Interview with God’s Own Country producer Manon Ardisson
Date posted: 01.09.2017
Yorkshire-set love story God’s Own Country, the stunning debut feature from Francis Lee, has been gaining plaudits at film festivals all around the world and hits UK screens today. We talked to co-producer Manon Ardisson, an alumni of our Microwave scheme, about her experience working on the film.
Tell us a bit about the film – where did the inspiration come from?
The film is a love story between a Yorkshire farmer and a Romanian migrant worker. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s a very personal story to writer-director Francis Lee, who is himself from Yorkshire and whose father still farms there. I think for him the starting point was the pull the Yorkshire landscape continued to have on him even after he left in his twenties, and the need to tell an authentic story about the people who live there.
How did you get involved with the project?
My producing partner Jack Tarling, Francis and I all met on Screen Yorkshire’s talent scheme Triangle in 2014. Francis’ pitch really resonated with Jack and I, and we decided to produce the film together. I’m so glad we did! We applied to iFeatures as a team of three in June that year.
How were the two lead actors cast?
We were working with the amazing Shaheen Baig and Layla Merrick-Wolf on this, and they know all the exciting, talented new actors. The first time we saw Josh was on a self-tape and he captured the unspoken vulnerability of his character. We then met in person, and casting him became self-evident. Casting Alec was more of a fun adventure. We were working with a brilliant Romanian casting director, Domnica Circiumaru, and she started by sending us dozens of self tapes. Then we went to Bucharest to meet about 12 actors, and finally three were flown over for a chemistry test with Josh, so Francis could study how they interacted with each other. There are some seriously talented actors in Romania, but once we saw Josh and Alec together, the choice felt natural.
What preparation did you do prior to shooting?
We had five weeks of hard prep, which was used for both creative and practical preparations, and the two leads also had a couple of weeks of rehearsal, which they spent working with Francis on their characters and working shifts on local farms to learn these skills. A few months before then, Jack, Francis and I were also going up regularly to work with the local farming community on finding locations and sheep we could use. In the end we shot on a working sheep farm, which at lambing time is challenging to say the least, but John the farmer and his son Joe were amazingly supportive. We were lucky to find them.
The film was shot chronologically; how do you think this helped character development and the end result?
It helped a lot. The film has little dialogue but a strong emotional intensity that keeps building from one scene to the next. Every small movement, look, breath is meaningful and part of the overall story. This was already the case in the script, but I think shooting in story order helped Francis and the cast to confidently realise this vision on camera.
How was shooting on the Yorkshire moors?
Cold and wet! I’m not much of an outdoors enthusiast anyway, but I think it was tough for the cast and crew generally. The weather is constantly changing; it’s very wet, very windy, never warm. We did our best to make it more comfortable on our budget, but our team’s good will and spirit is what made it possible. Beyond the weather though, it’s such a stunning part of the world, and one that was intrinsic to the story. So we had to make it work.
The film has a very distinct aesthetic, how did this come about?
Francis did a lot of visual research during the development process and had a clear vision for the film overall. We also spent time finding the right HoDs to bring that vision to life, and I think our DP, Joshua James Richards, and editor, Chris Wyatt, were key in developing the aesthetic in particular. Joshua has shot three films which have two Sundance and two Cannes selections between them. He is extremely talented and his background in fine arts really come through in his cinematography. Chris is hugely experienced and we were really lucky to have him on board. He was able to translate a lot of Francis’ ideas in the cutting room, in particular in terms of pace, and to preserve the narrative through line.
You were part of Film London’s Microschool with another project. What did this experience teach you?
We were already closing on God’s Own Country when I was selected to be part of Microschool, but I definitely learnt a lot on the scheme, which helped me on this and other projects. Microschool is a great combination of project-specific feedback, and more skill-based workshops for each member of the creative team. For instance, we had a session on crewing up for low budget filmmaking, which was really useful for me, and the session on sales gave me a good sense of what to expect and look out for at that stage too.
The film has been selected as part of the BFI Film Audience Network’s New Release Strategy, a scheme that boosts access to interesting and independent titles in UK cinemas. How important is it that cinemas get behind a film like this?
We’re really grateful for the support and excited that the film will be able to reach more people in the UK. I think it’s essential that cinemas get behind independent and foreign language films, not only for filmmakers and distributors who often struggle to get their films seen, but also for audiences who are or could be interested in such films but don’t have access to them. It’s really important to continue in that direction for the UK film culture to remain vibrant. Francis for instance was very inspired by the Dardenne brothers and Audiard on God’s Own Country. Even if these films are more difficult to get out, I believe that’s how we can inspire a new - and hopefully more diverse - generation of filmmakers to tell their stories in their own unique way.
Are there any audiences in particular that you’d love to have see the film?
When you study queer cinema, it quickly becomes evident that the historical oppression of LGBTQ communities has led to a lot of stories and films ending in tragedy, because it’s what these communities unfairly had to go through. I believe we now are, or should be, past this point, and with God’s Own Country we wanted to tell a same-sex love story where love is possible, where the issue isn’t coming out, but letting yourself love and be loved. I believe we have achieved this, and it’s great to see audience members you didn’t expect – like middle aged women in Utah for instance – absolutely love the film. But personally, I hope young gay people in high school or university, with emotional struggles of their own, will watch the film and know that love and hope is for everyone.
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