Francis Lee’s second feature film – Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan – should have been coming out in 2020, but under the circumstances, we don’t know when that will be. (Editor note: We have since learned it will screen at this year’s TIFF and Telluride Film Festival)
We caught up with him to discuss his debut feature film God’s Own Country, which was a huge hit on the festival circuit in 2017 and did very well financially, for an independent low-budget film.
The film is about a young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) in Yorkshire who is lonely and self-destructive. His life is transformed by the arrival of a Romanian itinerant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Francis Lee also grew up on a farm in Yorkshire, so the setting was very personal to him.
We asked Lee about the scriptwriting process, following through on decisions on-set (as a debut director), personal connections to what you’re making and the differences between a first and second feature film.
Could you tell me a bit about what you were doing before God’s Own Country and how you made the transition into writing and directing your first feature?
I’d always knew it was something that I wanted to do. But I’d never seen anyone from my background or where I was from who was able to achieve something that seemed unachievable. So I went and trained as an actor in London and I worked as an actor for twenty years. But it never felt particularly like the thing I should be doing and I wasn’t particularly good at it. I was lucky and got some work, but I don’t think I was very good. I’d continued to have this idea of writing, telling stories visually, I was a really obsessive stills photographer, so I always felt like I was looking at the world through a lens. I always told stories in my head and thought about stories and characters in my head. And then I got to a significant birthday, I got to 40 and thought “If I’m going to do this, I kind of need to do it.”
I’d given up acting by this point and got a job as a scrapyard to pay my rent. I wrote a short film, I saved up for a year, working every shift in this junkyard to get the money to make this short film. And I made it and felt very at home doing that, I felt comfortable and excited by it and after I’d made that short film a friend said to me “I think what you do now is you write a feature film, I think that’s the next step” and I was like; “Oh OK, cool.” I’d had this idea, so I sat down and wrote this script and that was God’s Own Country. I guess after that it was about to trying to work out how you make a film. I didn’t know about producers or finance, so I had to learn all of that side of it. I eventually got funding from the BFI and Creative England to make God’s Own Country.
Do you think your short film helped you in getting the funding to make a feature?
No, I don’t. I wrote God’s Own Country and very luckily, just by chance really….my friend who had said to me “I think you need to write a feature film” – he didn’t tell me this, but he sent it to a friend of his who was an agent for writers and directors. She read it and then rang me out of the blue and said, “I think this is really good and I think I should be your agent.” Then I made another short film. The short films were fine and they played festivals, but they were never picked out as “this man has a real vision” or “this is an exciting new talent.” What got me the funding was the script and the way in which I talked about it and connected to it. Very early on I realised that as a filmmaker and a storyteller, I tell very personal stories that I feel very connected to or things that I’m working out for myself. I think that’s what excited the funders, that this was a story that was so personal.
Josh O’Connor has said that the script was extremely precise and detailed and that the finished product is almost identical to the shooting script. How long did it take you get to that point – the drafting and refining process to get to the point where it could be transformed into the finished product as is?
So in the first draft of the script, there is the Johnny character who lives on the farm with his grandma and his Dad and all of that was there. But the person who came to work on the farm for lambing season was actually a character called Kevin and he was from Leicester. So that was the first version of the script. But I’d carried on working in this scrapyard right up until the first day of official prep on God’s Own Country because I just didn’t have any money. And a Romanian guy came to work there and we became really good friends and he’d moved to this country like so many other people from Eastern Europe for a better life for him and his wife. I was just really fascinated by his story and his experiences of coming to this country and what reactions he’d had. That really clicked with me because I knew I always wanted that character to be an outsider and then it really clicked with me that it would be brilliant if he was from Romania. So I rewrote the script and turned Kevin into Gheorghe, but the structure of the script and the story was pretty much the same.
At that point, after making two short films and a year of my agent sending out God’s Own Country and having meetings with all these producers who told me how much they loved the script and how much they loved the world, but then they would always ask “what else are you working on?” and I always say “but I want to make this film” and they would say “well you know it’s a gay story, it’s a small audience, small budget, it’s not really going to do much.” But I stuck to it.
And then I applied to a programme here in the UK called iFeatures, which is a development programme for microbudget films. I was accepted and I think that programme was for around a year and through that year, I carried on working on the script. I worked with a brilliant script editor, who is still my script editor today called Anna Seifert-Speck. What we did with the script was really hone the emotional beats, really dig deep and think “is this the truth? Is this what we want to say?”
I’m a very prescriptive writer-filmmaker and so my scripts are incredibly detailed. That detail was always there. So I would describe not just the room, but I would describe the smell of it, or the colours of it, every single detail. And I guess what Josh is referring to in the script is that it’s very detailed in terms of what the characters do. So every glance, every touch, every gesture was written into the script because that’s the only way I see it really.
I wrote the first draft of God’s Own Country in 2013 and I shot it in 2016, particularly working on the iFeatures programme with Anna, I don’t know how many drafts we did. But we definitely dug into it, none of the scenes particularly changed, it was just making sure that everything was very truthful and precise.
What gave you the confidence to follow through on that precise detail on set, even though it was your debut feature film? I’m wondering if the fact that you had waited until you were a bit older, if that had anything to do with you feeling a bit more comfortable in your skin on set and having the confidence to follow through with what you wanted, your desires for your script?
I think it was partially age. I think it was also the fact that I didn’t know how else to do it. I’d never been to film school, I’d never done any courses on filmmaking or directing or writing or anything. So it all came from instinct really and thinking about how I understood it and what I was trying to say and how I was trying to do it. That was the only thing I had, I had nothing else to fall back on. I didn’t have a technical knowledge of filmmaking or any formula. I just felt that I understood these characters and this world from my point of view and that’s what kept me safe really. Always going back and thinking “do I believe this? Is this truthful? why is this important? why am I doing this?” And I also thought, you only ever get to make your first feature film once and I might never make another film. Therefore, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it, because it’s such a privileged position to be in and I didn’t take it for granted. I thought “if I’m only ever going to make one film, I’m going to make sure that my DNA is in every single detail.”
I want to ask you about the collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards. One of the most important aspects of the film is the way that the camera keeps so close to Johnny and his experience throughout, it has an intimacy as you keep tight on him all the way through. We only get one big landscape shot, which has a huge impact because it’s a rare shot of a wide expanse of landscape. So how was the collaborative process with him?
It was great. I always believe in prep, so I try to spend as much time as I possibly can working with the HODs and the actors for as long as I can before we get to the shoot. I think I worked with Joshua for maybe four or five months before the shoot. I’d been very drawn to Joshua’s work, I think he’d only shot one feature film at that point, called Songs My Brothers Taught Me (directed by Chloe Zhao, Richards also shot The Rider) and I really loved the way it felt like the camera was responding and reacting to the scenes, to the emotions. So I was drawn to him, we met and we got on very well. We just talked about it a lot. One of my big things was I didn’t want to show the landscape. Every film I’d seen in rural locations had always relied on big, wide landscape shots and what I actually wanted to show was the effect of the landscape on the characters, to see the mud, to see the rain, to see that effect on them.
Joshua and I started off and we had tons and tons of references, films that we would share with each other and talk about, we’d talk about how they looked and what the camera was doing. We looked at photographs and paintings, so much over that period and we just kept whittling down those references, until we ended up with a few core images and maybe one film so that we could then go; “that is the landscape of our film.” I love character-driven or point-of-view stories, so it was always really important to me that we saw this world through the eyes of Johnny and went through this experience with him. Sometimes that would be lovely and wonderful and other times it would be painful, but I knew that I didn’t want to flinch away from that character. So it became really obvious that the camera would have to be very up-close-and-personal all the time and almost act as a shadow on Johnny’s shoulder. Joshua isn’t just a wonderful cinematographer, but he’s a really wonderful, sensitive man. What was so wonderful to see was how he built such a brilliant bond with both Josh and Alec, all the actors, but particularly Josh and Alec, because he literally was so close to them physically all the time.
I’m a big fan of rules on the film set, in each department, so Joshua and me came up with a set of rules about where the camera could be, how it could move, what it would do and we stuck to those rules. Because I knew that if we had rules and we stuck to them, then they would keep us safe and they would push us creatively, when we got somewhere and we were like; “do you know what, we could do this?” and then we’d go “no, no, no we can’t do that, that isn’t in our rules and we can’t explain it, so how do we creatively make this work?”
Why did you choose to keep Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu separate before filming, rather than rehearsing with them together so they could get comfortable with one another?
I worked with both Josh and Alec separately for maybe five months before the shoot and we built their characters from scratch. We made sure we knew exactly who they were, where they’d come from, we knew every single detail about their lives, from the moment they were born to the moment we first meet them in the film. They did meet and they did work together a little bit. But I wanted to keep them separate though, because I wanted that tension and I wanted to save that for the camera. I wanted that tension of when you first meet somebody and you might be a bit nervous, or you might be trying to suss them out. So the only times they did meet was when we rehearsed the intimate scenes, but beyond that, I made them live separately. Josh lived up on the hills in a cottage and Alec lived down in a hotel in the town, but as soon as they had met on camera and their characters started to get on, I moved them both into the cottage together. They built this fantastic…it almost mirrored the relationship you see onscreen really, their friendship grew at the same rate as their relationship onscreen. Because I shot the film chronologically, it all worked it that sense. I just thought if they don’t know each other that well when they meet on camera, there’s gonna be a bit of a frisson or a bit of a tension or a bit of nervousness or something.
The casting of Ian Hart and Gemma Jones (as Johnny’s father and grandmother) is so important because their relationship with Johnny is one of the central features of the film. Why did you want those particular actors and how did you all work together once they were on set?
Ian Hart I’ve always been a huge admirer of, I think he’s a wonderful actor. I didn’t want someone who looked decrepit, I didn’t want someone who looked like a really old Dad, I wanted someone who looked like he was getting old before his time and I thought we could do that with Ian. Then I met him and realized that Ian is not only a wonderful person to be around, but very committed to the way in which he works – doing the research, wanting to do the character work, wanting to be very involved in that sense. So that was just wonderful.
And who doesn’t love Gemma Jones? I liked Gemma because she’s got a wonderful level of warmth and then we had to work on the spikiness within that warmth. Again, she was very committed to working in the way we wanted to work. The biggest joy for me in making that film was being on-set with those actors, we got on so well, it was a dream really. They were very committed to me and to the film and they trusted me massively and I didn’t betray that trust, I wanted to honour their commitment.
Do you think for a first film in particular, it’s useful to have a personal connection to what you’re writing, not necessarily autobiographical, but for example in your case, the setting is particularly personal to you. Do you think that’s a useful starting point for a first feature, if you can reference something personal from your own life?
I can’t talk for anybody else because I only know my process and how I work. There’s probably been incredible first feature films that have got very little to do with the people who are making them. I think the question that you should probably ask yourself is; “why are you the person to tell this story? Why you and no one else?” Whether that be a personal story or not, I think it’s good to be rigorous because making a film is so hard. So I think you need to really understand why you’re the best person to tell that story and why you’re telling that story.
Can you imagine directing something that you hadn’t written?
I shouldn’t be so blasé. Nothing has come up yet where I’ve thought; “great, just give me the script and I’ll direct it.” There hasn’t been anything yet.
What differences did notice between your first and second feature? In your case, it’s probably a bigger scale and bigger budget on Ammonite (starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) and what lessons did you learn from your first that you could apply to your second?
Yes, very different, in terms of budget and scale and famous people.
What did I learn? [thinks for a moment] You know what, I just did the same thing that I did on the first, to be honest. I was as rigorous and the script was as prescriptive. Although people might not realise it, the second film is again a very personal story. And I was just as rigorous, we shot as much as possible (from the original shooting script) and again, mostly in chronological order. I worked with the actors, again, for about six months before the shoot, building their characters. I worked with the cinematographer, who is amazing – a man called Stéphane Fontaine – for a good four months before the shoot. I stuck with the idea of detail like I did in the first film, in terms of the environment and everything else and constantly mined it for the truth.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I guess I learned to trust my instincts.
It’s gratifying to hear that you could apply that exact same process to something on a bigger scale.
It was a lot harder. I’m was a lot, lot harder to do it on a bigger scale, but it’s still possible. And I think that’s what was achieved, ultimately – that rigour and that level of detail.