MM: Why is Gheorghe specifically a Romanian immigrant? Was there a cultural specificity or personal connection to that country that you wanted to bring to story?
FL: Romania joined the European Union, and in the papers, there was a lot of scaremongering, and a lot of xenophobia. In the newspaper’s language, they talked about Romanian immigrants coming to the UK to exploit our systems, to go into the NHS, to steal our jobs, and we were going to see this influx of millions of people. When I was making this film, I had a job in a junkyard to make money, and one of the guys who worked there was a Romanian guy who’d come to the U.K. to better his life, and he became a friend. Through knowing him, and about his experience of coming to my country, I was ashamed of how he’d been treated. In his country, he was a manager, a white-collar worker, and the only job he could get in the U.K. was in the junkyard sweeping floors, and the xenophobia he’s experienced, there was just something about that that I just thought was really interesting. Also, farming in Romania is very similar to farming in the north of England: small farms, no financial investment for years, so they farm, in a sense, in an archaic way, because they have to. I loved the idea that he experienced that in his own country, and that could be a connection between them.
MM: Unlike with most films with LGBT characters, there doesn’t seem to be an internal struggle within Josh about his sexuality, but it does seem like his place in life or living in the farm is oppressive for him.
FL: The sexuality within the film isn’t an issue. I don’t think Johnny “comes out.” I don’t think he’s oppressed by his sexuality. I don’t think he’s looking for acceptance from his family; I think they see him as Johnny, not Johnny the gay. The real issue is seeing this relationship, and the difficulty of love, and the difficulty of first love. I think he finds it oppressive because of the work, and because he’s isolated, not because of his sexuality. This idea that, all his friends have left. The kids he was at school with, they’ve all gone to college, or they’ve got a nice job in an office in town. He has been able to, he hasn’t had that opportunity, so he’s very geographically and socially isolated, and therefore he does find it oppressive. As a filmmaker I very purposely don’t have any landscape shots in the film. There’s only one big landscape shot.
MM: This is the first feature you’ve ever written and directed. Coming from acting, would you ever want to act in something you also wrote and direct it?
FL: No. I literally gave up acting when I wrote my first short. I realized that acting was never going to do it for me again. When I was at drama school, I had a wish list in my head of the people I wanted to work with. I was super lucky to work with those people, take them off my list, work with some brilliant directors, and I just didn’t feel like I needed to do it anymore. I felt like I had explored it, so I felt like there wasn’t anything left to explore, for me.
MM: I know that every scene was scripted, but within that was there room for improvisation or room for the actors to move away from the screenplay at all? It feels like such a truthful and naturalistic film.
FL: I don’t like improvisation, so my actors weren’t allowed to improvise. I think it’s a testament to the rigor of building a character, and it’s a testament to not rehearsing, so we didn’t do any specific rehearsals of the script or the scenes. The characters knew themselves inside out, they knew the location inside out, if it was their home or whatever, so actually shooting it, we were able to work really quickly, and I was able to keep the freshness of the performance on camera.
For example, with the boys, I worked with them separately. I kept them apart, they lived in different places, and only when it was coming to the point where the two characters meet in the film did I put the actors together. For me, I think that worked really well, because you get that on screen, that kind of slight nervousness of each other, and then as they work together more, they become more confident with each other, and their relationship grows, and because I shot chronologically, the relationship was able to build naturally, like building blocks.
And when, in the story, one of the characters goes away, I sent the actor away. He wasn’t on set. He wasn’t living in the house. It was real absence. So when he comes back, they’d built such a great relationship between each other as actors, there was a sense of nervousness but also excitement, and that translated onto screen beautifully. If you shoot chronologically, when you’re shooting a story like this, you can see it on screen as it builds, and it’s lovely. MM
God’s Own Country opened in theaters October 25, 2017, courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment. All images courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment.