Openly gay writer/director Francis Lee’s first film, God’s Own Country (2017) was a critically-acclaimed queer film that was nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year at the BAFTAs. For Lee’s sophomore effort, the one-time actor landed two of the most respected film actresses working today, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, to star in Ammonite, a film based on the real-life story of acclaimed but overlooked 19th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning. Set against the cold, unforgiving coastline of England and telling the story of two women who fall in love despite all the odds of their restrictive and patriarchal society, Ammonite is an expressive and moving tribute not only to Anning, but to all women who fight for what they do and who they love.
I recently spoke to Lee about the challenges of filming in such a difficult setting, what he put his famous, Oscar-winning star through, and just how important it was to have those passionate sex scenes between Winslet and Ronan.
Catherine Springer: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Are you in Europe?
Francis Lee: I am, I’m in the UK, home in Yorkshire, which is in the north of England, in my wooden hut in the middle of nowhere!
That sounds lovely, I’m in Los Angeles, and I’d love to be in the middle of nowhere, especially this week, if you know what I mean.
Oh yeah, the election!
I think we just need it to be over with at this point. I’m envious of you in England, I think your election periods are like two weeks long, right? That sounds like heaven.
Yeah, but look who we ended up with!
I know! I think there is some sort of disease—well, there IS a disease that’s spreading around the world, in more than one way, right?
Well, one of the ways we combat that is with art.
Let’s talk about your beautiful film. As a fellow member of the queer universe, I want to first say thank you for this film, and for all of your films. We need more representation and more of our stories told.
I wanted to say, I loved how I read that you went down a Mary Anning rabbit hole when you were looking for gift for your fossil-loving boyfriend and you wrote this as a tribute to her and women like her, whose place in history was overlooked. There was no evidence that Mary was gay in real life, so tell us how you envisioned this to be the best way to tell her story.
I always knew I didn’t want to write a bio-pic, because that’s not really my style. I wanted to write my imagined Mary, in a snapshot, really, of her life. And Mary Anning was a working-class woman trying to survive in a deeply patriarchal, class-ridden society. I knew I wanted to give her a relationship that felt respectful of her, and to elevate her. Everything I wanted to do with this film was to keep trying to elevate Mary Anning to a position that I felt she should have had at the time. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Mary Anning ever had a relationship with a man, but there is evidence that she had friendships with women. And I looked at history, and I looked at how heterosexuality is always presumed. If there’s no evidence, we just presume, or historians presume, heterosexuality. But at the time, I was reading a lot, particularly about female relationships during the 18th and 19th century, with reference to one particular paper, written by Carol Smith Rosenberg, which documented these female relationships with the letters they wrote to each other. In them, the relationships described were passionate and loving and romantic and some of them lifelong. And I started to think, here’s Mary Anning, in this society where men owned women and where men have re-appropriated all of her work for themselves–giving her a relationship with a man didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel respectful and I wanted to give her relationship that would feel equal and respectful. And to me, it felt to me that that would be with a woman. And given that also there was all this evidence of female-to-female relationships at the time, I thought that was a good way to go.
Was it difficult focusing on that for the time period? Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of joy to be in a same-sex relationship, at least not openly.
This is what was so fascinating. Because, at the time, the medical profession didn’t believe women had a sexual pleasure organ. So the idea that two women were together in a relationship as we might understand it today, really didn’t exist. Nobody thought two women living together, or spending time together, could even be in an intimate relationship. And on top of this, men’s sex lives had been documented, and as late as the 19th century, when sexuality was defined, it was only defined as homosexuality, for men and men, and, laterally, heterosexuality. Women’s sexuality was never defined. So there are lots of examples of women who were married and lived in the marital home with the man, but share the bedroom with their female friend. And the man had his bedroom on his own. The genders lived very separate lives, particularly the middle and upper classes. They were very segregated. And there was lots of evidence of women who would leave the marital home and go stay with their female friend somewhere else, for six to eight months at a time, and no one thought anything about it. So, to me, it actually felt like the period, around female sexuality, didn’t feel transgressive, it wasn’t the difficulty that we might think about now around sexuality or coming out or living an open life. Women were able to be able to live these fulfilling lives with each other.
I love how you made the relationship multidimensional. She had a full life, she even had an ex. We all know about the drama of having an ex. And you show the passion. Was it important to emphasize the passion in the intimacy?
Well, for me, with intimate scenes, if I ever include an intimate scene, a sex scene, it’s always got to be justified. It’s got to move the story along, it’s got to tell us something about who these two people are and how they are communicating and something about their lives. So that really was why those scenes are there, because they tell us so much about who these people are and where they are in their lives and in this relationship. And I think that one of those intimate scenes was very much about two lovers saying goodbye, and the intensity of that, and the longing. And the passion, but also the loneliness that they had managed to kind of put aside for a moment because they’d found each other. Even in failed relationships, as long as you can find some growth, it can be a positive experience.
You’ve talked a little about how Kate Winslet was so committed to getting the character right. Spending weeks with a fossil expert, learning how to do it. You’ve spoken about how important it is to be very physical in the role, to get their hands dirty. That had to have been pretty intense on this shoot, considering the cold, the wet, the dirty. How did the actresses respond, particularly Kate, to the physical demands of the roles?
They really loved it. They both, Kate and Saoirse, particularly Kate, because of what she had to do, threw themselves into it and I was incredibly honored and humbled that they came towards me and worked in a way which I like to work and committed to that. So I worked with both Kate and Saoirse for about five months before the shoot and we worked from building their characters from scratch. From the moment they were born to the first moment we see them in the film. And we learned absolutely every detail about their lives, not just their relationships and their families and their friends, but also about the tiny details of their lives, the things that have really formed them to being the people we first meet in the film. A part of that, as you said, is the physical activities, the work. And in Kate’s case, I’m not a huge fan of putting in a stunt double or a hand double, because I like cinema to be immersive. So when I sit down to watch this film and suddenly there’s a cutaway to a hand doing something and it’s not Kate’s, I’ll be pulled out of that moment. So it’s really important that they learn that stuff. So Kate went onto those beaches, as you said, for weeks and weeks and weeks, and she learned how to do it. She became incredibly proficient. But, as you say, she got cold, she got wet, she got miserable, she got tired. But all of those things we could use for the physicality and the emotional life of the character. And that impacted on Kate’s performance so strongly. I think Kate does a fantastic job of transformation into somebody else. But I do believe that all this prep work really informed that, really gave her that physical presence.
Give us a little insight into that prep. Do you sit around over coffee, do you rehearse?
There are no physical rehearsals. I don’t believe in walking through scenes, or practicing the lines, or anything, until we’re actually on location and we’re shooting the scene. I like to keep all of that fresh. And our work, it’s all one-on-ones with me and the actor. We would either meet physically, or do it over the phone and just start to talk through things like when was she born, where was she born, what were her parents doing at this point, where was the house, what was the house like, what was she born into, were there siblings, and so forth. And we just build and build and build and we write it all down and we end up with a big, thick scrapbook for every character that can include photographs or drawings or textures or little stories. What was fascinating is that Mary Anning kept a journal, so Kate also kept a journal to write with the implements that Mary would have used. She just continued getting used to all of those things, until we felt confident that we really knew who this person is. I didn’t just do this with Kate and Saoirse, I did it with all the actors, even the actors playing the maids. We would go through a shortened process, but a process nonetheless, of who they are, where they come from, what their life is like, what their experience is.
What did you learn making your first film, God’s Own Country, that you applied to making Ammonite?
I didn’t make God’s Own Country until I was 47. I had come from—like Mary Anning really—a working-class background, I didn’t have access to a good education or privilege. I always wanted to write and direct but didn’t know how I could do that, didn’t know how to get access to what looks like from the outside a very exclusive industry. And so, on the run up to making God’s Own Country, I had given up acting—or it had given me up, I don’t know which—and I had worked in what you would call a junkyard for years and years trying to pull together some money to practice making some short films while I wrote it. So one thing I was very pedantic about while making God’s Own Country, was, look, I have literally sacrificed everything to get to this point, I have sacrificed housing, food, even the basics of life—no holidays, not buying clothes, not going out, nothing. Therefore, I just wanted to make sure this film counts and I want to make it the way in which I want to make it, because I might not get another opportunity again. And I took that forward with Ammonite, in a sense. With Ammonite, I approached it as if I might not ever make another film again. So, again, I was quite pedantic the way I made it. We shot chronologically, we did things that you don’t normally do when you’re making a film because it’s always that thing of, I sacrificed so much to get to this point, I just want to make the film the way in which I want to make it to be able to stand next to it and say, yeah this is the film I wanted to make. And that, to me, is the only success I can take away from making a film, is that kind of sense of, yeah, that’s what I wanted to do.
Well, you achieved it, and I have a feeling this certainly won’t be your last film.
Ah, thank you!
Neon will release Ammonite in select theaters on November 13 and On Demand December 4.
All photographs by Agatha A. Nitecka/RÅN studio.