How former Wakefield College student Francis Lee became an award-winning director
Fresh off his latest feature film Ammonite, writer-director and former student Francis Lee spoke to Wakefield College (@WakeyCollege) to discuss the film, his time in college, and tips for getting into the film industry. :
Hi Francis, we are so happy to chat with you today, so thank you very much for joining us.
No honestly, it’s my pleasure, really happy to be here.
First of all, congratulations on Ammonite, how do you feel about finally having wide distribution in the UK, even if under very unusual circumstances?
I mean obviously, it’s been a really tough year for cinema. I finished Ammonite just before the first lockout in March 2020, and the film was selected to go to Cannes, you know the biggest film festival in the world. I had never been and had never shown a movie there before, so I was super excited, only for Cannes to be canceled along with a lot of other festivals. Then, of course, the cinemas were not open, it was a shame because I had made the film for the cinema and for this experience. On the one hand, I’m super glad people can finally see the movie, but obviously it would be wrong of me to say that I wasn’t disappointed that it didn’t come out in theaters.
Taking a trip down memory lane, many may not be aware that you attended Wakefield College in the 1980s. How did you end up here in College and what was your experience in Wakefield like?
Yes, I went to school at Sowerby Bridge in the early 1980s, and when I was 16, I knew I somehow wanted to devote myself to the performing arts. I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew I wanted to study it. At the time, there was nowhere in Halifax or the Borough of Calderdale where you could take any course in the performing arts. The closest location available to me was at Wakefield College. So I applied and went for my interview and of course I was super nervous, but honestly just in awe of the facilities and how cool it looked.
It was a two year performing arts course with an A-level. I think it was theater studies, sets and costumes, and then I could do another A-level. I was really excited when I walked in.
One of my fondest memories of my time was the time it took to get to Wakefield from Sowerby Bridge, which took me about three hours on three different buses. After a while it became impossible to travel six hours a day, so I finally started renting a cottage on Gaskell Street in Wakefield with my friend Nikki who also lived in Halifax.
But I loved studying here. It was the first time that I really felt understood and that what I wanted to do was viable. It was great to also be with other people who wanted to do the same. I loved discovering dance because there was a dance club, I loved designing the sets, doing the plays and learning the history of the theater. Then the tutors themselves were also very brilliant. Well done to Philipa Goodwin, David Taylor and Diana Burrows who were all fantastic and truly inspiring. My stay here really gave me that fire in my stomach.
I don’t know what the facilities are like now of course, but in the early / mid 80’s the facilities were just amazing. There was a theater, and every Tuesday a different theater company would come in and put on a professional show. There was a bar, tutoring rooms. Yeah that was really cool, I loved it.
Would you say that your time studying the Performing Arts in College has helped inspire your work today?
Yes completely. I think discovering a lot of different things definitely has an effect. You know, I discovered here a real love of production design, and a real love of the intricacies of design which are things I still use a lot today. Things like how you frame something, what story are you telling by what’s visible in the frame, like the objects around you or the colors you use.
Discovering plays and playwrights that I had no idea about and seeing a lot of theater through travel was also a great source of inspiration.
Moving on to your time after Wakefield, leaving college can be quite a daunting experience for people who are leaving. How did he get started in the world during these early years?
Honestly after two years in college I actually didn’t apply for college or drama school and instead found a job in a pub and worked with a theater company in the education, because at the time I was not sure I wanted to continue in education.
But after a year I had had enough and decided to audition for a drama school to train myself to be an actor and I managed to get in.
So after a while you moved from acting to starting making your shorts, how was the process of moving from acting to writing and directing? Was there a specific moment of clarity where you motivated yourself to go or was it a series of incremental events?
I mean to be completely honest with you I wasn’t very good at playing and although I was lucky at times and managed to get a job I never felt very comfortable in front of a camera or on stage. I had actually quit when I was 35 and got a job at a junkyard in London. I think I always knew I wanted to write and tell my own stories, and I knew I had always wanted to do it visually through film. But even coming to Wakefield and having that education, I didn’t know how you got there. Cinema is a very bourgeois profession and someone like me does not usually make films. So I was very confused on how you did it or how you accessed it.
I had been working at the junkyard for about five years without really doing anything about it, and I got to 40 and I was like, do you know what, if you really want to try and make a movie, you’re going to have to Carry on.
So, it was actually my forties that drove me to write my first short film and save the money to make it.
You mentioned how filmmaking is a middle class profession, from our perspective we hope we start to see improvements in this area with the establishment of educational partnerships with organizations such as Screen Yorkshire in hope to develop more diversified paths in the industry. . Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to young people who are currently trying to enter the industry?
I mean first of all, I think I would tell them that this is a profession that anyone can be a part of, and the only limits, I think, are yourselves. In my experience, as I mentioned, I felt that someone from my background could not work in the cinema.
I would say, start doing your own work. These days we all have smartphones with fantastic cameras and many of us have access to computers where we can edit our own stuff. I would say: experiment, start writing your own little stories, filming them and getting your friends involved.
On my first short, there were so many limitations that I didn’t have the money for a starter, so no one could get paid. I only had one location, so everything had to be shot there. But it’s about working with what you have.
But I would also say, not just with people who want to write, direct, or act, the industry has so many successful careers for so many different types of jobs. Electricians, carpenters, decorators, designers and now a whole massive VFX industry. Many of these jobs can be extremely rewarding.
If there was one thing about the industry that you wish someone had told you before you got into it, what would it be?
In all honesty, that would be if someone had told me you can do it. It’s a possibility. Seeing it as a more open and inclusive place, I think it would have given me the confidence to explore it much earlier and not wait until I turned 40.
After your shorts you of course shot your first feature film, God Own Country, which was set in our region of West Yorkshire. Besides being at home of course, what is so unique about the region that inspired you to make the film and that perhaps still inspires you now?
For me it’s the scenery, I mean I’m looking out the window now because I can see it.
It is these hills and moors that have inspired great works of art by the Brontës, Hockney, Ted Hughes or whoever it is. But for me there is also a feeling of difficulty in the area, of feeling isolated and going through the very long, dark and cold winters. I think there is a resilience that comes from the people here who live in this environment.
Then you have all the valleys and the post-industrial towns which are these melting pots of really fantastic, vibrant people, who conjure up these really interesting stories.
I have written three films here now, and while not all of them set in West Yorkshire, this landscape continually inspires me.
Do you think you would like to make more films in Yorkshire or are you hoping to broaden your horizons?
So the land of God was obviously located here, Ammonite was located in Dorset. The next film, although written here, is set in the Arctic. There’s an idea I have that I’m working on right now, albeit in the very early stages, which takes place in West Yorkshire. I think it’s a landscape I’ll always come back to
Well, we hope to see that at some point in the future. We know you’re super busy Francis so we’ll let you go, thank you very much for taking the time to come and chat with us.
Honestly, it was a pleasure, thank you very much for chatting with me.
Francis’ latest film, Ammonite, and God’s debut feature, the country is available to rent on a variety of streaming platforms