Francis Lee: international farmers’ union

There are moments in God’s Own Country that might leave urban softies queasy but Yorkshire film-maker Francis Lee says they were essential to his rural love story

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I meet Francis Lee in the restaurant of the Mercure Hotel, which towers above Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, an urban space filled with buses and trams, shoppers and workers out on their lunch. It’s a picture of city life that couldn’t be further away from the world that Lee has brought to the screen in his first full-length feature film, God’s Own Country. Set on a windswept farm in the West Yorkshire Pennines, it is a world he knows well because he grew up in a place a lot like it.

“It totally informed who I was, physically and emotionally,” explains Lee about the landscape he grew up in. “It was in equal measures a freeing, creative, expansive place but also, because of those hills, because of the weather, it also felt difficult and isolating and problematic.”

“Scenes with animals, like the lambing and the skinning of the lamb, were done in one take.”

Lee left that world when he was 20 and moved to London to become an actor but after a consistent career in TV, film and theatre he left all that behind as well to turn his attention to a longstanding ambition – to tell stories. “I’d never been confident enough to sit down and write anything,” says Lee, 48, who’s about to embark on a tour of UK cinemas to promote the film he has written and directed. “And no way had I’d been confident enough to say I wanted to direct. I’d never been to film school or done a directing course or anything like that. But I’d always been an avid still photographer so I’d always seen the world through a lens, if you like. And then I got to a certain age and I thought, well, if I’m going to do it I kind of have to do it now.”

Working in a “high-end scrapyard” to make ends meet, Lee made a couple of short films and wrote the script for God’s Own Country. Finding the money to make the film was a hard task task in a business he describes as “risk-averse”. It took a belief that no doesn’t necessarily mean
no forever.

“Making a film is tough. It’s tough because of the finance really and the amount of people who get involved. So I was fortunate when the British Film Institute came on board because they allowed me to make the film I wanted to make in the way I wanted to make it.”

God’s Own Country centres on an emotionally isolated young man, Johnny Saxby, who spends his days working on the family farm and his nights getting half cut down the local pub. Into his bleak and bitter world comes a handsome Romanian farm hand whose appearance transforms Johnny’s life.

“I was thinking about falling in love and how difficult it is – having to make yourself vulnerable, to love and be loved and accept love.”

Was the fact that that love involved two men a barrier to the film getting made? Lee thinks not, while recognising that “there’s always an issue if you’ve got something in a film that isn’t classed as totally mainstream”. But he says that although it was important that the central relationship was between two men, “this was always going to be about the experience of falling in love, and that felt like an emotion that many people, perhaps all of us to a certain extent, regardless of background, or sexuality or colour, have experience of”.

Indeed, apart from Johnny’s mother raising an eyebrow when she discovers a used condom on her son’s floor, the gay aspect of the story goes largely unremarked upon and any discrimination that raises its ugly head is directed towards the migrant worker, Gheorghe. The inclusion of a Romanian character feels pertinent given these troubled times when immigration is high on the agenda, though Lee insists he didn’t set out to make an overtly political film.

“Brexit wasn’t even on the cards when I wrote it but lots of us have experienced discrimination for all kinds of reasons and I tried to make that experience personal. When I was writing this I always knew I wanted this character to be an outsider. Then I met this Romanian at the scrapyard where I was working. He had moved to the UK for all the reasons that anybody would, like he wanted a better life for his wife and family.

“I was shocked by his experience of coming to my country, by the xenophobia that he’d experienced, but I was also really fascinated by the way in which he dealt with it. And then I started to read about Romania and got very involved in the culture and the history and worked out that this character [Gheorghe] could come from a similar – different but similar – background to Johnny. There are farms like this farm in Transylvania and I thought that might be quite interesting in that these two characters are a bit of a mirror for each other but very different culturally and emotionally.”

Filming took place during lambing season on a farm near Keighley, not far from where Lee’s own father still runs a farm. Before any footage was shot both lead actors spent two weeks working on separate farms to learn the skills they would then put into practice in the movie. Lee insisted that it was the actors themselves who undertook the farming on screen, so when you see Gheorghe helping to bring a lamb into the world, it’s actor Alec Secareanu doing this. Besides feeling duty-bound to get these scenes right because of his family connections, Lee also felt it was important to maintain the viewer’s relationship with the film.

“If I was watching this film and we suddenly go to this scene where the lamb is being born and I know it’s someone else’s hand, I’m not going to be able to be fully immersed in it. They were so brilliant at this and all of those scenes with the animals, like the skinning of the lamb, were done all in one take.”

Ah yes, the skinning of the lamb. The film doesn’t shy away from revealing the harsh everyday practicalities of rural life. Did showing such harsh brutality on screen worry Lee at all?

“No,” he says flatly. “If you work with animals or you have animals then you are going to have dead animals at some point, or they are there for a purpose. It’s not anything that I’ve ever been squeamish of and to me it feels so intrinsically part of that world that it would have felt odd not to have included it.”

God’s Own Country has gone on to win a number of festival awards, including in Edinburgh and Berlin, and critics in the UK have been heaping praise upon it, so what does Lee put the success down to? He squirms, still a little taken aback it has chimed so well with audiences.

“I wanted to open up a window into a world that I knew very well. And as that has resonated with people, it feels very much like when they see the film it’s very personal to them. They feel like they’ve discovered it and it’s part of them – and that’s very lovely.”

God’s Own Country is in cinemas now. Read a review of the film here.

Photo: Agatha A Nitecka 

Alec Secareanu

Joining Francis Lee to talk about the film was one of its stars, Alec Secareanu, who plays the farm hand Gheorghe. The 32 year old attended the Romanian University for Theatre and, after graduating, went on to do a number of independent theatre roles as well as some film and TV in his home country.

On preparing for the film 
It was very important for us from the beginning to be attentive to the detail and be as truthful to characters and the story as possible. So we [Secareanu and Josh O’Connor, who plays Johnny] worked on farms for two weeks before we started shooting. We had long shifts from 5am until late in the evening and we learnt how to give injections, how to cut hooves, give them vitamins and how to birth lambs and all that stuff.

On birthing the lamb
When I birthed the lamb I was in character and my character is supposed to be very processed and down to earth – he’s just doing the thing he set out to do. So I birthed the lamb and, after we filmed it, I got very emotional, I had to take a moment. It was a
lot of pressure. I had two lives in my hand,
so I delivered the scene as the character and then I had to take a moment for myself to have a little cry.

On playing – and being – a Romanian
Nobody is born hating another person so if you end up hating another person for his sexuality or for his nationality or his colour you are just learning what someone is teaching you. I live there, I know the people from Romania and it’s a beautiful country and we have a lot of good people over there. Of course, like every society, we have bad people too, but it’s a lot about education and how Romanian people are shown in the eyes of British people and it’s not always accurate.

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