For his first feature film Brit actor turned writer/director Francis Lee has shocked the world of queer cinema by creating the sublime God’s Own Country, that is unquestionably the best gay male love story of 2017. Acknowledged by not just the prestigious heavyweight Awards that the movie and Lee have already picked, but it has also been the overwhelming response of packed Film Festival Audiences who have been applauding so enthusiastically (the moment they throw their empty Kleenex boxes away) that is the most moving. It’s the perfect spellbinding film about love and hope that we all need to see.
Queerguru caught up with Francis Lee on his travels to not only share our own rave review, but simply to ask him how he pulled it all off.
QG: It must be very wonderful day for you today, winning the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Francis Lee: Thank you very much indeed. It really is a lovely honor.
QG: It’s a very well deserved honor, and one you beat out some very stiff competition for. You’ve already won the Best Director Award at Sundance, the Best Movie Award in Berlin, plus the Audience award at Frameline, so congratulations.
Without giving the whole plot away, can you briefly tell us what God’ Own Country is about?
Francis Lee: The film is set on a Yorkshire hilltop sheep farm and it follows the story of Johnny Saxby. All his friends have moved away to college or got jobs in town. His father has had a stroke and so cannot work the land any more, so all the responsibilities of running the farm has fallen on Johnny’s shoulders. He is very geographically and socially isolated and he internalizes all of this and shuts down emotionally. He self-medicates to try and cope with the situation by getting very very drunk every night and having casual sex with strangers. Then it comes to lambing time when all the lambs are due to be born, and as he cannot manage this all on his own, he needs a temporary migrant worker to come and help him. And the story becomes about their relationship.
QG: I know that you also grew up there on a sheep farm, and that you still live up in Yorkshire, so how much of this is your own story ?
Francis Lee: Very little. Their situation didn’t happen to me. I escaped Yorkshire when I was 20 years old to go to Drama School in London, and only moved back there two years ago to work on this film. In terms of the people in the film they are not me or my family, but in terms of the landscape and the physical and emotional response to it, is very much something that comes from me and my personal experience. I wanted to show this landscape in the way that I have always seen it, and that was one of the staring points for wanting to tell this story.
QG: Have you had t0 explain to people who are not English what the term ‘God’s Own Country’ means?
Francis Lee: For me the title is very resonant of what proud Yorkshire people call their region , but also for me it has another meaning. It suggests that heaven can be where you make it.
QG: Why did you choose to make this as your debut feature?
Francis Lee: Even though I had left Yorkshire when I was young, I could never get that landscape, or the people, or that experience out of my head. It felt totally ingrained in me both physically and emotionally, and I carried it around for a very long time. So when I stopped being an actor and decided to make a film about 4/5 years ago, it felt like a very natural place to start. In terms of the personal journey, it just seemed an absolutely perfect place to go and make my first film.
QG: One of the many aspects that I liked about the film was that Johnny didn’t seemed to be struggling with his sexuality, but more about his inability to relate to anyone on anything approaching an intimate level. Was that important to you?
Francis Lee: I knew I didn’t want to make a coming-out film, or a film about sexuality and what that means. I wanted to investigate something that I personally had found one of the hardest things in my life, and that was falling in love and being able to be open and vulnerable enough to love and be loved. To me that feels like something that lots of us can associate with regardless of background, sexuality, gender, and race. Falling is love is a fairly universal human emotion, and I wanted to really investigate that.
QG: How on earth did you cast such a superb set of actors who had this sizzling chemistry?
Francis Lee: I am very very blessed particularly with those two boys who are not just phenomenal actors but they are also incredible people. I started really from just a blank canvass as I didn’t know of any actors of that age range, or indeed any Romanian actors. So we went through a very careful process of selecting them.
Josh who plays Johnny was working in Corfu at the time, and so I sent him a couple of scenes, and he sent a tape of himself back to me. When I got that from Josh I was convinced that he actually was from the North of England because he accent was so good, and then there was something that was so emotionally repressed about his delivery that felt so perfect. He seemed to really understand what this character was going through . Then when I was able to meet him and was so shocked to discover that he was actually from Cheltenham in the posh part of the South of England. He is very polite, smiley, funny, self -deprecating …. he’s a beautiful man.
In that meeting I started to work with him on the script and I saw very quickly that he is a completely transformative actor, which is quality that really excites me. I knew then that we were going to be able to build this character and go on this journey together .
With Alec I knew I wanted to cast a Romanian, so we worked with a brilliant casting director over there. Again I was sent tapes of actors doing scenes which were all excellent, but Alex really popped out from those. He really embodied the character and emotionally focused on who this person was which really excited me. Then when I met him in Bucharest I realized that he too was a very transformative actor , and I knew we could build this character from scratch and go on this journey.
However what was going to be super important was this relationship and how these two actors worked together. Thank God Alex and Josh totally hit it off and worked incredibly well together and were always both my favorite choices.
We built this incredible bond of trust and understanding as I knew what I was asking them to do was so difficult. I knew that we would have to work within a very very safe environment, and I wanted the boys to know that I was always going to be there for them and I was going to go on this journey with them. So they were able to deliver what I think are extraordinary performances of great emotions and depth.
QG : I know that you filmed the whole movie chronologically , so I’m wondering if you kept strictly to the script or did you adjust their relationship as it unfolded in front of your camera?
Francis Lee: I shot it this way as I saw each scene as a kind of a building block within this relationship, and I knew each scene impacted very much on the next scene coming up. I am a very precise and detailed filmmaker so I’m not a big fan of improvising so everything you see on screen is actually scripted.
QG : It must have been a physically tough shoot out there in all weathers, especially as there were so very graphic and intimate birthing scenes which is not something you learn in drama school. How did that go down?
Francis Lee: My dad is a sheep farmer in Yorkshire and I knew that I had never seen farming depicted on the screen as the reality that I had grown up with. It was incredibly important to me to get that really authentic. I knew that I never wanted a stunt double or even a hand double, and I also knew that I wanted these boys to really understand this world and do everything in the film themselves.
So when they came to Yorkshire for rehearsal we had already built the characters and were very secure with who these people were, so I sent them off to work on farms for two weeks. Josh worked on the farm where we shot the film, and Alec worked with my dad. I also knew that I didn’t want the actors to stand around and take notes, I wanted them to physically do the work. I wanted them to know what it felt like to do an 8 hour shift every day when you are tired and when you are wet. I wanted them to learn with great proficiency how to handle the animals, how to birth lambs ….how to do everything. So when it came to the shoot they were totally immersed in it.
I still find it extraordinary whenever I see the film and I see Alec birthing a lamb, or Josh doing a internal examination of a cow. These are all things that they learnt in great detail so thy could perform them when it came to shooting .
QG : One of the things that I love most about your drama is that it ends in hope. How important was that for you?
Francis Lee: Super important. I’m a big fan of hope, and I think no matter how difficult circumstances that you find yourself in emotionally or physically, I would always like to think that at some point that those circumstances will shift for the better, I felt that the two characters worked so hard in the film that I had to deliver that ending for them, and in fact it wouldn’t be doing their work any justice if I ended it any other way.
I have become quite tired of watching films with same-sex relationships depicted when it would end with loneliness, or isolation, or rejection , or an unrequited love. Or even with society saying they can’t be, as that had never been my experience , and I wanted to redress that balance.
QG : When I was telling people to go see this film when it played at the P Town Film Festival my short-hand ‘it’s an English Brokeback Mountain that has hope‘. Are you happy that so many people are making this Brokeback comparison?
Francis Lee: Brokeback is an incredible film : the story telling is beautiful. I think that the two central performances are heartbreaking. I had only seen it once when it first came out, and actually didn’t want to revisit it as I found it quite emotional. So it really wasn’t in the forefront of my mind or my consciousness when I wrote this film.
I think the two films are very different : in Brokeback you have a relationship that cannot exist because of society’s attitudes, and both of those characters get married to women and try and live their lives in that way. I think in God’s Own Country its less about that and much more about someone asking ‘how do I open up enough to learn how to love and be loved?‘ The comparison is incredibly flattering especially this is after all my first film!
QG : So now you are doing the Film Festival Circuit, but after that what is next for the film after this?
Francis Lee: The wonderful response has actually all been a little overwhelming. I didn’t actually finish the film until very early January and it went straight into Sundance and it has been an incredible ride ever since. I’m a big fan of Audience Awards and we just picked up one at Frameline in S.F. which is such an achievement too.
The film has now been sold Worldwide and we will continue to play Film Festivals globally until it is released theatrically. In the UK that will be in September 2017, and then it will be rolling out in each country until the end of the year.
QG : Do you think that they may actually hold it back in the U.S. until Awards Season?
Francis Lee: Who knows. As far as I am aware they are releasing it in the US on October 27th in N.Y, and L.A. and then it will come out in other major cities two weeks after that.
QG : What’s next for you after you finish promoting the film?
Francis Lee: (laughs) A rest! I am working on two projects of my own that are in quite advanced stages in terms of scripts, and so hopefully I will make another film soonish .
QG : I have just one last question for you. Is there any chance of a sequel with Johnny & Gheorghe married and breeding children as well as sheep?
Francis Lee: (laughs) I love the idea, and that would be so cute but NO! (laughs) My favorite moment of the film is that last shot, when the caravan is towed away, and they walk up to the farmhouse and there is that little cheeky look between them and they go inside the house and shut the door. For me that is them going ‘OK , you seen us and what we have become now, so fuck off and let us get on with it!’
P.S. Check out queerguru’s full review of the movie HERE