February 13, 2018
Francis Lee Completes Transition To Other Side Of The Camera With His BAFTA-Nominated ‘God’s Own Country’
Francis Lee will be keeping an eye on the weather this weekend. At the moment, he’s snowed in at his home in Yorkshire, an event that is becoming all too regular lately. “This is, like, the eighth time we’ve been snowed in in two months,” he notes, “and it just gets really dull.” The snow almost caused him to miss the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) in December, where the film he directed, God’s Own Country, was one of the night’s biggest successes, taking home seven wins from 11 nominations, including the climactic best film award. “My dad had to come up on the Sunday morning in the 4X4 and dig us out,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was touch and go as to whether or not we’d get there.”
A minor hit in the U.K., where it grossed over $1 million at the box office, God’s Own Country was also a sizable international hit on the festival circuit after its world premiere at Sundance. It has also broken down barriers; the story of a lonely farmer’s son (BAFTA Rising Star nominee Josh O’Connor) who falls in love with a migrant Romanian farmhand (Alec Secareanu), Lee’s film has crossed over from the LGTBQ market to the mainstream, where audiences have responded both to its realism and its romanticism. God’s Own Country is fighting in just one category at the weekend—surprisingly, Lee missed out on a nomination for Outstanding Debut—but it’s a measure of the film’s impact that it secured a nomination in the Outstanding British Film category, where Lee’s ultra-low-budget production is competing against the likes of Darkest Hour, Paddington 2 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
What were your initial thoughts when you set out to make a feature film?
To be honest, because I’d never been to film school, and because I’d never done any kind of course on directing or writing or anything, it very much came from a sense of wanting to tell a very specific story. I’d made a short film [The Farmer’s Wife, 2012] and one of my friends said to me, “I think what you have to do now is write a feature film.” I was like, “OK, let me do that then.” And I had been obsessing about this landscape where I grew up ever since being a small child, where my dad is still a sheep farmer. This story became very prominent in my head; I felt compelled to write it, and I literally just sat down and wrote it. I wasn’t working with anybody. I didn’t know what you then did when you finished, or how you turned that into a film. I just wrote it. So it’s been a really interesting journey because I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned to trust my instincts so much and always work from a very truthful, authentic point of view. At every stage, I wasn’t overthinking it. I never thought about the end game. I’ve only ever thought moment-to-moment about the work.
What kind of script was it? Had you looked into screenwriting?
[Laughs] I’ll tell you this much: I’ve only just downloaded Final Draft. So it wasn’t written in Final Draft. I had to format it myself in Word. But, again, it was super interesting, because everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned through reading other scripts, or watching movies, or talking to people. I was aware that the script that I’d written was slightly unusual because there was an awful lot of detail in the descriptions of the world and the sounds and the physicality of the acting. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue. But I pushed through with that and I kept pushing through, going, “No, this is how I see it.” And I always knew I would never get the chance to make my first feature again, so it was super important for this first film that I got to tell it the way I wanted to tell it. So I kept being very pedantic with that idea: if we’re going to make this film, this is what it’s going to be like.
You did a little bit of of TV work in the ’90s and early 2000s. Had you considered yourself to be an actor up to that point?
I’d given up acting by then. I’d fallen out of love with it. I’d never felt very comfortable with it, and I’d always known I wanted to write and tell stories. I just never felt confident enough to do it. I had to wait until I got to that significant age [Lee is now in his late forties] and just get on with it. I gave acting up before I made the short film. I got a job in a salvage yard kind of in order to finance that first short film and also to support me while I wrote this feature film. To be honest, acting was always a bit of a diversion rather than a calling—as I say, for me, it was always about telling my own stories and directing film. I just didn’t come from a background where that felt like a viable career option. There was nobody I knew who’d ever done that, and the people I met who had done that came from a very different background than me. So it took me awhile to get that confidence up.
What were your biggest fears going into this project?
That’s a really interesting question, because I don’t know if I ever thought about them. I think I just blocked them all out. It wasn’t like I was overly confident at all. I felt comfortable. I felt if I just worked moment-to-moment and had an arc of what I was doing, then we’d be OK. And I created an environment. Y’know, I love prep. I like being safe, so I worked both with the lead actors for three months before we shot the film on their characters so I knew that, when we came to shoot the film, they would be super prepared. We would all know everything we needed to know. I worked with the cinematographer for three months before we shot the film so, again, we would be very, very prepared with meticulous plans in terms of what we were trying to say and do. I was a huge fan of rules, so each department had a set of quite strong rules. The cinematographer worked out where the camera would be, how it could move, what lenses there could be, what lighting there could be, and that was it. We could never deviate from that, because I felt that would keep us safe and it would also push us if we limited ourselves artistically. Because I knew it was going to be a super tough shoot. You’re dealing with animals, you’ve got locations you can’t actually get the equipment to—you have to haul it for an hour each way. The weather was going to be terrible. So it was very much about putting in safety around it. And I never really thought about it. I just talked about the work. I was very blinkered. I never really thought about what would happen to the film, who would see it, where it would go.
You mentioned some quite big challenges there—animals, weather, locations. What was the biggest?
If you’re a writer-director and you’ve got a very strong idea of what your film will sound like, look like, why you’re making it, your biggest challenge is to make sure that everyone is always understanding that, and working on the same page, and everybody is always pushing forward in the same direction. I am very meticulous and detailed and precise and I mine things for truth and authenticity, whether that be a costume or a prop or whatever it is. It was very much about underpinning that and making sure everybody was trying to work and get inside my head to create the thing. And that’s a very big challenge, because there tends to be a standard of the way people make films. Because I’ve never trained, I didn’t understand that, but I’d worked out how to make this film and it felt like the best way to do it. So I was encouraging people to come on that journey.
Did you make any compromises along the way?
We made one compromise, which was adding slightly more musical soundtrack than I had envisaged. It was something I’d never envisaged, and it was difficult, but I worked with a wonderful music supervisor who very gently introduced me to some sounds and some music. I identified some places where I felt that it could help, and it was actually a really positive experience, because I think the more bits of score that are in there really help, and enhance, and do something very different.
Where did you get that note from?
That would have been from the BFI.
How long was the process from start to finish?
I wrote it in 2013, and then there were lots of hiatuses. First, I wrote the film. Then my friend who encouraged me to write it, without telling me, sent it to my friend who was an agent. She read it. She loved it. She rang me up and said, “I think I should be your agent.” I said, “Great.” She then spent a year sending that script around. I met lots and lots of producers and production companies who all said, “We really love this writing. What else are you working on?” And I said, “I want to make this.” And they said, “Well, it’s a small budget and we’re not sure who the audience is, but we love your writing.” Then, after a year of that, I found out about this scheme called iFeatures, so I applied to that and got on, which is this development scheme for low-budget films. We got down to the last five projects, and they decided they didn’t want to take it any further, so that [added] another year. Then, quickly afterwards, because they are a producing partner of iFeatures, the BFI rang me up and said, “We’d love to make your film.” I then went to them and the funding was kind of in place by May 2015. But then I had to wait another year for lambing season. So if you take all of those things out of the equation, it was quite quick. If you put them in, it was a bit long.
When did you realize you had something special?
That’s a really good question. I knew that what those boys were doing was incredible work because what they both were doing on screen—and what I was seeing—felt incredibly truthful and raw and difficult, but also really satisfying. I knew that what we were shooting was looking great. I knew that I had worked really super hard on the script and it all was there, and I was lucky enough to shoot the entire script and [had only] dropped [one] scene. I had a brilliant time with the editor Chris Wyatt, and that felt very organic and natural and not problematic. I remember—again, because I’d not made a film before—that everybody kept telling me, “When you go into the edit, you have to watch for this thing called The Editor’s Assembly. It’s the whole film put together, and you’ll just cry. You’ll feel you hadn’t got the film and you’re a huge failure.” Now, I hadn’t watched any of the rushes or anything. I’d just tried to stay in the shooting mode rather than looking at what we were shooting, and I remember saying to Chris, “Oh, gosh, tomorrow we’re going to watch assembly. I’m going to bring a bottle of gin.” And he was like, “Oh, OK. It’s not that bad. Come on over.” So I went over, and we watched it, and we both looked at each other and went, “That isn’t bad!” It worked, and the emotion behind it worked, and it was the film I wanted to make. I knew all of those things, but I did not have a clue that it would become a huge, massive, resonating film around the world.
The film has had a great festival life. How do you determine that?
Again, I’m very controlling and involved, so I looked at the festivals and I knew there were five top film festivals in the world. I looked at Sundance, and it was really snowy and everyone was in snow boots and jeans and it looked kind of cool. There was no one in suits—I didn’t see any of that—and I felt I would be really comfortable there, personally. And then I looked at the kind of films that they show and there’s obviously an interest in the kind of world that I’d created, so I pushed very heavily for a premiere at Sundance. But the other festival that I was very keen on—again, because it felt right at the time—was Berlin, so I pushed heavily on that, and I was very, very lucky to play both.
What’s the most common question you’ve heard in the last twelve months?
One thing we get asked, that we think is really funny and everybody always asks Alec, is “Are you really from Romania?”
Does anything prepare you for being on the road with a film like this?
No. It really doesn’t. All I did was try to think about the work and make sure that the work is what I wanted it to be and as polished as it could be. I always thought, “If I could make this film and stand next to it and say, ‘This is the film I wanted to make and I made it in the way I wanted to make it,’ that would be the success to me. So everything on top of that has been a real bonus and a surprise, but because of the success of this film, it has meant for literally 12 months, all I’ve done is promote it around the world and talked to distributors and talked to festivals and do interviews, and go to events and go to awards ceremonies. That is literally what I’ve done for 12 months and in my head, I never thought that is what would happen. But I think it’s super helped the awareness of the film.
Josh and Alec have been so brilliantly supportive, and they’ve come to everything they can. We’ve created this incredible bond between us. They’ve been a massive support. But…I was just saying last night, I’ve not spent more than six nights in a row in my house in 12 months. And that’s quite hard to get your head around.
What would you say to a filmmaker like yourself, just starting out?
I would say two things. I’d say, “A no doesn’t mean a no forever. It’s only a no for now.” And I would say, “Always be vigorous with the truth.” If you’re always telling the truth in your stories, you won’t go far wrong.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a film and working with Iain Canning at See-saw on that. [I get] lots of scripts from people, from agents and stuff. And, for a while, there wasn’t anything really, that really properly resonated with me, but recently there’s been a couple. I’m kind of also excited to work on scripts with writers, with me directing somebody’s else’s work, or a combination of our work on scripts, so there’s a couple of those that I probably am going to be pursuing. It’s a really interesting position to be in. Because they tell me that God’s Own Country is the most successful U.K. debut film for years, in terms of box office and critical acclaim. What that has meant is that a lot of [industry] people are saying yes [to me], but what I want to make sure is that I’m being rigorous with myself, so that the work is still good. To me, it’s not a time-frame thing. It’s much more about saying, “Is this right? Are we sure we’ve got the truth of this? Is this the right story? Are these characters resonant?”— and then being very rigorous with that. Obviously, I want to capitalize on the opportunity that this film has given me, but I also want to make sure I’m still making films that I feel I can stand next to. It’s about being rigorous with the truth.