short film and who encouraged me to direct my second. We have worked together ever since and I know I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now without her. Whether it is a producer or DoP or a writer or another director, you can’t do this job alone. I didn’t have many filmmaking friends but I held onto the one I did have and that has been career-changing for me.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
After my first short I was able to start applying for schemes and I managed to find funding for my next three short films through Film London’s ‘London Calling’ scheme, The Wellcome Trust and Rankin’s Collabor8te scheme. I was also part of Nisi Masa’s ‘European Short Pitch’ (which is open for applications until June 15th) which gave me a whole new perspective on cinema and on the industry. It was almost a full-time job applying for all those schemes and for every one I got, I must have had 10 or 20 applications rejected. Those years were all about picking myself up and pushing onwards, and it was worth it because five years later I had four short films behind me and could start thinking about making a feature.
Figuring out my style and voice wasn’t a conscious thing for me but by the time I had made three or four shorts I could look back and see similarities in them: they all had something poetic about them whilst also being realistic and they all dealt with characters going through some internal shift. I started to figure out what I liked about my own work and what I was good at and what I was interested in and this process of getting to know myself as a filmmaker was vital in taking the next step towards a feature.
How did you get your first break?
I managed to get an agent off the back of my second short film, Physics. There was a little bit of attention around it because it won an award and I used that to invite all the industry people I knew to a screening. After that I got two meetings with agents and signed with United. It gave me validity and confidence, but to this date, eight years on, they haven’t got me one piece of work. I think it is a bit different now, more people are getting jobs off their short work, but it didn’t happen for me. So although it is nice to have an answer when someone says ‘who is your agent?’, it certainly wasn’t my big break.
My big break came in the shape of yet another scheme: iFeatures. By the time I applied I had already written my first full length script (on, yes, another scheme, Torino Lab), and I had been rejected once from Microwave and twice from previous years of iFeatures. But perseverance gets you places and by the time I applied with Make Up, I knew what they were looking for and I could hone my pitch towards that. I developed the film over the course of a year on the lab and we shot it the following year. It is being released this summer and now, 15 years into my career, I am an ‘emerging new voice’. It’s nice to feel young again and to remember that a filmmaking career can be 50 years long, so don’t sweat the small stuff.
Photograph: Alex Bailey