Interview with Francis Lee / God’s Own Country

photo by Agatha A. Nitecka

Kena chatted with Francis Lee, director of God’s Own Country during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

As an opener, could you tell us a little about yourself and your filmic career?

I started to make film only about 4 or 5 years ago. Before that I was an actor for 20 years, but I’d fallen out of love with acting before I gave it up. I don’t think I was ever a very good actor – I knew I always wanted to write, and I always wanted to tell stories visually. But I’d never had the confidence to sit down and put anything on paper, or think about directing. And as you get to a certain you just think, if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna have to get on with it. So, I gave up acting, and I got a job in a scrapyard to make money, and I self-financed two shorts which I wrote and directed, whilst at the same time writing this. This is my first feature.

In general, do you prefer the writing or production side of making a film better, how did you feel with God’s Own Country?

I love both parts of the process, but I really like writing. Writing feels very freeing to me; you have control over their lives and I can get very obsessed with it. I love the process of being on my own and writing, and I feel that it’s a very sacred space. However, I also love the production side – I love working with actors, I love working with a DP, and then in post with the editor. That’s a very exciting part of the process because you start piecing it all together and you can see the things that you imagine suddenly become real! I really love working with actors – acting is such a tough profession – and I really respect their craft. I really love the process of creating performances.

With the precursor of homosexual love going into the film, I imagined the main tension would be between a character’s sexuality and religion, but even though the title sort of suggests religious input, I didn’t get any kind of religious vibe from your film. Could you explain the title to us and why you chose it?

‘God’s own country’ is a phrase used by a good number of places in the world to describe a particular region by people from that region. Proud Yorkshire people call Yorkshire ‘God’s own country’ – so that resonated with me. I’d always grown up with that phrase, and it’s a very proud perspective. The subtext of it was about heaven, which can be a place that you make for yourself, and which you can find.

The film, I thought, wasn’t really about gay romance, can you tell us why you wanted to explore this unexpected take on love?

It’s a really interesting comparison [to Brokeback Mountain] which I’ve only seen once, and I was very moved by it and I thought the essential performances were beautiful and heartfelt, but it wasn’t part of my process in making this film. I wasn’t thinking of any other type of story or film when I was writing or making God’s Own Country. For me, the starting point was definitely the landscape, and I respond by growing up in that landscape. I felt like I wanted to explore it, because to me it felt like an incredibly free place, but at the same time overwhelming and brutal and stifling. I wanted to investigate it. At the same time I was going through the process of how difficult it is to fall in love, to be open and vulnerable enough to be in love, be loved and be in a relationship. In terms of playing with the narrative, it felt organic that this narrative belonged very much to these characters, and I wasn’t really thinking about what had come before.

Apart from the landscape and your own experience with the difficulty of love, did you get inspiration for God’s Own Country elsewhere?

Nope! (Laughs) No, not really, it was basically those two things. My Dad is still a sheep farmer in Yorkshire on that hill – I live there now – so that felt very much like my territory and my community. I’d never really seen it depicted on screen before in the way in which I saw it, and so for me it was just about looking at it from my perspective and my experience.

Another thing I noticed was a profound absence of music… why didn’t you feel the need to fill the lengthy silent sections with non-diegetic sound?

I personally don’t respond massively to soundtracks or music. I feel that they can dictate how an audience is meant to feel at that time. Primarily, I love the natural sound of that place. All I wanted to do was to build the soundscape out of all the natural sounds that would become my soundtrack. I worked with my Sound Designer, and sent her to all the locations in Yorkshire to record hours and hours and hours of atmospheres so that when it came time to edit I had a huge library of wind sounds, birds sounds, wind in grass, and I could build the soundscape. Another thing I found interesting was that seeing as the characters don’t choose to have access to music and it doesn’t play a big part in their lives, and because I wanted to experience this world through Johnny’s eyes and his perspective, I wanted to be authentic to that. That’s why the musical score was kept to the bare minimum.

Out of personal interest, as I’ve wintered in Yorkshire, how cold did it get? Because I remember that first sexual scene between John and George, naked and rolling the mud…

It was pretty cold – it was spring – but that’s still pretty cold in Yorkshire. I shot it in March and April, because that’s when the lambs are born. Yes, it was pretty cold and the weather was pretty trying. In Yorkshire in the springtime you can see all four seasons in one day – it can be snowing when you wake up, sunny at lunchtime, and then by the mid-afternoon it’s probably raining… That’s very hard to deal with when you’re shooting. But I only shot that particular scene once or twice, so the boys weren’t out exposed for a long period of time. They were very, very well prepared and looked after, so it wasn’t too hard.

What films or filmmakers influenced you most during your teenage years?

I didn’t have any kind of cinematic education – I never went to film school, I never studied film at all, and so the only access I had to cinema in the 80s were either films I watched on the TV or at the picture house (which was a rare treat). My cinematic language of that time was quite limited, but I do remember loving Kes (Ken Loach), which is interesting because I only saw it once as I found it so emotionally devastating. That was set in Yorkshire, and I saw it on the TV. I found it so devastatingly and emotionally traumatic that I’ve never seen it again. Films I loved as a teenager would have been quite popular – one of my favourites would have been Footloose. In my later teenage years, when I was about 17 or 18, some company in the UK started to make film. They would put them on TV on a Thursday night… My Beautiful Laundrette, Another Country… all of those films were very important to me.

And have you got any exciting prospects lined up for the future that you can tell us about?

I do have exciting prospects lined up, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you. They’re at critical stages, but I’m excited about the next project which will be something I have written.

Excellent, we wait in excited anticipation!

God’s Own Country is screening at MIFF and released nationally 31 August 2017.
You can read Kena’s review here.

Francis Lee is a filmmaker working from Yorkshire, UK. Following an extensive career as an actor, he wrote his first short film, Bantam, in 2009, and went onto write and direct The Farmer’s Wife in 2012, Bradford-Halifax-London in 2013 and The Last Smallholder in 2014 which collectively have played at many international film festivals winning numerous awards. God’s Own Country is Francis’ first feature film.

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