Interview: Artist Rachel Maclean on her sinister new film exploring how much freedom 21st century women really have

Rachel Maclean plays an un-named authoritarian diva presiding over the inmates of a 'brutalist candy-coloured dreamhouse' in Make Me Up.Rachel Maclean plays an un-named authoritarian diva presiding over the inmates of a 'brutalist candy-coloured dreamhouse' in Make Me Up.
Rachel Maclean plays an un-named authoritarian diva presiding over the inmates of a 'brutalist candy-coloured dreamhouse' in Make Me Up.
There appears little to connect the grim dereliction of an abandoned training centre for priests in an overgrown Scottish wood and the fantasy worlds of Barbie Dreamhouses and Disney princesses. But they have provided much of the inspiration for multi-media artist Rachel Maclean's most ambitious project to date.

A year in the making, the 31-year-old’s first ever feature film focuses on a group of women who appear to be trapped inside a cross between a convent and a cruel reality TV contest.

Edinburgh-born Maclean’s last major film project, created for the Venice Biennale, saw her draw inspiration from the classic Italian fairytale Pinocchio to tackle the fall-out from the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump.

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A year on from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the explosion of the #MeToo movement, Make Me Up sees her question exactly how much freedom 21st century women have actually secured.

Women are trapped in a cruel reality TV-style competition in Make Me Up.Women are trapped in a cruel reality TV-style competition in Make Me Up.
Women are trapped in a cruel reality TV-style competition in Make Me Up.

Originally commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of the suffragette movement, Make Me Up is set in a dystopian future in which surveillance, violence and submission are a normal way of life for women, who are forced to cast devastating judgement on each other.

The film charts the events which unfold when two inmates, new arrival Siri and Alexa, join forces to try to sabotage a system despite them being under round-the-clock surveillance.

Due to premiere at the London Film Festival next week, Make Me Up explores the evolution of feminism over the last century, the current debates on gender equality, the pressures for modern-day women linked to social media and the impact of reality TV shows, and what Maclean describes as the ongoing “visible backlash” against feminism.

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As in her previous film projects, the Edinburgh College of Art graduate has the central role, this time as an un-named diva-like authoritarian figurehead – who speaks using the voice and words of presenter Kenneth Clark from the 1969 BBC series Civilisation.

Make Me Up, Rachel Maclean's first feature-length film, will be shown on BBC 4 next month.Make Me Up, Rachel Maclean's first feature-length film, will be shown on BBC 4 next month.
Make Me Up, Rachel Maclean's first feature-length film, will be shown on BBC 4 next month.

Make Me Up, which will tour cinemas and arts centre across the UK this month after its London screening on 12 October, was co-commissioned by BBC Scotland and will be screened on BBC 4 in November.

The project was originally developed by Maclean after an approach over a new project by two Glasgow-based creative organisations – film producers Hopscotch and NVA, the group which spent years pursuing plans to bring St Peter’s Seminary in Argyll back to life, before it announced this summer that it was having to close due to funding problems.

Maclean says: “The initial brief from NVA and Hopscotch was to respond to St Peter’s Seminary and the idea of civilisation.

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“I initially started re-watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series. The minute I was reminded of his voice I began thinking about the possibility of taking it out of the documentary and for it still to represent a very particular kind of white, male, upper middle class power, as well as a certainty and stable idea of civilisation.

“I really liked the idea of a male voice coming out of the female body of a pink diva-like figure.

“I was interested in evoking patriarchy and the idea that that system of control does not come directly from men but almost seeps through into all aspects of culture.”

Make Me Up was announced in January by NVA, the arts organisation which had spent a decade pursuing plans to turn St Peter’s Seminary into a new world-class cultural centre.

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Despite being one of the funders of Maclean’s film, Creative Scotland pulled the plug on NVA’s long-term funding agreement just a few days later.

The future of St Peter’s was also thrown into doubt the same month when NVA announced it was not only cancelling its plans to bring the building back into regular use but winding up completely within months in the wake of losing its Creative Scotland funding. Make Me Up will be its final project.

Maclean, who is currently based in Glasgow, recalls: “I had actually already used St Peter’s for a music video I made a few years ago and we did start filming Make Me Up there, but it just became too tricky logistically.

“I also began thinking that it would be better not to. I wanted the setting to feel hyper-real. It was almost better for it to be represented by CGI rather than reality.

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“I knew I wanted it to start with a complete building and for it to then turn into a ruin. A CGI model was a perfect way to do that. It was built on photographs and drawings of St Peter’s, but with a Disney princess, or Barbie Dreamhouse makeover.

“I really like the idea of what story you would tell in a building like that. I had the idea that these women are almost living in there like it is a convent, although it is actually more like a reality TV show. You see them being preached to, having silent dinners and sitting in pews which are almost like game show buzzers.”

Maclean says she has set out to tackle the “achievements and complications” of contemporary feminism, the pressure on women to deal with expectations they should be “slim, silent and subservient,” and how reality TV and the advent of social media have created a “gilded prison.”

She says: “I was really interested in looking at some of the complexities of social media and how it is used. In some ways it is quite a liberating thing as it gives a platform for the voice and opinions and people who might not get it otherwise from mainstream media.

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“There is a sense that you have an ability to explore identity on the internet but simultaneously it can also heighten how trapped I think women can be by a very particular idea of beauty. It has heightened the expectation that beauty is air-brushed and impossibly perfect. It feels like a step back simultaneous with a step forward.

“I quite like the idea of talking about serious ideas in feminine colours because it kind of challenges you to take things that signify femininity seriously.

“The story and the things that happen in this world are visceral, grotesque and dark. You really see what is beneath the surface. It is probably a horror film thing more than anything else.”

Maclean had just started work on Make Me Up, just over a year ago, when allegations of decades of sexual abuse and harassment started to be made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, sparking the #MeToo phenomenon, which saw women around the world speak out about their own experiences.

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Maclean said: “I think in some ways the culture was building up to the #MeToo movement, before the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It felt like the political climate had to be right to respect and believe the women who were coming forward. There was a real groundswell of anger and feminist thought.

“I felt I was already making a work that was based on the back of alt-right anti-feminism, of Donald Trump and all these other things that were coming into politics.

“What is exciting for me is that the film and the ideas in it are in the popular consciousness much more than they were when I started work on the project. They will hopefully connect more with people more directly because of that.”

Maclean admits that although Make Me Up focuses on two inmates eventually finding a way of “undermining” the system which has trapped them, she wanted to give the film a “bitter-sweet ending.”

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She adds: “I don’t like happy endings very much. I don’t find them very realistic.

“I also wanted to talk about the slightly weird moment we are in where it feels like feminism is on the agenda again and things are moving and happening and going forward, but simultaneously there is a reaction against it, more than anything on the internet and on social media.

“I wanted to say there is a sense of excitement and empowerment at the moment, but also have a reminder in there that there’s quite a long way to go.”