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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

Q: What about casting Kate and Saoirse? Was it difficult to get two of the most highly regarded actresses of our day?

Lee: The short answer is that I never write with an actor in mind because I think it would be too devastating to then send it to that actor and that actor not be available or not want to do it. So I kind of try and keep an open mind. When I was thinking about, first of all, the role of Mary I knew I wanted to cast a British actor and I knew I wanted this actor to be in her 40s. And I'd always been drawn to Kate because there's such an honesty and truthfulness about her performances. And so very simply I sent her the script. Kate is wonderful at reading things. She read it the same day and the message came back on the same day she wanted to do it. So that was great. With Saoirse, I'd always been drawn to Saoirse's work because she's so vibrant onscreen and again has such an honesty and a truth. I sent it to Saoirse and again, Saoirse read it and came back and wanted to do it.

And it was important to me because I like to work in a particular way with actors, which is quite a lot of character work before we start shooting and develop these characters from scratch. And both Kate and Saoirse were really open to really doing all that work. And part of that is to do the physical work of the character because I don't like any stunt doubles or hand doubles or anything. I like authenticity. So Kate went on those beaches on the South coast of England for weeks and weeks and weeks and got cold and wet and learnt and became incredibly proficient at fossil hunting and knowledgeable. And Saoirse had to learn how to play the piano and learn how to do needlepoint and all these things. Both of them totally threw themselves into it physically, which was just wonderful. And I think really adds an extra level of truth to the performances.

Q: They make for such a great pairing onscreen. They each have this way of seeming both bottled-up and passionate at the same time.

Lee: That's so lovely to hear. Thank you. I agree. I think they complement each other perfectly. What was so great about working with them is that I like emotion that's very internalized rather than front-footed and it was great to see them both work in that sphere of internalized emotion and holding on to so much.

Q: I certainly don't want to spoil anything, but I think the ending of the movie is something you're going to get a lot of questions about. A whole rush of emotions plays across Kate's face and it's hard to read exactly. What did you like about an ambiguous ending?

Lee: I guess I wanted an ending that could be interpreted as hopeful. I don't know how much at first I can say. I guess what I like about stories is when you see a movie, I really like it when it feels like it's a snapshot of somebody's life, that you're dropped in to somebody's life at a certain point, not at the beginning, not at the end, but just at a certain point. And you go on this journey for however long that period of time is, and then you leave. And I guess I liked that idea that it felt like we were going through this immersive emotional story with these characters and that at the end, we were going to leave them, but these characters were going to carry on with their lives. And they were going to determine for themselves in a sense how that was going to play out.

 

Q: With "God's Own Country," you went through endless comparisons to "Brokeback Mountain" and with "Ammonite" people have been talking about the movie with regards to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" or even already comparing it to "The World To Come," which just premiered at Venice. How do you feel about that?

Lee: I think it's a really super-interesting question. I don't see queer films as a genre and in no other way do films get compared in this way. "Working Girl" and "An Officer and A Gentlemen" are never compared. And I think that it is somewhat difficult that as filmmakers, particularly those three films you just mentioned, each of those filmmakers, including myself, all made our films without any knowledge of the other making their films. And so I think that it only happens in queer cinema where films are compared like this.

And sometimes it feels like we're only allowed one film. I remembered in 2017 when "God's Own Country" came out, there was for the first time that I could remember, quite a few queer films, which I thought was a fantastic celebration. There was "(A) Fantastic Woman." There was "Moonlight." There was "God's Own Country," there was "Beach Rats," there was "Call Me By Your Name" and others. And for the first time, I think audiences had a real choice of the queer movie they wanted to see or they liked, or they wanted to go to or they could like all of them. And I think comparing them so directly is difficult.

To me it feels regressive. And I'm confused why you're only allowed to like one. Why can't you like them all? And as I say, in heterosexual cinema, how many films will be made this year that are contemporary heterosexual romances or thrillers or horror, and those films won't be compared like that. I don't think queer cinema is a genre. I think it's more expansive than that. I think they fall into other categories - love stories, thrillers, rom-coms, horror. It's a mystery to me.

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