'Ammonite' Director Talks Landing Kate Winslet, Onscreen Nudity and Why He's Not Thinking About Awards Season

Ammonite, director Francis Lee
TIFF: Inset: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

One of the most eagerly anticipated titles at TIFF, Francis Lee's period lesbian drama tells the story of a fossil hunter whose groundbreaking work was coopted by less deserving men.

In October 2018, British director Francis Lee sent Kate Winslet’s agent a screenplay he had just finished writing. Despite having just one film under his belt — the critically acclaimed drama God’s Own Country about an unlikely romance between two young men — Lee was able to entice the Oscar winner, who committed within 24 hours.

The resulting movie, Ammonite, marks one of the most anticipated to make its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and is already garnering strong awards season buzz for Lee, Winslet and co-star Saoirse Ronan. In fact, the 19th century lesbian drama about a fossil hunter whose groundbreaking work was coopted by less deserving men marks this year’s big bet for Neon — the distributor behind last year’s best picture winner Parasite. Lee, who won’t be on hand for the Sept. 11 bow of the film due to travel restrictions, instead will be Zooming in for the hybrid premiere. Ditto for Winslet, who Lee dubs “the funniest person alive,” adding, “she's like the person you want to hang out with.”

The West Yorkshire native spoke to THR about eschewing stunt doubles and making sure the film’s graphic sex and nudity “tells us something about where those people are at and what is happening within the dynamic of that relationship.”

What was your reaction when Kate signed on?

I was really thrilled because she was my first choice. But I was a little bit nervous because with God’s Own Country, I worked with young actors who were at the beginning of their careers, and I'd never worked with anybody who had that body of experience.

Did you write the screenplay with Kate or Saoirse in mind?

No. I never write with specific actors in mind. I just kind of write the characters as I see them and the world as I see it. And then it becomes a conversation afterwards. One of the things I love most in actors is their [ability to be] transformative. So, actors who can play people very, very different from themselves and if we could work together, then we'd be able to create this transformative performance.

What was the most memorable day on set?

It's very early on in the film and it's with Kate on her own on the beach when she climbs a cliff to excavate what turns out to be a large ammonite and she falls down the cliff and the fossil breaks. There were so many difficult elements to that scene [including] the tide on that particular beach. The beach disappears when the tide comes in, so we had a very limited amount of time to shoot. And we never had a stunt double because Kate wanted to do everything herself, which I fully endorsed. But you've got Kate Winslet who's then gonna fall down a cliff, and you don't want to be responsible for killing Kate Winslet. On top of that, you've got the performance. What really struck me was the focus that Kate had and the way in which we were able, with great economy, to shoot that scene. This was an actor with no vanity who just wants to get it right and wants to inhabit this character, wants to be this person without any worry about what she looks like.

Did she get pretty banged up during the tumble?

No. I am a huge fan of preparation, so Kate and I had already worked together for about four or five months prior to the shoot, building this character, this vision of Mary as we saw her from scratch. So, I'm a big fan of getting actors to actually do the work that they have to do in the film so it feels very natural and authentic. And Kate had already been out on those beaches for weeks and weeks and weeks, working with tools in the cold and rain. When we came to shoot those beach scenes, we were very, very well prepped, not just in the character but also in the work that the character does. So, if there was any kind of jeopardy climbing up and then falling down, we felt very prepared.

How would you describe the on-set dynamic between Kate and Saoirse?

There was such an excitement and a buzz. They had met before but didn't know each other very well. As soon as they met [on Ammonite], they got on fantastically and they had this wonderful bond. I think that they both learned from each other and supported each other. It was just everything you could want from two wonderful actors.

How challenging was the nudity and the sex scenes? If there were no stunt doubles on the cliff, I’m guessing no body doubles either.

Right. When I'm writing a story, I justify every single moment within that story. I'm rigorous with that. And I police myself by asking myself the question, “Does this moment tell us more about the character and does it move the story along? Does it tell me what's going on in this relationship and how that is developing and changing?” And if you're telling an intimate love story, then I think how we react physically and intimately tells us something about where those people are at and what is happening within the dynamic of that relationship. And if I can justify it, then I think it's really important to include that. Most of a lot of the film is shot in close up. I don't let the camera turn away. I want the audience to start at the beginning of the film and be immersed in this world with these people until the end credits. I felt those scenes were very important and told us where these people were at in their relationship and what this meant to them. Obviously, with very, very careful discussion with the actors.

How strange has this awards season been for you with regards to coronavirus?

To be absolutely honest, what's important to me is bringing the film to an audience primarily. Neon has been fantastic and really believes in the theatrical distribution. So a lot of the discussions have been about how, when cinemas can reopen, whether or not people will feel comfortable going to them. I haven't at the moment thought much about the award season. It feels like one step at a time. First, we need to bring the film to an audience and then see how that goes.