Judging from the precision of the characters and the seamless storytelling at hand, it’s incredible to believe that God’s Own Country is director Francis Lee’s debut feature. His story of brooding farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), the Romanian worker he falls in love with, have all the makings of a legendary romance, something the Brontë’s would’ve written in less oppressive times. Set in misty Yorkshire, the film chronicles the tender romance as Johnny, who has no problem conquering men and women, meets his match in the soft spoken but confident Gheorghe. O’Connor and Secareanu light up the screen together turning short glances and shy smiles into sweeping moments that make this a romance for the ages.
Lee’s film is made even richer by the geographical and societal context he gives it, this isn’t a film about whether the love between two men can grow in the country, but whether any kind of love can blossom when the people’s livings are at risk. The farm work in the film isn’t romanticized, but rather shown in all its beautifully brutal, often messy, glory. If the film doesn’t reach Bresson or Malick-ian levels of communing with nature, it’s because Lee is often more fascinated by how the space affects his characters. Filled with rich performances (Gemma Jones and Ian Hart are exquisite as Johnny’s grandmother and father respectively) and some of the most breathtaking romantic scenes in any film this decade, God’s Own Country is a beautiful, much needed, reminder that we must learn to find hope in the mundane.
I sat down to speak to Lee, O’Connor and Secareanu about working together, their favorite romance films, and how they developed the chemistry that makes the film so compelling.
The film is obviously a story about Johnny discovering tenderness, but because of the setting and the sparse dialogue it made me think I was also watching a history of tenderness, and how people first discovered affection. Would you say tenderness comes from nature or nurture?
Francis Lee: I think it comes from nature.
Josh O’Connor: That’s really interesting because I hadn’t thought about that but now you’re saying it what I quite like is that through Gheorghe’s nurture, Johnny learns to love nature and his environment and family. By the end of the film Johnny’s beginning to have a new perspective of the farm. In the film we see him look up for the first time and see the world through Gheorghe’s eyes, so in some ways the nurture brings the nature.
Francis Lee: That’s brilliant. You’re right.
Alec Secareanu: I think you need to discover tenderness by yourself. We all have our own approach.
Francis Lee: And whether you want to allow it into your life or not.
Who would you say you learned it from?
Josh O’Connor: I think it can come from low key sources. Johnny’s situation at the beginning of the film is he hasn’t learned it, so in this narrative Gheorghe comes and teaches or re-teaches him, reminds him how to engage emotionally.
Francis, you made the actors take some “chemistry tests.” How did you know when you’d found what you needed?
Francis Lee: I cast Josh first in the UK. I’d been to Bucharest in Romania and had a shortlist of three actors I liked. Alec was always my favorite but I knew this film would live or die based on the relationship, so it was important to see if the two guys would get on. I flew three guys from Romania to London and with each of them and Josh, I spent a couple of hours in a room and we did some scenes. I would take Josh on his own, give him direction and then see how the other guy would react. We played, really. You want bits of tension, a counterpoint. You want the actors to push each other, but also to accept, listen, and be open with each other. Josh and Alec did that in the room brilliantly. I was aware that actors are very clever and conditioned to want to get jobs, so of course they’re not going to look like a pain in the ass with me there. I sent them for a cup of tea, hid around the corner and watched them, how they interacted. You know what people are like when they don’t know each other–they have tea but spend the time on their phones–but these guys weren’t. They were talking, laughing, listening, it felt very right.
Did you expect the role of a director to be similar to that of a matchmaker?
Francis Lee: I mean, yes. What you’re doing is bringing a whole bunch of people together, not just actors but crew. You don’t only need them to be great at their job, but you want people you can bring on your journey, people open to working how you want to work. You need their skills, but also need to make sure you can all work together.
You gave Josh and Alec entire histories of their characters. Did the actors come up with any secrets they wouldn’t share with you?
Francis Lee: No, the rules were these: we developed the characters together, I’d give them questions or tasks, we’d talk about their thoughts and so on and so forth. We built the characters and they have secrets from each other but I have to know everything. If something comes up I can make suggestions during specific scenes, which I wouldn’t be able to if they didn’t give me that information.
You’ve spoken about how every single sound in the film was scripted, which made me think the screenplay probably looked like a novel. Were you ever interested in doing a book?
Francis Lee: No. First of all I don’t like reading books. I don’t get any pleasure from reading. The script I see as a blueprint. It’s not the finished thing but part of the process. It’s not in a sense work of art in itself. I see the world visually so I always play out everything in pictures, not words.
I’m an immigrant so I appreciated the story you were telling through Gheorghe about how not all immigrants leave their countries because they want to, but because they need to. For you Alec, was it refreshing to read a screenplay that acknowledged that?
Alec Secareanu: The first time I read the script I really liked the fact my character is a Romanian, because there is a debate in the U.K. about the Romanians. Preparing for the character I spoke to a lot of Romanians who left the country to work and be able to support their families back home. They went through things like xenophobic employers, ten or twelve people living in the same room with beds one over the other, there were a lot of things I found out working on this part about my people. Just in the last 15 years over 3 million Romanians have left the country. It’s really sad because a lot of people are leaving because they can’t find work. It’s tragic.
This is random, but I’m from Honduras and I believe Romanian movies are the best when it comes to capturing the spirit of my home country, even if we’re divided by language and a whole ocean.
Alec Secareanu: We’re both Latin people. This is why we have a lot of similarities in our cultures.
Obviously you don’t get to decide when the film comes out and you’ve spoken about how by the time the film was released Brexit had turned it into a period film. As a gay man and an immigrant I love the idea that stories should be universal and all that, but because of the rise of xenophobia in the world it’s also true that we need our stories to be specific. How do you navigate between those two concepts?
Francis Lee: That’s really interesting. I never felt it was my job to critique the film or to place it in a canon or a political sense. I worked from a very personal point of view and that’s kind of it, really. There was never a moment I thought something wouldn’t fit in the film because it wouldn’t “cross over” or play in certain multiplexes. My approach was truthful and authenticity for the characters. It’s been super interesting to see what’s happened. In the U.K. the film is still in the cinemas. It’s made significant money. It’s one of the biggest independent British films. It’s extraordinary and I think if I had been second guessing myself about what would work for certain people, the film would’ve lacked truth.
Since the love scenes were choreographed did the actors have any ballet or dancing background? Or were you guys nervous about memorizing moves?
Francis Lee: No, they were very rudimentary steps.
Francis Lee: As a director I don’t like making my actors rehearse, I want to keep everything for the camera. In this sense we knew what they would do in terms of the explosion and how it would develop, but the moves were more mechanical. [Alec does the moves.]
I think we’re all suckers for love stories, so what are some of yours?
Francis Lee: Yeeees. Can I go? [Looks at both actors who nod.] I love love stories. For me the references for this film were An Officer and a Gentleman, Working Girl and Pretty Woman. I love 80s romance films, but I can go on. The Bridges of Madison County. My God, I love that movie.
Josh O’Connor: I really love Love, Actually, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Valentine. Notting Hill is also something I completely love. They’re all sweeping love stories that are kind of escapist and celebrate love.
Alec Secareanu: I can only think of French movies, I love Blue is the Warmest Color and Jeux d’enfants.
Francis Lee: The best one has got to be Now, Voyager though.
When Paul Henreid lights both cigarettes at the same time I always swoon.
Francis Lee: I was talking to Josh about that scene and how it was code for sex since they couldn’t show it, so they had them smoke. Virgins in films of that period didn’t smoke, so if you had a cigarette it meant you’d had sex. In Voyager Bette Davis’ cigarette box is discovered in her room and she’s embarrassed because it means she’s had sex! [Laughs.]
Did you give the actors assignments in terms of things to watch? Since there is no Francis Lee canon yet, how do you build your library of references?
Francis Lee: DVDs. It’s old fashioned where I live cause there’s no internet, so occasionally I’d give them films to watch to give them a sense of territory and what I hoped to achieve.
Josh O’Connor: Some of the films you gave us were for different reasons, maybe one scene had lighting he loved, but there was not one film that was “it.” They were all little moments from different films.
Josh, I watched a few episodes of The Durrells and I couldn’t believe it was the same actor cause you’re so bright eyed and lovely there and so broody in this film. Were fans of the show surprised?
Josh O’Connor: I guess?
Francis Lee: I was so shocked when I met him. I couldn’t meet him at first and he sent a tape with some scenes. He looked so emotionally repressed and difficult, and I met him and was so surprised. He’s such a transformative actor. I’ve never seen The Durrells though.
Josh O’Connor: It’s a totally different world, format, and genre. One of the most exciting things about my job is throwing myself into different ways of working. If someone’s a big fan of the show and they see this film it’s nice. It means I did my job well.
Francis Lee: How do you think people would react if they see this first and then go to The Durrells? Would they be disappointed?
Josh O’Connor: If they went to The Durrells to find Johnny they’d be deeply disappointed.
You’ve mentioned also that you were afraid to make action movies in case people didn’t think you were buff enough, but after all that farm work in God’s Own Country you probably feel more capable, right?
Josh O’Connor: No, I’m sure I could.
Francis Lee: There are skinny superheroes, Spider-Man is wiry isn’t he?
Josh O’Connor: I did an interview and they were the ones who asked if I felt I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t buff enough.
Having lived the farm life while shooting the film what do you think is the most overlooked aspect of life in the country?
Francis Lee: Mental illness, the loneliness, the poverty. Agriculture in the UK has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. You’re lonely, isolated, you never get a break and there’s not a lot of money.
Alec Secareanu: You need strength to survive in a farm.
Francis Lee: The farm in the film doesn’t exist anymore for instance.
I was fascinated by how the film addresses the fact that people in the country aren’t all ignorant homophobes. You’re defying liberal narrow mindedness to show that all political sides sometimes fall into prejudice.
Francis Lee: That’s been so interesting. It doesn’t come up often, but people ask me how realistic a same sex relationship can be in a homophobic rural society? Homophobic hasn’t been my experience at all. In fact it’s been the opposite, which makes me think twice about the middle class, liberal dweller who doesn’t see beyond their world. I don’t want to be political about this, but if you see the political climate in the U.S. and the U.K. there’s a sense that these ideas are closed off. I stand by the fact that this story and this relationship are a truthful depiction in a very specific geographical location.
Josh, you know how to draw and I wondered if you came back with any sketches from the country. As for you, Francis and Alec, did you pick up any new skills in the country that you use in your daily life?
Josh O’Connor: I actually didn’t do any drawing. I go through stages of doing the fine art stuff. They come in really weird times, more often than not the times when I’m more fruitful in my drawing is when I’m least creatively challenged in my acting life.
Francis Lee: You drew a bit before though.
Josh O’Connor: But mostly to inform. In terms of my personal ventures in art that was on the sideline because I was consumed by our film.
Alec Secareanu: I’m now more interested in the quality of life of animals in farms. Gheorghe really concentrates on that. He wants to give animals a good life, regardless of whether they die later or not. This stayed with me a lot, because I worked with so many animals for the first time in my life.
Francis Lee: I came up with a deep sense of pride and love for these two guys, and an incredible friendship.
Josh O’Connor: The process of making this film and Johnny’s experience taught me a lot about previous relationships I’ve had. Trying to empathize with Johnny indirectly gave me closure on previous relationships and some Johnny’s I’d experienced. It was a nice way of going “OK, that’s how they roll.”
God’s Own Country is now in theaters.