On the eve of the release of God’s Own Country, Jacob Engelberg from Eyes Wide Open Cinema interviewed director Francis Lee in a post-screening Q&A at Duke’s at Komedia Picturehouse cinema.
Jacob Engelberg: Some people in this room might be surprised to know that this is your first feature film, your background was in acting and in 2010 you became a short filmmaker. Could you talk about that journey from in front of the camera to behind the camera and the journey from short filmmaking to feature filmmaking.
Francis Lee: I trained as an actor and I was an actor for twenty years but I wasn’t particularly good! I was just really lucky and worked but I was never very comfortable. I’d always wanted to write and direct but I’d never felt very confident writing anything down on paper. So I waited until I was really old and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I wrote some shorts and self-financed them over a very quick period of time and then I wrote and made this. So it’s been quite a quick journey and it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire.
The journey from shorts to features is a weird one…shorts are a totally different medium. It’s like writing a poem or a novel. I don’t think anything prepares you to get on set for a six week shoot at all.
JE: One of the first reactions I had when I saw the film was the realisation of how rare it is to see queer characters in rural settings. I appreciated that the film resisted the dichotomy we often see, with the city being depicted as the queer-friendly space and the rural depicted as the queer-antagonistic space. Instead, your film depicted something much more nuanced. Were you mindful of working against the grain in this kind of way?
FL: No. I just tell everything from a character point of view and I wanted to explore, first of all, the landscape. The landscape was the starting point for the film, that’s where I grew up, that’s where I now live, that’s where my Dad is a sheep farmer. I also wanted to explore, in very simple terms, what it feels like to fall in love for the first time and how hard that can be. How difficult it is to make yourself vulnerable to love and be loved.
I’m not a cinephile, I’ve not been to film school, I don’t have huge cinematic references so I wasn’t consciously working against anything. I was trying to be faithful to the world and those characters and the experience I’ve had of growing up in that community. I just didn’t think about that idea of needing to leave somewhere to be yourself, I wanted to explore what it was like to be yourself in the place where you’ve grown up.
JE: One of the reviews that I’m sure you’re quite bored of having quoted back to you is the review from The Scotsman, which called it “the first great film of the Brexit era”. Obviously the idea for the film and the production of it came before this Brexit vote, but there’s still a concerted effort to represent the xenophobia that Gheorghe faces in Yorkshire. What role did you see the representation of that xenophobia playing in the film, even if you didn’t intend for it to be considered in a “post-Brexit” context?
FL: I wrote it and I’m not sure if the referendum had been flagged up at that point – I don’t have any memory of it. If I had heard of it, I’d have just thought it was more Tory lies. When we were shooting it, it was the run up to the referendum. But it was only in the edit that I became very aware, like everyone else, of the referendum. There was the vote and me and the editor had done a cut of the film very similar to the final product and the next morning, after the results were announced, we watched the film diligently and afterwards there was this little silence and we both turned to each other and went, “I think we’ve made a period piece!”
This, for me, came from when I gave up acting and didn’t have any money I got a job. I was working with a guy who’d come to this country from Romania and we became really good friends. He’d come to this country like lots and lots of other people for better opportunities, to earn more money for him and his wife. I was really shocked by his personal experience of coming to this country but I was really taken aback by how he coped with it, physically and emotionally. That’s really the starting point of where Gheorghe came from. I always knew I wanted him to be an outsider and once I became friends with this guy and started to research Romania, when I realised that the landscape in Transylvania is very similar to Yorkshire and the farming there is quite similar, it all seemed to fit.
The xenophobia…I guess I was using it to show that change within Johnny. That idea that you’re frightened of the unknown and therefore you’re rude about it or you put it down, you’re antagonistic towards it. But once you actually get to know the person it’s a very different story.
JE: You touched on the farming aspect and your initial desire being to represent the landscape. One of the things that struck me is the role that animals play in the film. Some of the most tender and visceral moments had to do with animals – I’m thinking in particular the skinning of the dead lamb and its skin being repurposed as a coat for the second lamb. Animals get quite a bit of screen time in God’s Own Country so I was wondering what function you felt they served in the film.
FL: I grew up in this place and it was very isolated and so my best friends were animals. I hung out a lot with them and so they were always very present in my life. I think in the film, they represent the farming, dealing with the livestock and the birth-life-death cycle. I wanted to show that Johnny was actually not just a two-dimensional grumpy, northern, difficult, inarticulate knob so it was fitting that he would have his tender moments with animals, that that’s where he would show his compassion and care.
I love the idea that Gheorghe comes and he’s very maternal – he gets off on caring for people. I love the idea that by skinning the lamb and therefore giving life to the abandoned lamb acted as a lovely little – I don’t want to say metaphor but – metaphor for what what he was doing with Johnny.
JE: And he was actually doing that?
FL: Yeah. I never wanted a stunt double or a hand double because I wanted them to do the work and as a viewer I love immersive cinema. So if I ever watched this film and saw a close up of a hand and it wasn’t one of those boys’, I’d go, “Oh, that’s not them”.
So I sent them to work on farms for weeks and weeks and they did really long shifts from 6am to 7pm and they learnt to do everything. It had a brilliant effect because of my obsession with landscape, how landscape forms who you are emotionally and physically. When they were working on the farms they complained about how cold and wet it was and they started to become hunched over. So it affected them physically and emotionally and they carried that through into their characters, which I think really worked.
JE: I’m gonna finish on a bit more of a silly question which is where you found those incredible jumpers ‘cause I spent the film just admiring the knitwear!
FL: So the poor costume designer is Sian Jenkins who’s brilliant. I love rules about things so all the departments had rules and one of the rules for the costume department was she could only buy clothes for the family who live in the farm from the area where they would actually have access to, which meant two shops in Keighley. Johnny, Martin and Deirdre were all kit out from these two shops in Keighley. Then she said to me, “What about Gheorghe”, and I went, “OK, he’s from somewhere else so you can go to another shop for him”.
But when I first met Alec [Secăreanu] in Bucharest he was wearing a heavy-knit jumper. When he came for the recall in London he was wearing the jumper again and it just felt so right. So when we cast it I said, “Sian, we have to find the jumper and it’s the only bit of red we can use in the film so make it very special”. Don’t tell anyone this but I think it’s from somewhere like Primark; it’s synthetic, it’s not even wool! And there were three of them!