Director Francis Lee on ‘surreal’ honour of closing London Film Festival

Director Francis Lee has said he hopes people will return to cinemas “if they feel safe and able to do so” as he spoke of the “surreal” honour of closing the BFI London Film Festival.

The British filmmaker, who was critically acclaimed for his debut feature God’s Own Country, starring Josh O’Connor, added he is a “hopeful optimist” about the future of the theatrical experience, despite the temporary closure of all UK Cineworlds.

His film Ammonite, about Victorian palaeontologist Mary Anning, whose life is changed by the arrival of a younger woman, played by Saoirse Ronan, will close the festival on Saturday with screenings in cinemas around the country.

He told the PA news agency: “On one hand it’s such an honour. I’ve only made two films, I came to filmmaking super late in life because I didn’t have access to support or film school or any of those kinds of things, so to be honoured by the London Film Festival by being closing-night film on my second film, it’s such an extraordinary, kind of surreal, but wonderful honour.

“But obviously I am very aware that this year is not like any other.

“Unfortunately I am not able to come to London because of Covid restrictions in the North and although there is personal disappointment with that, I do understand that.

“I have been super thrilled that Lionsgate, the UK distributor, have got behind this idea of putting the film into cinemas all over the UK for this one-night special preview as part of LFF and that is a wonderful opportunity.

“I would say that if people feel safe and able, they should go, but if they don’t, not to worry, because the film will be coming out next year both in cinemas and obviously at some point it will be available for home entertainment.”

He added: “Personally I am somebody who loves the cinema experience, of going to a cinema, it’s been the place where I’ve been able to find refuge throughout my life in difficult times, where I’ve been able to live through characters on screen, can explore things about myself, emotions or what have you.

“So personally I am still very much drawn to going back for that experience.

“If people feel safe and able to go and they don’t feel like they are putting themselves or other people at risk then I would say of course, go to the cinema.

“I’ve been to the cinema locally where I live and the staff were fantastic and they did everything within their abilities to make it a safe and pleasant experience, with wonderful social distancing, but I’m an optimist, always a hopeful optimist, and I think that lots of us enjoy that theatrical cinematic experience, whether that’s a Marvel film or something more like Ammonite.

“So I would hope, coming out of the back of this, which hopefully will happen at some point soon, we will want to go back and have that collective experience.”

Lee, who has been shortlisted for the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary award in association with the BFI at the festival, said he first learned about Anning when he was researching a gift for a former partner.

He said: “I was instantly struck by this person, who had been born into a very working class background, into a life of poverty really, who had very little education, no advantage, as a woman in a very strict patriarchal society and a very class-ridden society.

“Through her own strength and fortitude and intelligence, she rose to being who we would call the leading palaeontologist of her generation and yet totally unrecognised because of her gender and her class.

“And all of those things really struck with me, I come from a working class background, didn’t have access to great education or advantage and I felt very akin in lots of ways to her.”

Ammonite will premiere on October 17 as closing film of the BFI London Film Festival with additional screenings on Sunday.

The winner of the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary will be announced at the LFF virtual awards on Sunday.