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An Interview With… Francis Lee (God’s Own Country)

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Conducted By: Darryl Griffiths

Happily singing the praises of this particular film, since attending a special Flatpack Assemble screening in Birmingham back in August and a prime example of why it has been a stellar year for LGBTQ cinema.

Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is both a rapturously beautiful cinematic experience and a mightily impressive debut, anchored by two stellar performances from Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu.

Here is our interview with the director…

From the outset. The most striking thing about the film is the rapturous beauty of its rural setting, sculpted by yourself, editor Chris Wyatt and cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Was it a real motivation of yours to provide a portrait of Yorkshire, that perhaps we haven’t seen on-screen before? 

In a word, yes. I had never seen the Pennines where I grew up and where I now live depicted in a way that connected with me or how I saw it. The landscape was always the starting point for the project. I knew it was always going to be a character in its own right. I was blessed to work with collaborators Chris Wyatt and Joshua James Richards who both totally keyed into this idea. 

Growing up in this area, how long have you been keen to bring this particular story to the screen and what was the writing process like? 

I had the idea for the film in 2013 and wrote it in about a week, with a week working on the draft so it was readable. 

Of course before God’s Own Country, you were acting in TV and film yourself. With your own extensive experience, did you feel you were at an advantage to articulate better to the cast the demands of the film? 

I love working with actors. I totally respect and admire their craft. I think I had an understanding of what it feels like to stand in front of a camera, having to make yourself vulnerable and deliver. I wanted the actors to feel incredibly safe and supported so they felt confident to deliver their very best – which they all did without an exception. I also think I have an understanding of the process actors go through. 

Josh’s and Alec’s respective performances in the film are wonderful. What were the distinctive qualities that you felt they could bring to their roles individually, as well as creating a compelling central dynamic? 

Both Josh and Alec are not just extraordinary actors but also people. Josh has a very rare gift. He is a totally transformative actor. What’s incredible is I don’t see one part of Josh in the role of Johnny. Alec is a very intelligent focused actor who totally understood Gheorghe. Alec brought so much depth to the character, he made the best choices which really fill the screen with his presence. They worked incredibly well together and are still great friends. 

The tight framing and close-ups. The lingering looks. The stifling intimacy of its sex scenes. There is almost a lyrical quality to the storytelling. Was it a conscious decision to keep it quite minimalist in conveying the emotion of the film? 

Working with the DP Joshua, we worked out pretty quickly we wanted a very close up perspective, we wanted to go on this ‘journey’ with Johnny, seeing his world through his eyes. We also wanted to minimize the landscape shots preferring to see the landscapes effect on the characters. I love immersive cinema and I really wanted the viewer to feel very much up close and personal with the action and story.  

The film certainly possesses a both clinical and nurturing authenticity in its depiction of farm life. Were there any drastic lengths you and the actors went to, to achieve this? 

Actually the farming scenes were some of the least problematic to shoot. This is mostly down to the preparation we did. Both Josh and Alec went to work on local farms for weeks before the shoot. They worked long, hard shifts and learnt everything about the work, animals and life. So, in the film everything is done for real. They were incredibly proficient.  
 
Particularly with Josh’s character Johnny, there is an element of ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side’ as he bemoans the lack of opportunities to pursue passions elsewhere. Was this a factor in the pursuit of your own career away from Yorkshire, that you could relate to? 

To a certain extent. The film isn’t autobiographical but personal. I grew up in Yorkshire in the 1970’s and 80’s when the world was a much bigger place and opportunities were limited. When I decided I wanted to train as an actor, the only option I knew was to go to London to attend drama school. I did often wonder what life might have been like if I had stayed in Yorkshire… 

Away from the common comparisons drawn with Brokeback Mountain. I wondered if there were any particular films or directors, whose style that you perhaps drew inspiration from in making God’s Own Country? 

Firstly, I should say I have only seen Brokeback Mountain once when it was first released. I didn’t consciously have it in my mind when I wrote the film. It’s a very lovely comparison that came from critics. In terms of other film makers I don’t think I was particularly channeling anyone in particular. I love Jacques Audiard and Joshua and I did watch a lot of his films in prep. When I was writing the film, I was thinking more about those wonderful romances from the 1980’s like An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman or Bridges of Madison County. I love love stories.  

With Alec’s character Gheorghe as he gradually overcomes the derogatory comments, it feels very relevant to the difficulties within British society right now. For example the attitudes towards immigration. Is this more to do with how audiences have interpreted the film, or were you personally keen to tackle this through the script? 

This is something that became much more pertinent post the Brexit referendum. I wrote the film in 2013 before I knew there would be this debate. I never intentionally set out to highlight these issues, I just wanted to tell a truthful story. 

For all the struggles these characters face, there is an overwhelming sense of optimism and hope littered throughout the narrative. Did you believe it was imperative to present a positive and progressive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, even more so given the setting? 

Basically, I’m a huge fan of hope. I wasn’t consciously trying to represent a same sex relationship in a progressive or positive way, I just love seeing characters struggle to overcome obstacles, personal or physical, giving way to even the smallest chink of hope.  

In the wake of such success at the likes of Sundance and Edinburgh this year with God’s Own Country, are there any projects already lined up beyond this project? 

I’m working on a new feature film. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but I am super excited and obsessed by it.

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Interviews

An Interview With… Kyle Cooper #Locarno71

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In his speech on the Piazza Grande at Locarno Film Festival, Kyle Cooper said that he ‘had been giving credit to everyone else for 30 years and now it was time for him to enjoy it’.

Kyle Cooper was the recipient of the Vision Award Ticinimoda awarded to those whose creative work behind the scenes, as well as in their own right, has contributed to opening up new perspectives in film.

As one of the most respected title credit designers and directors, Kyle Cooper has worked on over 300 movies, including the likes of Goodfellas, Se7en, Spider-Man and TV Series such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story.

It started again with Se7en and it’s like people had forgotten main titles could be something, and then you came up and broke that wall open. So are you in any way regretting what you did because suddenly you kind of opened the door and everybody came barging in. 

No, I think that it’s interesting, you see Saul Bass talk about these “studio trends” where people get tired of main titles and they say let’s just do Woody Allen main titles, we don’t need to spend the money and they can’t do anything for the film and then they forget that it’s the beginning of the movie. I mean sure we could put them all at the end- which is another trend- but it can become the perfect beginning to the film. It can dovetail whatever the live action is, whatever the director’s already intended to do, and the title designer, if they do a good job, for example, I was working on Goodfellas when I was a kid and I wasn’t solving Martin Scorsese’s problem and he said ‘I want something like Saul Bass, remember Saul Bass?’ and I said well, Saul Bass he’s still around, they’ve got an office around the corner! And then Saul Bass did Goodfellas and then the lesson I learned was, Martin Scorsese knew he wanted Ray Liotta to open the trunk and say “I always wanted a gangster” and he wanted the music to kick in, and that was all still there because Saul Bass saw what Scorsese had and  looked at the beginning and thought well they’re in a car, so I’ll have this type come by like passing cars and I was thinking as a young person, I need to think of a metaphor for the gangsters of Italy, I don’t know, the Italian flag? And no, he looked at the beginning and figured out how to integrate these nasty credits into the beginning that Martin Scorsese had, and the beginning wouldn’t be the same without the typography integrated and I would maintain that the movie ‘Se7en’ wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t begin the way that it began and so, again about Saul Bass- when he did ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ people had gotten kind of complacent about main titles and everybody sat up and said gosh, here’s an opportunity, here’s a bit of real estate, where we can do something creatively interesting, so you know, a lot of good work came out of that-  it sounds a bit arrogant if I say that Se7en did that but since you said it… it kind of woke people up to the potentialities of what a main title sequence could to for a movie and the best thing that it can do is set the tone and become the first scene of the movie and the last people that were here just asked me what I thought about the Netflix ‘skip title’ button, and I think you have to make the distinction of a film title sequence and a broadcast title sequence and the reason I say that is, if it’s a full feature, many times the main title is setting up something expositional that’s crucial to that particular film. Whereas the Netflix button- the title sequence isn’t intrinsically linked to the first scene of the episode. 

What would be the different functions and different uses of those titles – opening the movie, setting the tone are there other purposes in some way?  

Yeah- for a film title, a lot of times the studio will stream the movie and realise people don’t understand a certain thing, or they’re missing a point and they say how do we fix this? What shall we do? Oh, let’s talk about the serial killer in the main titles. I shot this thing for a movie called Identity and people didn’t understand the pathology of the plot and so we tried to make sense of that in the main title. So the other things that it can do- it can set the tone – I mean the titles that influenced me and the titles sequences that made me want to be a main title designer when I got out of graduate school were Altered States, Alien and The Dead Zone, and I think that those perfectly set the tone for those movies. They are minimalist and simple, but the music is impeccable and wonderful and it just makes you feel the way you’re supposed to feel at the beginning of that movie. You want to set the emotional tone for that film, you want to elicit an emotional response from the audience.  

How did you get into title design in the first place? 

I was a graphic designer and where I was working at the time, this man brought in a reel of movie titles and I saw some of Richard Greenberg’s work – Altered States and The Dead Zone – and that’s when I realised main titles combined both my interest in film and in graphic design and that was in 1985.  

Increasingly we are seeing almost little films at the beginning of the movie where the title sequence is- even animated when the film is live action or whatever –  I wonder if the internet has been an influence on that where you can see on YouTube, particular segments of a film- whether that’s changed the status of the title sequence? Like trailers for example, they’ve become an art form and people review trailers and I’m wondering if title sequences, in a similar way, have they become a discreet theme?  

I agree with you yes, and people talk about them and review them independently and I think it’s good but it shouldn’t be separate from the movie somehow I think they work better if they are the actual beginning rather than this disembodies music video – I could be wrong. Elvis Mitchell said in the New York Times, that the Dawn of the Dead title sequence was better than the movie and I felt bad, I felt because I’d never got to work with Zack Snyder, one of his associates said that was insensitive to him , but I would never set out to do that. The trailer is different because the trailer is made up of parts of the movie. 

What is your take on the current main-on-end, because I know you’ve done a lot of them yourself, but the whole thing of the main title is to set the movie up, even if they come a little later than the beginning but the tendency now is to have a small sequence at the beginning and let everything role at the end of the movie to an emptying room, Is that demeaning to your work, is it another challenge you have to overcome? What is your take on that?  

I don’t think it’s demeaning, to work on a main-on-end, I think a lot of times I have worked on them, they want the audience to leave with a spring in their step, they want the audience to dance out of the theatre –like in Iron Man or in both Sherlock Holmes movies – let’s remind them what they’ve seen, and have them leave with a good feeling, so in that sense there is a necessity to them. The first Sherlock Holmes movie felt like that, it was kind of a celebration of what you had just seen and it worked visually and it was okay. Marvel does it all the time, I don’t feel like it’s a lesser job but you’re not really setting a tone, if the movie ends on a dark tone, they usually decide to have white-type over black. You could have a dark movie and you could set a dark tone at the beginning, but you can’t do that as much with a main-on-end. Maybe your options of what you could do in a main-on-end would be limited.  

So in regards to your creative influence at the start, does a director give you a strict brief, as you said, Martin Scorsese guided you to the idea of what he wanted for Goodfellas, so how much freedom do you have in creating these titles? 

I’m so interested in getting information, and finding out about what the movie is and what everybody’s intention is, and if the director gives me something to go on, I don’t mind having the box I have to work within be smaller because specific perimeters have been provided because I feel like an idea is only as good as its execution, for example, I shot money burning for the Hughes’ brothers for ‘Dead Presidents’ a long time ago and they had that idea. I don’t mind if the idea comes from the director and I’m just executing it, but I still try to execute it in a way that I think is visually sophisticated myself. I’ve been in situations where it’s completely my idea, and I’ve presented boards and they’ve been approved and I get the director telling me, or giving in notes on what I created. The director always has to approve what I do, I am a graphic designer so I have a client but they have to like what I’m doing. 

Is there a director you look forward to working with again? I know you’ve done a lot of work with Terence Malick, there have been directors who have come to you more than once- but is there anyone that you really feel- wow, I’m really looking forward to working with them again! 

People ask me if I have to make choices on what to work on, and if I’d choose to work on a movie that wasn’t a good movie or work on higher profile things- the truth is my choices right now are more about the people that come back and I like to work. Is there someone I’m hoping comes back again? I had a nice experience working with Scott Cooper on Black Mass and on Hostiles. Ben Stiller is my friend, he wanted me to some work for him, the last thing I worked on with him was Zoolander 2 and that had a bit of trouble so I don’t know if I’ll work with him again- I’d like to. I liked working a bit with Ridley Scott on Exodus and Prometheus and I think not really. I like Gareth Edwards, the first Godzilla director and I usually have a pretty good relationship with who the director is and if the come back, I try to help them. There isn’t anybody that I’m desperate to have give me a job that I can think of. But rather than pitch on new business and compete against other companies to get new business, I’d prefer to work with someone who knows who I am and knows what I bring to the table. 

What is your favourite Saul Bass title sequence? 

My favourite Saul Bass titles are- The Man with the Golden Arm, Take a Walk on the Wild Side when the two cats fight and I kind of like Casino – like the idea behind it.  

Some people have started to remake old movie posters- is there a title you would like to remake a title sequence to? A classic movie maybe?  

The Thing by John Carpenter I would like to remake. That does have a nice title sequence but that is just the first thing that came into mind.  

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An Interview With… Ethan Hawke #Locarno71

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Ethan Hawke, despite being only 47, has been acting for well over 30 years. After his breakout role in 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society he has had iconic roles in Reality Bites,  Gattaca, Training Day and Boyhood. 

His work with Director Richard Linklater has resulted in one of the most beloved film series of recent times in the ‘Before’ trilogy and this year looks set to be one of his best yet.

With a standout performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and his feature film Blaze, which he wrote and directed set for wide release soon, Ethan Hawke isn’t going anywhere soon.

We spoke him at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival  where he is receiving this years Excellence Award, given to those who through their work and talent, have enriched the cinema with their unique contribution. It’s past winners include Isabella Huppert, Christopher Lee and Susan Sarandon. 

How does it feel at this stage of your career to be given a lifetime achievement award? 

On one level, I feel completely undeserving but on another level I feel well… Richard Linklater told me ‘don’t get too high on yourself, these are what you call “mid-career check ins” and it means you’ve made it to this one stage and in the next round everybody will hate you again and then you have to survive long enough to get to the next round and then you can be the head of the Jury’- so I’m in the front tier of the second row. 

At the beginning of ‘Seymour’ (showing at Locarno), you said you were struggling for a long time with why you do what you do, has that changed since you made the documentary and since you had the encounter with Seymour Bernstein?  

I think so. Part of why I think I made that movie was to spend more time with him. Some people have a mid-life crisis and buy a Porsche – I had a mid-life crisis and made a documentary about an Oxygenarian piano player. One of the messages he has to offer people is ‘you are enough’. I think my take-away from this was just to accept myself, and it’s not something that’s just done. It’s something you have to keep doing. 

You were saying about “mid-career check-ins”, but looking back on your career, you seem to have had a charmed career and you’ve never really had the troubles everyone else has had. You’re always visible, people always know what you are doing – and it’s always something only you would be doing and nobody else. 

Well thank you for saying that! I hope that that’s true. There was a magazine article back home that was talking about the success of ‘First Reformed’ and the reception of ‘Blaze’ that I was poised to have the best year of my life and I may be having my “Matthew McConaughey Moment”. My friend Richard Linklater phoned me up and said – ‘for you to have a “Matthew McConaughey Moment” you would have had to of been washed up! What they can’t write is you’ve done the same thing consistently through your entire life’- and I’ve been lucky that way and the reasons why luck has given me that charm is because really early on, I’ve tried to solve all of my problems with working and that’s when my first marriage fell apart but I just worked harder than ever, and that’s why I went back to the theatre-which is a great healer for actors because it’s incredibly hard and I think that when you really apply yourself, humility naturally rises, you meet your own walls. It’s also strange to be 47 and have been making movies for almost 30 years; it’s a little rare actually. 

You recently published a wonderful little book called ‘Rules for a Knight’, which is all about decency. What is the biggest misconception of you, now you have the chance to correct it?

Being proud of being good, doesn’t really make any sense, because if you’re good, pride would be an obstacle. There’s so many ways I’m not good and the truth is, you don’t want to be perceived as good because you feel that you won’t have an edge or be cool, the way young actors want to be. I was very lucky as a young person to have parents with very strong spiritual beliefs and the only thing that was really important to them was their spiritual life. As soon as you depart from spiritual success, that determines your worth- they really wouldn’t love me any better or less if I won Best Actor at Venice or didn’t. That’s not how they grade. They love me for how I’m doing in my own inner-journey- and as a young person you think that’s corny, but as you get older you think that’s actually not corny at all, that’s actually reality. As you start to live long enough to see people’s ego’s really hurt themselves, we end up hurting ourselves with our own self-importance. Finding a balance between believing in yourself and trying to have an inner life that matches something you can be proud of, or that you would want the people that love you to be proud of. I’m aware of what a wonderful seat this is to be in, and an instant gratitude takes place. It’s your work inside that makes you prepared to handle all the different vicissitudes that are going to come.  

You were saying before about the spiritual background that you have and that sense of what it means to be good, how much did those thoughts feed into ‘First Reformed’? 

When I started the script for First Reformed, on one of the first pages, it talks about all of the books that are on Reverend Toller’s desk and they were almost all books my mother had given me. There was a list of them, Thomas Merton being one of them. I felt like at been prepared for this role. One of the things Merton himself writes about, he was already starting to see an obsession with “celebrity” happen and having a “public self”.  I think it helped me deal with celebrities- what I mean is, one of the last times I spoke to River Phoenix, he was talking a lot about how people perceived him and how hard it was to constantly trying to figure out who you are and tell people what you’re not, like when people label you. I wasn’t having that problem because I knew that all of that was fake. And River had just been to the Oscars and he couldn’t believe how fake the Oscar’s were. He said ‘ the statues aren’t gold, they’re like paper! It’s so fake you wouldn’t believe it!’ and I remember thinking, ‘if you’re trying to make me feel bad for you going to the Oscar’s then fuck you!’. I realise now, understanding and accepting the phoniness of the world, you’ve just got to take it as a truth and not be hurt by it every time, it happens. 

Were you disappointed when Boyhood didn’t win anything? 

That’s my point- not at all, because I never saw that as -you want the work to be worthy, but if you get caught up in seeing other people’s definitions of what is the authentic way for you to live your life- it wouldn’t make the movie better or worse and it wouldn’t affect the final cut of that film one bit. I always tell people it’s a little better if you don’t. I hate it when life always moves the goal line, we made a movie with our closest friends for nothing, over 12 years- about the subtle movements of growing up- and it found it’s way in the commercial markets. That’s a miracle. You don’t give up with your heart so easily. I wasn’t disappointed, I was so proud. I’ve spent my life making little indie movies that no-one even hears of and so to turn that victory into a defeat, would be a waste of time.  

What’s the challenge in doing movies like ‘The Purge’ and ‘Predestination’? 

Well, by the time I was 20 years old, I’d had two great mentors – Joe Dante and Peter Weir.  Dante and I sat down and watched ‘The Howling’ and he said – drive-in movies, if done with art and love can be amazing. It’s like the Trojan horse of Troy- if I said let’s watch werewolf movie and instead secretly, it’s a PTSD movie about the Vietnam War. Get Out is a great example. Another example of these “Trojan horse” movies. If I told you I was making an important film about race relations in America, you wouldn’t want to come, you’d feel like you’re being preached to. If I tell you it’s a scary movie, he comes into the house…. etc… and ‘The Purge’ is the same way- set in ‘the future’ when rich people don’t care about poor people- and I love that because there’s something punk rock about it, it’s not what it seems. Movies are different ways of people trying to express themselves. 

 Austin, Texas is a huge part of your career, ‘Blaze’ is also a tale about Austin, do you think that there are other stories to tell about Austin- a town that is probably so unique- that the world should know more about it? 

The short answer is yes, but the long answer is- the whole world is like that and all these stories need to be told and one of the great things is that we are at this weird in-between place in time right now where it’s very possible for anybody in the world to make a good movie, you can shoot it on your phone and edit it. If you have something to say, it’s like a novel. If you’ve been taught to read and write and you have some paper and a pen, you can write a great novel. You can do it from jail, you can do it on a boat, and now the same is true with a movie. And it’s changed the game. That’s why film-festivals have become so important because you guys are curators. You address what the world should be paying attention to, what should be seen and if we didn’t have these festivals, big business would crush all of the smaller ones.  

You’ve just made two movies about obscure musicians, how does that all tie in with those themes and what drew you to those characters? 

I think just a natural love of music. A celebration of the people I’ve spent my life with. You’re teachers will all tell you, write what you know and I know people like Blaze- I didn’t know him, but I knew people like him and I felt qualified to write that story, because I’ve had to swim in that water.  I’m just trying to follow my gut and I feel that you need to find what you enjoy, and let the love grow. 

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Sam Claflin and Baltasar Kormákur on the challenges of making ‘Adrift’

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Real-life stories sell. We’re intrigued by the impossible, the gritty survival story. Unconsciously drawn to the fear of nature taking over (and winning.)

Adrift is the adaptation of one such real-life tale of horror. Based on the book written by survivor Tami Oldham (played by Shailene Woodley who also as a producer credit on the film), it follows her sailing trip with partner Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) as they veer directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins, drifting across the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean.

With no hope of rescue, 24 year-old Tami has to look deep inside herself to conjure the strength and determination needed to save herself and the only man she has ever loved.

The film was screened on Monday to an audience who held their breath at every twist and turn of the film. The cinematography is gorgeous, the ocean at once breathtaking and horrifying.The joy that came with the freedom of sailing out into the open was swiftly replaced with the terror of being stranded out of sight.

In places, a weak script was held up by two powerful central performances. Woodley is mesmerising as a woman who is forced to grow significantly over a short period of time as the will for survival kicks in. Claflin is enigmatic and devastating, bringing gravitas to his scenes. Once the pace of the film takes hold, Woodley runs with it and carves out a naturalistic approach to what is a very physically demanding and emotionally charged role.

Attending the screening for a conversation on the film was Claflin along with the director, Baltasar Kormákur (Everest). Although having hired several VFX outlets to help work on some key sequences including the storm, Kormákur assembled a skeleton crew and shot most of the film on the open water. ‘I’d never sailed before’ admits Claflin, who talked about the intense sea-sickness that plagued him for the first few weeks of the shoot. ‘I definitely didn’t have my sea legs.’

The crew had to pitch in to get the shots they needed in a short timeframe, ‘we had to consider where the sun was, where the wind was blowing, how blue the water was in the shot. It was a real learning curve to work with nature. Mother nature was the third main character in the film, definitely’ explained Kormákur. ‘It was a group effort to get the shots,’ added Claflin, ‘everyone would help the others out, whether the DOP, catering or wardrobe. There was no trailer to escape to, you’d be passing equipment over your head to get it to where it needed to be.’

The real Tami was on set for two weeks of the shoot, having consulted on the script during preproduction. ‘I was very nervous’ admitted Kormákur, ‘you’re always a bit worried that they’ll come to set and want to meddle. But Tami understood what we were trying to do with the story and she appreciated the film we were making.’

Adrift is in cinemas now.

 

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