“It’s a term used by proud Yorkshire people to describe Yorkshire,” explains Francis Lee when asked about God’s Own Country, the title of his debut film. “It’s a phrase that I’ve grown up with. But I also like to think that it means a place that you can make your own.”
It’s been some time since a British directorial debut has stirred genuine excitement from its first tentative screenings. A deeply visceral and restrained yet hopeful romance set against the Yorkshire Pennines, God’s Own Country not only scratches a deep notch into the bedpost of contemporary LGBT cinema, it also isn’t from a fresh-faced film graduate, new to the industry.
Lee is the antithesis of such a fellow, not just because of the salt and pepper beard that he sports south of his warm, open face. A seasoned television actor only now venturing into filmmaking, Lee has used his time in the industry paired with his proud Yorkshire heritage to develop a personal and meticulously written love letter about a sheep farmer’s son who develops a pained and passionate relationship with a Romanian immigrant who arrives on his farm to work.
“It was one of the most detailed scripts that I’ve ever read,” says Alec Secareanu, who plays Gheorghe in the film. “Every gesture, every single glimpse, was written in the script. Every scene without dialogue, which there were a lot of, was exquisite.” Secareanu, along with co-star Josh O’Connor trained for the film with a fortnight of long days and hard labour, working on local farms to develop the authentic physicality needed to play their characters.
“We learned how to farm, how to give injections to the animals, how to cut their hooves,” says Secareanu. “Importantly, we learned how to be comfortable with the animals, how to control them when they became unpredictable.” It’s a pivotal part of the film and completely real, as you watch the sheep live and die by their hands. Lee recalls his need to find the perfect actors, as their relationship would ultimately determine if the film would succeed.
“I wanted this idea of warmth but not a pushover, of being caring but not stupid,” he says of casting Secareanu as Gheorghe. A Bucharest city boy, it was his transformative quality that caught Lee’s eye and brought him over to England, where him and O’Connor met for the first time. “It was incredible to see them begin to work together, to play with each and push each other.”
“Francis wanted to keep us apart as much as he could,” says Secareanu when asked how they preserved that crucial chemistry throughout the film. “After we began shooting, Josh and I moved in together on Francis’ father’s farm. Our friendship started to develop as the relationship on screen did, which I think you can sense that on screen.” Filming against the exposed, wind-worn hilltops of the Pennines proved the biggest challenge for all involved. Equipment had to be manually carried up to the broken wall where the pair would fall in love, meaning that shooting time was short and without shelter between takes. Yet Lee is certain that the film couldn’t take place anywhere else.
“In one sense it’s creative and freeing and wild and wonderful, and the other aspect is that it can be brutal and isolated. I wanted to explore that, and I think it feels very well placed there.
God’s Own Country was released in UK cinemas on 1 September. For more information: www.picturehouseentertainment.co.uk
1. Still from God’s Own Country.