Francis Lee didn’t make God’s Own Country because he thought it would be a sure fire hit or stoke enough controversy to get him recognized as a director.
The first time filmmaker wrote and directed the drama, which revolves around the budding romance between Yorkshire sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), because the story was burning inside of him and he needed to get it onto the page and onto the screen, regardless of who saw it.
As you can imagine this caused a little bit of disharmony between the director and “God’s Own Country’s” producers during production. “You have to convince the people with the money that you know what you are doing,” Lee explained to me.
“They would say, ‘If we want the film to break out then at this point Johnny will have to smile.’ And I’d just go, ‘F**k off. You’ve done a course. That is not filmmaking. Let me get on with it.’ And the same in the edit. Because occasionally there would be notes and I’d just go, ‘No. Because I am not making a film to suit everybody.’ You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. And why would anybody want to do that? That was the struggle.”
Throughout this process Lee stuck to his guns. “I kept coming at it from a truthful, authentic experience, and saying, ‘I have not seen the world I am from depicted on screen before in a way I recognize and that is exactly what I want to do. Nuts and bolts. And I won’t shy away from that.’ People eventually bought into it.”
Bringing “God’s Own Country” to the big-screen has been a 20-year long journey for Lee. Before taking the plunge and moving behind the camera Lee was an actor. However he insists he was never any good, as he was terrible at auditions, and was always just lucky enough to get work. Lee was never able to express himself as an actor, and after several years of boredom and frustration he suddenly thought, ‘I’m going to have to stop acting. And I’m going to have to do this because, ‘Either do it or shut up’.”
Soon, Lee was working on a scrapyard to earn money, meeting the people that would go on to inspire “God’s Own Country,” and also financing and shooting his own short set on his dad’s farm. Lee’s experiences as an actor meant that he was never “thinking too far ahead,” though, and instead he just focused on mining the story “for the truth, the authenticity of the place, and the emotion of the characters.”
Lee’s original original urge to make “God’s Own Country” came from the Yorkshire “landscape,” especially because he had such a “love hate relationship” with his home. “On the one hand I saw it as totally creative and expansive and it always felt like home. But on the other it felt problematic and difficult and brutal and cold and wet and inaccessible and wet. And then it was just trying to work that out and find some peace within that.” All of which he then mixed together with “falling in love and making yourself vulnerable for somebody else.”
“Those kind of things collided, and that’s what I wanted to explore.”
This approach clearly worked a treat, because audiences quickly connected with “God’s Own Country.” After premiering at Sundance, it screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and has been the “biggest selling film of the year” in parts of Northern England. In Lee’s home town Halifax it not only outsold “Dunkirk” but has become “the biggest selling film they have ever had,” with viewers going to see it five or six times.
You can now join “God’s Own Country’s” growing legion of fans, as the film is showing in certain parts of the United States, including New York’s IFC Center.