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COUNTRY F rancis Lee was an actor for many years before he decided to move behind the camera, helming three shorts before writing and directing his BFI-funded feature debut, God’s Own Country. The story of a Yorkshire farmer encounter with a Romanian worker, it saw Lee putting his young actors through the paces in the Pennines, where he grew up. And wind, rain and lambing were all par for the course for the actors during the six-week shoot. How do you think your background as an actor has prepared you for being a filmmaker? I’m no spring chicken, but what’s been invaluable is being an actor for 20 years and going through the process of WRITER-DIRECTOR FRANCIS LEE TALKS TO ANNA SMITH ABOUT HIS RURAL FEATURE DEBUT understanding how to communicate with actors – how to adapt to them and to draw them into your world. That’s been critical to my process as a filmmaker. I’ve not had a day of film school – it’s all been about watching or learning. How did you conceive the idea for the film? It concerns a young Yorkshire sheep farmer who’s isolated and emotionally disengaged, and his relationship with a Romanian migrant worker who comes to help with the lambing. I had previously made some shorts about the place I grew up, in the Pennines. My father is still a sheep farmer there. I could never get the landscape out of my head. It had this really strong pull to it – so rural and isolated, particularly in the 1970s. Buses rarely even went there. So I had this idea about a lad who, for whatever reason, had shut down emotionally. His not being able to open up was the starting point. It’s not strictly biographical, but there are certainly biographical elements to it. How easy was it to get the film financed? In 2013, I had a very early draft. I didn’t really have access to producers or even know how to meet them. I knew this wasn’t going to be fantastically expensive, but I couldn’t find people to work with on it. I attended a networking event where I met some producers. Jack Tarling and Manon Ardisson showed interest in the project, we hooked up and applied to iFeatures. Throughout 2014 we went through script and development stages for the scheme and we eventually got down to the last five projects, but ours wasn’t ultimately chosen. About a month later, we went back to the BFI and Creative England, who had developed the project through iFeatures and they suggested that we could apply for production funding. So we did, that felt good and they funded us. I think that very rigorous development had put us in a really good place, and the last bits of the financing came together from there. What was the shoot like? I started shooting at the beginning of March. I had five weeks’ prep but I’d secretly started preparing a long, long time before that, both with my cinematographer Joshua James Richards and the two leads. We went through extensive rehearsals. It was important to me that both actors felt of this world and landscape. I cast Josh O’Connor as the lead. He’s a brilliant, transformative actor whose background is a million miles away from the character in the film. I wanted him to play this gritty, hard, closed-off Yorkshire farmer. So we worked a lot on character development then in the rehearsal period I got him out working on a farm. He did everything: birthing lambs, medication, put his hand up a cow’s backside, went on a dry stone walling course… There’s something very peculiar about the people who work in landscape physically and it was important that he blended GOD’S OWN “It’s a tough place to work and I hope people get some sense of it” 18 BFI.ORG.UK


BFI_Filmmakers_Issue_5_V10
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