Above image: self-portrait by Alasdair McLellan for HERO 24
For HERO 24, we asked actor Josh O’Connor to curate a special series of in-conversations between some of his favourite creatives. From visual artists to musicians, choreographers to filmmakers, the resulting conversations were a celebration of human connection and collaborative potential at a time when these things felt at their lowest ebb due to the pandemic. Comprising four head-to-heads in total, this particular conversation sees British photographer Alasdair McLellan connect with director and fellow Yorkshireman Francis Lee, whose latest film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, is now available to stream. Below, O’Connor reveals why he chose to partner the pair.
“I chose Alasdair because I always felt you could recognise one of his images immediately, it feels like there’s a narrative through-line in his work. His representation, often of the North, but also the countryside… the boyish nature of it, has always appealed to me. When I researched for God’s Own Country, I used a lot of Alasdair’s early imagery in my scrapbooks. I knew that Francis was a great fan, and I thought it would be really interesting to hear a conversation between them.”
Alasdair McLellan: Hey Francis.
Francis Lee: Hey Alasdair.
AM: How’re you?
FL: I’m alright, I’m strangely nervous [laughs].
AM: Oh really? Why’s that?
FL: It is a bit weird doing a phone call with someone you haven’t met [laughs]. I guess I have a sense of you through your work, even though we’ve never met or spoken, and because I’m a huge fan of yours.
AM: Oh thank you, that’s very kind.
FL: And I’ve stalked you for many years [both laugh]. But I’ll be fine.
AM: [laughs] Well there’s nothing to be scared of, honestly. I didn’t realise you’d stalked me, that’s funny.
FL: Not physically [laughs].
AM: No, I got that, just the photographs I presume. Did you grow up in Yorkshire as well? You’re a bit more northern than me because I’m South Yorkshire. My friend, who’s a writer from Manchester, said, “Oh well you’re almost from Nottinghamshire.” [laughs] So she was having a bit of a dig there, I said, “I think you’ll find that it’s actually more north than Manchester when you look at the map.” But anyway, let’s not get into that. Did you grow up in Ilkley, or around there?
Francis: No, I wish I grew up in Ilkley [laughs], they have a really nice supermarket there. I grew up on the outskirts of Halifax.
AM: Oh OK, I’ve never been to Halifax.
FL: Oh Alasdair, go immediately. The Guardian called it the Hoxton of the North, but I’m not quite sure why.
AM: Yeah, I can’t imagine that! Why’s that, because they’ve got trendy haircuts there or something?
FL: No, I think one craft brewery pub opened.
AM: Ah OK [laughs].
FL: So I was born in the late 60s and grew up in the 70s and 80s on the outskirts of Halifax. Super rural – well it felt very rural at the time – I’m not so sure now if it would. But yeah, right up on the Pennine hills above a little village. Very isolated. I spent most of my formative years there, in kind of pretty much isolation, I’d say. It’s really funny, I was thinking about this the other day and, there wasn’t really any expectation, I didn’t go to a very good school at all.
It was a comprehensive but it was an old secondary-modern, and a lot of the teachers were still from that system. So there wasn’t an ambition for people, particularly to do with anything creative, there was no blueprint for that. I was thinking about what it was that propelled me to leave. I think it was a sense that I knew I was queer, I knew that in the 80s in that environment that wasn’t going to be great, and I knew that I wanted to pursue something creative. So I left Yorkshire when I was twenty and moved to London. How about you?
“I was thinking about what it was that propelled me to leave. I think it was a sense that I knew I was queer, I knew that in the 80s in that environment that wasn’t going to be great, and I knew that I wanted to pursue something creative.”
AM: I’m a bit later than you and had GCSEs and all that, so that was the early 90s. But I remember thinking, in the final year of your GCSEs you do a work placement, and I was thinking, “I’d really like to go to a recording studio,” I was really into house music back then. I strangely used to DJ when I was like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Me and my mates started this sort of youth club in the village and one of our mate’s dads ended up seeing us play and gave us a sort of residency – this sounds a lot more impressive than it was [Francis laughs] – in this bar in town. And the stuff they’d say to me was like, “Oh well you’re never gonna do that [professionally], why are you even thinking you’ll be able to do something like that?”
I remember these conversations with teachers and they’d just be like, “That’s never gonna happen.” It was almost like ‘you’re dreaming too big’. I was a good runner at school but because it wasn’t football it was like, “Ah well, we’re not gonna encourage you.” [laughs] Maybe running was far too middle-class, the school was in an old mining village and the pit had closed the year before. When I joined in ‘86 it was like five little villages going to this comprehensive school in this one area, and all the kids’ dads had lost their jobs because they worked at the mine. So there were a lot of people who just didn’t have anything. But speaking to the teachers at the time, they didn’t really encourage. So it’s funny you say that, because it’s exactly the same reason I left.
I was quite happy in Doncaster, I liked my friends, but I knew I was gay and I knew that I couldn’t stay there if I wanted any kind of normal life. Even though a lot of people go, “Oh your friends are homophobic,” I genuinely don’t think they were, I think it just ends up being a kind of peer pressure situation where everyone goes, “Ooh they’re queer,” or whatever. You see what I mean? People just didn’t want to engage in that sort of conversation, so I thought I had to leave really, because it was going to be no good. I remember thinking, “Well, what would I like to do?”
I wanted to do music but that just seemed too impossible a dream to even consider, so I remember taking some pictures for my GCSE art and my English teacher said, “Oh you’re quite good at this, you should perhaps pursue that,” and it seemed like a much more viable option. I thought, “Well I could always just take pictures of my mates,” I could actually physically do that. So I completely agree with you. I had to get out because I was gay and I thought that there wasn’t any point being gay in Doncaster.
FL: I think it’s really fascinating because, like you, I wasn’t really encouraged in anything. Like you, I was a really good runner but nobody showed any interest…
“I was quite happy in Doncaster, I liked my friends, but I knew I was gay and I knew that I couldn’t stay there if I wanted any kind of normal life.”
AM: Because it’s not football [laughs]. We did rugby once, we did rounders when a teacher was sick and we had to join the girls, and that was it. We’d play football the whole time. But the thing is, I don’t know about you Francis, even though my GCSE results were terrible and all that, I learnt so much from that experience. It’s probably shaped me more than anything in some ways.
If I wanted to do something academic, it might not have been the best place to start, if you weren’t interested in science or maths there was no system in place unless you knuckled down and did it yourself. So although school didn’t help me in a practical way, because I went into something creative, it gave me so much experience, it was like a kitchen sink drama. I liked being there and had lots of friends – whenever I think about casting, I think if they look like my friends.
Francis: For me, I had a slightly different experience, I had some friends but not loads. I didn’t feel like I fit in and I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence on my own. On the moors and in the woods, very nature-based.
AM: You feel that in your film [God’s Own Country] a lot.
Francis: I don’t see this as a negative thing, but I’ve always been a lonely person and have dealt with that loneliness. I’m quite introspective and an introvert and I take a lot of comfort from that now. But I think I worked my arse off at school because it was the only route I could see out, through getting some O-levels. So I worked super, super hard and although they weren’t great results, I think I got five O-levels.
AM: That’s quite a lot, it’s more than me [both laugh]. Well mine were GCSE so I think I got three above C, so that’s the equivalent of an O-level.
Francis: Impressive [laughs]. So that was the thing that kept me going, the idea of leaving, of what my life would be like once I’d escaped. Like you, I think it made me resourceful and driven, probably. Coupled with the idea of being able to feel like I’d be OK to go out on my own, as it were, and feel the fear, was the thing that really propelled me out of it. I knew that I always wanted to write and direct, but again, I had not a fucking clue how to do that. And I’d seen nobody do that at all, it felt like a million miles away. But I did know the route to become an actor, and I had seen people from working-class backgrounds do that, so I went to drama school, and that was my escape. Always knowing that I probably wasn’t very good at it and that I probably shouldn’t really be doing it. But it was a good means to finally, in the late 80s, move to London and go to drama school.
“I don’t see this as a negative thing, but I’ve always been a lonely person and have dealt with that loneliness. I’m quite introspective and an introvert and I take a lot of comfort from that now.”
AM: Is there anything we need to look out for or should we not mention it? [laughs]
FL: Alasdair, like honestly [laughs], I worked as an actor for twenty years pretty much.
FL: Sporadically. But my god, I was not good and my career was basically… because in those shows like Casualty and Heartbeat and Emmerdale, you can go back every two years and play someone completely different. So I racked up four or five episodes of Heartbeat, Casualty and Midsomer Murders, [laughs] all those kind of things, but all the time being super uncomfortable in front of the camera. I could never play the game, always argued with directors, and I guess what really pushed me on, was that I was a very, very obsessive stills photographer. I had a knackered fixed lens 35mm camera and I took it everywhere with me and photographed everything I saw. I loved looking at life through a lens, I liked that detachment and that interaction I could have through the lens with whatever it was I was photographing. That was the thing that, in a sense, I loved the most really, and was what pushed me forward to feeling confident to go, “Actually, I’d like to work with the moving image.”
AM: I’m similar. I got a camera when I was thirteen and I remember I’d invite friends over for a party, or go to their house for a party, and I’d take photos of people on the night. Then I’d get the film developed at the local chemist or whatever and it kind of made me popular at school. But even at that time I’d also take pictures of the landscapes around the area, and I’ve still got all the negatives now. I’ve got pictures of the same views from 1987 through to now. But it never appeared to me that it was art or anything like that, it was never contrived in a sense that one day I’ll be a photographer, I just enjoyed doing it.
“I guess what really pushed me on [from acting] was that I was a very, very obsessive stills photographer. I had a knackered fixed lens 35mm camera and I took it everywhere with me and photographed everything I saw.”
I went to Nottingham to study photography, but going back to the GCSEs, when I was DJing, how I got into photography was by looking at the record sleeves and I’d think, “Who the took that photo on the cover? Maybe I could do that.” I kind of liked the idea of graphic design, but I remember having a conversation with my teacher and them saying that any jobs in graphic design are in London and not for you, you’d just be designing pamphlets for local, I dunno [laughs], butchers or something. They never saw that you could actually move to London.
FL: [laughs] I’d love to see your pamphlet for the butchers.
AM: Exactly [laughs]. I remember for my art final project I did the Pet Shop Boys Behaviour album, doing a photo and art direction for a 7” single and 12” album. So I was a bit torn between them but like I said, the option of graphic design did seem a bit unrealistic, so I stuck to photography, like you, as a way into something. Like I said, the first time I ever had something positive said by a teacher ever is when my English teacher said that I should do photography, so that’s kind of why I ended up doing it. I went to Nottingham to study photography and then moved to London eventually, I guess at the age of 22.
FL: Were you moving to London to find work or were you going on to do more studies or something?
AM: No, I moved to London to try and be a photographer. That’s what I wanted to do really.
FL: And how did you find that experience of moving from this village outside Doncaster..?
AM: Well it was a gradual step because obviously Nottingham was a bit more exciting than Doncaster [both laugh].
FL: Alasdair, do you know what they used to say about Nottingham?
AM: What, the fact that it’s one male to every eight girls, isn’t it?
Francis: Well in the era of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, you know those lions outside the town hall in Nottingham?
AM: Yeah, Old Market Square.
FL: They used to say that if a virgin ever walked past those lions in Nottingham they would roar [both laugh].
AM: I’ve never heard that.
FL: So there you go.
AM: We used to meet at those lions before going into town, I never heard them roar, obviously [laughs]. So how come you’re now living back in Yorkshire?
FL: When I moved to London, it was a very strange experience because this life that I’d imagined for myself didn’t really materialise because obviously I was still me. I felt like I didn’t fit in there, I felt like my sense of humour or the way I saw the world, or the way I spoke – not what I said but the way I said it – didn’t quite fit in. So I felt quite alienated from London. Then I remember coming back, the first Christmas holidays after moving down there in September, and feeling like I didn’t fit in up here anymore. My accent had changed, I’d seen something of the world, I’d had my first boyfriend. Stuff had changed for me.
So I felt like I was a total interloper everywhere and I’d lost this sense of home. But, the thing that always stayed with me massively about Yorkshire, were the hills, the landscape, which I obsessed about. Every time I came home I’d get some pebbles or a bit of dirt, put it in my pocket and take it back to London with me. It just felt like this was me, it’d formed me and made me the person I was. I’d always hoped that I would come back, that I’d settle here and have a life here. So when I wrote God’s Own Country and finally got the money to make it, I wanted to make it very close to where my dad lives, he’s a farmer. So I negotiated with my then-boyfriend that we’d move to Yorkshire to make the film. So I moved back to Yorkshire and I live now very rurally again in a wooden hut on the side of a hill.
AM: Sounds perfect.
FL: I made the film, edited it here and then just stayed really. It felt like I’d finally made peace with everything I felt uncomfortable with growing up here, or not fitting in, I felt a lot closer to my family, a lot more honest about who I am. It felt like a total sense of peace. In London, I lived in a council flat in southeast London, so there wasn’t a lot of breathing space. So moving up here, it just felt very expansive again. But again, I think moving back has thrown up lots of issues again around isolation and loneliness and what have you, but I feel like I can deal with those a lot better now.
“When I moved to London, it was a very strange experience because this life that I’d imagined for myself didn’t really materialise… I felt like I didn’t fit in there, I felt like my sense of humour or the way I saw the world, or the way I spoke – not what I said but the way I said it – didn’t quite fit in.”
AM: Yes, of course. Photographers and directors are similiar-ish in terms of them both being sort of lonely. And a lot of creative people do tend to be quite introspective and find it hard to be themselves because maybe they aren’t that confident and they are a bit of a loner in a lot of ways as well.
FL: I think you’re right. It was my ex-boyfriend who first told me about your work and I looked at it and there was such a sense of connection in those images, a connection with the subject and interior lives as much as the image. There was something I felt very drawn to and very akin with the way I wanted to, and now do, make film. It’s all about interior life. I think that’s what makes those images so powerful.
AM: I draw a lot of inspiration from memories and… There are so many photographers around and you constantly have to think about how you can make it more and more your own work almost. It’s one camera, so people’s pictures tend to look similar, so you sort of think that the one thing you can always draw on that will always fundamentally be your own is your own experience. Obviously not with every piece of work, but I do try to draw from that, where I grew up and what I’ve been into. That’s how you make something your vision.
FL: I totally agree. Like a filmmaker, the only thing you have is your singular voice, your viewpoint. I think that’s what attracts us to good work, and that’s what makes work differentiate between artists, that singular vision or viewpoint.
AM: When you were writing God’s Own Country, did you draw a lot from your own experience? It seems like such a personal piece. I’m not saying it was a complete biopic [Francis laughs], but it did feel extremely personal.
FL: I only write things that are very personal. Like this new film I just made about a 19th-century woman fossil hunter [Ammonite]. Sometimes it might not feel like it’s about me, but everything I write is exploring me, I guess, and relationships. I’m very obsessed with deep human relationships and figuring out how they work. So God’s Own Country, you’re quite right, it wasn’t autobiographical at all [laughs], but it was me exploring what it felt like to be in a relationship and exploring those dynamics, and a lot of those things were very personal to me. But then in writing, what happens often is that you start in that way and then in some ways the characters take different journeys to what you do, and you have to allow them to do that sometimes. I can’t watch it anymore.
AM: Sure, it’s the same with me. Half the time I can’t look at my pictures because I’m sure I’ll find something wrong with them. I was imagining that you had an experience with a Pot Noodle when you were fifteen or something like that [Francis laughs].
FL: I think I did used to take Pot Noodles into school in the fifth year because you had access to a kettle, so everyone lived on those.
“Every time I came home I’d get some pebbles or a bit of dirt, put it in my pocket and take it back to London with me. It just felt like this was me, it’d formed me and made me the person I was.”
AM: The chicken and mushroom ones are still delicious [both laugh]. I got the impression that there was something very personal in there, in a similar way to how I sometimes approach photoshoots. I do documentary projects but sometimes you just want to create a world yourself. Documentary photography is hard, sometimes you just don’t find the subject, and sometimes a documentary on TV might do a better job of telling that story than a series of photos. So creating a world, even if it’s dismissed because it’s a fashion image that someone facilitates. Luckily there are magazines that offer a lot of freedom. People dismiss it, but in some ways you’re creating something that is your own, you’re making that person, that character, in a similar way to how you make a film.
FL: You’re writing your stories.
AM: Kind of, yeah. That’s how I approach it in a way. Out of interest, do you think that when you returned to Yorkshire older and happier, do you think that’s because you finally found what you wanted to be doing? Like a realisation that you’re doing something you’re actually really good at?
Francis: Well I didn’t know I was good at it. I couldn’t afford to go to film school or anything or do any courses on writing or directing. I had this job in a junkyard in London and I’d given up acting because that was just ridiculous, so I’d saved up enough money to make a couple of short films that I self-financed. They were fine but they didn’t set the world on fire. So when I wrote God’s Own Country – and I’d never written anything before in terms of a long-form script – and came to shoot it, I didn’t have a clue if it was going to be good, bad, indifferent. I just knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I think I was 47 when I made it, so that life experience had really taught me to stick up for what you want, to battle on and understand that the only thing I had to sell was this singular vision. I didn’t really have anything else. So I fought tooth and nail to make the film the way I wanted to make it.
AM: A lot of people you meet don’t know who they are, but then sometimes that changes when they find out what they are good at. Sometimes I think about people who never actually found what they wanted to do, and who they wanted to be, and I find it one of the saddest things. So I wondered if that experience moving back to Yorkshire coincided with finding this skill and talent.
FL: I think I’m still super new to making films, I’ve only made two feature films, I only made God’s Own Country three years ago and shot this second film last year, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. But I think one of the things being in Yorkshire gives me that I struggle with a bit in London, is that in Yorkshire nobody cares what I do.
“I think one of the things being in Yorkshire gives me that I struggle with a bit in London, is that in Yorkshire nobody cares what I do.”
AM: Yeah, I have that conversation all the time.
FL: I go to a party up here and nobody mentions work for me. Nobody.
AM: I think the only time my friends from Yorkshire have been impressed is when I photographed David Beckham [Francis laughs]. They couldn’t care less about most things I do, even some huge American stars, they’re just like…
FL: “Oh, but you shot David Beckham.” [laughs] I went to my dad’s last week, I go most days, but I was over there and chatting and he asked what I was doing this weekend, and I said, “Oh, Kate’s coming to visit, they’re coming on their way down from Scotland.” And he was like, “Kate?” I was like, “Yeah, you know, Kate Winslet who’s in the movie.” He was like, “Oh right, fine,” then proceeded to tell me about the man cutting his hay [Alasdair laughs]. Whereas if I’m in London and go to a party, instantly the only topic of conversation is work and stuff around work and people’s opinions around your work and your engagement with work. Here, there’s none.
AM: Believe me, I find it very funny. But then you don’t really need to talk about it because nobody is interested [laughs].
FL: No, they’re not [laughs]. I remember when we first moved here and I was at the top of the road waiting for a lift to work when I was prepping God’s Own Country. It was the first time I’d met Dave the postman and he said to me, “Oh, which one are you?” I went, “I’m Francis,” so he goes, “Oh right, so you’re the filmmaker,” and I was like, “Oh yeah, I am.” He said, “My little girl wants to be an actress, she’d be fantastic in your film.” And I said, “Oh Dave, I don’t really make films about little girls,” and he goes, “No, I’ve ‘eard who you make films about,” [both laugh] and that’s kind of the engagement.
AM: That’s funny, I do miss that sort of humour. You wouldn’t get someone saying it like that in London. Maybe she’s really good, maybe you missed a trick there.
FL: Maybe I did [laughs]. I do realise that I’m going to have to spend much more time down in London now and everything that comes with, and I am kind of girding my loins a bit for that shift again to what that’s going to be like.
AM: I love London a lot… but I know what you mean, it can be a bit all-consuming and can just end up being about work. But yeah, I guess you’ll have to come back to London more [laughs], but you can keep your place there.
FL: I don’t know Alasdair, I think this hut’s gonna fall to bits, there are massive gaps in all the windows now and the weatherboard is all rotted outside. [laughs] I’m not sure how many more Yorkshire winters this will get through.
Originally published in HERO 24. Watch Ammonite here.