Before shooting God’s Own Country, his Yorkshire-set gay drama about a young farmer and a migrant worker, Francis Lee sent his cast to work on the land, he tells Alistair Harkness
Thanks to the lengthy lag between a film’s production and its release, there’s always a chance that some big event will come along and change its meaning. With writer/director Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, that happened with Brexit.
Shot last April, this same-sex love story – about an emotionally closed-off Yorkshire farmer whose life is transformed when he falls for a Romanian migrant worker – became a more politically charged movie, literally overnight. “Francis jokingly called me on the day of the result and was like, ‘Isn’t it weird that our film is now like a period film,” says Josh O’Connor, who stars as Johnny, the film’s protagonist.
“It was very weird,” confirms Lee, a former jobbing actor making his directorial debut. “I was working with my editor when Brexit happened. We’d done a cut of the film and watched it on the morning the result was announced and we both were like, ‘Oh, this film means something slightly different. There’s another dimension here.’”
If the film now feels like a lament for some of the benefits of multiculturalism that Britain has thrown away, it started off as a much more personal story for Lee, who grew up on a farm but drew inspiration too from the job he took after giving up acting to concentrate on launching his filmmaking career.
“I got a job in a scrapyard because I had no money and one of the guys I worked with was from Romania,” he elaborates. “We became good friends. He’d come to this country to earn money to send home to build a better life for his family. I was quite shocked by how he had been treated by people with casual xenophobia, as well as pointed xenophobia, and how he reacted to it emotionally. So when I was writing this I knew I wanted that character [named Gheorghe in the film] to come from outside and to be an outsider, that’s why he became Romanian.”
To play Gheorghe, Lee cast Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, and because he didn’t want to use any body doubles during the farming scenes, he promptly sent him to work on his father’s farm as part of an intensive agricultural boot camp.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” says O’Connor, who also spent a couple of weeks working on a farm, in his case the one they used for filming.
“We had the schedule of a farmer,” chips in Sacareanu, grimacing a little at the memory. “We were doing very, very long shifts.”
For O’Connor, who grew up in a family of artists in Gloucestershire, the exhausting routine was tough going, especially having just shot TV show The Durrells in the relative luxury of Corfu. For Sacareanu, who’d come off the back of playing Tyler Durden in a Bucharest stage production of Fight Club, the unpredictability of the weather was difficult to endure.
“In Yorkshire, spring is not spring,” he says. “The weather was insane every single day. We had rain and hail and snow. There were storms and then the sun would come out for ten minutes. I was a bit depressed for the first few weeks, but I tried to use that to build my character, because I was thinking that maybe when Gheorghe first came to the UK, he went through the same thing. At the same time, I tried to embrace this because [in the script] Gheorghe feels very good in this kind of environment. He likes working outside and taking care of the animals.”
Likewise O’Connor used the environment to build his character, who’s practically monosyllabic. “When I first read the script the thing that shone out for me – and for me this is what the story is about – is how you meet these two characters, one of whom [Gheorghe] has a hopeful and open view on the world, and Johnny, who doesn’t. Francis and I had lots of chats in the lead up to the shoot about how we can show, in a visual way, that this guy is closed off and unavailable.” Inspired by what he was witnessing (and experiencing) on the farm, O’Connor decided that in the first half of the film Johnny should be hunched over, hood up, battling the constant rain. “He has no room to be vulnerable, no room to be emotionally connected to the world or other people,” he says. But as his relationship with Gheorghe develops, O’Connor physically transforms, opening up as Johnny starts taking in more of his surroundings and looking more at the world. “That was something we wanted to get across from day one,” says O’Connor.
The sex scenes transformed as well. At the start of the film, Johnny’s various encounters are almost animalistic in nature, but when he meets Gheorghe, sex starts being portrayed in a much more tender way – albeit with the same matter-of-fact detail as everything else in the film. “It’s about him discovering intimacy,” says Lee. “And the way that I depicted that was through the physical side of their relationship. I knew I didn’t want to tell a coming out story. That’s been covered quite a lot. I wanted to do a film about how difficult it is to love and be loved.”
The fact it’s a same sex relationship is not a big deal in other words, even if explicit depictions of male same-sex relationships are still rare enough in mainstream cinema to make it a talking point. “Yes I’m surprised it’s still a big talking point,” agrees Lee.
Maybe with Moonlight winning the Oscar for best film this year, though, the conversation will finally move on. “I think this year is incredibly rich in films that deal with same sex relationships,” says Lee, pointing to Moonlight, but also name-checking Luca Guadagnino’s forthcoming Call Me By Your Name and Sebastián Lelio’s trans story A Fantastic Woman. “They don’t feel like niche films. Hopefully people will go and see them because they’re great films in their own right.” The same might be said for God’s Own Country.
God’s Own Country is in cinemas from Friday.