‘How can a film be gay?’

talks to the producer of BAFTA nominated God’s Own Country about LGBT film, Brexit, and Yorkshire

Jack Tarling is an example that anyone can make it in the film industry. Deciding that he wanted to make films from aged 16 (initially as a director, but due to his own admission, just because he didn’t really know what roles there were in filmmaking), he studied Film Production at Northumbria University and within a few weeks of graduating managed to get a £1000 commission for a one minute film. Fast forward ten years and he’s the producer of the critically acclaimed, BAFTA nominated film God’s Own Country.

God’s Own Country follows Yorkshire sheep farmer Johnny Saxby, played by BAFTA EE Rising Star nominee Josh O’Connor, whose boring life is changed forever when Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is employed to help out during lambing season. It’s a tender, slow burn film.

God’s Own Country began life at a networking event four years ago, where Jack met writer/director Francis Lee and fellow producer Manon Ardisson. It’s an event where Jack must have heard over a hundred ten minute pitches, so I asked Jack why it was this project that caught his eye: “I’d actually gone thinking I was looking for a certain type of project: I was looking for contained, genre films, and [God’s Own Country] isn’t that, obviously. But Francis was very clear with the story he wanted to tell, and in the ten minute pitch that he gave me, he outlined that, and it had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I knew what he wanted to say and I knew he’d be able to tell that in a very unique way.”

Since its premiere at Sundance a year ago, where it picked up the gong for World Cinema Directing, God’s Own Country has proved to be the critical darling, picking up another prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, a sweep at the British Independent Film Awards including Best British Independent Film, and is in contention for Outstanding British Film at this weekend’s BAFTAs. Why is it then that audiences have connected so strongly to this story? “It’s an authentic story”, Jack postulates. “Francis was very true to himself, and the characters and story he wanted to tell, and avoided being pushed and pulled in different directions that would have made for a more confusing, less well-rounded film. But I think it’s a film that has struck a bit of a zeitgeist at the moment. A lot of people have talked about it being the first post-Brexit film, which was a coincidence as we’d already shot the film before we even knew there was gonna be a vote.”

It’s a love story, which just happens to be between two men

Jack’s Brexit point intrigued me, as God’s Own Country certainly plays off the cultural dynamics which inevitably led to the vote. At the start of the film, Johnny is antagonistic towards Gheorghe when he arrives. It’s really to do with his frustrations with his life and how his father dictates how to run the farm, but it comes out as brash xenophobia; Johnny labels Gheorghe ‘Gypo’ repeatedly until Gheorghe finally has had enough and fights back. Does the film investigate British society’s antagonism towards immigrants? “I think there’s some hostility towards the character of Gheorghe in the film”, Jack agrees. “Francis had a friend that was from Eastern Europe who he worked with and heard those kinds of stories, and so he wanted to talk about that feeling of coming over and finding you’re met with suspicion and being undermined by people around you through something which is totally beyond your control. There’s a sense that, whether or not Brexit was going to happen from parts of the country that [an anti-immigrant] sentiment exists.”

With films like God’s Own County in the UK and the Oscar hot ticket Call Me by Your Name in the US finally achieving mainstream success and admiration, I put it to Jack that perhaps 2017 was the year of LGBT cinema. And while he agrees that LGBT cinema has finally captured the zeitgeist, Jack is clear that God’s Own Country was not developed as a ‘gay film’. “An interesting point about when we were developing this film is that this isn’t a gay film, because ‘how can a film be gay?’ was a joke that we used to have. It’s a love story, which just happens to be between two men.”

Jack also believes that while the LGBT community provided a core audience for the film, for it to be successful they had to break out to a wider audience. “This film was never gonna play at the massive multiplex Odeon, it’s not that kind of film. It was always going to be at the more independent cinemas. Those kinds of audiences are generally quite liberal so we didn’t feel they would have a problem with the fact that the relationship is between two men. So if you imagine that’s what those audiences go and see at those kind of cinemas, so we felt that if we made the film well and it got the four or five star reviews we would get that audience regardless of what the relationship was, but we would have this additional core of this LGBT audience, who have been amazingly supportive of the film. Had this film featured a straight couple, we might have only had that one audience.”

God’s Own Country is an incredibly raw story. It’s dominated by handheld camera work, a bleak colour palette, and a lack of music and dialogue. Even the beautiful views of the Yorkshire countryside aren’t seen until Johnny opens up; he’s spent his life growing up here, they’re not that exciting to him. It’s when Gheorghe arrives that the frame opens up and the landscapes are in view. “I think the key thing for us was that we didn’t want anything to distract from the journey the characters were on, everything was led by them and the aim was to create intimacy with them. You don’t want flashy camera moves or songs whacked on which tell people how to feel because actually you’re getting your emotional connection from what you’re witnessing. It’s a case of stripping everything back and making sure that every single element had to justify its place.”

Jack’s next film almost couldn’t be further from the small character drama of God’s Own Country. Await Further Instructions is a horror film, where the dysfunctional Milgram family awake on Christmas day to find a black substance covering their house and the words ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions’ blazing on the TV. It’s a film Jack’s been involved with for nine years. It was actually shot before God’s Own Country, and was intended to be his feature film debut, but has taken much longer in post production – some of which was done at the University’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television – leading to God’s Own Country being released first. “[Await Further Instructions] was privately financed,” Jack explains, “so it’s not a film that’s come through the public system that exists with iFeatures, BFI, or Creative England, but that is not uncommon for something that’s more of a genre film, as they’re seen as being more commercial.”

So, Jack’s the producer on one of this year’s BAFTA Outstanding British Film nominees. Has he found himself receiving offers left, right, and centre? Not quite. “As a producer the onus is usually on you to generate momentum so it’s usually really down to me to call people up to have a meeting.” That’s not to say it hasn’t opened up his career though: “You still get asked all the same questions [by film financiers], but I can more or less get meetings with whomever I want now which is really helpful.” M

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