Georgia Oakley on Getting the Emotional Texture of “Blue Jean”

“Not everything is political,” Jean (Rosy McEwen) tells her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) as they curl up on the couch for the evening in “Blue Jean,” attempting to relax with the mindless matchmaking show “Blind Date” that pervaded the British airwaves during the 1980s, but as Viv reminds, the premise of the game show was inherently heteronormative with a contestant expected to pick a potential partner from their voice alone, though it’s Jean who doesn’t want to hear it. There’s enough chatter these days in every other corner of her life as the nation debates the implementation of Section 28, a set of policies aimed at erasing gay culture in the country that Thatcher-era conservatives have seized on amidst the panic of the AIDS crisis, and there has to be some respite from it, though it starts to feel like she can’t even feel safe at her home.

If Jean felt she had put a comfortable distance between herself and a community intolerant of her sexual orientation by living on the outskirts of Newcastle and remaining in the closet as she teaches physical education at the local secondary school, she is in for an education in Georgia Oakley’s remarkable feature debut where her job becomes a concern, but also what the limits of it are when she sees one of her students Lois (Lucy Halliday) getting bullied when she’s suspected by classmates to be a lesbian. While the period detail is immaculate as Jean teaches basketball during the day and spends her evenings playing pool at a lesbian co-op where she’s among friends, it’s the small, personalizing details that Oakley mined from diaries and interviews with women that were in a similar position as Jean at that time that make the film so affecting in addition to a tender touch with the drama, powered by sharp permeances from McEwen, Hayes and Halliday as the central character has to wonder what she’s protecting when being unable to speak up for Lois when hiding her own identity.

Following the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall where it picked up the People’s Choice Award, Oakley has become quite obviously one of the leading lights of her generation as “Blue Jean” has enjoyed a healthy festival run, ultimately earning the director a nomination for Outstanding Debut at the BAFTAs and with the film now reaching theaters this week on American shores, she spoke about how she could bring the emotions that were expressed to her by the people that lived it into the drama undiluted, recreating the joyful refuges they built for themselves, and how working with McEwen and Hayes to bring their own personalities to the film helped make it so indelible.

You’ve said this all started by reading about Section 28 and protests around it, but this seems like the less obvious story to tell. How did you find it was the best way in?

Even before there was a script, when the film was only one line that we pitched to the BBC, it was always going to be about this one character who was a teacher. I didn’t ever feel like drawn to telling a bigger, more political story about that moment in time, but I did have to work on the balance between the community side of the story where Jean goes to the bar and the world of the lesbian housing co-op, which you see in the film. For a long time, there was more of that in the film and slowly I would chip away at those scenes and focus further in on Jean. When we were researching the film, we wanted to speak to as many people as we possibly could who could give us any insights. I was born in 1988 when the film was set, so I really needed to do my research and it was quite easy to find people who were in the public eye, who had somehow contributed to the rise of Stonewall or had been a big part of protesting against Section 28, but the women who were lesbian PE teachers at the time, their stories were much harder to find. They had all used aliases then obviously because they didn’t want to be outed at the time, so it was a really interesting investigatory process to find those women in the first place and probably played into why we chose to focus on those characters rather than the political backdrop of it because it was harder to track them down.

I went on a trip around the U.K. with my French producer who’d never been to the north of England before, and we tracked down those women and we spoke to them about their experiences. There was something thorny about it, like, yes, they really wanted us to tell that story because they felt that it hadn’t been told before, but they also carried with them so much shame about the ways that they might have behaved at certain times in their lives that there was a kind of back and forth with that and I found that to be really interesting. When they first read the script, I remember some of those women really had this dual reaction — when you speak to them about it, they say that they wanted to shake the character and make her be more brave. but at the same time, they wanted to give the younger versions of themselves a hug and say, if they could have known that everything would have changed as much as it has, that everything’s going to be okay. I found that really interesting and it really compelled me to tell this story.

From what I understand, the geography of Newcastle where this is set actually informed how you wanted to shoot the film, but also in relation to the rest of England, it was important to set it there. How did you decide on it as a setting?

When we drove around meeting women and interviewing them about their experiences, we sort of focused on [a specific kind of] women’s experience of these women that taught in the North of England at that time, and like many places, there’s quite a severe North-South divide in the U.K., both politically and socially, so there were aspects of that story that were more heightened for teachers teaching in the cities in the North versus teachers who were teaching in London. We spoke to English teachers, history teachers, drama teachers, and their experiences were very different, obviously, from sports teachers whose jobs were so wrapped up in this notion of physicality — bodies, showers, all of it – and when we spoke to the PE teachers, they spoke about the shower as being this battleground that they had to engage with every day.

Once we focused in on these two women, and both of them had taught in the North of England, we were set that it was going to have to be there. Then Newcastle was somewhere that I had lived and studied and have many family members who lived there, so I knew the geography of the place. I wanted to really know the place as intimately as possible because these teachers spoke about bringing in physical barriers into their world, and [they were] choosing to work somewhere that was miles away from where they lived — there was a river that broke up the geography of that landscape so that they would have to physically cross the river every day to go to work and that helped them when they were essentially living a double life. It enabled them to put on that mask and step into the new version of themselves, so I needed to be able to find ways to bring those elements into the story and to do that, I needed to have an understanding of the geography and the textures of that place.

What was it like seeing the relationship develop between Rosy McEwen and Kerrie Hayes?

Yeah, you never know what you’re going to get and I was really passionate about this idea of telling a story about a lesbian couple who, when we go in at the beginning of the film, they’re just sitting on the sofa together, watching TV in their tracksuits and they’re having pot noodles. I just didn’t feel like I’d seen that version of lesbian love before on screen, so I was really keen to do that, but that meant that the actors had to have this incredible chemistry from the word go. Also, we weren’t shooting in sequence. We were jumping around all over the place, so we had a few days to make sure there was the right chemistry between those actors, but it’s all about casting really.

The dynamic between them was something I was looking for during casting, and Rosy has a very strong energy. She’s very tall and swan-like, and in that way she’s very different from Jean, but the stillness that she brings to the character, a lot of that is Rosy, and I was looking for a Viv who was going to disarm her and throw her off and make her unsure of herself. That was quite difficult because Rosy comes across as someone who is quite sure of herself, but Kerrie just walked into the room and not only disarmed Rosy when we were casting, but charmed everybody in the room and had that cheeky sense of humor. It was surprising how quickly they hit it off and how quickly they morphed into Jean and Viv.

I remember one of the research trips to a lesbian bar in Newcastle, we were on the way back and Rosy was not drinking. She was tea total and vegan for the whole shoot, and then on the way back, Kerrie was very much not and talking about how she wanted to get a kebab from the really local dodgy kebab place and I just looked at Rosy’s expression and I could feel it was exactly that moment in the film where they’re eating pot noodles and Jean is a little bit disgusted by the way that Viv is eating, but also a little bit turned on. It felt like that kind of energy was like already bubbling up between them in those rehearsals.

The co-op is such a lively location. What was that like to build as both a set and a spirited environment?

We had a lot of fun with that space. I had done a lot of research into lesbian housing co-ops before even starting on the film because I happened to live on a street in London at the time that was, historically, mostly lesbian housing co-ops and one of my upstairs neighbors was a big part of that movement in the ‘80s, so I was just interested in it. The space that we created in Newcastle was not necessarily inspired by any particular place. We had heard that there was a synagogue that had been turned into a co-op and we attempted to find that, but it had been turned into luxury flats, so we couldn’t do it and then we tried to find a space that felt in some way grand in the way that that would have felt. [Where we ended up] was a completely empty space that was used for art exhibitions or something, so we had to do a lot of work to make that feel lived in.

Soraya [Gilanni Viljoen], the production designer, ran with it. There were a lot of us queer women on the set who felt really passionately about those aspects of their history, so it was really just a joy to put together references for that space. I remember Soraya saying it was just little details that we wanted to give them, even stuff that you don’t even really notice but in the party scene at the end, [you feel] the joy and the love that is put into the props [from] the food that they eat [where] that contrasts to the food that’s eaten in [Jean’s] sister Sasha’s house, and how everything feels really elaborate but completely stagnant in that world. We were never talking about one particular space in isolation, it was always in dialogue with each other, and it was a really joyful part of the experience putting together those spaces and working together with Soraya and Victor [Seguin], who’s the cinematographer, to build those worlds.

Is it true some of the PE teachers that you interviewed actually came to set?

Yeah, it was really special. When we were filming and they were there, I was obviously wrapped up in all of the stuff that I had to do as director of the film, but I could just feel that those days were different and there was a different energy. Even though there would be a monitor set up somewhere [at a remove] with all of the makeup artists and everyone else, and that’s where our PE teachers would be watching the monitors, not necessarily always up with me, you would still feel their presence and then having my generation of people who are in the crew and then a big generation of younger queer people involved in the film in some of those school scenes was just really magical.

Then speaking to those women, the PE teachers, about how it affected them afterwards, they all said that they had just found themselves to be spontaneously bursting into tears on the street when they got home and they didn’t understand why. Something unlocked for them when they came to that set and they stepped into that environment that felt so familiar and so suffocating, and when they watched the monitors [during] those scenes that had been lifted from their lives, it allowed them to make peace with something that they hadn’t made peace with before. A lot of emotion needed to come out, snd so it did in spontaneous ways. It added a whole other dimension to making the film that for me made it completely unforgettable. It was the same for showing the film for the first time. They were with us and that’s what I remember about showing the film for the first time was having them there and having Rosy and one of our PE teachers hugging in tears at the end of the screening — what that meant for them and what it meant for us as filmmakers as a result of having them here.

“Blue Jean” is now open in New York at the IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center and opens on June 16th in Los Angeles at the Nuart. It will expand across the country in the weeks ahead. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.