Surrendering any preconceived notions about their characters, the stars of God’s Own Country, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu, underwent a rigorous process, orchestrated by director Francis Lee, that allowed them to construct the roles in incredible detail before setting foot on set.
Fresh reactions, real nervousness, and strict loyalty to the screenplay were the demands of the first-time feature helmer—who gave up the acting craft the moment he started writing his first short film.
Being a former performer, Lee is conscious that vulnerability and the ability for true transformation are a thespian’s most valuable currency. In order to foster these, his modus operandi was carefully structured to provide safety and inspire confidence in his actors, who appear on screen exposing bare skins and even barer souls. Lee manages to make God’s Own Country is delicately stunning with a masculine essence that doesn’t aim to conquer, but to seduce.
Yorkshire, England acts as the divine landscape in this tender romance between a sheep farmer, John (O’Connor), and a Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe (Secareanu). Frustrated by his secluded and minimalist life, John deals in animalistic pleasure rather than intimacy, but in Gheorghe’s the emotional dynamic he’s known changes. His rugged emotional terrain cedes to the soft touch of a man who speaks in embraces more than words. Gheorghe’s role is no longer just to work in the farm now that John’s father is no longer able to, but also to show the brooding young man there is another way to connect.
At Sundance earlier this year, where he won the World Cinema Directing Award, Francis Lee sat down with MovieMaker to discuss his approach to performance, which doesn’t include rehearsals or improvisation, his pairing with DP Joshua James Richardson, and why dialogue has to fight to get in his screenplays. The film is now playing in U.S. cinemas via Samuel Goldwyn Film.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): God’s Own Country is a tender movie set in a harsh place. The characters exude masculine energy but not in a stereotypical way. Tell me about the inception of this story.
Francis Lee: I just wanted, first of all, to look at the world in which I’m from, and where I live. I live on that hill where that farm is in the film. My dad lives 10 minutes away, he’s a sheep farmer there, so I’m from there, and I moved back there last year to make the movie, and I’ve not left. I wanted to depict that landscape as I saw it, in all its brutality, cold, wet, and difficulty, but also it’s beauty. And in terms of the men, the characters in it, I wanted to put people on screen that I recognized from that world, people that I felt similar to. For me, I didn’t want to make a film based around sexuality. I wanted that to be just part of them, as having blue eyes is part of somebody. I wanted to tell a story that was about love, and about first love, and about how difficult that was, for somebody to open up enough to love and be loved. To work and live in that environment, you have to be tough, but I think everybody believes that finding somebody would make their life better.
MM: Talk about crafting the love scenes between these two characters. John wants to be animalistic and he’s terrified of softer caressing.
FL: I think for me, there are lots of different types of physical relationships. There are those type that are animalistic, and un-emotional, that comes from that feeling in your belly where you just want to fuck, and then there are the other moments where you actually do take your time, and you do want to give the other person something. It’s not just about getting your rocks off. It’s about communicating through that physical activity. The sex that we see Johnny having at the beginning of the film is very much somebody who just has that urge, who just wants to get it out, and has to learn about touch, and time, and tenderness, and giving, in terms of giving somebody else physical pleasure in an emotional way. I’m a very precise, detailed, particular writer and director, so when I wrote the film, I wrote the film to be a visual film, so those descriptions of those sex scenes were very detailed, and almost choreographed in the text. What we did was we transposed it, and acted the act that was written.
MM: Dialogue is not prominent in the film. It’s a story where many things go unspoken but are still present. Why this approach?
FL: For me, film is a visual medium. I think that if you can say something without saying it in dialogue, that’s brilliant. We, as viewers, respond really well to that. As a writer, dialogue has to fight for its position in my scripts, because I hate exposition, I hate over-explaining, these characters are not people who navel gaze and talk about how they feel, or what’s going on with them. They don’t do that. They’re all fairly shut down, for one reason or another. I knew I always wanted to tell this film visually, so if you can do it with a look or a gesture, and it still communicates the same feeling, then that to me is cinema.
MM: Josh O’Connor has a particular face that says so much. How did you find him and transform him into John?
FL I worked with a casting director in the UK, and I knew that I didn’t want to work with someone famous. I didn’t want an audience to come to this film with a particular view of the actor who was playing the part. I wanted the audience to be fully immersed in this world, and for nothing to detract from that.
The first time I saw Josh was in a self-tape, because he was away working, so I had never met him, and he delivered such a beautiful, subtle performance that really piqued my interest. He felt very of the world already, and then I met him. He’s actually very different from the character. He’s very middle class, he’s very polite, he’s funny, and what we call in the UK “posh.” He’s got a posh accent, and he’d been to drama school. I was surprised by that, but then when I worked with him in the room, he transformed himself again into this character.
I met him quite a few times, and it was very important to me to work with somebody who could work the way I wanted to work, which is very detailed, very rigorous, very authentic, and also somebody I felt I could reach out to and push and focus, and get him to dig deeper. There’s a big responsibility for actors. Being in front of the camera is tough. Doing nothing is hard, but when you’re asking someone to open up and be vulnerable and access those emotions, it’s terrifying, so I protect my actors massively, above everything else.
I try and create such a secure environment that they feel really able to make themselves vulnerable. I worked for three months with Josh before we started the shoot. We built the character from the moment he was born to the moment you see him in the film, when you’re first introduced to him, and we knew everything about him, every minute detail we knew about him, so that he was really primed. In the actual rehearsal period, I shipped him off to a farm and he worked with the farmer there.
MM: Did you do this so his physicality in this setting would be natural?
FL: Absolutely, and he did everything for a long time. It was a long time that he worked on that farm. He did everything with the animals, building the walls, he did everything, because I wanted him to look so at home in that environment. When it came to shooting, we were able to shoot quite quickly because there was so much information already there.
That was very important to me in the character’s bedroom, I took Josh up to the location and said, “Ok, where would this character have his bed and why? Where’s the cold bit of the room? Where’s the warm bit? What would he have on his shelves? Why would he have that? What is that from? What is the significance of that? What does he like to do? Where does he go?” We worked in such detail that he was able to utterly transform himself. As a director, I don’t believe my responsibility ends when they say, “Wrap,” and you go, “Bye, thanks, great job!” If you’re asking somebody to go through such an emotional journey, it can sometimes leave a shadow, and I feel it’s my job to still maintain a relationship and be there to decompress. Josh and I have become really good friends. When I watch the film now, knowing Josh as well as I do, I don’t see one part of him in that character. He doesn’t look like the character, he doesn’t move like the character, he doesn’t talk like the character, there’s nothing within in him that I see on the screen, and it’s an incredible, transformative performance.