Writer/director Francis Lee’s 2017 feature debut, “God’s Own Country,” so impressed Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that they agreed to five months of rehearsal before filming Lee’s second LGBT romantic drama, “Ammonite.” And the story of a 19th century paleontologist (Winslet) who falls in love with a married woman (Ronan) so impressed domestic distrib Neon that “for the first time in Neon’s history, they bought [a feature] without seeing it,” Lee says. Neon nabbed North American rights for $3 million in a blind bidding war this year. Their bet has already paid off: the See-Saw Films production (made with BBC Films and BFI and sold by See-Saw’s Cross City Films, which partnered with CAA Media Finance on the Neon deal) is a 2020 Cannes Official Selection and likely future awards contender. In his first interview about the project, Variety talked with Lee about his filmmaking process and plans for the future. — Gregg Goldstein
What inspired you to write “Ammonite?”
In 2017, I was researching a gift for somebody who liked polished stones and fossils, and every time I typed “fossil” or “ammonite” into Google, Mary Anning’s name came up. So I read about this woman, who lived in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England in the early 19th century. She was born into a very poor family, her father died when she was 10 and she became the main breadwinner. She didn’t have any education apart from Sunday school, yet rose to become the leading paleontologist of her generation. But Britain was a very patriarchal, class-ridden society, so her scientific finds were not recognized as hers. That really struck a chord with me — somebody not being seen or recognized.
And at the same time, my then-boyfriend sent me an article about female relationships in the 18th and 19th century, backed up with evidence from all these letters women were writing to each other that described passionate, loving relationships totally unrecognized at the time. I started to think of Mary as somebody who possibly would have had a relationship with a woman.
Did you try to track down any ancestors Mary might have had to verify that?
I didn’t, I guess I because I wanted to make her my Mary Anning. And I found all the research that there was about her: virtually nothing. Because it isn’t a biography, I felt as long as I was respectful of her and the characters, that that was justifiable.
Why was the rehearsal time so lengthy?
Both Kate and Saoirse wanted to commit to the way in which I work, and very generously did, so we could we could investigate the characters fully and build them three-dimensionally. Kate went out fossiling on beaches for weeks and learned how to draw, because I didn’t want any stunt or hand doubles. We shot the film where Mary lived, on the beaches where Mary would have worked. And the acting is phenomenal — Kate and Saoirse are both doing something very different from what they’ve done before, in such a glorious way. I would kill to work with them again. We had such a great time and formed a strong bond that has continued after the filming.
Does the title have a double meaning?
Yes, it does. An ammonite is a very vulnerable, soft sea slug, and to protect itself, it encases itself in a very hard shell [like Winslet’s character does].
What can viewers expect in terms of its tone?
“God’s Own Country” was a pretty strong statement about the kind of films that I want to make, in terms of style, acting and the world in it. It’s very much a film about the unsaid.
Will it have similarly graphic love scenes?
This is a film about a deep, romantic, intimate relationship. So it does follow them through that process.
Why and how did you transition from acting in the 1990s and 2000s to filmmaking?
Because I wasn’t a good actor. I was really lucky, so I got some work, but I didn’t like it very much. I always knew I wanted to write and direct, but I was never confident enough. And coming from a working-class background in Yorkshire [England], I didn’t know how people did it. It took me until I was about 40 to go, “I need to do this, and I don’t want to regret not doing it.”
Do you see yourself ever directing a Hollywood feature or an episode of a series?
My God, if DC or Marvel rang, I’d be there in a shot! [Laughs] And because television is so great, I would definitely be up to doing that.
Given everything going on with theatrical exhibition, when do you expect this film to be released, and would you consider a multiplatform or streaming release?
We’re still discussing all of that. I’m deeply honored and thrilled to get the Cannes selection, but obviously it’s disappointing that there isn’t a physical festival to show the film. Until we can see what the landscape is going to be like, it’s difficult to put a date on it. But Neon and Lionsgate in the U.K. are very committed to a good theatrical run. We’ll try and make the best decisions, depending on what the world looks like. I’ve used this period of lockdown to write another film.
Will it center around gay themes like your first two features?
Yes, it’s men again, the next one.
Are you going to continue switching between men and women?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I write stories about things I’m trying to figure out and where I’m at in my life, in terms of relationships and stuff. So we’ll see.