"They're not characters who say 'I love you,' so they call each other 'faggots'"
Writer-director Francis Lee on breaking through with God’s Own Country
Why can’t a beautiful romance form over the bloody viscera of a stillborn lamb? In Francis Lee’s formidable debut God’s Own Country (which comes to TIFF Bell Lightbox after playing TIFF ‘17), two young sheep farmers realize their attraction for each other while working in the farmlands of West Yorkshire. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) begins the film as a tightly-wound young man prone to binge drinking and casual sex, his face frozen in a perpetual sneer of indignation at his bleak surroundings. Respite comes in the form of sensitive Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who slowly softens him after being hired by Johnny’s grandparents to work on their farm for the lambing season.
Lee’s film has frequently been compared to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, another quiet study in queer resilience set against a striking landscape. Like Brokeback, God’s Own Country is not a coming-out film, but one about how two people struggle to navigate being in a gay relationship whilst living in a repressive environment. Working closely with his impressive young actors, Lee finds a rare intimacy in the ways that touch, not words, convey Johnny and Gheorghe’s innermost desires — most notably in their first sexual encounter, which begins as a near-fistfight. We spoke to the writer-director — who first began his film career as an actor in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) — about making his directorial debut at age 47, how Leigh’s methodical way of working with actors influenced his own process, and why he won’t be leaving his hilltop in West Yorkshire for Hollywood anytime soon.
It’s interesting that you’re 47 and this is your first feature...
I'm now 48! (Laughs)
So much of the critical reception around a director’s first feature puts emphasis on their age and autobiography. So how do you think age and experience — actually living your life before you make a movie — can benefit a film?
I made my first film at the right time for me to make it. I [don’t think] I would have been able to do it before — I wouldn't have been confident enough, directional enough. Bringing a life, if you like — your experience of people, relationships, and the world into the way you write and communicate to actors and your crew is incredibly beneficial.
I've never been to film school, so I work very instinctively and intuitively. I don't feel like I'm bound by those restrictions of "well, you can't do that,” or “we don't do it that way" because I don't understand the supposed "right way" to do something. Coming at it from an older perspective, I’ve also learned the power of "no." If people are trying to [push] me in different directions, I’m able to go, "No, this is what we want to do." It was right for me to wait.
Your first film role was playing “Butt” in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. Leigh has such a specific way of working with actors, which ends up informing every single detail of the script as well as the elements of his productions, including set design, wardrobe, and hair and makeup. How did working with Leigh influence your own process as a filmmaker?
In high school, I had a teacher who showed our class a very early Mike Leigh film called Meantime (1984). I was blown away — first, that you could see people like that on screen, and [then] to find out how Leigh worked through improvisation. He was someone I always wanted to work with, and who I studied as I developed my own method as an actor.
Mike has been a great supporter and was an incredible director for the type of actor I wanted to be. You start from the moment your character is born until the moment you meet them in the film, and work out every single detail about their life. I can't remember how long I built that character from scratch with Mike, but it must've been three months.
I love that immersive way of working. It makes you feel very safe on set. When you start doing the work in front of the camera, you might not have answered all the questions but you've got all the bits of the puzzle. When I came to wanting to direct, I knew I wanted my actors to feel totally secure — that all my focus would be on building their characters with them from scratch, with the script as a starting point. The big difference between me and Mike is that he comes from an improvisational way of creating his work, whereas I don't like improvisation. My script is very precise, and the actors aren't allowed to deviate from it.
Why don't you like improvisation?
As the writer, I’ve worked so hard to make this world real and believable, so the dialogue is very, very carefully crafted. [The characters in God’s Own Country aren’t ones] who sit around and talk about how they feel, so if there was a line of dialogue, it had really fought for its position in the script.
Going back to that method of preparation, did you and actors ever have disagreements about your interpretations of the script?
It's much more of a collaborative process, less prescriptive in that sense. I don't know how interesting this is, but I'm a big fan of going through the script with an actor. The first thing I ask them to do is write down everything the character says about themselves, then everything the character says about other people, and finally, everything other people say about them. Then you write down the facts, based on what the script tells you: how old they are, where they’re from. All of this gives you the blueprint, so you can discover why they're like that.
Did you also have rules for the camerawork? Like, “it must always be motivated by emotion, or from Johnny’s point of view…”
Absolutely. Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer, is an incredible artist. We worked for three months talking about our influences, in terms of photographs, paintings, textures, poems, feelings, and emotions, so we could develop a set of rules [about] where the camera could be and how it could move. We always wanted to see this film from Johnny's perspective. We were gonna stick with him, even if it was super-uncomfortable.
I was also very keen to see this landscape's effect on the characters, rather than the actual landscape itself. If you've been working outside all day, the last thing you’re going to do is go for a walk, look up at a view and go, “Oh, isn’t that lovely?" You want to be inside, you've got your hood up, you're cold, so you've got your head down. I wanted to see how a landscape could affect these characters both physically and emotionally. There's only one big, wide landscape shot in the film.
You’ve also made such a visceral movie — there's dead lambs being pulled out of their mothers, vomit, blood, semen, spit, lamb guts everywhere — but this brutality is contrasted with a beautiful, sensitive love story. Can you talk about that duality?
I wanted to make this film because of the landscape. On the one hand, it felt incredibly freeing, open, expansive, and creative, but on the other, brutal, isolating, and problematic. At the time of writing the script, I was figuring out that whole "falling in love" thing — how you have to make yourself open and vulnerable to love, to be loved, and to accept intimacy. Those two things collided, and I saw such a rawness in the farming, the landscape, and the falling in love that they all felt like little mirrors of each other. That's why I wanted to work with the roughness, as well as the tenderness in the physicality of the characters, rather than anything they necessarily say,
It's been a landmark year for queer cinema, in terms of Moonlight winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Festival films like Call Me by Your Name, BPM, and your own being so well-received, both critically and commercially. How do you think the industry has changed this year to receive these queer stories into the mainstream?
It has been an exceptional year. There are so many great stories [in the cinema] about same-sex relationships and trans characters. These are characters who, if they appeared in films before this, would’ve either been minor [characters], or the films would have been seen as very niche. God's Own Country came out in the UK [on September 1] and it is still in UK cinemas. It’s selling amazingly well, and in some theatres it is the biggest-selling film of the year. In my hometown of Halifax, West Yorkshire, the cinema emailed to tell me it is their biggest-selling film of all time. It outsold Dunkirk!
There seems to be a sense with God's Own Country, Call Me by Your Name, BPM, and A Fantastic Woman — as well as a couple of indies like Beach Rats and The Wound — people are recognizing the films, first and foremost, as great stories, regardless of the subject matter. One of the most interesting things I've noticed is that the audience [at] God’s Own Country is a total cross-section of age, gender, seuxal orientation, and race. Somebody much cleverer than me said that because cinema's depiction of hetrosexual love stories is now in a place where it's either a rom-com or a send-up, [audiences] are no longer getting to see those big, beautiful love stories. So people are going to queer cinema to see love stories, regardless of their own orientation, which I think is incredible.
Critics have all noted God's Own Country isn't a coming-out film, as if that's a real step forward. I haven't had a great education in film, so I never thought about my film in terms of how it relates to a canon. That's been very interesting, to ask "What other gay films aren't about coming out?"
It's also a movie about class, which is a huge part of English culture.
I guess you would classify these characters as "working-class." They are not people who sit around and talk about how they feel, or articulate particularly expansively on their emotions, position, or space.
Which is obviously really different from Call Me by Your Name, where the characters are all rich, white academics!
Totally! We all make films from our own experience, and mine is coming from a hillside in Yorkshire. One of the reasons I made my film was because I hadn't seen my world reflected on screen in a way I believed. I developed this character who can't express himself emotionally, so when it comes to the final scene where Johnny has to find Gheorghe, that was very hard to write. If he was a nice middle-class boy, he'd go, “I'm so sorry, I love you and I think we can make this work.” Instead, the most Johnny can say is: “I don't want to be a fuck-up anymore." They're not characters who say "I love you,” so they call each other faggots. That's them saying I love you.
And that's beautiful. (Laughter) In terms of communicating these unspoken feelings with touch and tenderness, did you develop the same rigorous rule system with the actors? Their sense of physicality is very potent.
We just tried to be very, very rigorous about [getting to] the truth of it. When the boys arrived in Yorkshire, they worked on farms for weeks so they could learn how to birth and skin lambs. When it came to shooting, my focus was always going to be on the actors, so that pre-, during, and actually post-shoot, they felt secure enough to be vulnerable on camera and build a relationship with each other. It became about restraint: getting them to pull back, so when you see Gheorghe first put his arm on Johnny, that's a really earned moment. The first time you see Johnny smiling, I refused to let him do that until the absolute last moment. At the beginning of the film, it was important to see how the only tenderness he has is with a sheep, not a human being.
The scene where Gheorghe skins the stillborn lamb to make a coat for the orphaned one… that’s the big romantic gesture in this film.
It’s something I'd grown up knowing people did, but this whole idea of showing Gheorghe being maternal and wanting to care for Johnny felt like a great double meaning for that action. Alec learned how to do that with with my dad, then did it all in one take. It's an incredible performance.
This film premiered at Sundance and has completely changed your career prospects. While you still live on a hilltop in West Yorkshire, how do you want to navigate your filmmaking career going forward, while remaining true to your voice and where you come from?
Again, it comes back to an age thing: being very clear about what you want to do and how you need to make work. I make work because it's something I'm working out; it's very personal. Of course, you get the big scripts from L.A. with the big stars attached and the big money, but making a film is really hard and takes everything I’ve got. If I’m putting a piece of myself into it, I need to know I’m going to have a bit of control. The next thing I do will be something I'm writing and will be a bigger canvas, but it won't be a giant leap, in terms of doing a Marvel film. While I’m not ruling that out for the future, for the moment, this feels like what I want to do.