Metro Weekly

God’s Own Country: Exclusive interview with director Francis Lee

Francis Lee had personal issues to work out. So he made God's Own Country and brought gay romance to a whole new level.

God’s Own Country – Photo: Agatha A. Nitecka

Francis Carson Lee lives in a house without internet.

“I mean, there’s a tiny little bit, but it’s very slow,” says the director of God’s Own Country. “It kind of depends on the time of day. If it’s late at night, I can send emails, but beyond that, it’s useless. I live a very isolated life.”

So what does he do in his spare time?

“I think about making films.”

Good thing, too, because Lee’s first film is a knockout. God’s Own Country has been hailed by critics as the Yorkshire equivalent to Brokeback Mountain, and currently has a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The praise is beyond deserved: The movie is one of the most resoundingly powerful love stories to hit screens in years, gay or straight. Honest, intense, authentic, it’s the former actor’s (“I was a bad actor — I was very uncomfortable with it”) inaugural plunge into writing and directing, and the result makes you sit up and take notice of the sheer, instinctive talent on display. Seasoned filmmakers have tried (and failed) to produce even a tenth of the emotional power produced in all of God’s Own Country‘s hour and forty five minutes.

Lee, it turns out, is extremely reserved and shy, sweetly so. He prefers not to address details about his life — “I’m not great talking about personal stuff,” he warns — and his reticence to answer is invariably offset by a charmingly polite, “I’m so sorry.” Yet if you push gently enough, you get a tiny bit of insight into this gay rural England-born 48-year-old who decided to work out his feelings by writing a romance between a slowly souring, isolated young man toiling on his family farm, and the migrant Romanian farmhand who opens his heart.

“I’m no cinephile,” says Lee, speaking from a hill near his Yorkshire home because, in addition to poor internet, he gets no cell reception, “but my biggest influences on this film were An Officer and a GentlemanBridges of Madison County, and Working Girl.”

The movie has been open in the U.K. for several months and has garnered a huge following — and it’s not only gay men.

“In the UK and the other places where it’s been released — Australia and New Zealand — the audience has been predominantly women,” he says. “Of all ages, of all persuasions. But we’ve also had a lot of straight men, we’ve had obviously a lot of gay men, a lot of queer women. I think what people respond to is the love story.”

More than two months into its UK release, the film is still going strong. “People are seeing it five, six, seven times,” he marvels. “There are some die-hard fans who have been like 12 times. There’s little social groups who have built up from people who have met at the movie and they now have little nights out at the movie. There are people who’ve bought jumpers very similar to Gheorghe — and they all meet up in Gheorghe jumpers. I’m just so thrilled that it’s had this personal connection to people.

“And in the home town where I grew up, which is in Yorkshire, called Halifax, it’s the biggest selling film that they’ve had ever. It even outsold Dunkirk.”

Francis Lee – Photo: Agatha A. Nitecka

METRO WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for God’s Own Country?

FRANCIS LEE: It basically started with the landscape. I grew up on the hills of Yorkshire, very similar to where the film is shot. My dad is still a sheep farmer there, and I now live back up on those hills. Growing up here, I always had this kind of notion that the landscape was very important to me. It felt as if it formed who I was, both physically and emotionally. But I always had this odd feeling about it. On the one hand, it felt incredibly freeing and open and wild and creative and expansive. But, on the other hand, it felt kind of problematic and isolated and brutal. So my starting point, when I started to think about doing a film, was exploring this landscape that I felt to be totally part of me. At the same time, I was working out that thing of falling in love, and the idea of if you’re going to fall in love, you have to make yourself vulnerable and open enough to love and be loved. So, those things collided.

I had seen the Yorkshire landscape represented on film many times and had also seen farming represented on film many times and same-sex relationships. But I had never seen it in a way in which saw it. I wanted to explore a very personal view — not biographical at all — of how I saw all of those things.

MW: The farming angle of the movie is as vital to the narrative as the love story. And it’s very authentic, particularly with regard to the scenes with livestock.

LEE: I love truth and authenticity in storytelling. Whether that is an emotion or a character or an action, or whether or not that is the world in which the characters inhabit, to me it has to feel as truthful and authentic as it possibly can. Obviously, growing up in a similar situation and being around livestock, I was very used to seeing that cycle of life and death. It felt very common to me. And so, it was about representing that, again, as truthfully as I could.

MW: I must say, I was not prepared for the scene where they skin the dead baby lamb. It was alarming you did not cut away from it, at all. At first I thought, “Why are we watching this?” Then, of course, the meaning becomes clear. It’s a stunning, yet beautifully simple, moment of character revelation.

LEE: What I love about storytelling is seeing something that may be uncomfortable to see, but is the truth of the situation. It may be uncomfortable to sit through for whatever reason but what comes out of it actually changes your mind about what you’ve just seen, slightly. So, with the lamb skinning, I loved the idea that the death became renewal and hope.

God’s Own Country

MW: I’ve read that you had the actors do their own farm work. Obviously, when Johnny is arm deep in a cow, that’s not digital. Did they do the skinning too, or was that a stand in?

LEE: Everything you see in the film, they do. It was really, really important to me because I love immersive cinema, and I knew that if I sat and watched this film, and we cut to a close-up of a hand dealing with a lamb or a cow or whatever it was, and I knew that it wasn’t one of those actor’s hands, I would always be pulled out of the film at that point. I didn’t want that.

I also wanted the two boys to fully experience the physical life within this landscape. In the same way in which I said to you earlier, that landscape had physically formed me, I wanted it to impact on them and their performances. So they both went off for weeks and weeks before the shoot and worked on local farms in Yorkshire. Josh O’Connor, who plays Johnny, worked on the farm where we shot the film, and Alec Secareanu, who plays Gheorghe, worked on my dad’s farm. They did long shifts. They would start at 6 a.m. and would go through until 6, 7 p.m. They learned to do everything, so that all of that work became such second nature to them — sweeping manure, birthing lambs, all of that stuff — they became incredibly proficient at it. They were able to translate that into the physicalities of their characters.

MW: Johnny and Gheorghe’s sexual relationship is both sudden and powerful in the way it starts. It’s not a soft or romantic build, but is rather like two bulls going at one another, fighting for dominance. It’s actively aggressive. Yet it gradually becomes romantic and, later, almost comfortable. The impact of the romance, however, seems to be most felt on Johnny.

LEE: I have this character, Johnny, who isn’t particularly articulate verbally or emotionally, and I really wanted see the spark within him. A brilliant way to depict that was how he had sex. The first time we see him having sex, it’s with the young auctioneer in the back of a cattle trailer at the auction house, and we instantly understand him from the way in which he has sex. He’s not interested in intimacy, he’s not interested a connection — he’s interested in a physical act. He’s not interested in care or communication or any of those things.

What I loved was then seeing, through the intimate scenes, was how that begins to change through him knowing Gheorghe. We see him start to accept intimacy and touch and pleasure and make himself vulnerable. I love visual storytelling rather than telling stories through dialogue and it’s important to show that who this character was, and how he changed.

MW: Did you have any challenges directing the sex scenes. They feel graphic — at least for America.

LEE: When I first started to meet people for the characters, I was very upfront from the get-go about why those scenes were there and what they would be like. The script was very detailed in its descriptions of those scenes, so everybody knew exactly what they would be. I explained why they were there emotionally for these characters. And then I also spoke about how my main focus would always be those actors and I would protect them [on set]. They would be respected, and they would be able to work in a place with safety to deliver their very best.

MW: I need to bring up Ian Hart. He is probably one of the best known people in your cast and yet I didn’t realize it was him. It’s a magnificent performance.

LEE: I always been a huge admirer of his work and I thought that actually what he could bring to it would be real depth. I sent him the script, he read it, he loved it, we met and I talked about what I would like to do, and he wholeheartedly accepted.

Ian is a brilliant actor because he will go and do all the research. He met with people who had had strokes. He went and spoke with speech therapists about what happens to people, once they’ve had a stroke, with their language skills. When we were shooting the film, in between takes, he would remain physically in that character. So he would still walk with his sticks and he would still speak in the way in which he did.

That character’s hard because his personality has been formed by being on that farm and having to do that work and how that farm has basically broken him physically, and also by the fact that his wife left him with a very small child years and years before and he was left to bring up this child. He cares deeply for Johnny, his son, and loves him but, obviously, this isn’t a family that articulates. He wants the best for Johnny but, unfortunately, Johnny is reacting badly to the situation.

Ian wasn’t afraid to shy away from Martin being unlikeable, which is a great thing. Some actors will always try and find the likeability in their characters. And also, the actress who played Deidre, Johnny’s grandmother and Martin’s mother, she’s called Gemma Jones and she’s extraordinary. She’s very famous in the U.K. And again, she wasn’t afraid to really tackle a character who, sometimes, could be unlikeable.

God’s Own Country

MW: A lot of critics are comparing God’s Own Country to Brokeback Mountain, calling it “Yorkshire Brokeback.” Do you get tired of hearing about Brokeback comparisons? Or was Brokeback in your head when devising it? There are parallels.

LEE: I’ve only seen Brokeback once, when it first came out in the cinema. And I was very moved by it — I think it’s an incredible film, I think it’s beautiful. I think its two central performances are extraordinary. And I think that when you make work, everything that you’ve seen in some way impacts on what you do. We all stand on the shoulders of what has come before.

But I don’t know if I was consciously channeling it in any way. Certainly not in the writing of it. It’s a huge, flattering comparison, really. I think Ang Lee is a master filmmaker, but I do think the films are very different. Brokeback is dealing with a situation where two guys can’t be together — society is totally against them, so they live a lie and they marry women. It’s a love that dare not speak its name. Whereas God’s Own Country is more centered around a boy who can’t fall in love because of himself, not because of his sexuality or because of society.

MW: Are you closer to Johnny or Gheorghe?

LEE: [Laughs.] I’m not sure if I’m going to answer that, I’m so sorry.

MW: Why is that a hard question for you?

LEE: Because it’s a very personal film. It’s not autobiographical in any way, really. The family in the film are certainly not my family. My dad is a very emotionally resonant man who talks a lot about how he feels, and about how he feels about other people.

Nobody asked me to write the film, it wasn’t developed because a producer came to me and went, “Oh, I think you’re really interesting, do you have any stories?” I just wrote it. Because I had a need to write it, to explore the themes within it, because I was exploring them for myself.

MW: As I watched the film, I felt such a connection to the love story presented. I was totally swept away by it. Their relationship is such natural blossom of romance that by the end — and I’m not going to give it away — my friend turned to me and said, “Are you crying?” And I went, “No, I’m not crying.” But truth is, I was crying. Your film made me cry. And I don’t cry at anything. So there’s something innately powerful in this movie. It feels deeply personal, as though only a gay man could have made it.

LEE: I can only tell stories that I have a personal connection to and that I’m trying to work out something for myself. And that can be about anything, you know? Whether that be about the landscape or about the love or the character or the relationships. And so, yes, I put a lot of myself in it. For me, it’s always about the truth.

I’m the kind of writer and director who has to explore things that they have experienced, or that they are experiencing, or that they have knowledge of, and I put myself in it. I made the film the way in which I wanted to make it — I didn’t bow to people who asked me to make it a different way, I was steadfast in how I wanted to make it because this is how I saw it. Which is a very dangerous thing. If I’d have done this and nobody would have liked it, then first of all, I would have to take all the responsibility for that. And second of all, I probably would have taken it quite personally. It’s about making, for me, anyway, work that means something to you. On many levels.

MW: Did you find what you were looking for personally in creating this art?

LEE: On many levels, yes.

MW: And on some levels, no?

LEE: Yeah. I’ve not made a film before, so this is a very new experience. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go and do a directing course or a writing course. So this world is very new to me. If you’re somebody who makes something and you go to yourself, “Okay, that’s perfect, I have explored everything I wanted to explore, it all works, it all is there, I feel satisfied,” you wouldn’t make anything else. You would put a full stop after it.

But of course that’s not happened. Which propels me to make my next film, because I want to explore more human relationships and conditions and situations. There are more things for me to work out, so it’s very satisfying on lots of levels but I’m hoping there always will be levels that I want to explore.

God’s Own Country

MW: What’s the next film, can you say?

LEE: I’m not allowed to talk about it. But it is something that I’m writing, it is about relationships, it’s a period film. It’s set quite a long time ago, and it doesn’t really feature any men.

MW: That’s quite the tease. Do you have a favorite film in terms of gay cinema?

LEE: It’s always such a difficult question.

MW: True. There’s a lot to choose from.

LEE: There are. I really love My Beautiful Laundrette. That’s one of my favorites. It’s super close to the things that I really like. For me, I don’t think it’s necessarily about sexuality — I think it’s about class and relationships. I like how difficult that central relationship is within it.

MW: Now, I’ll warn you this is another personal question, and I know you hate those, but I have to ask you about your beard. It’s amazing. You’ve got to tell us how you maintain it.

LEE: [Laughs.] Weirdly, I grew this beard when I was writing God’s Own Country. I grew it because I was fed up of shaving. This tells you how out of touch I am with the world. I was tired of trying to conform to certain stereotypes about what I should look like, so I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to be anti-fashion and anti-everything and I’m just gonna grow a massive beard.” Not long afterwards, I went and met a friend in East London, and suddenly realized that everybody there had a massive beard. So it was a big surprise to me that beards were, you know, popular.

How do I maintain it? I have one barber called Matthew who I really trust, but I don’t get to see him often because he works in London. So every time I go to London, I go and see Matthew and he makes it look nice. And then I make my own beard oil out of almond oil and black pepper essence.

MW: I love that.

LEE: And I occasionally wash it.

MW: Okay, another personal question. Are you happy in your life right now?

LEE: Yes.

MW: You paused. You had to think about that.

LEE: Because life is a big thing, isn’t it? I mean, there are always going to be things that make us unhappy or that we would like to fix. But generally, personally, yeah.

MW: What makes you happiest?

LEE: My family and my friends. And being able to hike over the moors. Those kinds of things. Being outside, hiking. I’m very lucky, I live in a very beautiful, remote moorland, very close to where the Bronte sisters lived and worked, so every day I get to hike out over the moors.

MW: Have you or do you hope to ever find love like what you’ve represented on screen?

LEE: I mean, I don’t know if I will find what I’ve represented on screen, but I can very confidently tell you that I’ve found a love that is very meaningful to me.

MW: You are a hard nut to crack.

LEE: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MW: Can I at least ask if you’re a romantic person?

LEE: I mean, I think I’m a caring person, but romance means different things to different people, right? I mean, I think the most romantic thing in God’s Own Country is when Johnny and Gheorghe call each other “freak” and “faggot.” To me, that is pure romance. So maybe that tells you something about how romantic I am.

God’s Own Country opens Friday, Nov. 10, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. Visit landmarktheatres.com or call the theater directly at 202-783-9494.

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Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.