At first glance, it might feel as if time stands still in “God’s Own Country,” Francis Lee’s stirring drama set in the pastures of Yorkshire. While the crops are fertile, Lee finds a young man named Johnny (Josh O’Connor) firmly stuck in the mud, becoming a blackout drunk in the evenings to pass the time when he isn’t running through the motions of tending to his family’s farm. In his early twenties, it’s likely he would feel restless anywhere, but under the thumb of a father (Ian Hart) whose declining heath has increased his responsibilities and falling into a habit of casual sex with strangers, Johnny has become somewhat complicit in a life of routine, too busy putting up his guard and his head down to move forward.
That all changes with the introduction of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian hired hand who’s brought to the farm to help for the season, facilitating the birth of a new gaggle of baby lambs and clearing the past year’s fallow fields for new crops. The character was inspired by a man Lee met himself when he went to work at the scrapyards, following a successful but not necessarily fulfilling career in acting, and although the writer/director insists the film isn’t autobiographical, one senses that while on screen Johnny gradually finds himself disarmed by the immigrant romantically, the writer/director clearly finds himself liberated off of it with Gheorghe’s arrival, infusing the passion of his own creative reawakening into the torrid romance that unfolds between the two men.
The refreshing quality of “God’s Own Country” extends well beyond how Lee is seemingly able to pull the crispness of the cool air in Yorkshire into every frame of the film, telling a gay love story that is unapologetic in its carnality and finding conflict not from the usual sources of small-town opposition or self-acceptance with sexuality but in Johnny’s struggle to open himself up to new experiences and different ways of thinking, only now discovering who he is after having his identity subsumed by where he’s from. Ironically, Lee was so galvanized by the experience of making his feature debut in Yorkshire, the former Londoner moved back there to a life far away from cell reception, but has nonetheless been connecting with audiences around the world since “God’s Own Country” premiered earlier this year at Sundance where it won Best Directing in the World Cinema section. With the film getting a proper U.S. release this week, Lee spoke about how he was able to convey such an intimate relationship drama seemingly unmediated by a camera, putting his leads through the paces of doing actual farmwork and timing the shoot to the change in seasons.
How did this come about?
It was the landscape really that was the starting point for me. I grew up in Yorkshire — and I live there now on those hills — and my dad is still a sheep farmer there. I had this relationship with it that totally informed me physically as well as emotionally. But on one hand, I felt it was incredibly freeing and creative and open and expansive, but on the other, I felt it was problematic and brutal and difficult. I was just trying to work through those things and then like lots of people, I was working through that thing of falling in love and how you have to make yourself open and vulnerable enough to love and be loved and accept intimacy, so those things collided really and I wanted to write a film set in that community with those people that I know, where I’m from, that would heavily feature the landscape and the effect this landscape has on the people, how it informs them.
You’ve said you spent considerable time before filming with your leads developing the characters – did you have strong ideas about them from the start or were they sketches that you could fill in as you got to know the actors?
I spent three months working individually with both the leads, Alec and Josh, and we built those characters from scratch, from the moment they were born until the moment we meet them in the film. As you say, we did it in great detail. The script was written and was the starting point for this work, but we went through the script and we took down all the facts about the characters and who they were and by working so in depth and intensely on their characters, [figured out] how they ended up there.
How much of that was actually working on the physicality of it? It seemed like the body language was a big part of figuring out who these characters were.
One of the things that I wanted [was for] the boys to do all the work in the film with the animals — I knew I never wanted a hand double or a stunt double because I love immersive cinema and I always knew if I was watching this film and we cut to a closeup of a hand delivering a lamb and it wasn’t Alec’s, I would be pulled out of the film at that point. I love truth and authenticity — I think it really empowers the performances, so the boys went off for weeks and weeks and did long shifts on local farms. They would start at seven in the morning and go on to seven at night and learned all these things. But of course, the byproduct of that is that the environment started to affect them physically as well, so they got cold, they got miserable, they got bored and they got wet and that started to impact on their bodies. And we took that through into the characters. The script itself was very detailed — every look and glance and touch was written in the script. But then the [actors are] so incredible, they made it feel so natural.
You shot the film in chronological order, which seems like a real luxury, but would you have to roll with the punches when the weather might not cooperate?
Yeah, I wanted to shoot chronologically for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I knew that this film was going to live or die by that relationship between the two boys, so I wanted to do everything that would help them deliver that. And each of these scenes feel very much like building blocks — one impacts on the other impacts on the other, so I thought that would really help [the actors]. Also because I shot the film in late winter/early spring, I wanted the very subtle light shift between those seasons to happen on screen and the color to slightly shift to reflect this relationship and the dawning of something new like spring. The weather in Yorkshire in spring is incredibly inconsistent, so you can start in the morning with bright sunshine and by 10 o’clock, it can be snowing and by lunchtime, it can be raining and by afternoon, it can be bright sunshine again, so it can be very problematic in terms of the continuity, but because we shot chronologically and we worked very quickly, we could actually contain it.
How did you develop the visual language for this? It looked like it was mostly one camera, but you’d have multiple angles for a given scene, often bringing the audience in closer.
The [cinematographer] Joshua James Richards is an incredible artist…and again, we worked for about three months before the shoot on developing this visual style. We started with a whole bank of references and influences and we narrowed it down and narrowed it down until we were working from a very small palette. I’m a very big fan of rules because I feel if you place rules in a structure, then it pushes you creatively, so each department, including the camera department, had a set of rules very early on. We worked out where the camera could be, how it moved, how it could be lit and we stuck to those rules.
Joshua and myself also worked out that we wanted this to be a very character point-of-view piece, so the camera was always going to be up close and personal with Johnny and we were going to see this world through his eyes. I didn’t want to really see the landscape. I wanted to see the effect the landscape had on the characters, so I think we only have one big wide shot in the entire film and that is there for a very strong and particular reason. Joshua operated [the camera] himself. We only had one and we would do very, very long takes. So we would shoot entire sequences in one take because I knew then what I could do is if Joshua captured everything, I would be able to cut everything and separate it so it looks like we’re changing positions. But of course, we’re not. We’re just following the boys.
It gives the film such a unique rhythm. Was that something that was interesting to work with in the edit room?
Yeah, I worked with an incredible editor, Chris Wyatt, who taught me more about storytelling I think than anybody else has. Very quickly, we understood what this rhythm would be and the structure. Then it just became about polishing it all the time. In the edit, we decided one of the rules would be we would never really repeat something, so we lost about a third of the footage and all the footage was lovely. I never had to cut around anything — a bad performance or a bad take — everything worked. But again, we very much understood that we didn’t want to repeat anything and we wanted to go on this very physical and emotional journey with Johnny.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
To be honest, the most difficult scene to do really was them swimming in the pond because it was the only scene that we shot out of order because it was really cold. I kept putting off shooting it until the end so it would’ve got a bit warmer, but of course, the day came and this idyllic, lovely pastoral view of a mill was shattered when it was snowing at the end of April. That was very problematic because obviously the boys had to get in there and swim and it was actually the only scene the boys had any trepidation of doing because they were worried about the cold.
What’s it been like traveling with the film?
What’s been incredible is the personal reaction people have to the film. People come up to you and meet you afterwards or talk to you or send you a lovely letter or note [about] how they have responded and found resonance in some part or all of the story, whether that be about love or with relationships with parents, whether that be the landscape or the farming. It’s been incredibly overwhelming and lovely to hear people’s stories that seem to be unlocked by watching the film.