God's Own Country Unearths a Moving Gay Love Story in Rural Isolation

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Taylor Henderson

God's Own Country headlined at Outfest last week, marking writer and director Francis Lee's full-length feature film debut, and opened to rave reviews.

The film follows Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), a young man working long hours on his family's desolate English farm in Yorkshire who fills his spare time with binge-drinking and casual sex. When his family hires an extra farm hand from Romania, the handsome Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a desire Johnny never felt before awakens and ultimately changes his life forever.

PRIDE sat down with director Francis Lee and actor Alec Secareanu and discussed the not-quite coming out story, the beauty and isolation that inhabits the hill country, and what it means to love and be loved.

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PRIDE: What inspired your film God's Own Country?

Francis Lee: I grew up in Yorkshire in the Pennine Hills in a very isolated area. It was a place that was my home, but I escaped it when I was 20 to move to London to try it as an actor. But all of the time I was away from there, I could never get that landscape out of my head.

It felt to have gotten underneath my skin. It informed me so much, emotionally as well as physically. This place was both beautiful and free, but also oppressive and brutal. When I started thinking about making film, it was the landscape that really that felt like a very natural home to start exploring. 

The film is unlike any queer movie I've seen before. It's kind of a coming out story, but is more about a guy learning how to love someone romantically, but also himself and even his family. 

Lee: Yeah, I always knew I didn't want to tell a coming out story. As a writer or as a director, the work that I'm interested in making feels very personal. It's something that I feel connected to. For me, the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life is to open up emotionally to love and be loved. That's what I wanted to look at.

In terms of the canon of queer cinema, I felt that I had seen the coming out story very often. Of course, there's absolute space for that and that's an important story to keep telling, but for me, it was very much about representing that difficulty of first love, of falling in love. 

Why is the movie called God's Own Country?

Lee: Yorkshire is known, as are many other areas in the world, as "God's own country." It's the name proud Yorkshire people give Yorkshire. To me, it added another meaning, but it also meant that heaven is a place you can define for yourself. 

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With Gheorghe moving from Romania to work on Johnny's farm, the movie subtly touches on immigration relations, which feels especially poignant post-Brexit and in the midst of Donald Trump's presidency. Was that purposeful?

Lee: When I was an actor for twenty years, I always wanted to write and tell stories and I never felt confident enough to do that. I got to a certain age and I thought, look you're going to have to do this or you're never going to do it. So I gave up being an actor and got a job in a junkyard to earn money to self-finance a couple of short films.

While I was working there, I was working with this guy from Romania and we became really good friends. I found the reaction that people had towards him coming to the UK to work and build a better life for himself quite shocking. The kind of casual xenophobia and the not so casual. In the UK, when Romania joined the EU, there was an awful lot of tabloid press about how all these Romanians were going to flood into the UK and exploit our social security system and our health benefits and they were lowlifes.

Alec Secareanu: When the tabloids were going crazy about the Romanian people invading the UK, there was only one Romanian entering the airport in Heathrow. As far as I remember, there was a lot of press asking him what he was doing there and he was on vacation. This is a true story as I remember it. Press was waiting for Romanian immigrants to invade the UK and there was only one person coming in the UK that day. 

Lee: All of this was quite shocking to me and I was embarrassed by my country in that sense. My friend, the Romanian guy, had such an incredible attitude towards his position in the UK. It was something that just really stuck with me.

When I was writing this film, I knew I always wanted the character coming to the form to be an outsider. It just seemed to fit perfectly. Gheorghe comes from a similar background. He's from Transylvania and from a rural farming background, so he would have some similarities with Johnny. But actually, he would be very different and bring a different perspective. That's what I was thinking about. When I wrote the film, a referendum on Europe hadn't been muted at that point, and there certainly hadn't been a Brexit vote.

Gheorghe and Johnny have some intense chemistry on screen. Can you talk about that?

Secareanu: For me, it was a pretty long casting process. Francis came to Romania to see 13 or 14 actors, then I went to London to do a chemistry test with Josh and he was already on board. That obviously worked out really good and after that, we shot the film.

It's very interesting because the first two weeks, we had two weeks of prep, and Francis wanted to keep us as apart as he could. Basically, for the first weeks Josh and I met briefly, and after we started filming, we moved in together and our relations as friends started to develop at the same time as the relations on screen. That obviously helped us a lot because we filmed it chronologically. This is why you can feel that kind of chemistry on screen. 

You filmed the movie chronologically? That's not very common in the industry.

Lee: I wanted to do everything I possibly could to help this relationship and help the actors. Actors are the number one most important people on the set and I really respect them and their craft. I started work individually with both boys about three months before the shoot and we built their characters from scratch from the moment they were born until the moment they meet in the film and we learned absolutely everything about them. Not just their relationships, but their preferences, like where they bought their socks and if they had sugar in their tea. By the time they came to set, both boys were totally immersed in their characters.

I sent them off to work on farms for two weeks because I wanted all the farming stuff to be totally real and authentic. Alec worked with my dad and Josh went to work on the farm where we shot the film. They did long shifts because I wanted them to physically feel like what that world feels like. They did all the jobs with the animals, they learned how to build dry stone walls, they did everything. That impacted them, not just practically, but physically and emotionally. When it came to shooting, whatever I could do to help this relationship, I would.

When the boys met on screen for the first time, it was kind of the first time they were really meeting so it just added that tiny little bit of extra nervousness or energy or trepidation. It just really helped all this layering and the performances. The scenes in the film felt like they were all building blocks on this journey. And one scene would impact massively on the next scene and so on and so forth. So in order to achieve that, I thought shooting chronologically would really really help. What it also did, what I was very keen to do, was have that very slight switch from winter to spring, to kind of echo this relationship if you like. Because we shot chronologically, I was able to do that, so you get that shift in light and the colors of the environment about to change. It's very subtle but it's all there. I love layering as a filmmaker. 

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There were live lamb births and skinnings in the film that were tough for a city boy like me to watch. Were those real?

Lee: I knew I never wanted a stunt double or a hand double because as a viewer of the film I never wanted to sit there and go "mmmm that's not real." I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to be pulled along in this journey and I didn't wany anything to pull me out of it. Alec learned how to birth lambs and that is Alec birthing a lamb. That is Alec skinning a lamb. That is Josh with his arm up a cow's arse. Everything in the film is absolutely for real. 

It was such a lovely thing as well. Alec and Gheorghe are very different people. We shot the birthing scene in one take, and Alec was amazing and delivered the lamb and delivered it as Gheorghe and was pragmatic and practical about it, but as soon as I said cut Alec had to go off and have a little cry because that was Alec's response. 

Secareanu: It was a bit emotional, to be honest. You have a lot of responsibility when you birth a lamb because you have two lives in your hands. Everything has to be perfect. If anything might go wrong, it might go totally wrong and this is why you have to be very careful. We were filming it and there was a lot of tension. This is why I had to have a moment. 

Lee: We also taught him to make cheese for the film. Alec makes really good cheese now. Really tasty. 

Secareanu: Apparently. If this acting job doesn't work I will be a farmer. 

God's Own Country is set for a stateside release on October 27! Watch the trailer below.

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