Love, Labor, and Human Heat: Francis Lee on Ammonite | Interviews

I loved “Ammonite” and “God’s Own Country,” and I’m excited to talk to you about them both. It really does feel like we have to discuss one to discuss the other. They’re both such gentle, tender stories, and very much about tenderness as this almost radical action for characters valued primarily for their physical labor. When did you first know you wanted “Ammonite” to be your next project?

I was actually on the promotional tour forGod’s Own Country,” and I was pretty lonely and a bit sad on my own. I was looking for a polished stone or a fossil for a loved one, as a gift, and I was Googling this. Mary Anning’s name kept coming up, and so I read about her. And her life story instantly struck a chord with me. She was a working-class woman born into a life of poverty, in a totally patriarchal, class-ridden society. She had virtually no access to education; she just went to Sunday school. And, somehow, through her own ingenuity, passion, drive, determination, and will to survive, she rose to being what we’d now call one of the leading paleontologists of her generation. 

And there was just a little bit of a parallel there that I felt. I’m not saying I’m as brilliant as Mary Anning, at all, but there was just this thing about me growing up as a working-class kid, not having a great education, being a queer kid, feeling outside of the community. Thinking about me wanting to become a filmmaker was just a ridiculous notion. I didn’t know anyone who’d done that, couldn’t go to film school, didn’t have the finances to do that. So, there was some little parallel there. And at the same time, I knew I didn’t want to write a biopic. I don’t think I’d be good at making a biopic, in that sense. I wanted to write a snapshot of this woman’s life, and I wanted to do something that for me felt like I was respecting her, elevating her to maybe the place she should have been when she was alive. 

I knew I wanted to look at an intimate relationship again. I’d read there was no evidence she ever had a relationship with a man, no evidence whatsoever. But there was evidence she had friendships with women, and I thought, ‘How interesting it would be to suggest that maybe that might have been an alternative.’ It was an imagined kind of relationship I wanted to give her, and I felt that if it was with a woman, it would feel more equal. A man in this patriarchal society didn’t feel equal, to me. At the same time, I was reading quite a lot of research about female-and-female relationships in the 18th and 19th century, which were incredibly well-documented by letters they were writing to each other. They were talking about these wonderful, passionate, loving, caring relationships that they were having, and I wanted to look at that as well.

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