Cinematographer Joshua James Richards talks adapting to a director’s vision and creating a sense of place in God’s Own Country and The Rider. This is an excerpt from our ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue, which is available for purchase here.
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country are two of this year’s most celebrated films — and two of The Seventh Row’s favourites. Sensual and visually stunning, both owe a significant part of their success to the work of Joshua James Richards, the director of photography they share. Yet the process of making the films could not have been more different. While God’s Own Country rarely departed from Lee’s script, Zhao was more interested in capturing unexpected moments.
For his adaptability and vivid sense of realism, and with two major films already under his belt, Richards is a talent to keep an eye out for. The Seventh Row talked with the British cinematographer about adapting to different working methods, bringing out sensuality and sense of place, and supporting a director’s vision.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you create the look of God’s Own Country? Did you collaborate a lot with director Francis Lee?
Joshua James Richards: It started with just reading the script. The scenes were so vivid and well described. The world of Johnny (Josh O’Connor) – one of vomit and piss and shit – was all on the page. I had a sort of visceral feeling whilst reading the script, before I even spoke with Francis. I also really responded to the candidness and intimacy that develops between him and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), because it was rendered in such a visual way. The dialogue was quite sparse, which suited the world of the film and the characters, in a place I kind of knew quite well anyway, coming from Cornwall.
After talking with Francis, I did about a month of preparations with him. That included a lot of pretty hardcore, long sessions between me and him, and a lot of me just sort of picking his brain, because Francis was coming from something more of an actors’ place. We had to try to get a mutual language going, which was so important because that ran throughout the remainder of the shoot. We didn’t have to talk much once we were on set, just because there was that trust that had formed before. We knew exactly where he was coming from, exactly what he wanted.
Joshua James Richards: It was. The process couldn’t have been more different, really. For one, Chloé’s process for The Rider: there was a script, but it was just a sort of 40-page throughline of a story. She was using real people in their real surroundings, and she was embracing that. As a result, she was very fluid and organic in her approach. There was never marks for the camera or for the cowboys to hear. The camera would always be reacting to them, rather than the other way around. That created a really interesting atmosphere, possibilities and accidents. I personally love to work that way. It’s so exciting.'The world of Johnny (Josh O’Connor) – one of vomit and piss and shit – was all on the page.'Click To Tweet
For God’s Own Country, Francis was very exact and quite rigidly followed the script. The lines that they speak in the film are the exact lines from the page, and there’s no straying from that. We shot on a real farm, a real part of Yorkshire where Francis grew up, so he knew that place like the back of his hand. It was a more conventional approach in terms of production designers and team — the kind you expect on a film on a quite tight budget. You’re there to support the director best you can, to support his vision.
On The Rider, it involved more supporting Chloé in capturing something that was fleeting. And you may not capture it! You don’t have the sort of same window! Yet she was able to work her way around that. She removes her ego. She just lets life happen. Hopefully, the cameras are there to capture it in a cinematic way.'It’s a place that encages you. I tried to convey it in the film through Johnny’s point of view.'Click To Tweet
7R: You were familiar with the area where God’s Own Country was shot but maybe less so with that of The Rider. Yet both films have a very strong sense of place. How did you work to bring out this sense of the location on screen for both films?
Joshua James Richards: For The Rider, I had the experience of Songs my Brothers Taught Me. That was a particularly special one for me, because from an early age, I had been reading about that part of America, and playing Indians, etc… For whatever reasons, I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee when I was a young teenager. I’ve always kind of dreamt about that landscape. So when the time came to do The Rider, I’d been back and forth there with Chloé, over a five year period. I was so excited to get out there. After Songs, I wasn’t really satisfied with that film visually, and I felt we could have made more use of the landscape telling the story. That’s why The Rider was so satisfying, because I could get my teeth into that.
In God’s Own Country, there’s a very different approach to the landscape. That’s because when describing growing up there as a young lad, Francis said that your face is always down at the ground. You’re just looking at the mud; you’re not really appreciating the beauty of it when you’re from there. It’s a place that kind of encages you. I find that very interesting visually, and I tried to convey it in the film through Johnny’s point of view. Then, that landscape opens up when Gheorghe starts to unravel his heart.
To read the rest of the interview with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, purchase a copy of the ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue here.