The Big Interview: Film director Francis Lee

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Sarah Freeman speaks to Francis Lee, director of the film that has been dubbed Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain.

Francis Lee is in apologetic mood. First he’s sorry for the weather. We’d arranged to meet at a pub boasting glorious views across Brontë country. Unfortunately it’s been raining for what seems like days and while Lee is optimistically wearing shorts with his waterproof, it looks like it’s set in for the day. Instead we decamp to his home a few minutes away and as the director of God’s Own Country, which might just be this year’s most unlikely big screen hit, pops the kettle on there are more apologies.

“Look it is Yorkshire Tea, but I’m really sorry I left it next to these,” he says producing a box of pungent liquorice bags. “My sister says it’s now got a funny taste. Are you sure you want to give it a go?”

The tea proves interesting and so does Lee’s house. There’s no television, barely any wi-fi and tucked away at the end of a steep narrow track, little chance of visitors.

“I like it this way,” says Lee, who has always done things a little differently. After jacking in his day job as an actor – he’d had a steady if not stellar career appearing in the likes of Heartbeat and Holby City – he spent two years working at a junkyard to finance his first short film and it was there that he also had the idea for God’s Own Country, a story of forbidden love between Johnny, a hard-drinking young sheep farmer and migrant worker Gheorghe during lambing season.

“I had been thinking about this landscape for a long time,” says Lee, who grew up on a farm near Halifax in the shadow of the Pennines.

"I’d begun thinking about what might have happened had I not left and had fallen in love. I wrote a script on spec and showed it to a friend of mine. What I didn’t know was that he showed it to his agent.”

The agent loved it and encouraged Lee to to enter a funding scheme run by the British Film Institute and Creative England. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, he got down to the final three submissions and the BFI were so taken with God’s Own Country that they later offered to support the film anyway.

“In all it took five years to make, but the bulk of that time was waiting around. The wheels of the film industry turn very slowly, but fortunately I am very patient. That’s probably no bad thing since when we finally got the go ahead in May 2016 we had just missed lambing season so we then had to wait another entire year.”

Those months between being the green light and the first day of shooting were well spent. Lee was determined that the action should be as authentic as possible and having cast newcomers Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu as the central characters he brought them to Yorkshire where they experienced farming life first hand.

“I knew that it was going to be a challenging shoot for the young actors and I wanted to give them all the support I could. Three months before filming began we started work on their characters and by the end they knew every breath they had taken from birth to the point we see them on film.

“We also got them work placements on farms where they learnt everything from the lambing to the dry stone walling. They had to be so comfortable in that landscape that everything came as second nature and both of them developed really strong bonds with the farmers, so much so that Josh is still in touch with one of them.”

On paper, God’s Own Country doesn’t scream commercial hit. The tale of gay love on a Yorkshire hill farm barely has any dialogue, large parts of it was shot beneath rain clouds and to the frustration of the crew Lee insisted each scene was shot in chronological order. But Lee’s determination paid off, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier and winning over critics at Cannes.

“Those festivals absolutely make a difference,” says Lee flicking through the pages of a now packed diary which has just seen him come back from San Francisco and which by the end of the year will see flying visits to Amsterdam, Australia and New Zealand before the end of the year.

“There are two streams at Sundance. Films from the US and films from the rest of the world. Normally the former overshadows the latter, but when God’s Own Country was screened the reaction was incredible and the US agents began to circle.

“When I was making the film, I was just absolutely in the zone, completely blinkered. I never thought what was going to happen afterwards. I don’t think that’s very healthy. The people at Sundance had seen an early cut of the film so I knew they liked it but we only finished editing it two weeks before the festival so there was no time to dwell on what ifs.”

While Cannes sat a little at odds with a man who prefers to mooch about in walking boots, he says: “I’m not very good at being showy, but it has been lovely meeting people who have seen the film and it has unlocked something in them, so much so they want to tell you their own story about falling in love or whatever it might. And it’s cut across, genders, races and sexuality. That’s really gratifying and it means it’s no longer my film any more, it’s theirs too.”

The success kept on coming and having won the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and secured a UK release, Lee has been inundated with scripts, some with big names attached, an unexpected turn of events for someone who never went to the cinema much and didn’t go to film school.

“Not the traditional background for a film director I know, but from being a small boy I loved stories. My mum would make up the best ones and I was forever asking her questions about what that world and those characters looked like. I must have driven her mad. Then later I really got into photography and I’ve always felt that I was looking at the world through a lens.

“As an actor I got to work with Kathy Burke, Mike Lee, Victoria Wood. Pretty much everyone who was on my wishlist, but it just got to the point where I wanted to create my own stories rather than tell someone else’s. And that’s what I hope this film and all my other work is, it’s about how you see and hear the world.”

Lee is now in his 40s, positively geriatric in terms of the film industry.

“Sometimes I think. ‘I wish I had done this years ago’, but if I’d had this kind of reaction when I was in my 20s then it might have just blown my mind. People telling you they love your film and bombarding you with scripts is hugely flattering and a few years ago I would have been on the first flight out to LA only to have my hopes crushed. I’m no spring chicken, but I’m old enough not to buy into the hype. I am going to take my time in deciding what I want to do next, but whatever it is it will be something that resonates with me emotionally.”

While it probably won’t be set in Yorkshire, we haven’t see the last of Lee. “I think I will always keep coming back to this landscape. It’s part of what made me, part of who I am.”

God’s Own Country, including a director’s Q&A, will be shown at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds, on August 23, Thirsk Ritz on August 26, Sheffield Showroom on August 29 and Hebden Bridge Picture House on August 30. It will be on general release from September 1.