Francis Lee will assure you that he had no other gay movies in mind when conceiving God’s Own Country, the film about two male farmers in Yorkshire who fall in love—not even Brokeback Mountain, which it’s been widely (and affectionately) compared to. In fact, he says the sweeping, hetero-focused studio romances of the ’80s were much more inspiring here. And yet, God’s Own Country, which is now playing in New York in Los Angeles, subtly defies what we have come to expect from on-screen portrayals of gay romances. It is frank in its depiction of their sex, it isn’t tragic, its characters don’t wrestle with their sexual identities in the homophobia-rooted ways that we’ve grown accustomed to watching (in fact, it isn’t outsiders who call them “faggots”—they reclaim the term and call each other it). “My experience was not struggling with sexuality from myself or from the community,” explains Lee.
Instead, God’s Own Country chronicles one young man’s journey toward intimacy. It’s a way more nuanced coming of age than your standard coming-out yarn, and it’s conveyed convincingly by principals Josh O’Connor (who plays Johnny) and Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe). As his father’s health crumbles, Johnny halfheartedly runs his family’s farm on the English countryside, having fast, anonymous sex with strangers periodically. His approach to men changes with the arrival of Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant Johnny initially degrades with epithets like “gypsy.” And then one day their aggressive tussling transitions into passion and their romance blossoms.
Lee worked with O’Connor and Secareanu for three months ahead of their six-week shoot to develop their characters, which they say made for a smooth filming experience in which it was rare to have more than two takes for each setup. The performances feel utterly lived-in, and call on the actors to do real-life farming—Secareanu, for example, delivers a lamb on screen with his actual hands. This combined with the unflinching gay sex (in a time when high-profile movies consciously flinch) gives God’s Own Country a vérité feel.
I spoke with Lee, O’Connor (who hails from Cheltenham, England), and Secareanu (who was born and raised in Bucharest) about their movie. While O’Connor and Secareanu declined to discuss how they identify sexually when asked (“I don’t see how that’s relevant in this context,” said Secareanu), Lee talked about how his personal experience as a gay man informed the making of this movie, and how his personal experience as a human raised on a similar farm informed his movie’s subtle but decided politics. An edited and condensed transcript of our interview is below.
JEZEBEL: This movie seems conversant with many of the onscreen depictions of gay love that preceded it. I wonder if the idea you had in mind was to subvert certain tropes and expectations.
Francis Lee: No, not consciously. Obviously I’ve seen some of those films and I’m a firm believer that we stand on the shoulders of what’s gone before. However conscious or unconscious the influence is, it’s there if you’ve seen something and it’s gotten into you. But I wasn’t consciously thinking about switching it up or looking at it differently. This is not an autobiographical film but it’s really personal and one of the things I wanted to look at was the idea of falling in love. That had been the hardest thing I’d ever done—making yourself open and vulnerable enough to love and being loved. I wasn’t interested in looking at sexuality in that sense or the issues around self-acceptance. I was more interested in looking at issues around vulnerability and openness and intimacy.
It seems like part of the idea here was to be as visceral as possible—not just in the explicit depictions of sex, but also those of life on the farm raising sheep. What made you decide to go that route?
Francis Lee: When people talk about the intimate scenes or the animals and they use words like “explicit” or “raw,” to me it just feels very normal. It doesn’t feel like I was purposely trying to be shocking. I grew up in that environment, my dad is still a sheep farmer on that hill. I now live back on that hill. If you grow up with livestock in that sense, you see the life cycle every single day. You see birth, life, death, and everything is part of a process. I wanted to see that [on screen] because that’s how I see that world. Also, I love immersive cinema. I love going into a dark row with a big screen with all the poeple and going on that journey and not thinking about what’s happening on my phone and just being dragged along with it.
Again with the sex scenes, I don’t see them as explicit.
I only say that because they’re often so watered down. I don’t think this movie is gratuitous or extreme compared to real life, only to other movies about gay romance.
Francis Lee: To me, it was super important. We’re dealing with a boy who isn’t middle class, who doesn’t sit around to articulate emotionally how he feels. He doesn’t go home and say to his gran, “So you know, I’ve been thinking I might be falling in love and I’m feeling a little bit scared.” I’ve got to show that visually and for me, the way in which Johnny has sex tells me so much about him. When you see him the first time with the guy in the cattle truck, instantly you know this is about his own gratification. It’s like a posh wank, really. He’s not communicating by having sex. He’s taking. And then as it develops, we see how he changes and how Gheorghe facilitates that. That to me was a very eloquent way of showing this shift in Johnny.
Josh O’Connor: The way Francis and Joshua [James], the DP, shot this film is the third character in the love story. As an audience, you’re allowed to be so close to the relationship. To follow that journey so intimately and not see the sexual journey of these characters, which in any relationship is so vital whether you have sex or not, I think you’d feel cheated.
Francis Lee: It’s part of the whole thing—like a lamb being born or the internal examination of a cow’s rectum. It’s part of the world. It’s that idea of the physicality of the world.
What was it like for you guys to do the sex and nude scenes?
Alec Secareanu: We had to get out of our comfort zones, not only with the sex and nudity but with the farming stuff. This is where Francis is so brilliant. He used to be an actor and he understands the process. He was able to create a very safe environment for me and Josh. We felt really safe in those moments. It was about trust from the beginning.
Josh O’Connor: I think Alec and I by the time we started filming had inhabited the roles so much that actually, the harder thing to do playing Johnny was to open up emotionally. The fact that he’s opening up physically is very difficult, but in actual fact the stuff Johnny found harder, being intimate rather than…
Francis Lee: …fucking…
Josh O’Connor: Yeah, when they first kiss and Alec introduces him to the idea of kissing, that’s hard. It never felt like a separate thing, in a way. It never felt like, there’s the story and that’s going to be hard, and there’s the sex scenes. It was just the film we were making.
Alec Secareanu: I think we approached them very mechanically in the beginning. It was more like a choreography that we developed for the sex scenes.
Given the depictions of sex, as well as the examination of the immigrant experience post-Brexit, do you think of this film as political?
Francis Lee: Of course, it is political because it’s a film and most films are political with a small p. When I set out writing this film, I wanted to write a personal exploration of emotion and a very specific place. And so all the things within it come from a very character-driven, personal point of view. Gheorghe is from Romania, and he’s come to the UK and experiences personal xenophobia. That was because when I was writing this film I had a job in a scrap yard and one of the guys I worked with was from Romania and we became good friends. I was shocked by his personal experience of coming to the UK but amazed with how he dealt with it. I didn’t overtly set out but now it exists in the world, and I guess it probably is quite political on many levels.
This movie celebrates masculinity in sex between men at a time when people are challenging just how much investment we have put into masculinity as a culture. I wonder what you think of that debate.
Francis Lee: I can only come back to that it’s a personal film and I guess I identify more like these characters than I would with another type of homosexual/queer. To me, this felt real and authentic and truthful. I have seen that [discussion] and it’s an interesting debate, but also one film cannot represent everybody. Moonlight cannot represent every black queer, as this film can’t represent every working class white queer or immigrant. This year there seems to be a choice of films you can see about same-sex relationships or with a trans character at the center of them. I think we should be celebrating all of that and having the debate about are these good films rather than pitching them against each other, or finding fault with them because you don’t find yourself represented in them.
Well, what’s crazy to me about taking that last thing you mentioned is, personally I still haven’t seen myself entirely represented on film and I’m doing just fine. I don’t need a movie to tell me who I am. It’s beautiful when you watch a movie and it feels true to life, but movies are chiefly fantasy escapism.
Francis Lee: I hadn’t seen myself represented on screen so what I did was went away, wrote a film, and made it. And now I can see something of my world. I think if that’s really your drive, go and make yourself a film.