How Yorkshire's answer to Brokeback Mountain became the toast of the Sundance Film Festival

A love affair on a Yorkshire sheep farm could be one of this year's most unlikely box office hits. Sarah Freeman speaks to God's Own Country director Francis Lee.

Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu and Josh O'Connor as Johnny Saxby in God's Own Country.
Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu and Josh O'Connor as Johnny Saxby in God's Own Country.

Francis Lee is sitting in a Utah hotel room looking out on a picture postcard snowy scene. The day before, his film, widely dubbed Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain, only with flatter vowels and worse weather, premiered at the Sundance Festival and when he says the reviews have been pretty kind he’s being modest. The critics loved it.

Four and five star reviews were far from a cert though given the film is set on the bleak Yorkshire moors and focuses on a hard drinking young sheep farmer who happens to fall in love with a migrant worker during lambing season.

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However, while God’s Own Country may prove to be an unlikely commercial success, the story of how he got it made is almost worthy of a film in itself.

Actor turned writer and director Francis Lee whose debut feature film God's Own Country has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Picture by Agatha A. Nitecka.

“I grew up on a farm near Halifax in the shadow of the Pennines, but I knew that wasn’t going to be my life,” he says. “I guess growing up in such an isolated spot really made me wonder what the rest of the world had to offer, so from quite an early age I decided I was going to be an actor.”

After training at Rose Bruford College, Lee had an almost textbook introduction to life as a jobbing actor, landing parts in the likes of Midsomer Murders, Casualty and Heartbeat. Work was steady, but not wholly satisfying and it struck him that there was a great big Yorkshire shaped hole in his life.

“It was only when I went away that I realised just how tied I was to the landscape of my childhood,” he says. “Later I also came to the decision that what I really wanted to do was write and make my own films rather than speak someone else’s words. As a kid I always had a billion stories floating around in my head, but it was only when I got older that I gained the confidence to write them down and since then I’ve pretty much become obsessed by the people who extract a living from the land.”

While God’s Own Country, which Lee both wrote and directed, might currently be the toast of Sundance, success didn’t come overnight. Having jacked in his day job he spent two years working in a junkyard to fund his first short film The Farmer’s Wife and it was another five years before he secured the funding for God’s Own Country.

Actor turned writer and director Francis Lee whose debut feature film God's Own Country has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Picture by Agatha A. Nitecka.

“It’s all been about sacrifice,” says Lee who returned from London, grew a beard and now lives in what he describes as a wooden shed in the hills above Keighley. “I didn’t go on holiday, I didn’t spend anything I didn’t have to, it all went into the filmmaking. I had to learn my craft, but God’s Own Country was always the film I wanted to make. I wanted to explore what might have happened if I had stayed in Yorkshire, if I had worked on the land and what would have happened had I met someone there that I liked.”

It’s Lee’s frank and often tender portrayal of a gay relationship in an often unforgiving environment that has invited the Brokeback Mountain comparisons - that and a check shirt moment. However, given it is set on a sheep farm, Lee knew that if the film was to pass his dad’s critical eye, it wouldn’t just be each other that lead actors Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu had to get close to.

“I wanted it to be authentic,” he says. “I rehearsed a lot with the actors and not just on the emotional journey their characters go on, but also the physical work they have to do farm. Both Josh and Alec worked solidly on farms for weeks in preparation and everything, from the lambing to the dry stone walling and the cheesemaking, they do for real. 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.”

Lee’s pursuit of authenticity didn’t end with enforced work placements. Filmed on location in Yorkshire, most of the agricultural props were borrowed from his father’s farm and he also gave costume designer Sian Jenkins one of the most unusual briefs of her career to date.

“I told her that everything had to be bought from shops which the characters would have had access to. Basically that meant Keighley town centre,” he says. “I also knew that the sound was critical for me, it’s sometimes more important than the picture the audience sees. I didn’t want it to be manufactured, so I built a soundscape of natural sounds, from the wind blowing across the hills to the birdsong of that part of Yorkshire. When you hear a sheep it’s a genuine Pennine bleat.

“It is a pretty harsh landscape to film in and we were in constant battle with unpredictable weather and even more unpredictable livestock, but it’s a world I know so well and I hope that, coupled with an absolute insistence on precision, has resulted in a heartfelt and genuine film.”

Audiences certainly seem to think so and while given the unavoidable issue of Brexit, God’s Own Country now has an added political edge, it is at heart a love story.

“Josh plays Johnny Saxby who works long hours in isolation on his family’s remote farm where his grandmother is too old to work the land and his father is struggling with the aftermath of a stroke,” says Lee. “He numbs his loneliness with nightly binge drinking at the local pub and casual sex. Or at least he does until Gheorghe, a migrant worker from Romania, arrives to give him a hand with lambing.”

The pair are sent up to the moors where the relationship blossoms in the uncomfortable surroundings of a primitive stone shelter with hardly a word spoken.

“I wanted to capture that moment when two people fall in love for the first time,” says Lee. “All of us know what that feels like and how difficult it can be. “I wanted to explore what it might be like from someone who has not only been socially and geographically isolated but who has had to close off any emotional life within a traditional working class community where family and duty come before anything else. I hope that people really root for them, that really want them to find love.”

While God’s Own Country hasn’t yet been given a UK release date, the Sundance reception means it will now be distributed and that means Lee’s own career has now moved onto the next level.

“All any director wants is for their work to reach an audience,” he says. “A film only has a life if people can watch it, so that’s the real joy of what’s happened at Sundance.”

Lee is currently working on an original TV series for Kudos, the production company behind Spooks and Life on Mars, as well as another film project, provisionally entitled The Last Bus. While he’s not giving much away about either, he is very clear about one thing.

“Would I go back to acting? Oh God, no. Never. Absolutely not.”

Given the reception God’s Own Country is getting, it’s a U-turn he almost certainly won’t have to take.