One of the year’s most accomplished directorial debuts, Georgia Oakley’s deeply felt, grounded drama Blue Jean is set in 1988 England amidst Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government passing a law stigmatizing gays and lesbians. But rather than take a macro view of the inflicted society at the time, the Venice winner and BAFTA nominee tells the intimate story of Jean (Rosy McEwen), a gym teacher who is forced to live a double life and further complications ensue when one of her students sees the hidden side of her identity.
Ahead of the film’s U.S. release beginning this Friday, I spoke with Oakley about the grounded tone of her drama, the 16mm cinematography, being influenced by Kelly Reichardt, everyday personal attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, recreating 1980s Britain, and more.
The Film Stage: I appreciate how there’s nothing that plays didactic or message-driven in the film. It all feels very grounded in the psychological feeling of every character, especially your lead. In the initial screenwriting process and forming the idea of the film, can you talk about ensuring the whole film carried this specific tone and approach throughout?
Georgia Oakley: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, and I guess it’s connected to my sensibility as a person and as a filmmaker. I was, at times, sort of tempted to bring in some of the bigger kind of political moments that provide the backdrop for this story. So some of the things that I’d read during the research phase would have dramatized it a little bit more and taken it away from being more of a portrait drama. But as I developed the script over the course of three or four years, I was always chipping away at those things and honing more and more in on this one character and attempting to interrogate her experiences, and that kind of came from my initial research where we spoke to lesbian teachers who had worked at that time.
I remembered one particular conversation with a PE teacher named Catherine who told us about how she had run into a student in a bar, just as we had already outlined in the film. And she said that she had immediately left the bar and gone back home. And the next day the student came and found her and she behaved in a way to that the next day the student came to find her and told her that she thought she might be gay. And Catherine acknowledges that she silenced that student and that she said things to her that she regretted 30, 35 years later. And the emotion that was in her voice when she told us that… it was very, very early on in the development process. And that was kind of it, really. It was like: okay, what kinds of things can co-conspire? How can public opinion and the political moment and everything else conspire to force somebody who is a really good person and good at their job to behave in a way that they regret, and that 30 years later they still feel guilt and shame around? I wanted just to be true to that experience, really, of speaking to her and the kind of subtlety and the nuance of what it meant to be battling that kind of internalized homophobia.
I also wanted to ask about the approach to cinematography with Victor Seguin shooting on 16mm. How early did you decide that, and were there any references you used to guide your process?
Yeah, it was always going to be shot on 16mm. I had shot my previous short film on 16mm. I love the texture of 16mm and the grain structure. And I was always drawn to 16mm over 35mm for this film. But more than that it was a decision motivated by what it does to the experience of being on set when you shoot on film. I love the fact that it really intensifies the stakes of what you’re doing. My background, initially, was in theater and I feel like, shooting a film, there’s some sort of crossover with that because you tell the actors that you’re shooting a film and often they slightly freak out because it makes them think that they’ve got a limited time to get it right. But actually that ends up being the thing that means that the first take is usually the best take, when you’re working on film. So I pushed to work on film for those reasons, but Victor was very much on board with the decision to shoot on 16mm.
We had loads of references. We didn’t focus on specific films as much. I remember looking at Birth by Jonathan Glazer and Safe by Todd Haynes. I remember looking at those with him, but we would speak about references with regard to framing and then we would speak about references with regard to lighting. We had this crazy document that was every single part of the film split up and references for each of them, so to really give you a sense of what the references were would be quite complicated. But Victor is incredibly systems-driven, very meticulous and completely the opposite of me. I’m chaotic and don’t remember anything and sort of go on impulse with most things. And he has documents with spider diagrams and links to things and light diagrams and everybody’s on it. I don’t even understand how it works.
But it was a really great marriage of two completely different types of people, I felt. I really enjoyed working with him, and what I think he really added to the initial kind of conversations around the visual aspect was the lighting. He used to be a gaffer. I think he made a lot of things feel like we just shot with natural light but we didn’t. There was a lot of planning with that stuff. And I think he really elevated the mood of the film with lighting.
You have mentioned Kelly Reichardt and Chantal Akerman were influences for having protagonists that don’t necessarily feel glamorized, and you’re able to see someone with all their shades. When did you first see their films?
Kelly Reichardt I always come back to because of the simplicity of her stories. I mean, they’re very complex but simple at the same time. And I always feel that I overcomplicate things when I’m writing. And I always remember watching Wendy and Lucy for the first time and just feeling like it was genius that you could write a story that was so condensed. And just coming from growing up in the countryside in the UK, seeing films that were so embedded in the landscape. And I know that Kelly Reichardt is not actually from where she sets her films, but I find that really fascinating too: that she’s seen something that’s so kind of “other” for her. And in the same sense, that’s probably why I’m drawn to her films. There’s these huge landscapes and this otherworldliness to those stories that I felt, at least, when I first discovered them––so alien and different from my own experience.
There’s something about specificity there as well––same with Chantal Akerman and also Lucrecia Martel’s films, which I love, where you feel like you’re just getting a window into a world that you would just never have been able to access without that film, and that it’s more of an experience. You come away from it with a kind of immersion in an experience more than necessarily remembering exactly what happened in the plot. You allow it to wash over you and you feel forever changed after watching it. And I don’t think you can say that for so many films.
With the political- and religious-backed attack on LGBTQ+ rights, especially here in the U.S., it often feels like people who have this hatred, there’s no entry point into even understanding another person’s perspective. Certain movies like this, where it’s really about getting to the heart of a character, feel like they could be an entry point into creating empathy. As you’ve screened the film, have you heard have you been surprised by any reactions of people realizing history shouldn’t be repeated?
I grew up in a very conservative, rural part of the UK, and even long after I had come out, when I started developing this film, people close to me said throwaway comments like “Oh, but you know, it is problematic having gay teachers, isn’t it?” These kinds of things would just be thrown around without any realization of what they were saying. With that being my experience, my background, without really being conscious of it, I’m sure that part of my motivation to make the film was to show people who have those views, as gently as I could, what it feels like on the other side of the coin to attempt to change their minds. It’s not something that I was thinking about at the time, but obviously if I was to psychoanalyze myself, that would be quite obvious. So I was definitely drawn to telling the story for those reasons.
And I was aware, even when we started working on the film, that there were parallels with things that were going on. Not just politically. I think the most obvious comparisons are, like, the Don’t Say Gay Bill and things like that. But I would say––on a kind of smaller, more personal level––every single day, particularly since I’ve become the parent, you see this widespread feeling of like “Oh, you do whatever you want, but keep it away from my children.” I see that now all the time, even in the most liberal kind of circles. People don’t realize the things that they’re saying. And it happens all the time. And so it’s all the problem. And yes: we were aware of the parallels at the time, and we definitely spoke about those when we were trying to get funding for the film because we felt that it was an important moment to attempt to tell this story and to show that our rights are precarious at best, and that we will just never get complacent because just around the corner there could be something.
And also the fact that people had really just forgotten about Section 28 in the UK and a lot of people didn’t know about it. These things, not only can they come in unexpectedly, but then they can linger around for 15 years and then people will just forget about it. So all of that was very much on our minds, but I definitely did not predict how much things would unravel in the past five years, from 2018 to now, in terms of every day. You look at the news and there is a new headline around something that is so much a mirror of the issues that we touch on in the film. And obviously that was not something that we were hoping for. And obviously that’s incredibly depressing. And obviously it’s good that the film is going out into the world now at this moment, but I fear that this is only the beginning, and I wish more could be done already to try to stop everybody from descending into moral panic all over the globe.
The production design feels very lived-in here, from the billboards to the TV program and beyond. What was the biggest challenge?
The huge challenge was that we had so many locations, although it wasn’t impossible to find locations that were relatively untouched since the ’80s. For instance, Jean’s house from the outside and the inside––the kitchen and everything––had not been touched since that time. However, it was an empty shell of a house that was on the market at the time. And so we had to go in and populate that space with everything that you see inside the house. And I remember a particular moment when the family who owned the house, it had belonged to their grandmother and she had died and they were selling the house and they said they walked in and they got sort of the shivers because they said that what we had done to the flat, it felt suddenly like my grandmother’s house again, even though we hadn’t spoken to them––we had no idea what it had looked like before.
So it was a huge challenge to populate all of those spaces. The lesbian housing co-op is probably the biggest one. It was a challenge to find a space like that in the center of town because I always had this feeling that Jean would live out sort of near the coast in a more suburban area. And that she would put these physical barriers of the river and everything between her and the school that she works at, and there would be a marked difference between her world and then the world of the bar and the co-op, which are quite close to each other geographically. Finding a space for that was really difficult. And then populating that space––it doesn’t look anything like that in real life. Our design team put in a lot of work to make that space. And Jean’s big bedroom is part of that. The production design team didn’t have a day off in three months and worked incredibly hard, and I’m really proud of the work they did.
There’s this thread of the importance of community throughout the film––how it’s a very personal journey––but at the same time it shows that before you publicly accept who you are, you have to have the feeling of acceptance within a certain community. As you’ve screened the film, has anyone opened up about wanting to find a community for themselves?
I was really surprised by the number of young people who seemed to connect with the film when we first premiered it in Venice. And then the first few screenings after that. There was always a sort of small cluster of people in their early 20s. And sometimes I would speak to those people, or maybe I wouldn’t even speak to them and they would send me a message online afterward saying, “I was too emotional. I couldn’t come and ask you a question, but I wanted to say…” And I could tell that through speaking to them that something had unlocked, and that they were potentially realizing things about themselves that they hadn’t necessarily properly probed yet. And that was a result of watching the film.
Sometimes when we would do screenings in the north of England, there would be a huge queer contingent in the audience at film festivals, and I have memories––particularly of women who had perhaps lived lives that were more in line with Viv, Jean’s girlfriend, in the story. Who were kind of out butch dykes at the time and who had gone on all the marches and remembered that time as that. And they would put their hands up and say, “I have all these memories. I was there, but I never stopped to think about what it must have been like for someone like Jean. In fact, I would only have thought negatively about somebody who behaved like that. But now, having seen the film, I have a newfound understanding for what other members of the queer community were going through.” And that was really also surprising. And those responses are really cherished because it’s not just about opening people’s eyes who have nothing to do with this world. But if you can touch people who sort of think they had a fully formed view of something, but that they actually were missing this piece, that’s really great.
Blue Jean opens in theaters on June 9.