At a Q&A for God’s Own Country at Sundance, a woman commented, “I’ve never seen intimacy depicted on screen like that before.” She wasn’t talking about the sex scenes — not entirely. In his directorial debut, Francis Lee, who won the World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for Directing, has crafted a touching story of first love and economic hardship set in rural Yorkshire.

Josh O’Connor gives a superlative, emotionally layered performance as the film’s emotionally closed-off protagonist, a miserable twentysomething, prone to getting blackout drunk, who is unable to cope with the burden of running the family farm for his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and ailing father (Ian Hart). When a Romanian temporary farmhand Gheorghe (an excellent Alec Secareanu) arrives, their initially combative relationship gradually transforms into something more intimate.

At Sundance, I sat down with Lee and his two stars, O’Connor and Secareanu, to discuss the making of the film, the intensive rehearsal process, and how the film’s aesthetic keeps us immersed in the love story.

7R: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Francis Lee (FL): I grew up in Yorkshire, very close to where the film is set and shot. My dad is a sheep farmer in Yorkshire. I left Yorkshire when I was 20 to go to London to train as an actor. But in all that time, I always went back. I could never get that landscape out of my head. I started to think about what life might have been like if I’d have never left, if I’d have stayed in Yorkshire, and if I’d have met someone there that I liked. What would that have been like?

Preparing the actors for the shoot

7R: What was the process of preparing with the actors for their roles?

FL: I was really lucky. I cast both boys about three months before the actual rehearsals started. The way I like to work and the way in which the boys wanted to work was very similar. We started to build the characters first. We work out everything about them: who they are, what they want, what colour socks they like, if they take sugar in their tea, and all of the emotional points in their life that have formed them to the moment we meet them.

When the boys came to Yorkshire, the characters were already really well formed and strong. The rehearsal process in Yorkshire was basically getting both boys out and working on farms. They did everything with the sheep, the cows, the land. They built walls. I knew, in this film, I wanted them to do everything and have that complete authenticity. My dad’s a sheep farmer. I didn’t want him coming to look at it and saying, “That’s not right.”

I also shot chronologically. I wanted to use that as a device, as a process, to see the relationship on-screen develop.

Josh O’Connor (JO): Once Francis first cast me, we went for lunch in London, on the Southbank. He pulled out this scrapbook with bits of material, poems, photographs, images, smells, sounds. It was like a sensory book. When he brought that out, it was a revelation for me. I do a similar thing for almost every role I’ve done before. It was finding someone who worked in a very similar way.

I did my own version of that. Me and Francis would talk on the phone and be like, “When was Johnny’s first sexual relation? Or, come up with a memory Johnny has with his father — maybe the happiest memory he has with his father.” It was so exciting.

When we got into the scenes with Alec, you were able to have emotional recall, have some sort of trigger: well, actually, in reality, if someone said that to me, knowing the memory that I’ve created with Francis, that’s going to have this emotional effect. I didn’t have to think that through. We’d done the work. It just happened.

Alec Secareanu (AS): It was very helpful to know all the life of the character. When we started to rehearse, we knew exactly at what point in their life the characters were. More than this, when we were shooting, when we were on set, we really, all of us, knew what we had to do. It went very smoothly, natural, organic. Being truthful to our characters was very important.

How shooting chronologically helped character development

7R: How did shooting chronologically help?

FL: I wanted to do that because I wanted to see that relationship blossom and grow. Each scene that had been written were like building blocks: each one impacted on the next one, and so on and so forth. Whatever I could do to help facilitate that process, of those building blocks, with the boys, I would do.

The film starts with the character Johnny on his own until the boys meet on screen. So I kept them kind of separate as actors, as well. Josh lived on my dad’s farm, and Alec lived in the town. When they met on screen, they didn’t know each other that well. There is a certain amount of tension between them as people, not just as characters, which plays out beautifully on screen.

As soon as they meet on screen, and are starting to get on, they moved in together, as actors, and developed this incredible friendship and bond, which again, you see on screen. One of them goes away in the story, and so I sent that actor away to London. Because they’d developed such a lovely relationship, the one that was left missed him. When he came back, there was a little bit of a nervous excitement about seeing him again. All of these little practical things actually enhance what you’re seeing on screen.

JO: Working chronologically is basically the dream. It’s what you want on everything. You very rarely get to do it.

AS: It was very helpful for the continuity of the characters and their evolution, their relationship. Even the thing that we didn’t live together from the beginning, that really helped us. We saw each other only one time.

7R: As you were shooting, how do you figure out how the characters are changing from one scene to the next?

JO: We always knew that for Johnny, there had to be a very subtle change. I really don’t enjoy films where you see this unbelievably dramatic change in someone, because I don’t believe it. Unless the film is spanning across many, many years, it just doesn’t happen.

Johnny’s not an emotionally open person. He can’t articulate his emotions. He still can’t articulate his emotions at the end of the film. He just tries.

Francis would stop me in a take and be like, “It’s too early to smile. You’re taking a step too quickly, hold it back.” Or, “now you can afford to show something else. Something’s changed here.”

FL: These two characters, who are very different, because they’re in different emotional places when they meet, they have a different physicality. Gheorghe does look up. It’s new to him. He does take the time to see it and think about it. Whereas Johnny is so closed up emotionally, he can’t look up — until he sees it through someone else’s eyes.

7R: How did you approach the relationship between Johnny and his parents? It’s a family that’s very stiff upper lip. Every time he’s on the precipice of becoming more open, when he’s back with them again, he closes off again.

FL: I wanted to represent a family that, deep down, loved each other and care for each other massively. But they don’t have the energy, the time, or maybe the words, to be able to sit and say, “I love you,” or “You’re so amazing.” The language that they use, for me, is absolutely peppered with care, love, and joy. But it’s a practical care and love. It’s borne out of living a hard existence, physically.

JO: Johnny, at the end of the film, doesn’t become emotionally available. He just tries, and realizes that’s something that he needs to allow himself to be, emotionally open.

That moment with the father, when he just holds Johnny’s hand and says, “Thank you,” that gets me every time. It’s quite a British thing for sons to have a bit of a closed off relationship with their fathers. I know I do. Little moments like that are actually really powerful.

Developing the aesthetic for God’s Own Country

7R: How did you develop the aesthetic for the film?

FL: I wanted this film to be totally immersive. The camera sits physically close to these people so that we’re literally hearing and seeing them breathe. We’re not allowing the audience to come out of Johnny’s experience.

Having grown up and lived in Yorkshire, I knew that there’s a different attitude that people have there toward the landscape. People don’t stand around and look at it, and go, “My god, it’s so beautiful.” Their head’s down, their shoulders are hunched, their hands are in their pockets. They get on with the work. There’s only one landscape in the entire film. I didn’t want to show it in a bucolic, pastoral way, because I see that landscape as brutal and hard and difficult. With our wonderful D.P. [Director of Photography], Joshua James Richards, we developed that style.

Working with D.P. Joshua James Richards and Editor Chris Wyatt

I knew the D.P. was physically going to be the closest person to the actors. That requires someone very special to not put these guys off, not to make them feel uncomfortable, because they were doing some very intimate things in the film. Joshua’s sensitivity and creativity blended with these two boys’ brilliantly. They felt very, very safe and secure with him. 

I did cover everything. There are wides of all the scenes. In the edit, with my editor Chris Wyatt, who’s an incredibly creative man, as well, we discovered that we didn’t like the wides. We didn’t want to come away from Johnny. We wanted to stay in there. We wanted to build that pressure. We wanted to feel anxious. So all the wides went out the window.

Developing the sound mix for God’s Own Country

7R: How did you develop the sound design for the film?

FL: I’m really obsessed with sound, like massively. The script is written with the sound in it. I live on the hill where the film is shot so I’m very aware of the different sounds. From the get go, I got my sound designer to go up to the location and record everything — just build a library of wind sounds, bird sounds, and odd, clanking metal, machinery sounds — so we would have that as part of our arsenal.

In the edit, we started to work with the sound design straight away. We didn’t wait for the mix. We started to feed it in all the time. For me, sound evokes emotion. It mirrors what you’re saying in the visuals. Sometimes, you can’t quite see what’s going on in the visuals, but you’ve still got the sound, and it’s still a very emotional, sensory experience.

The wind, we built very precisely and orchestrated almost like a chorus. Gheorghe has a specific wind that appears when he’s around, or the memory of him is still there. The birds are very specific. When that relationship is blossoming, the birds you hear are swallows and collared doves. They were purposely chosen because swallows are migrating birds so there’s always a sense they’re leaving, and they also mate for life. Collared doves also mate for life. When you hear the swallows, it’s when the boys start to develop a relationship. Then, they’re there as an echo, to remind Johnny that something’s gone wrong. They’re there again when he goes off to the potato farm. I worked incredibly deeply and precisely and painstakingly.

Lighting is very important in this film. Joshua and myself set this rule about lighting: when we first start, the lighting is cold. When Gheorghe arrives, he physically changes the lighting in the interiors. You see him change a lightbulb, take it from a place that’s cold and uninviting to a place of warmth. And that’s what he takes up wherever he goes.

There are all these subtle shifts in the film, in terms of sound, light, and design. There’s no red in the film, apart from where it’s purposefully placed: in Gheorghe’s jumper, on the coach going to see him, farm machinery.

This interview was originally published on an January 30, 2017.

Read the rest of our Special Issue on God’s Own Country here >>