During the 66th Melbourne International Film Festival, I sat down for a long sprawling conversation with British filmmaker Francis Lee, to discuss what inspired the creation of his feature film debut, how his two leading men took to Yorkshire farm life, his obsession with wind sounds, and many other things.
Why was this the story you felt compelled to tell when you sat down to write your first feature?
The starting point was the landscape. I grew up on that landscape, on the Pennine Hills in West Yorkshire, and I found it to be equally creative and freeing. It was my playground. I loved the isolation as a kid. But I also found it incredibly difficult. It was brutal, and hard, and overwhelming in lots of ways. I left Yorkshire when I was 20 and I went to London, to college. But I could never get that landscape out of my head. It just felt to be always a part of me, and it felt to have informed who I was so much physically and emotionally. When I came to start thinking about making films, about 4 or 5 years ago, and thinking about what things I was interested in, it was the landscape – setting something in that landscape, with those people, that was so prominent.
I understand that you wanted to depict this rural world truthfully. What were you hoping that the audience would take away with them regarding a world that you know so well?
I wanted to convey a couple of things, really. The reality. The reality of how hard it is. How there is no money in it. How when people drive out to the countryside from their urban environment and go and stand and look at a view, and they take in the view, they consume the view, they don’t really consider the people who are working on that land. What that feels like? What it feels like to live there and try and eke out some kind of living? But also that these farms – small farms – are disappearing at a rate of knots. They have to diversify, specialise, or get more landmass, and if they don’t, they are not financially viable. So it’s a way of life that in my lifetime I’m seeing eroded, for all those reasons.
But also, the ideas people have about what rural, working-class person are and what their attitude is to things in the world, which was never my experience. I wanted to look at the truth of these people.
Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu give wonderful performances. What brought them to your attention as the right two men to play Johnny and Gheorghe?
I was unaware of Josh – I didn’t know him or his work and I was working with a casting director who’d drawn up a list of actors, a number of which read the script and didn’t want to come and meet for it, which I understood. But Josh wasn’t in the country; he was filming something in Corfu [The Durrells]. So I sent him a couple of scenes, and he recorded them. I got the tape back and I watched it, and first of all I was utterly convinced he was from the North, because his accent was really good. And then he delivered this really realistic, emotionally repressed, angry reading, and I was like, “Woah, there’s something going on there – he feels so mangled, emotionally.” That really fascinated me.
A couple of weeks later, I got to meet him in London. And I was shocked when I met him, because he’s from Cheltenham Spa, which is a very lovely middle-class town in the South of England. He’s very smiley, very funny, he’s really generous and open, and just a lovely boy. So I was still wondering, “Where did that thing come from?” As soon as I started to work with him in the room I realised he’s a rare breed as an actor – he’s a transformative actor, he’s a shapeshifter, he’s got this ability to totally change himself physically and emotionally, and that totally excited me. I love working that way, and immersively, and building characters. So we decided on him.
Then I went to Romania. I met a lot of actors there, all of whom were very good, very talented. But Alec just had this essence of Gheorghe – he understood him. He understood the role really well, this idea of this maternal, yet forceful kind of character, but I knew of course that this film would live and die by this central relationship. So I made a shortlist of three Romanian actors, Alec being my favourite, and I flew them over to the UK and got Josh in a room and I paired them all up and worked with them.
What were you looking for at this point?
I was looking for how easy they were with each other, how they would play with each other, how they would push each other, and challenge each other.
For more than just a spark of chemistry …
Yes. I like to play with actors. I’d go away and drag Josh to one side and say, “Really push him at this point, really challenge him.” Then I’d see how Alec would react and then have Alec do the same with Josh. And they got on really, really well and they worked really well together. There was a real dynamic there. But actors are clever, you know, they can fabricate that, and I needed to know these guys were going to be able to live and breathe and do everything together for like 3 months. So I sent them off for a cup of tea and I hid around the corner. It was really good. They were very natural with each other. They weren’t just looking at their phones.
You immersed them quite intensely in farm life. How long was that period in the lead up to the start of the film shoot?
We did 3 months of rehearsals before the shoot, building the characters. I worked with each of them individually and built the character from scratch – from the moment they were born to the moment we see them in the film. And we learned every single detail about them. For me, I love prep, and I love detail, and I think that it also gives actors safety. If they know everything, if they know who they are and why they are like that, and they’ve got all this biography and all this history to draw upon, then we’re always going to find the answer when we’re making the film. So we did that, and then for 2 weeks before the shoot, I sent them both off to work on farms. As a viewer, I love being immersed in a film. I hate fakery, I hate thinking “is that a hand double, is that a stunt double?” So I knew that the boys would have to do everything. And they would have to learn how to do it proficiently, as if they’d done it their whole lives. So they went to work on farms. And they worked for 2 weeks, 8, 9, 10 hours a day, long shifts with real farmers, to learn how to do everything. So when you see Gheorghe birthing that lamb, that was Alec. When you see Johnny with his arm inside a cow that is Josh. Every single thing in the film is for real. But as well as learning all the stuff with the animals, the farm work, and the landscape, and the cold, really affected them physically.
What time of the year did you shoot?
March-April. It’s cold in Yorkshire. We had to shoot in March-April because that’s when the lambs are born. But that affected them physically and added another dimension to their experience. It was funny with Josh … We did the thing where I would make him do the shifts, and then he said, “I really want to feel what it feels when Johnny goes out and gets drunk at the pub and then has to get up to do the shift in the morning,” so I said, “Okay, go ahead and do it.” And he went through the whole thing. It was extraordinary.
Can you talk about your visual influences for the film? Were there any other films that influenced you and your cinematographer, Joshua James Richards? As you’ve already mentioned, it’s a very non-romantic vision of Yorkshire, which many of us associate with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
I live on the moor where Wuthering Heights is set and it’s very close to where we filmed this film. Joshua James Richards is an incredible cinematographer. I worked with him for about 3-4 months before the shoot. Most of our references came from paintings or photographs for atmosphere and framing and texture and colour palettes.
The film’s textures, the close-ups, narrowing the lens down on grass and bugs, all builds a really detailed world. It’s definitely one of the film’s strengths.
Thank you. Usually that world is depicted in huge, big wide shots. It looks bucolic, and amazing, and I knew I didn’t want to do that because that’s never how I’d seen that world. I always saw it with my head down. I didn’t go for a walk for pleasure; it was just to get to somewhere. We still shot the wide shots, but increasingly as we were shooting, both Joshua and myself decided we didn’t like the wide shots. We just never wanted to leave Johnny’s side. We wanted to be close-up. We wanted to see this world through his eyes. And I was very keen on seeing the landscape’s effect on the characters, not the landscape. So I think there’s only one ‘landscape’ shot in the film and that’s when Johnny sees it in a sense through Gheorghe’s eyes, as if, for the first time. And that’s the only shot, really, the rest is very close and you see the mud and you see how difficult it is.
In creating the soundscape, what was most important to you?
It’s about being totally immersed in every aspect of this world. And sound is equally, if not, sometimes more important than the visuals. It’s very layered. It can convey so much about emotion – you can build layers into it, you can build metaphors into it. All of these things act as texture. And I love texture. In a very practical sense, I sent the sound designer up to all the locations and she recorded, hours, and hours, and hours of sounds, of winds, of whatever. And in the edit we started to play with that, and build with it. And so the sound is fantastically orchestrated. Each bird has a specific meaning, in a metaphorical sense. For example the curlew is the harbinger of spring, and when we first hear it, it’s the start of their relationship. Swallows, they mate for life. And so on. These sounds were all very specifically placed. The wind sounds are also all very specific. Gheorghe has his own wind sound, so when he arrives he brings this specific wind sound and it’s always there when he is there, and when he leaves, the wind sound stays. I was obsessed with this idea that the wind was like this Greek chorus, always reminding Johnny, or telling Johnny something, or pulling Johnny away.
As wonderful as the film’s sound is, I also love the long stretches of silence in the film where there is no talking. There is almost a whole other language created, around non-verbal communication and touch. What kind of feeling were you trying to convey here?
First of all, as a filmmaker I really love visual storytelling. Dialogue really has to fight for its position, and if I can cut it, I will. It was very important to tell this story through those visuals, and through the idea of touch, or no touch, or looks; through subtleties of communication. But this is also a world where talking can take a lot of energy. When you’re working all day, the last thing you want to do is talk or investigate anything emotionally. You just work practically and sometimes emotions get in the way, and you are too exhausted to have a conversation with anyone. And anyway, what are you going to talk about? You’ve just been out all day working on the moors or with the animals.
Even when Johnny and Gheorghe start to connect, the conversation is pretty slow coming. You practically have to drag it out of both them …
Johnny was a hard character to write. I knew, for example, that it was going to be difficult in the scene towards the end when he goes to Scotland to the potato farm, and he has to say something that’s going to make Gheorghe come back, but he’s totally inarticulate. I thought, why can’t he suddenly say, “I now feel like this, or I’ve had this revelation,” but of course, he would never do that. And so it was hard. But what was super-interesting was that this script didn’t have a lot of dialogue and in the edit, because of the incredible acting, we got rid of even more because the boys were just doing it without saying it.
So far, 2017 has been a great year for queer-focused cinema. Were you thinking about how gay men’s relationships are represented on screen more generally when you were writing and shooting God’s Own Country? Did you set out to challenge visual conventions?
No. I didn’t. The only thing I thought about was the truth and the authenticity of this world, and of these characters, and if it felt right and if it felt that they would do that then that’s what they did. I wasn’t consciously thinking about a canon of queer cinema or other queer relationships on screen.
I think that this film feels more akin to me, if you were going to contextualize it, to something earlier, from the 80s, like My Beautiful Laundrette, which is not really about sexuality. It’s about class, it’s about immigrants, it’s about love. And it has a very hopeful ending. And between that and now, I don’t have that many examples to talk about in relation to same-sex relationships on screen.
There’s been a bit of discussion about nudity in the film.
There’s only one scene.
One is usually enough to get people talking …
I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones. When actresses get a call from their agents saying we’ve got a meeting for you for Game of Thrones, their hearts must sink, because they must think, “I’m going to have to get my tits and my fanny out.” And nobody bats an eyelid, nobody thinks about it at all. In love stories, in Working Girl, you see Melanie Griffith’s bosoms, but you don’t see anything of Harrison Ford. They’re in bed naked. It doesn’t make any sense.
To me, the only thing I thought about … It made me think about the scene where the boys are naked, and the only thing that I thought was, it’s a moment, it’s post-coital, Johnny is at his most vulnerable, he’s talking about his mum, whose left him, the most self-reflection we see of him, basically, in the entire film. He’s able to do that because he feels so comfortable for the first time in his life with Gheorghe. He feels so comfortable being literally bare emotionally and physically. And it feels right.
It is right. I was wondering why in that scene you have Gheorghe wearing a jumper?
I was obsessed with that jumper! That jumper felt to me like another character. For me, I was just thinking that in that situation Gheorghe might be feeling the cold a little bit more. And that he’d put his jumper on. In the beginning they were both completely naked, and then we talked it through, and I thought it would be more interesting if he actually put his jumper on. So it was more of a practical thing.
The camera stays close to Johnny and Gheorghe’s bodies creating a real intimacy in how we know them individually and as a couple. What was your approach in relation depicting the body in this film?
For me, the representation of the body in this film was so important. I wanted these two men to feel absolutely part and parcel of the landscape. I wanted them to feel like the trees, or the animals, or the sky or the moon. I wanted it to feel like they were absolutely vital and elemental. So the way that we gaze at the cow, for example, or the close-ups of the cow and its body and its muscularity and its form, I think I was kind of thinking about the same with the boys and their bodies. When they have sex or when they make love, it was very much about looking at it in terms of a muscularity, if that makes sense, as their bodies as part of that landscape.
And again, because I’m not a huge fan, in this film anyway, of dialogue, I knew I had to tell this story visually, and I had to see that change in Johnny physically, and the most incredibly brilliant way of seeing that is seeing how he has sex. So you see him have quite brutal, animalistic, uncaring, selfish sex, where he doesn’t really feel anything, he doesn’t feel a caress or a touch or anything, and then see that switch, if you like, to him make love with Gheorghe and he allows himself to feel touch and emotion.
It looks to me like he’s never actually kissed a man before, or he has a terror of intimacy.
With Johnny I think it’s anything to do with pleasure. So when you see him eat, he shovels it in. He doesn’t taste food. When you see him drink, he just gets pissed as a fart. He doesn’t enjoy a lovely, delicious drink, he just necks it down. Everything is done for fuel or need. Whatever it is, he just does it. He doesn’t have any pleasure. It’s the kind of subtleties I tried to work in about taste, so like salting the food and all of that kind of thing. He starts to look up a little bit and feel things.
The film is also striking for its absence of overt homophobia. Do you think Johnny’s dad and grandmother silently disapprove of his sexuality, or are they more concerned with other things?
It’s the latter for me. I think Johnny, in a sense, is out, he’s definitely out to his friend who he meets outside the pub. And when he and Gheorghe are in the house together, and gran is ironing, Johnny’s all for going up and sleeping upstairs. He doesn’t seem to have any issue with it at all and I don’t think his gran and dad do at all, I think their fear comes from “will he leave and if he leaves we’re fucked – the farm’s done, we’re out on our ear!” Their concern comes from somewhere else not from anything to do with his sexuality. I knew I didn’t want to tell a coming out story or a story that was about the difficulties of sexuality, because that certainly wasn’t my experience and it’s not my experience in my community where I live, where this film is set. And as I said earlier, this perception that rural, working-class people are inherently, racist, or homophobic, in my experience, is not the case.
I think that’s one of the markers of the progressiveness of your film – there isn’t any of that antagonism and it’s refreshing to watch a film where queer people don’t have to battle on all fronts of their life.
And also not get what they want in the end. I’m not saying that this relationship is going to be rosy, but I think that these two characters work really, really hard for that ending and it would have been perverse for them not to get that ending.
This interview has been edited.