Writer-Director Francis Lee was greeted by an appreciative stomping of feet amongst the applause from NFTS students who’d just watched his acclaimed film, God’s Own Country. Audiences around the world have been falling in love with the film; a Yorkshire set romance between a sheep farmer and a Romanian migrant worker.
God’s Own Country premiered at Sundance, where Francis won the directing award. It has gone on to win Best Film at Edinburgh, Berlin and Dinard. It is Francis’s first film as a director, having been an actor for twenty years. In a Q&A with NFTS screenwriting and script development tutor Ludo Smolski, Francis explained how he came to make the film.
“Since I was a small child I always knew I wanted to write,” Francis recalled, “I was interested in stories, characters, but I wasn’t confident that I could do it.” “So what changed?” Ludo asked, “I got older!” Francis laughed – “Rather than getting a sports car for a mid-life crisis I wrote a script! I quit acting and got a job in a salvage yard to earn enough money to make a short film. And I realised I was very comfortable with writing.”
After making his first short film The Farmer's Wife, Francis wrote the script for God’s Own Country. The film is rooted in the landscape where he grew up. Describing the countryside where his father still farms, Francis said “the landscape informed who I was emotionally and physically. It felt incredibly creative and freeing, but also isolating and brutal and difficult, and I wanted to investigate those things.” Adding, “I also wanted to write about how difficult it is to be vulnerable enough to be loved. I just felt compelled to write this story.”
Finding an agent through a friend who loved the script, Francis submitted it for i-features. It was shortlisted but didn’t make the final three. But to his delight the BFI contacted him separately to say how much they believed in the project and wanted to fund it themselves.
Francis told the students that he was committed to making the film he wanted to make “a film that was me through and through. So I looked for people in the cast and crew who would support that and who wanted to work in the same way. For the intensity of the film it was super important that the Cinematographer and Boom Operator, for example, were not just brilliant at their craft, but also people the actors could trust as they were going to be so physically close to them during emotional and intimate scenes on the shoot".
Francis spent a lot of time with the actors, who were enthusiastic about his way of working to build the characters. So that they understood the authenticity of the farming life, lead actors Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu spent weeks working on local farms in Yorkshire. “They did long shifts,” Francis, a farmer’s son himself, said admiringly, “And from getting cold and tired and wet they could bring that into the physicality of their roles.”
Francis is full of praise for all the actors, but said “they weren’t allowed to deviate from the script. As a writer I’m very meticulous!” He explained that he pared back the dialogue as much as possible, so that emotions and the developing romance could be told in glances.
“I love using sound for storytelling as much as the visuals” Francis told students, “I find music can be very ‘signposting’ and so I wanted the sounds in this to be very natural and add to the immersive quality of the film. We recorded hours of atmos at the locations, stripped it out and then built it back up. It’s very orchestrated. Each sound has a significance in terms of tone, emotion and storytelling. For example, a new wind sounds arrives when Gheorghe appears, and it is always there in the background when he’s there, then when he goes there’s a shadow of it, like a ghost, to remind Johnny that something is missing.” Every bird song was carefully selected - “For me curlews are a harbinger of Spring,” Francis revealed, “so we hear one when Johnny and Gheorghe first touch – a sign of new life, like the Spring.” God’s Own Country has just won the British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for best Sound Designer for Anna Bertmark. The film is nominated for a further 10 BIFAs, the results will be announced later in December.
Talking about his editor, Chris Wyatt, Francis said he was “Brilliant and taught me more about storytelling than anyone. Some days he’d go ‘I’ve done this, but don’t panic, just watch it’, and I’d always go ‘Oh, that’s fantastic!’ I'd trust Chris with my life. Again he is not just an incredible artist, but a true friend”
Francis chose to work with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, because he loved how in the previous film Joshua had shot, he connected the characters and the landscape. Talking about the cinematography, Francis said how in the early part of the film Johnny is in single frames, moving to being in shot with Gheorghe as their relationship develops. “And the colour palette goes from colder - the end of winter - at the beginning to warm and more hopeful at the end - the beginning of Spring. It's all very subtle. Anything I could do to enhance the tone, atmosphere, layering in the story, I did" Francis said.
Asked by one of the students about the ending of the film, Francis concluded, “I’m a big fan of hope.”
God’s Own Country is distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment and will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital in January (you can pre-order your copy at http://www.godsowncountry.film/watch-at-home/). Before its Home Entertainment release early next year there are still chances to see it in selected cinemas, including some special screenings in association with Attitude coming up on Sunday 3rd December. Tickets are subject to availability and more information about these screenings can be found here : http://attitude.co.uk/see-acclaimed-gay-film-gods-own-country-in-cinemas/