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
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…
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.
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…
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.