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Francis Lee on making 'Ammonite' with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan

By Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

After a number of pandemic-related delays, the period romance "Ammonite" has been uncovered at last. Written and directed by Francis Lee, the film is set in 1840s Dorset, England. There the paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) spends her time mostly alone by the seaside looking for fossils. After Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is unceremoniously left behind by her husband to convalesce in Anning's care, the two women find themselves drawing closer, both brightened by the relationship.

The film brings together three celebrated artists. Lee, an actor turned filmmaker, won numerous prizes for his 2017 debut feature "God's Own Country," a queer romance set on a sheep farm. Winslet, along with her best actress Oscar win for "The Reader," has six other Academy Award nominations. Ronan is a four-time Oscar nominee.

"Ammonite" was selected to be part of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and also the Telluride Film Festival in the fall, both of which were subsequently canceled. The film finally had its world premiere on Friday night as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. Earlier in the week Lee spoke on the phone from his home in Yorkshire, England, about the film.

Q: There's been such anticipation since a first image of Kate and Saoirse together was released over a year ago. Has that put any added pressure on you in finishing the movie?

Francis Lee: This is only my second film. And I'm very lucky because I live very remotely, on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere, in a wooden hut that has no cell reception. I don't go to film parties or anything like that, because obviously I live very far away from anything. And so I am quite protected from any kind of noise around the film, but I've been really excited and thrilled that people are really looking forward to seeing it. And I'm nervous obviously, but I'm more excited. I want to share the film with people.

Q: As you were talking about "God's Own Country" it often came up that it was based on your life. What was the inspiration for the story of "Ammonite"?

 

Lee: Well, the thing with "God's Own Country" is that it's not autobiographical in any way, shape or form, apart from the landscape where I grew up and where I live. With "Gods Own Country" I was exploring this idea of relationships and what it feels like to fall in love and what have you and "Ammonite" is a very personal film in terms of the emotional scope of it and those characters. So again I am exploring this idea of relationships and what have you. It's just that they're in the 19th century.

Q: Did you do research into paleontology and the women of that era? How did you come to have the real-life figures of Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison be part of the movie?

Lee: This is quite a long answer. So I was looking for a birthday present for my then-boyfriend and he really liked polished stones and fossils, and every time I looked for a fossil this woman's name kept coming up, Mary Anning. And so I started to read about her and I was instantly drawn to her because she was a working-class woman, born into a life of poverty in a very strict, patriarchal, class-ridden society where she rose to being the leading paleontologist of her generation, but totally unrecognized because of her gender and because of her class. And as a working-class queer filmmaker, I'm very obsessed by class and this idea of patriarchy and gender.

And at the same time, I read some research about female-and-female relationships of the 19th century, which are really quite well-documented through letters to each other, these really wonderful, passionate, loving letters that women would write that kind of illustrated these deep, emotional, passionate relationships. And I knew I never wanted to write a bio-pic about Mary Anning because there's virtually nothing written about her by contemporaries. Again, because she was this working-class woman. And so I wanted to use her story to inspire this love story and to be able to elevate her and to be able to give her a relationship with somebody I felt would be worthy of her. And, in this very patriarchal society, that didn't feel (like it should) be with a man, because men owned women and women were subject to men. I wanted to elevate this idea of who Mary Anning is. And so that's where all these things collided. And it's quite well-documented that Mary had friendships with women but there's no documentation that she ever had a relationship with a man. And so I just took that and interpreted it, to develop this vision of the Mary as I saw her.

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