It's easy to see why critics have described God's Own Country as the British Brokeback Mountain. After all, both films explore the love shared between two men who initially reject notions of affection, slowly coming to terms with their bond in the harsh wilderness. However, such comparisons also do Francis Lee's feature debut a grave disservice.
God's Own Country follows the life of a repressed young man named Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), who drinks too much in order to escape the monotony of life on a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Things take a surprising turn when a migrant worker called Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) arrives from Romania, opening up Saxby's world in this UK production that received rave reviews at Sundance and Berlinale this year.
During a roundtable interview at #Berlinale 2017, we spoke to the two lead actors who brought this unforgettable love story to life. With the help of O'Connor and Secareanu, we unpicked exactly why God's Own Country is destined to become a #gay cult classic in its own right, one that arguably betters Brokeback Mountain in a number of surprising ways.
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Josh O'Connor & Alec Secareanu Shared Genuine Chemistry On Set
With such a limited cast, the central bond shared between Saxby and Ionescu is key to the success of a film like God's Own Country. Fortunately, director Francis Lee went to painstaking effort to ensure that his two leads worked perfectly in sync from the very beginning.
Alec Secareanu (AS): "It was a very long casting process for me. First, I sent a tape, then Francis came to Bucharest to meet 14 actors and 3 of us went to London to do a chemistry test with Josh. I was very nervous […] a lot of pressure, but obviously it went really really well."
Josh O'Connor (JC): "The first time I met Alec, I thought he was a lovely chap. So me, and Francis and Alec talked after that about keeping a distance, so we shot the film chronologically [...] I underestimated how much of an impact that has on a performance. Usually, it's an actor's job to piece that altogether and make sure the jigsaw fits, but it's such a pleasure to experience each day something as that character. I was speaking in the accent and to an extent, living that character, so it's very helpful working that way."
Lee and his actors also worked hard to ensure that even their living conditions could enhance their performances, helping Saxby and Ionescu to develop a special bond during filming.
JC: "For the first two weeks, we lived separately, we had separate rehearsals and worked on two separate farms. We’d only ever see each on set, doing scenes that were very closed, not much eye contact, not much talking and then gradually, as we shot and their relationship builds, Alec moved into the cottage where I was staying and we became very good friends[...] I know for sure that our friendship will keep going [...] I think we’ll look back at this film being very important to our careers and for our personal lives. We went to places that were really emotionally hard and supported each other — I don't think that happens very often on a film set when you're just stuck in your trailer and not talking to each other."
To be a fly on the wall during those productions...
Francis Lee's "Visceral" Script Is Key To The Film's Success
It's a testament to both Francis Lee's writing and the actors involved that God's Own Country conveys so much with so little dialogue. Long periods of silence tell us more about the two lead characters & their relationship than prolonged declarations of love ever could. With that in mind, we asked Saxby and Ionescu about the script itself and whether they had room to improvise lines of dialogue:
AS: "No, not really, it was very tight. Francis wrote a beautiful script. When I read it, everything was there, the whole story. There were some explicit scenes, but after I met Francis, I understood that he knows what he wants with the story and where to go with it [...] He created a very safe environment for us to be open with these characters — that doesn't happen often — and because we really had to get out of our comfort zones to do all kinds of stuff, like the farming and the relations. He had a very healthy approach and process."
Surprisingly, it turns out that the script was far different than those who have watched the movie might suspect.
JC: "With the script, it was so detailed […] At Sundance, they asked how thin the script was. Obviously, there's not a lot of dialogue. It's more about what's not there, what's not spoken, because these characters can't articulate their emotions [...] but actually, it was a thick script, full of detail, even to the point of what sounds they can hear. It was so visceral [...] It was so detailed [...] everything was pitch perfect."
The Nudity & Gay Sex On Display Represents An Important Facet Of The Central Relationship
Despite the Brokeback Mountain comparisons, God's Own Country actually holds far more in common with Luca Guadagnino's #CallMeByYourName, which also proved to be a huge hit at Sundance and the Berlinale this year. However, while both films pushed physical #queer relationships at the forefront of their stories, God's Own Country took a bolder stance in regards to nudity, portraying full frontal shots of genitalia during some of the more sensual sex scenes.
JC: "With any film that includes sexual scenes or nudity, its a personal experience, but for me, I'd always approach it as if it's there for a reason [...] ultimately, as an actor, you have to honour the story you're telling. If it makes sense for the story, then it should be there. I think I could go through the script — and I did, meticulously — and ask, ‘Does that have to be there?’ Absolutely, it does."
AS: "If it helps the story and helps you to understand more about the characters you are playing and how to develop them, then [the sex scenes] should be there."
Some detractors would argue that full-scale nudity is never essential to a story, but they would be missing the point. Saxby and Ionescu both struggle to express their thoughts verbally, so it makes perfect sense that the physicality of their characters would play such an important role.
JC: "I don't think it's gratuitous either, I think it's real, because Francis is allowing an audience to totally look into that world and be in the same room as them. To shy away from that would have been bizarre and uncomfortable and unfair on an audience [...] You're looking at a little snapshot of these very important relationships in Johnny Saxby's life, a relationship with someone who allows him to be vulnerable and change him as a person. Those sexual experiences are of absolute importance, integral to that change and experience. It would be a strange film without them."
The Challenges Faced By O'Connor & Secareanu On Set Helped Improve Their Performances
In spite of the grim British weather, the countryside setting of God's Own Country captured the desolate beauty of Yorkshire in a way rarely seen on film. However, work on the farm also brought its own set of unique challenges for the actors involved:
AS: "The labor was the hardest thing[...] but we worked pretty good and the process was pretty intense."
JC: "The farming, I mean, two actors farming… I had to do this horrible thing one day on the farm when I was tagging ears. It seems like a very simple thing, but you hold them between your legs and they kick. I think I did about one hundred sheep in one afternoon and you’d be surprised; You're grabbing sheep, taking them in, puncturing them... You'd be so shocked, but a hundred sheep is a hard thing to do. We’re actors, we’re used to tea and sandwiches. It's hard work. [laughs]"
What both O'Connor and Secareanu neglect to mention is how they were also asked to help farmyard animals give birth, insert their arms into a cow's anus and even breathe life directly into the mouth of a baby lamb. The realism on display may have caused audiences to grimace at times, but it turns out that this was all a walk in the park for Secareanu, at least compared to the British weather.
AS: "I come from Bucharest. I came to the UK in March. I was expecting spring but in the first few weeks, I was very depressed [...] being outside and working on the film and doing very hard labor really affected me as a person, but I really tried to use this for my character. [Gyeorge] tries to integrate into the environment and nature [...] working with animals, being outside [...] and I tried to embrace that world on the farm."
'God's Own Country' Has Opened Up New Doors For O'Connor & Secareanu
While both O'Connor and Secareanu gushed about recent encounters with stars such as Woody Harrelson at Sundance, their own performances in God's Own Country ensure that they both share a promising future too. When asked whether Hollywood beckons in the near future, both actors remained positive, explaining that:
AS: "If you had told me this one and half years ago, I wouldn't have believed you, but anything's possible. You never know."
JC: "It's been insane [...] I’ve done a fair few films now, but mostly smaller parts in big budget films [...] I've also done the leads in indie films that haven't quite made it or did the festival thing and died out. To actually hit something that really means a lot to you, like this script does…"
As anyone who has seen God's Own Country can attest, the film holds a genuinely powerful impact that means just as much to the audience as it does to the actors involved.
The Love Portrayed In 'God's Own Country' Is Universal
What's perhaps most impressive about God's Own Country is the way in which it explores the internal struggles that homosexual men face. Aside from a brief yet pained reaction from the Saxby's grandmother, the main obstacle that both men face is their own inability to deal with intimacy. Rather than focus on external forms of homophobia, God's Own Country focuses almost entirely on the barriers we build for ourselves.
When asked what they were most proud of regarding their involvement in God's Own Country, both O'Connor and Secareanu shared their thoughts on the powerful message of the film:
JC: "Really good question [...] During every Q & A we’ve done, people in the audience have come to me and said that this message of allowing yourself, despite all the pain that anyone's ever gone through, allowing yourself to be emotionally available and vulnerable is such a brave thing to do. I think that's a beautiful thing and so, for me, that's the thing I'm most proud of with this film."
AS: "Yeah its a very beautiful story about hope [...] It's not a gay love story, I think its a general love story. You can see two people connecting beyond words, because theres not a lot of dialogue in the film and they speak with their hearts and their body language. They learn things from each other, show each other things..."
In this sense, God's Own Country is a universal story of love, one that transcends the LGBT label to tell a beautiful story that connects, regardless of one's orientation. To allow yourself to be loved can sometimes be the hardest thing of all, whether you're gay, straight or anything in between.
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Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name may be the heavy hitters in #LGBT cinema this year, but God's Own Country could be the one that outshines them all, whether you call it a gay love story, a British love story, or simply one of the best films you'll see this year.
Got a favorite LGBT movie? Tell us about it in the comments section below!