There’s a hearty smile buried in the big bushy beard of English filmmaker Francis Lee, the writer and director of God’s Own Country, a soaring queer love story. A warm-hearted glow emanates from him as we sit down together during the Melbourne International Film Festival to discuss the success of his similarly spirited film, which has already claimed multiple awards at the Sundance, Edinburgh, and Berlin film festivals.
“I was interested in telling a story about two men, about masculinity, I guess, or the way in which men communicate physically and emotionally,” Lee tells SBS.
An intensely private person, there’s nevertheless an admirable generosity to his considered responses on how he came to deliver, with his debut feature, such a remarkable romance.
Emotionally guarded young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) engages the aid of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help out on the remote Yorkshire farm his disabled father can no longer manage. It’s all rugged hard work and no funny business on the surface, but there’s a tender sincerity underlying every moment.
“I am very precise and the script was very detailed,” Lee reveals. “Every look, every glance, every touch, every animal thing, those things can’t change, but then we have to discover how they got to this point, and that’s where Josh and Alec’s input came in. They were very creative about building these characters from the moment they were born until we first see them in the film.”
Johnny and Gheorghe are men of little words, though the Romanian man is more emotionally open. It’s in this regard that God’s Own Country’s most beautiful moments land in the unspoken beats between them, especially a moment’s silence on a glowing hilltop.
“One of the things that I was quite obsessed about, particularly now I’m living back in Yorkshire, is that idea of everything being part of the landscape, of nature, and of everything belonging in some way to each other,” Lee says. “The earth, the animals, the moon and the stars, everything kind of becomes that feeling of oneness my grandma used to talk about. And that was what I was trying to explore a little bit with the boys. I wanted them to feel so rooted here.”
Their actions are a mirror not only of the landscape, but also their growing union. Gheorghe caring for an abandoned lamb echoes the crumbing of Johnny’s initial resistance. “I was trying to represent these people as very practical, but also as a filmmaker to be very visual and to constantly layer it with meaning or significance,” Lee says. “Even if no one else knew, I knew.”
A keen photographer and lifelong storyteller, Lee’s used to viewing the world through a lens. A largely self-taught filmmaker who resisted the ‘rules’ of writing - though found truth in the subtext of Chekov’s plays - he has come to the job of writer/director via a handful of shorts following a modest acting career.
Lee found the yearning passion between his leads by holding them apart. Filming more or less in chronological order, O’Connor stayed up at the farm while Secareanu was lodging in a hotel down in the local village. “I knew that if the first time really they met was onscreen, there would be that extra frisson, that extra anticipation or excitement or nervousness about how they were going to work together, and that did translate,” Lee says.
The director was at pains to build an almost paternal bond of trust with each of them that has continued long after filming wrapped, and that relationship became a triangle when finally filming together.
Though there are trials to overcome, with God’s Own Country Lee constantly subverts expectations. Johnny may not be waving the Pride flag, but he’s unambiguously out to old school mates. A man of hope, Lee was adamant from the outset that he would avoid the tragic queer narrative. He also cast off rural stereotypes.
“One of the things that was super-interesting to me is this idea of the rural working class and what that means in today’s society and particularly now, when often they have been demonised or made to feel reductive in some way because there’s a perception that the opinions they hold are less than liberal,” he says. “That to me has always been quite difficult, because these are my family, this is my world, this is where I live and I’ve never had that experience. The urban liberal metropolis is where people sit around and talk about how they feel all the time. We don’t do that.”
As a shy teenager, acting was akin to donning armour for Lee. “I felt uncomfortable being me, and so being somebody else actually felt really comfortable,” Lee says.
Though he loved growing up on an isolated farm, he knew he’d have to relocate to study at a school that supported acting A-levels, with university an unaffordable option. Cinema had been a rare treat growing up, usually reserved for birthdays, with Footloose an early favourite, and his father harboured a love of old black and white westerns on the television. Lee clearly recalls being devastated by Ken Loach’s Yorkshire-set boy and his kestrel movie Kes.
The small screen is also where he first encountered queer films like Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears, Marek Kanievska’s Another Country and Steve Buschemi in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances.
Though Lee doesn’t see himself as a spokesperson for queer cinema, he is very is glad to see God’s Own Country in good company this year, citing films including Call Me By Your Name, BPM and A Fantastic Woman as brilliant examples.
“I’m not sure what it means, but maybe it’s just that the focus is slightly shifting or that there’s less trepidation of making stories like this for the fear that they will be too niche,” he offers. “This year feels like there’s a real choice. It’s not just one story, it’s many stories and all these films we’re talking about are very different. And that’s incredible.”
God’s Own Country is on general release from August 31.