Francis Lee on making God's Own Country

In this episode of the BFI NETWORK podcast Talent Development Manager Matimba Kabalika travels to Yorkshire to talk to writer/director Francis Lee about the making of his critically acclaimed debut feature, God's Own Country.

7 September 2017
Matimba: Hello, hello, hello. And welcome to another episode of the BFI NETWORK Podcast, with me, Matimba Kabalika. At the NETWORK, we are all about discovering, developing, and funding emerging filmmakers. 
For this episode, me and producer Marie went on a road trip out of the Big Smoke, to meet writer/director Francis Lee, surrounded by the landscape that inspired his award winning debut, God's Own Country. As you can hear, we got pretty excited being surrounded by so much nature!
Francis: I watch Working Girl every week. 
Matimba: Oh, my. I love...
Francis: Every week. 
Matimba: Oh, my. As you know, my Twitter bio...
Francis: Yeah. You know, and that film is a very clever film. It's very multi-layered. There's always something else. 
Matimba: Yeah. Okay, we're here with Francis Lee, the writer/director of God's Own Country, and we're in Yorkshire which is amazing. This view is absolutely incredible. And it's also, like, the first sunny day of the year. 
Francis: Well, we've had quite a lot of sunny days in Yorkshire. 
Matimba: Oh, okay. 
Francis: Yeah, we've had a good run of it over the last few weeks. 
Matimba: Oh, so we've just been really unlucky in London. But, Francis, can you set the scene of where we are? 
Francis: So, I have invited Matimba to my home which is on the moor above Keighley. And we are sat outside, looking at open countryside and the moors. 
Matimba: This is an interview for me that we couldn't do in an office, or a studio, or a cinema. We had to come here for so many reasons. Can you tell us specifically about the relationship that this place has to God's Own Country?  
Francis: Yeah. So, I grew up not very far away from where we're currently sitting on the Pennines in a remote area. We didn't have any neighbors, and the outside world was my playground as a kid. But I escaped Yorkshire when I was around about 20 to move to London to go to college. But the whole time, I could never get this landscape out of my head. So when it came to starting to think about telling stories for film, the thing that I had obsessed about for years was to do with landscape, and how landscape affects people, and relationships, and emotions, and so I knew that my first film was always going to be always set in Yorkshire and in this very specific world. 
Matimba: And, you know, it's a love story, and I's interesting, because was it...for you, was it story before setting, or setting before story, or was it important that this love story happened in this particular setting? 
Francis: It's really interesting, because at the time, every story I was thinking about was all set in Yorkshire. It was all to do with the people of West Yorkshire. And that was because that felt like my language, and the world I knew the most. And the place and the people I cared about the most. And so, it's very hard for me to say which came first, whether or not it was the story and characters, or whether or not it was the landscape. I think it was a combination, a combination of all of those things. I was obsessed with this...with the idea of this boy who couldn't open up emotionally, who couldn't be vulnerable enough to love and be loved and had shut down, I was obsessed by the rural world of Yorkshire and these farms that were struggling to survive. And so, it kind of all fell into place at the same time, really. 
Matimba: Whilst we're talking about process, can you talk a little bit about your writing process? And especially, because you're writing about a place you know so well, where do you begin? 
Francis: When I started to write God's Own Country, I based it on my dad's farm. My dad is a farmer 10 minutes down the road from where we're currently sat. And I'm fairly pragmatic, so I was starting to write a film, having had...not being to film school, having not had access to funding or know how to even get funding. So I was very pragmatic about writing a film that I felt I could realize. And so, I thought, "Well, I'll use Dad's farm." So when I was writing it, I very carefully, geographically, thought about the area, and all the stage directions and notations were very much based there. 
And the process for me was that I wrote a lot of the film in Yorkshire, but I also wrote quite a lot of it away from Yorkshire. And it was good to have a bit of distance, to not be totally immersed in the world myself, to have a bit of objectivity about it. 
Matimba: Sitting here and looking at this view and stuff, like just kind's so intrinsic and so important to the film. And, in the film, the landscape is so imposing, but the characters don't get lost in it at all. And how do'd you achieve that?
Francis: It was super interesting, when we were talking about how we were going to visually depict the landscape. And with my cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, and myself, we very quickly realized that we didn't want to see big wide shots. We wanted to see the effect the landscape had on the characters. So I think in the film there's only one actual bona fide landscape shot. I think the rest of the time what you see is, the characters reacting to the landscape. So you see them in the mud, you see the mud on their trousers, you see how windy it is, you see how cold it is, how it rains. You know, so you see how it affects them physically and emotionally, rather than just seeing. 
Matimba: And speaking of the characters and stuff, you started your career as an actor. 
Francis: Yeah. 
Matimba: Can you talk about how that informed the way you worked with the cast? Because they both turned out...I mean, well, everyone but particularly the two young men turned out incredible performances. 
Francis: Yeah, I'm very proud of them. I think they both...both Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu did incredible, incredible performances. And, as an actor, I would always approach everything from character, a character point of view. And that made me feel safe, to be able to experiment, and to be free in front of a camera or an audience. So I was super lucky, and started to work with both boys three months before the actual prep. And we, individually, with each one of them, I built the characters with them from scratch. So we had a timeline from the moment they were born until the moment we first see them in the film. 
So in the actual prep, because the farming in God's Own Country is so important and it was so important to me to have it as authentic and truthful as possible, I sent them both out working on farms individually. And they didn't just go up and stand around with their arms folded, watching. I sent them to do shifts. So they would go and do eight-hour shifts on these farms, and they would do everything that they were asked to do, and that we would see them do in the film. So they built walls, they mucked out cows, they did internal examinations of cows, they did birthing of lambs, they did medicating sheep. They did everything. 
And not only did that then bring a real sense of truth to what we would ask them to do in the film, but it also brought a real truth to them physically as characters, how their bodies felt, how tired they felt, how cold they felt. You know, I wanted them to get cold in their bones, so they really understood what this world was like. 
I also tried to keep the boys separate. I don't want to give too much away about the film, but they don't meet at the beginning of the film. So I wanted to try and keep them as separate as I possibly could, so when they meet on screen is kind of when they first meet as people. Because I knew that would bring an extra kind of dimension and frisson to that relationship as actors and as characters. So they lived separately as we started to shoot. 
Matimba: That's really brave, though. Was there ever a point where you were like, "I'm really nervous about throwing them in?" 
Francis: No. I don't think so because I shot chronologically. And I was very keen to do that on this film, because I feel that the relationship in the film, each scene is like a building block. One builds on the other. And their relationship builds and develops. And so, shooting chronologically really helped that journey for both the boys. I felt very secure that both Josh and Alec not only had put in all the hard work to know who they were as characters, what they wanted, but they were both very sensitive as actors. 
Matimba: Yeah. And those performances are kind of...they're so strong. And let's talk a little bit more about the aesthetic of the film, because it's your first feature, and you're so well-versed in farm life and what it means to be a farmer. So how did you go about finding collaborators who really understood what you were trying to achieve? Because that's obviously a lot to manage what you' know, you're really immersing the actors in the world, and you know it. And, you know, how did you start approaching people? 
Francis: Well first of all, it's really interesting. I think if you ask my dad, he would say I know nothing about farming. So, I...yeah. A lot of it was research and talking to my dad. But, in terms of the look of the film, it was very, very important to me that we had rules in place. I'm a big fan of rules. And so, with the production design and the costume, we...or, I decided that only...the only props they could use could come from the farm we were using, my dad's farm, 10 minutes down the road, or the local town where the characters would have access to those shops. Everything that they used had to feel like it had been there and used for the purpose that it was intended for. 
With the costumes, again, the costume designer could only buy those clothes in shops that the characters had access to. So mainly, apart from Gheorghe, they came from Keighley Town Centre. Which was quite tough, but again, it was very important that know, we were very truthful about every element of the film. 
Matimba: And it's paid off? 
Francis: I think...well, do I think it's paid off? 
Matimba: No, it has paid off. 
Francis: Oh, thank you. 
Matimba: No, I'm telling you it's paid off. So, I'm thinking now about emerging filmmakers who are listening to this. There's so many people saying, you know, "What makes a first feature great?", and I think this film is a brilliant example of precision in craft, and I wonder if you can talk us through, specifically, the choices you made when it comes to sound. And actually, even being out here, and since we've been out here, hearing all the different sounds is incredible. Can you talk about how you approached sound? Because I think that's so interesting. 
Francis: Yeah. So sound to me is one of the things that I get very, very excited about. And for me, it is as important, and sometimes more important, than the visuals. And so, I knew from a very early stage, sound on this film was going to be integral. And so, I worked with a brilliant sound designer called Anna Bertmark, and in production, I got her up to Yorkshire and out recording sounds everywhere, to build up a bank and a library of sounds we could then call upon. So she went up to the moors and recorded the sounds, she went down into the town or into, you know, the house and recorded atmospheres. 
So, for example, we...each character has a very specific wind sound. So when that's very subtle, but whenever that character arrives...Gheorghe arrives with a wind sound. And whenever Gheorghe is there, this wind is there. When, in the story something happens, and Gheorghe isn't there, the wind is still there, to remind people, to remind the characters in the film, that there's still a presence of him there. 
I think everybody...obviously, everybody makes film differently, but for me, I am...for me, it is all about precision and detail, and detail on detail. 
Matimba: Mm-hmm. 
Francis: You know, every tiny thing in this film I have thought about. There are no accidents. I guess I'm just a massive control freak, but...
Matimba: No, not necessarily. I mean, everybody's got a different process. 
Francis: Yeah, absolutely. 
Matimba: And I think it's your process, and you know, I think all the...I think the amazing response to the film...
Francis: Well, I mean, I just like to know everything, you know? For me, it's all preparation. It’s all detail. And it keeps digging into that detail. And that's whether or not it's a detail about an emotion. So, in terms of a performance, it’s about going, "Okay, that was a good take. Let's dig in deeper. How further can we go? How more truthful can we be about this?" 
Matimba: But do you think that the fact that you're so prepared allows you to do that? 
Francis: Yes. 
Matimba: Because you're so prepared, that when you have a take...where you say, "Let's dig in..."
Francis: Absolutely. Because, you know, again, things on film sets tend to go wrong, and you can be left with very little time to actually shoot on camera. And what I found was, because I was so prepared, because the boys, the two lead actors were so prepared, and because the cinematographer was so prepared, and we were all working as a carefully choreographed dance, if you like, we could work very, very quickly.  
Matimba: Let's talk a little bit about your journey as a filmmaker, I guess, and how you transitioned from being on one side of the camera to the other. 
Francis: How...okay. So, as an actor, I think...I think, as an actor, I was always fairly unhappy. As an interpretive artist, for want of a better word. I had always told stories, from being a tiny child. I'd love storytelling, just oral storytelling. And I love telling stories, and I love listening to stories, but I never wrote anything down. I never really had the confidence to write anything down. 
And I got to the point in my life where I wasn't particularly happy with acting, I wasn't particularly happy in my personal life. And it was...I guess it was feeling like, "Well, what's the worst that can happen," that actually made me sit down and write a story. And that was for a short film, that eventually was actually funded by the old UK Film Council, but I didn't direct it. And going through that process, of writing and not directing, taught me a very valuable lesson, which was I couldn't give up my work, and I had to direct my own work. 
And so, I wrote another short film, and got turned down for funding. And so, got a job in a scrapyard, and worked for a year to save up the money to...for self-finance and shoot it, and I then shot that film on my dad's farm. And that did quite well on the circuit and stuff. And so, after that, I started to write God's Own Country, and at the same time I was writing God's Own Country, I made another short that did quite well on the circuit. 
Matimba: And how did you fund that short? 
Francis: Scrapyard. 
Matimba: Amazing. So you...
Francis: I carried on working. 
Matimba: You funded...tongue twister. You self-funded two shorts. 
Francis: Yes. Yes, I did. 
Matimba: I love that you didn't take no for an answer. You're like, "Oh, you're not going to fund me?"
Francis: Listen...
Matimba: "Oh, I'll go and do it myself." 
Francis: I just, I think "no" doesn't mean "no." I think "no" means "no for now." And I think that if everybody...if people are saying no, and you have that fire in your belly, just get on, and you know, make the sacrifice. I'm not saying it's easy. I made a lot of sacrifices. know, I still do. Financial sacrifices, holiday sacrifices, relationship sacrifices. You know? All kinds of things. It's not easy. But if you have that fire and that passion for telling stories, then you know, it is possible. 
Matimba: That's the best bit of advice ever. And how do you know...because, you know, we're talking about the fact that you didn't go to film school, you didn' know, you're not in these schemes and stuff, and know, you're doing this on your own. How do you know that your script is getting better? How do you know that your craft is improving? 
Francis: I mean, I was lucky, because I had a really good friend, who is very blunt and is honest, and who read my scripts, and would tell me if they thought they were getting better. 
Matimba: Were they a writer or director? 
Francis: No. 
Matimba: No. 
Francis: No, just somebody who loves film, and loves storytelling. And, I think that, you know, watching...the only way that I've understood how to make a film is just by watching film. And I watch all types of films. Any type of film, I will watch. It doesn't matter to me if it's a blockbuster or a rom-com or an art house French classic. You know, I will just keep watching everything and analyzing and studying, and thinking, "Am on that journey with that character? Do I care? Is this a world I'm interested in? Is this a world that's been opened up to me that I knew nothing about before, and now I care about it?" You know? All of those things, I think you can learn from just watching movies. 
Matimba: I mean, how did you feel at your world premiere in Sundance? Take us there. I mean, we're in Yorkshire, and it's sunny and warm, but take us back to that cold January. 
Francis: Well, it was a funny ride, really, because, I didn't finish the film until Christmas eve. And, it was pretty full on until Christmas eve for two years. And so, we...and by that point, I knew that we were premiering at Sundance. That Sundance had seen an early rough cut and had made an early selection for it, which was amazing, and I was super, super happy. I always wanted the film to premiere at Sundance. 
So, the work just continued, and so it was...I never really thought about it. I didn't really have time to think about it until that moment we are turning up in snowy Park City, in Utah, and having your photograph taken, and all ready to go into this massive cinema that seats lots and lots of people, and they're all there to see your premiere. And then you sit through the film for the first time, for me, anyway, with an audience. So what I was doing at that moment was not really watching the film but listening to the audience. And that makes you very anxious. 
And then, yeah, what was the feeling like? It was fairly emotional, I would say. I think I was tired. But it was fairly emotional, that you had put so much work and energy into this thing, and you had given it so much of your life, and sacrificed so much of your life for it, that seeing it on a big screen, with a big audience, on an international circuit, was quite overwhelming, really. And I was quite emotional. It was...I was...yeah. It was overwhelming. 
Matimba: And then, obviously, you won the awards? 
Francis: Yes. 
Matimba: Director award, which is amazing. 
Francis: Yeah. No, that was very funny. 
Matimba: Took a picture of that. 
Francis: That...
Matimba: I won't be invited back. 
Francis: That was super funny, because the awards at Sundance...first of all, I'm not even being modest. I didn't expect to win an award at all. You know, there are exceptional films there, and...and then when they announced the directing award, I was just very shocked. I was very shocked, and...yeah. 
Matimba: And pleased? 
Francis: I think...
Matimba: More shocked than anything else. 
Francis: Yeah. And I think that all of these things know, all of these things are obviously nice, but what's really important is it just adds more visibility to the film, and it means that hopefully, it will mean the life of the film will be a bit more...more people will have heard about it, more people will go and see it. And that's what's always important to me, is the work.  
Matimba: Okay, two more final questions before we miss our train back to the Big Smoke, even though I'm kind of tempted to purposefully drag this out so I do miss my train. 
Francis: You're welcome to stay. 
Matimba: Thank you. I already asked Francis to adopt me. He's respectfully declined. We want to ask about your beard, because it's fantastic. It's amazing. What does it take? What does it take? 
Francis: How do you mean? To look after it? 
Matimba: I mean...yeah. 
Francis: Or to grow it? Or...
Matimba: Both. It's amazing. 
Francis: So, I actually grew this beard when I was writing God's Own Country, because I was very disciplined. I like to be very disciplined with how I write. So I typically will start writing at 6 o'clock in the morning, and write until lunch time. And then I'll have a break and do something else, and then come back and do notes. And at 6:00 in the morning, I didn't want to be shaving, or, you know, and then, by the time it gets to lunch time, it felt like, "Oh, what's the point?" And so, the beard grew while I was writing God's Own Country. 
I have a barber I trust who shapes it whenever I can be bothered to go. I've often wondered what it would be like if I shaved it off now. 
Matimba: No.
Francis: Yep, but my boyfriend has told me that, if I ever did that, I would be single. So I guess that's not happening anytime soon. 
Matimba: There's no way we could come all this way and not ask about it. It's a thing of great beauty. 
Francis: It's funny, if you go into my kitchen, you'll just see beard hair everywhere. 
Matimba: Oh, my gosh. 
Francis: It just molts everywhere. I'm surprised you didn't have any in your fish and chips. 
Matimba: Didn't. Okay, and then the last thing that we always ask all our guests is, if you were to...we always say, can you throw down a gauntlet, a challenge to new and emerging filmmakers? If you could give them one bit of advice, what would it be? 
Francis: Always tell the truth. Don't kid yourself or anyone else by not being rigorous and really get to the heart of something, whatever that is. 
Matimba: Amazing. Thank you so much, Francis.
Francis: Thank you, Matimba. 
Matimba: Thanks so much for having us. Yeah, it's been amazing. 
Francis: No, it's been very lovely for you to come to deepest, darkest Keighley. 
Matimba: There's more episodes and lots of content like this on the BFI NETWORK website, including funding, first features, and loads of other interviews. We'd also like to know what you think about this podcast, so why not tweet us @bfinetwork? The music you heard is from Rory Dempsey. Thanks to Francis, producer Marie, and the BFI NETWORK team. 
For this episode, me and producer Marie went on a...
Marie: Whoa!
Matimba: We went on a road trip.