After a show-stopping premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January Francis Lee’s “God’s Own Country” has been on a relentless world tour including stops at the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival in June and August before a wider cinematic release around Australia on the 31st of August.The debut film from actor turned filmmaker Lee is a provincial drama that sees ill tempered Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) overburdened with running his family farm single-handedly, finding solace in the achievement of a chorus of empty glasses at the pub each night (his father Martin - played by Ian Hart - has been incapacitated by a stroke). When lambing season arrives Johnny enlists the help of a Romanian migrant worker, Alec (Gheorghe Ionescu), who breaks through Johnny’s armoured shell
When I talked to Lee, he joked that it’s “been a little bit of a long journey.”
Embarking on this incredibly surprising and slightly overwhelming journey for a debut film has been completely unexpected for Lee, whose only goal was to make the film that he wanted to make and “not let anything happen to it.” Fortunately, “God’s Own Country” was nurtured by the British Film Institute and they allowed this new exciting voice total control.
“I was very blessed working with the BFI who funded it and who allowed me to do that.”
Lee’s Yorkshire-set drama is in some ways a reaction to daytime T.V mischaracterising pastoral life. Lee was frustrated with the trashy propaganda that one could escape the urban humdrum to a “relaxing” country life.
“I can only say as a filmmaker that I like to explore stories that I have an emotional or personal connection with. I grew up on those hills in Yorkshire, and my Dad is a sheep farmer there, and I now live on one of those hills. I have spent my life watching films set in Yorkshire or rural communities and I felt disappointed because I wasn’t getting the perspective that I felt I had. When I came to make this I wanted very much to make the film in the way in which I see it and the way that I see those communities and the people that I know so well.”
Lee reveals that he was never particularly comfortable in front of the camera because he didn’t feel like he was particularly good. He did however, know that he wanted to make films and that he’d have to self fund some short films. Lee says, “I actually went back to work at a scrap yard. And going back to work manually was really good - a real leveller and a real reminder of the world from which I come from.”
Lee confesses that he’s never had any formal training, which is all the more amazing when you see the level of filmmaking acumen in his debut. “God’s Own Country” was shot in chronological order because Lee wanted to help his actors to become totally immersed in their characters.
“One of the crucial things that I learnt from being an actor was the process that an actor goes through and the experience, what it feels like standing in front of a camera and trying to deliver a truthful, vulnerable, open performance. So my role as a director was to make my actors feel like they were totally protected and totally safe and I made sure I would protect them above and beyond anything else. And then with the two boys, we actually started to work about three months before the shoot and started to build the characters together…Shooting chronologically worked in many ways on this film because I felt that each scene properly impacted on the next scene, and to be able to work that way and use the scenes like building blocks was incredibly useful for the actors.”
Lee had been surprised about the reception of the film’s realism, specifically that Johnny’s father Martin (Hart) and grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) would be so accepting of Johnny’s sexuality.
“[It] makes me wonder what people think people are like in rural working class communities. In my experience you know there’s never been an issue with sexuality. They might not be people who sit around and talk about how they feel ENDLESSLY but there’s definitely a sense of love,support and acceptance.”
“God’s Own Country” is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful experience. Lee is a self-confessed “huge fan of the human condition or the human experience.” When I asked Lee finally what kind of films that we can expect from him the future he explained:
“I think the thing that marks us out as a species is the hope that tomorrow might be different from today. And however small there’s always some chink of hope that … will shift. So as a person, that’s a thing that really turns me on. As a viewer, I love films that take me on tough journeys, but I’m not so much of a fan that if a character goes on a tough journey and they kill themselves or they have an unrequited love affair or they are rejected, I kind of find that a bit of a struggle. What I tried to do in “God’s Own Country” was to push these characters through terrible emotional times but because of some tiny chink of hope, they could earn the ending that the film has.
At the conclusion of one particular topic, Lee apologised: “Sorry Blake, that was a super long answer.” I responded to this exciting, unique and passionate debut filmmaker, that he had nothing to be sorry about.