GOD’S OWN COUN­TRY

IN HIS OWN WORDS, FIRST-TIME DI­REC­TOR FRAN­CIS LEE RE­FLECTS ON THE RU­RAL LIFE THAT IN­SPIRED GOD’S OWN COUN­TRY, THE GAY LOVE STORY TAK­ING THE WORLD’S FES­TI­VALS BY STORM

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - POR­TRAITS CHRIS LEAH

Fran­cis Lee tells us about his ode to York­shire (not a whip­pet in sight).

YORK­SHIRE HAS AL­WAYS BEEN HOME TO ME.

Its land­scape formed me both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally, and even though I ‘es­caped’ to Lon­don when I was 20 to train as an ac­tor, it’s a place I’ve never been able to get out from un­der­neath my flesh.

When I de­cided to quit act­ing and start mak­ing films about five years ago, it felt like the most rich and emo­tive ter­ri­tory to set my work — the most nat­u­ral place on Earth to make my first fea­ture film.

I had wanted to leave Lon­don for some time. The ‘ur­ban’ life­style had de­pleted my re­sources mas­sively and God’s Own Coun­try was an op­por­tu­nity to move back to the Pen­nine Hills. My dad is still a sheep farmer there, his farm is not dis­sim­i­lar to the one de­picted in the film, and the thought of be­ing back, close to my fam­ily and liv­ing on the re­mote hills of West York­shire, re­ally ex­cited me. I found an in­cred­i­ble, wooden ‘hut’ with­out Wifi or mo­bile re­cep­tion, packed up from Lon­don and set off to make the film.

God’s Own Coun­try is the story of Johnny, an iso­lated young sheep farmer try­ing to keep his fam­ily farm go­ing af­ter his fa­ther has suf­fered a stroke. All his mates have moved away to col­lege or got jobs in towns, and to cope with his iso­la­tion he gets plas­tered ev­ery night in the de­serted lo­cal pub. He’s shut him­self down emo­tion­ally in or­der to cope. But that starts to change when he be­gins a re­la­tion­ship with Ghe­o­rghe, a Ro­ma­nian mi­grant farm worker his fa­ther hires to help with the lamb­ing in spring. This didn’t hap­pen to me —

God’s Own Coun­try isn’t au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal — but my ex­pe­ri­ences did in­form the story and char­ac­ters.

When I gave up act­ing to pur­sue film­mak­ing, I knew film school wasn’t an op­tion — it was pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive and felt re­stric­tive — so I de­cided to make a cou­ple of short films as my ‘train­ing’. I got a job in a scrap-yard and started writ­ing. I made three short films in a row, each set in York­shire, ex­plor­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween peo­ple and land­scape. They did pretty well on the short-film fes­ti­val cir­cuit and it gave me the con­fi­dence to sit down and write the full-length screen­play of God’s Own Coun­try. From be­gin­ning the process to wrap­ping the film took about four years.

It took about four days, though, to ac­tu­ally write the script, with a week or two to re­fine it so it was read­able and not em­bar­rass­ing. I have a bril­liant friend who of­fered to read it, so ten­ta­tively I at­tached it to an email and pressed ‘send’. Luck­ily he loved it and was su­per-sup­port­ive. Then, un­be­knownst to me, he sent it to a friend of his, who hap­pens to be one of the top Lon­don writer and di­rec­tor agents. Very quickly I got a call from her telling me how much she loved my writ­ing, and we agreed to work to­gether. Over the course of the next year she sent it out to peo­ple, and I met with many of them. The meet­ings all went some­thing like this:

Pro­ducer: I love this script. It’s amazing. Me: Great.

Pro­ducer: What else are you work­ing on? Me: But I want to make this…

No-one wanted to do it due to its small­bud­get level; also, they couldn’t see it reach­ing a wide au­di­ence. They saw it as a calling-card script and wanted me to write some­thing else in­stead. But I wasn’t ready to give up.

I was work­ing away at this scrap-yard, un­able to get a pro­ducer, when I heard about ifea­tures. It’s a scheme run by the BFI, Cre­ative Eng­land, BBC Films and Cre­ative Skillset — they start with 16 mi­cro-bud­get film projects, which are whit­tled down to three. But to en­ter you need a pro­ducer. I got onto a programme run by Screen York­shire, an or­gan­ised net­work­ing event. I met a lot of po­ten­tial pro­duc­ers, and again every­one said they loved the idea, but hardly any­one wanted to com­mit. In the end, only two peo­ple were will­ing to do it, so they be­came the pro­duc­ers. That meant we could ap­ply to ifea­tures and luck­ily we were ac­cepted.

From that point to the fi­nal de­ci­sion, the process took about 11 months. I had great feed­back all the way through, and got down to the last five — I felt the odds were good, but ul­ti­mately we didn’t get se­lected. In­stead

Lady Mac­beth, The Lev­el­ling and Apostasy won the fund­ing. I was happy for all th­ese projects, but nat­u­rally I was very dis­ap­pointed. But soon af­ter the BFI called of­fer­ing a life­line: they com­mit­ted to fund­ing God’s Own

Coun­try them­selves. So I was ready to start. Ex­cept for one thing — I had to wait a year for lamb­ing sea­son to start…

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IN OC­TO­BER 2015 I started work­ing on the film full time, know­ing I was go­ing to shoot the fol­low­ing April. The first char­ac­ter to cast was the lead, Johnny. He’s in ev­ery scene and has an in­cred­i­ble emo­tional arc. I knew this was go­ing to be a tough role for any ac­tor to play. It re­quired some­one not only in­cred­i­bly tal­ented but will­ing to make them­selves to­tally vul­ner­a­ble on screen. I worked with the bril­liant cast­ing di­rec­tors Sha­heen Baig and Layla Mer­rick-wolf, who drew up a list of young, in­ter­est­ing ac­tors.

Josh O’con­nor, who got the role, was on this list but was work­ing in Corfu on the ITV se­ries

The Dur­rells when we were cast­ing. I sent him a cou­ple of scenes so he could record him­self and send me a self-tape. I didn’t know him or his work at all, but when I first saw the scenes he’d recorded I was re­ally ex­cited by him be­cause he delivered such a con­vinc­ing, emo­tion­ally re­pressed de­pic­tion of the char­ac­ter. I thought, “Well, he’s from the North some­where,” as his ac­cent was so good. When I met him in Lon­don a cou­ple of weeks later, I was shocked to find the most po­lite, gra­cious, funny, sweet boy from Chel­tenham Spa. When I started to work with him on a scene in the meet­ing, I quickly re­alised he has a rare gift — the abil­ity to to­tally trans­form him­self into the char­ac­ter he’s play­ing. This to­tally ex­cited me, and I knew pretty quickly we could build this com­plex and dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter to­gether.

For Alec Se­care­anu, who got the role of Ghe­o­rghe, it’s a big deal be­cause there aren’t a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties in Ro­ma­nia for ac­tors. And cer­tainly not play­ing one of the leads in an English-lan­guage film. I re­ally got that sense when I went to Bucharest to cast the role — all the boys were very com­mit­ted, and very hun­gry for it. From the 40 ini­tial self-tapes I was sent, Alec was al­ways my favourite. From the first mo­ment, I saw some­one who was very fo­cused, with this great emo­tional in­ten­sity. But this film was go­ing to live or die by the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two boys, so it wasn’t un­til I did the chem­istry tests with him and Josh in Lon­don, to see how well they worked to­gether, that I could make a fi­nal de­ci­sion.

Af­ter I’d worked with them both for a cou­ple of hours, I sent them off for a cof­fee and hid around the cor­ner to see how they in­ter­acted when I wasn’t in the room. Bril­liantly, they looked very com­fort­able with each other. And thank God, be­cause I got my two favourite ac­tors.

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WITH THE TWO lads cast, I could start to in­ves­ti­gate the char­ac­ters and the world with them. For three months I worked with Josh and Alec: from the mo­ment they were born un­til the mo­ment we meet them in the film, we learnt ev­ery­thing about Johnny and Ghe­o­rghe, right down to whether they have sugar in their tea. Or do they pre­fer white or brown bread? By the time we came to shoot, the boys knew ev­ery­thing.

Part of the prepa­ra­tion was putting the lads to ‘work’, too. I hate that feel­ing of be­ing pulled out of a story when I know some­thing doesn’t feel right, so I knew I didn’t want any stunt or hand dou­bles and no ‘fak­ery’ what­so­ever. Josh and Alec were go­ing to have to learn ev­ery­thing they would have to do un­til it be­came sec­ond na­ture. They went to work on farms for two weeks, work­ing eight-hour shifts. When you see Ghe­o­rghe de­liv­er­ing a lamb live in the film, that is Alec. When you see Johnny in­ter­nally ex­am­in­ing a cow, that is Josh. As well as un­der­stand­ing the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of farm­ing life, I wanted them to get the cold and wet and tired­ness into their bones.

I kept them apart dur­ing this time — they worked on dif­fer­ent farms — be­cause I shot the film chrono­log­i­cally and didn’t want them to know each other too well un­til they first met on screen as char­ac­ters. I felt this would add an­other layer of ner­vous­ness in the per­for­mances. I did feel a bit bad be­cause Alec had to live on his own in a ho­tel in town, and he was away from home and lonely. But the di­rec­tor in me thought it was ideal, as this to­tally trans­lated to how his char­ac­ter feels.

I’d al­ready made two short films at my dad’s farm, so didn’t think I could put him through that again. One of his friends said we could shoot on his in­stead, which was per­fect. The shel­ter they spend time in is up on the moors above it. But there was no ac­cess to it, so ev­ery­thing had to be car­ried up the hill by hand. An hour car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing up. An hour car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing down. We shot in Keigh­ley train sta­tion, which is about ten min­utes’ drive away. And the pub is by the Brontë par­son­age in Ha­worth, which again is about ten min­utes away. I had a fight with my pro­duc­ers over the pub, as it wasn’t the clos­est to the unit base. But I wanted it for two rea­sons. Firstly, it had th­ese in­cred­i­ble win­dows. Se­condly, I loved the idea be­cause one of my favourite films is Rita, Sue

And Bob Too, and they come to the par­son­age on the school trip. The pub is just by where Sue has the fight. I love the sound of their stilet­tos click-clack­ing down the cob­bles of Ha­worth main street…

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ONE OF THE KEY roles in any crew is the di­rec­tor of photography. I had seen a film called Songs My Brother Taught Me at the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val and to­tally fallen in love with it, par­tic­u­larly how it looked. I got in touch with the DP, Joshua James Richards, and sent him my script. We hit it off in­stantly and he to­tally un­der­stood what I was try­ing to achieve. Joshua is an artist in his own right. He’s not just a ‘cam­era per­son’ who would sim­ply do what I asked, but some­one who in­trin­si­cally un­der­stands char­ac­ters and sto­ry­telling. We worked to­gether for about four months be­fore the shoot, shar­ing pho­to­graphs, paint­ings and other films to build the pal­ette for God’s Own

Coun­try. To add to the truth­ful de­pic­tion of the world, we knew we didn’t want to use ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing and it was a chal­lenge to find the avail­able light­ing choices. I also knew the cam­era would al­ways be very up close and per­sonal to the ac­tors, there­fore the DP had to be some­one who would be able to build

a trust­ing bond with them. Joshua is a beau­ti­ful man and cre­ated an in­cred­i­ble re­la­tion­ship with all the ac­tors.

Even though we did all the prepa­ra­tion be­fore­hand, the shoot wasn’t with­out its chal­lenges. York­shire in spring is un­pre­dictable: you can have four sea­sons in one day. The con­ti­nu­ity of this was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult and try­ing to nav­i­gate be­tween snow one minute and bright sun­shine the next was a night­mare. Shoot­ing would have to stop as we waited for the snow to melt. As the rest of the crew had a brew, I’d be se­cretly run­ning around try­ing to melt the snow by stamp­ing on it.

But that wasn’t the worst thing that hap­pened. About half­way through we were shoot­ing an in­te­rior in the bed­room. Ghe­o­rghe has left at this point, so we’re shoot­ing just with Josh. Af­ter a cou­ple of set-ups he told me he didn’t feel that well. Af­ter a cou­ple more takes he started pro­jec­tile-vom­it­ing. We had to stop and I took him back to my dad’s where he was stay­ing. He kept on vom­it­ing all night. The next day I took him to hospi­tal and he had to go on a drip for eight hours be­cause he was so de­hy­drated. Af­ter three days he stopped be­ing sick, but was still very ill. There was some pres­sure for him to come back to work, but I put my foot down. We lost a week, but we got him well. It was very wor­ry­ing, not just be­cause of the film, but be­cause Josh, who was by now my friend, was very sick. Luck­ily I didn’t get what­ever this bug was, but a lot of the crew came down with it as well.

Josh ac­tu­ally lost quite a lot of weight to play the role, but af­ter that he’d lost even more. But be­cause we shot chrono­log­i­cally, and be­cause it hap­pened at ex­actly the time Josh’s char­ac­ter is go­ing through some­thing very dif­fi­cult, it ac­tu­ally added to the story as he looked so emo­tion­ally wrecked.

Mak­ing a film is like herd­ing cats. It’s a bril­liant ex­pe­ri­ence but you are con­stantly mak­ing de­ci­sions and try­ing to get every­one work­ing in the same way for the same goal. My favourite mo­ment was when Alec birthed the lamb. He did it for real and every­one held their breaths as he was pulling it out. That was very emo­tional. And when we were film­ing the end­ing, and Josh dragged this emo­tion out of him­self, em­bar­rass­ingly I cried af­ter ev­ery take. I didn’t tell any­one, I just took my­self off and told every­one I was “a bit tired”. That was an amazing mo­ment.

God’s Own Coun­try pre­miered at the Sun­dance and Ber­lin film fes­ti­vals ear­lier in the year. It’s been an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney as the film con­tin­ues to tour the world and has been sold to most coun­tries for a cin­e­matic re­lease. But the most grat­i­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is when some­one comes up to me af­ter see­ing it and feels they have a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the char­ac­ters. Of­ten they open up enough to tell me their sto­ries. I’m very lucky and pleased that I got to make the film I wanted to, in the way I wanted to tell it. It feels a real priv­i­lege to share the film with peo­ple around the world, open­ing up a small win­dow into my world and the way I see it.

GOD’S OWN COUN­TRY IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 1 SEPTEM­BER AND IS RE­VIEWED ON PAGE 38

Ghe­o­rghe (Alec Se­care­anu) and Johnny (Josh O’con­nor). Above, top to bot­tom: Se­care­anu, O’con­nor and Lee on lo­ca­tion; Johnny strug­gles with his feel­ings; Ghe­o­rghe and Johnny at work on the farm.

Left: Ghe­o­rghe and Johnny bridge the emo­tional gap. Here: Lee out­side the pub that fea­tures in the film.

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