Landscape of love

Director Francis Lee talks about authenticity and emotion in God's Own Country.

by Amber Wilkinson

Francis Lee: 'Anything I could do to make it feel a little more real or electric, I would do'
Francis Lee: 'Anything I could do to make it feel a little more real or electric, I would do'
Romantic drama God’s Own Country comes to cinemas across the UK today, and according to director Francis Lee, when it comes to winning over audiences, it’s the details that count.

Lee, whose film tells the story of frustrated young sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who finds the promise of change when migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) comes to help with the lambing season, says realism is key – not least because his own father is a farmer.

“My dad still is a farmer, and I knew that I had to get it absolutely right, not just for me as a filmmaker who loves detail and authenticity and truth but also for him. I didn’t want him coming to see a film that he could pick holes in, in that sense.”

In order to help his actors get to grips with their characters, Lee spent around three months working with his stars to build their characters from scratch, creating detailed histories for them from the moment they were born to the point where the film beings. They also went beyond the theatrical, when Lee booked them in for some work on two farms – his father’s and the one where the film was shot (read about their take on that experience).

Francis Lee: 'I grew up in quite an isolated place on the Pennines – all of that feeling and emotion of the landscape and the place is something that I wanted to convey.'
Francis Lee: 'I grew up in quite an isolated place on the Pennines – all of that feeling and emotion of the landscape and the place is something that I wanted to convey.' Photo: Agatha A Nitecka
“I knew straight away that I didn’t want any fakery in the film and I didn’t want any hand doubles or stunt doubles,” says Lee, when I catch up with him at Edinburgh Film Festival. “ I love authenticity and truth and I love feeling immersed and I knew if I watched that film and knew that there was a hand double or stunt double that I would always be pulled out of it at that moment. And I never wanted that experience. So they went off and worked on farms for shifts and learnt everything and they got miserable and cold and wet.

“It was also getting them to feel physically what it feels like, so their bodies changed – their posture and their stance and all of that. I think it works really well. We shot chronologically.

“I knew that I could shoot chronologically, so I pushed for that. I felt each scene was like building blocks and each scene properly impacted on the next one and to be able to build the relationship and help these performances it would be much better to do it in that fashion. It also meant that I could keep them apart at the beginning – they didn’t really work together and they lived separately, one in town and one at my dad’s. So when it came to them meeting on screen for the first time, there was that extra nervousness as actors that translated on to screen, which I loved.

“Anything I could do to make it feel a little more real or electric, I would do. As soon as they met on screen and started to build the characters’ friendship, I moved them into the same house and they got on like a house on fire. At one point in the film, Gheorghe goes away and I said to Alec, ‘I’ve got you this lovely holiday in London, so off you go’. And he went away for a week and Josh was sad and lonely and left on his own. So when they met again in the film, there was more of a, ‘Oh my God, I’m meeting my friend again’.”

The attention to detail particularly pays off in a scene in which Secareanu’s character helps a sheep to give birth.

Francis Lee: 'They went off and worked on farms for shifts and learnt everything and they got miserable and cold and wet'
Francis Lee: 'They went off and worked on farms for shifts and learnt everything and they got miserable and cold and wet'
“It was really brilliant to see, particularly Alec, work with the animals,” he says. "Because Alec is not Gheorghe, he’s much more sensitive and emotional whereas Gheorghe is much more practical. So we would do the shot of the sheep and he would be Gheorghe and it would be lovely – and all shot in one take – and then I’d say, ‘Cut’ and he’d go off and have a little moment because that was Alec coming out and that was emotional and very beautiful to see.”

When it came to casting, Lee, who began his film career in front of the camera, says the process was “complex” – but it also yielded some unexpected results. Perhaps most surprising, was the casting of O’Connor, whose name came to be in the frame courtesy of a casting director.

“He was working in Corfu, so he couldn’t come to meet me and he’d sent a couple of scenes that he’d recorded on his iPhone,” says Lee. “I’d not met him, so all I had was this bit of film, and I thought he was from the north from this tape. I couldn’t tell you whereabouts but from the north. And he had also delivered this very real, emotionally repressed performance and I was kind of blown away but I thought he’d be difficult.

“Then I met him and I was kind of shocked, because he’s a beautiful boy, he’s very polite, he’s very funny and from Cheltenham, very received pronunciation. And when I got working with him, I realised he’s a completely transformative actor – and that’s what he wanted to do. And that really excited me, because that’s what I wanted to do. It’s very funny now watching the film because I know Josh very well, we’re good friends. When I watch the film, I do not see one part of Josh O’Connor in that character. He doesn’t look the same, he doesn’t walk the same, he doesn’t have the same emotional range, he doesn’t sound the same – it’s an extraordinary performance. He was incredibly open to be able to go on that journey and do those things with such a big heart.”

Casting is one of the few areas where Lee doesn’t want the “real thing”.

He says: “I was an actor for a long time and I believe in the acting talent. I would never street cast, I would never get the ‘real thing’, I like working with actors. But I knew I didn’t want to cast someone famous, because I didn’t want anything to overshadow the film.“ An additional character in God’s Own Country, is the countryside itself. Initially, we’re less aware of it, as we see the situation from Johnny’s perspective. This means that when Gheorghe introduces him to the landscape, the sudden wide open visits have an emotional impact for us as well. Lee, says that partly comes from his deep connection to the place.

Francis Lee: 'You see the effect that that world is having on them and that, to me, felt much more emotional'
Francis Lee: 'You see the effect that that world is having on them and that, to me, felt much more emotional'
“Growing up in that landscape – I grew up in quite an isolated place on the Pennines – all of that feeling and emotion of the landscape and the place is something that I wanted to convey. “When I started to work with the cinematographer Joshua James Richards, we started to develop the look of the film and how the camera would move and what we would see and why that was the case. We were very hot on creating a set of rules that would restrict the camera in certain ways and would push us creatively.

“We were very keen that most of this film would be seen through Johnny’s eyes. Johnny isn’t looking at the landscape until the moment Gheorghe shows him, so I didn’t want to see the landscape until we see it through his eyes for the first time. But, I did want to see landscape’s effect on the characters. So that’s why you see a lot of mud, you see them cold, you see them wet, with their hoods up and their down and their hands in their pockets. You see the effect that that world is having on them and that, to me, felt much more emotional and much more how I’d experienced that landscape.”

God’s Own Country is in UK cinemas from today (September 1) and screens this month at Miskolc Cinefest. For details of UK screenings, visit the official site.

Read what Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu told us about working on the film.

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