“There’s a certain kind of aliveness and joy to queer spaces that we really wanted to communicate.”
Set in 1980s Newcastle, Blue Jean follows a lesbian PE teacher and her coming-of-age pupils during the implementation of Section 28 by Thatcher’s government. The result is a powerful story of queer resilience, and a damning indictment of the authorities that chip away at it.
We spoke to director Georgia Oakley about the path to her feature film debut, working with local communities, and her recent BIFA nomination for Best Debut Director.
Can you talk about the origins of this idea, and why you wanted to choose this topic for your feature debut?
Georgia Oakley: I was looking to explore these themes, and certain kinds of experiences that I have had, but through the framework of somebody else’s story. Whilst I was researching the shapes that could take, I came across a newspaper article about the lesbian abseilers who had thrown themselves over the balcony of the House of Lords public gallery, into the debate on Section 28. I just thought it was an amazing image, and that clearly there had to be a film made about it. So, that was the starting point. But there was always some balancing to do between the activism side of things and Jean’s story, because I didn’t want to tell a story about Section 28 that ignored the amazing retaliatory movements that took place, and the positivity — if you could call it that — that arose as a result of this hideous legislation. I was also thinking about how this law would have affected my own life. As someone who was born in 1988, it suddenly struck me that there was this very clear reason I had grown up in a vacuum when it came to queer role-models. And I was simultaneously thinking about the ripple effect on younger generations, and the experiences of teachers who had worked under the law.
How did you come to obtain funding for the film?
Georgia Oakley: I would say the funding model for the film was straightforward in the end, but getting to that point wasn’t that simple. I don’t think it exists anymore, very sadly, but at the time a programme called iFeatures which offered a development lab for 12 films. And that was amazing, because it was not just a space for learning, but also for meeting other people at the same point in their journey. On the weekends, maybe once a month, we would go to various cities in the UK to speak to execs, to speak to music supervisors, and to have directors come and talk to us. We had people like Francis Lee and Joanna Hogg speak to us about their experiences. Off the back of that, you were able to then re-pitch your project to BBC Film or the BFI, or both, and we pitched to the BBC and continued with them. They promised to put up half the money that we needed for the film around that point, and much later the BFI came on board for the second half of the financing. But we faced quite a big blip in the middle of that, which was COVID, and a sudden panic around what kinds of films needed to be made. There were lots of hurdles that hadn’t existed pre-pandemic, so it was quite a complicated process, but in the end we got to something that looks quite simple, in that it was half financed by the BFI and half by the BBC.
How did you go about finding your crew for Blue Jean?
Georgia Oakley: We had the strange experience of beginning to crew up before the pandemic hit, because we were due to shoot in 2020. We had signed up quite a few collaborators, Heads of Department, whom I admired and wanted to work with, and we started working with them — and then lockdown happened. It pushed our dates, our funding situation was all over the place, and we ended up losing quite a few crew members; essentially starting again from scratch post-pandemic. But I hadn’t worked with any of the Heads of Department on the film before making it. It was just a case of researching and approaching people whose films and work I loved. And then, if we could find people who had worked together before on other projects and had an easy dialogue, that could be helpful for us. It wasn't a pre-requisite, but we ended up finding a production designer, costume designer, hair and make-up designer team who had worked together a couple of times. They knew each other, so they had this shorthand, which was helpful because obviously we were limited in terms of time and money. Since I hadn't worked with anyone before, it was helpful for me to enter a few already established relationship dynamics. We did the same with our AD team; all our assistant directors were from Newcastle and had worked together on Ken Loach’s films before and various other projects. They had a well-structured, efficient, and brilliant way of working because they had already figured it out.
Community is a big part of the film. What was the process for making the setting feel true to life?
Georgia Oakley: We had a two-pronged approach. All the archive footage that you hear in the film is real from the time, and we used a lot of documentary photography from the time for costume references and set design. But we also had an approach where we wanted to create something that was timeless. We felt that if you were to find films from the ‘80s and know nothing about them previously, you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell — as quickly and as clearly — exactly what year that film was made. Whereas, when we make films about the ‘80s, we often signpost very heavily exactly when it's supposed to be, with haircuts and models of toasters and things like that. We relied on research and speaking to women who lived this experience at the time, and speaking to members of the queer community from Newcastle, but occasionally we would allow ourselves to bounce off that. A good example is: the netball bibs for the film are made of pale pink and pale blue satin, and anyone who's ever played netball will know that is entirely unrealistic.
We created very strict guidelines to do with colour palettes as Jean moves between these different spaces, and our production designer, Soraya Gilanni Viljoen, was incredibly organised. We had documents with hundreds of references and colour palettes that had carefully been chosen for each of the different spaces. So, we would use those as a guide and allow ourselves to throw in a bit of creative flair somewhere, like with the netball bibs. We didn't want to feel strong-armed by realism too much. We wanted it to look like we were looking back into a dream, or somebody's memory of that time, and achieving that was more important for us than everything being exactly as it was. We brought lots of crew from different places to try and free ourselves slightly from certain pre-conceived ideas of how we might have seen that part of the world depicted on screen previously. And there's a certain kind of aliveness and joy to the queer spaces that we really wanted to communicate. So, yes, it was a combination of very diligent research and trying to allow ourselves to be as free as possible.
I think part of the realism is that it feels very true to what we know of the queer community at that time. You mentioned the research you did around the politics and social climate of the ’80s. What did that research look like?
Georgia Oakley: When I was at the very early stages of researching the film, I found an article online from the early ‘90s, and it interviewed twenty or so lesbian PE teachers who had experience working during Section 28. That was our starting point, research-wise, because we then went on to meet a handful of those women. They were with us on set to advise us, and they have been an integral part of the film. The producer and I also spoke to upwards of 50 people involved in various aspects, including the activists who abseiled into the House of Lords, the women who crashed the 6 o’clock news, the person who started Pink News, and the person who started LGBT History Month. Each time we spoke to someone, that person would introduce us to someone else and we would speak to them. And that never stopped. Whilst we were filming, we were always trying to broaden that knowledge.
I remember the bog fund that makes its way into the film at the end, that was something that we were told about that was Newcastle-specific. We spoke to queer women who had lived in co-ops in Newcastle at that time and whilst we were on one of those calls, somebody told us about the bog fund and how this had been a thing in the ’80s and what that entailed. Also, we would speak to people about the actual emotional cost of this law for them, specifically. And so many elements of that have made their way into the film.
The film has won a BIFA for its casting — how involved were you in the process and what were you looking for?
Georgia Oakley: Thank you, I mean we were really, really lucky with the cast. We worked with Shaheen Baig who has obviously just won a BIFA and is incredible at what she does, and she has an amazing team behind her too. It was tricky, I think there were 50 named cast members in the film, which for a film debut with this kind of budget was quite crazy and a massive undertaking for Shaheen’s team. I had a clear sense of the energy that I was looking for in each of the main three characters. For Lois’ character, I watched over 600 tapes of young people. We started with just Newcastle and then we broadened it to the North East and Scotland, which is how we found Lucy Halliday for Lois. The first round was just young people speaking about themselves, as themselves, and then we decided who we would call back to read a scene. Rosy McEwen was cast as Jean a year before everyone else and we cast her via a tape as well, as it was mid-lockdown. In a lot of the tapes that came in people were talking to me about the script and how they responded to it first, and then they would read the scene. But Rosy’s tape, she started speaking and she just had this stillness, and this kind of intensity that I had always imagined. I remember talking to her after the first round and she said she knew that feeling of walking into a room and feeling your heart go from 0 to 100, and that anxiety; she could relate to that. I didn’t need any convincing, it was a couple of seconds into her tape and I knew.
With Lucy and Kerrie Hayes’ (Viv) casting I was interested in the dynamic between Lois and Jean, and Jean and Viv, and how these actors would respond to Rosy. Because also Rosy is very tall and very still, and she has a lot of strength in the room. So, I needed to find actors who didn't allow her to take all the power, as it were, who could surprise her, throw her off, and put her on the back foot. And that was not that simple. But with Lucy and Kerrie, who plays Viv, they were able to do that. And it was amazing to watch because they just had that kind of agility to their performances. With Lois, it was always about the balance between her vulnerability and her bravado, and Lucy just nailed that, and it was amazing to watch.
Congratulations on your nomination for Best Debut Director at the BIFAs. What does it mean to you to be nominated?
Georgia Oakley: It’s quite overwhelming, to be honest. I'm extremely honoured to even be considered in the pool of talent that is being celebrated at the BIFAs. We spent a long time trying to get this film off the ground and trying to persuade people that this was a film that could reach a wider audience. And obviously, that was something that I hoped could happen and believed could happen, based on my own interests and passions. But it’s been extremely gratifying, not just for me, but for the whole team to see a film that was dismissed by a lot of people as being a cultural time capsule or something that wouldn’t really be of interest, to something that has been accepted by a wider audience. And hopefully this nomination will mean more people get to see the film. Already, every day I wake up to messages from strangers on the internet saying, ‘I was a teacher and I lived this experience.’ Or, ‘I was a student and I felt exactly like that. Thank you so much for making this film.’ It’s only played at a few film festivals so far, so the fact that it’s chiming with some people in the way that it is means so much to all of us. That’s why we made it, and that’s the bit that makes me happiest.
What are you working on next?
Georgia Oakley: Because we had a hiatus for Blue Jean during lockdown, I started working on another film for the BBC, which is still in early development. I’m doing amends on a first draft that I wrote 18 months ago, so I’m trying to get my head back into that after a long break. And that’s something that I’ll be writing and directing, hopefully, that's set in present-day LA. So quite a departure from this. And then I’m also working on a book adaptation which I’m co-writing with Clémence Poésy, who will direct it. She's made a few shorts, and this will be her first feature as a director. So, we’re doing that together, which has been completely different to writing Blue Jean, but I’ve really enjoyed it.