INTERVIEW: ‘Fanny Lye Deliver’d’ Director Thomas Clay
Fanny Lye Deliver’d marks director Thomas Clay’s return to filmmaking after 11 long years, most of those spent working on Fanny Lye Deliver’d. The Puritan Western follows the titular Fanny Lye whose peaceful, but submissive life is turned upside down with the arrival of two strangers, preaching a new way of life.
Fanny lye Deliver’d received its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last year to good reviews and we chatted to Clay about Ranters, researching 17th century language and the brilliance of Maxine Peake ahead of the film’s digital release.
Thank you for taking the time to chat to me about Fanny Lye Deliver’d. I just wanted to start by asking what compelled you to write this particular story.
I wanted to make a film about the 17th century for a long time. I read Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down when I was a teenager and ever since I’ve wanted to find some way into that period. And another thing I’ve always wanted to do is make a western. The Eureka moment was thinking maybe I can make a Western about 17th century radicals, set on a farm. The whole idea, the basic concepts, came together quite quickly and that Fanny would be at the centre of the story and then you have these other characters who represent the different views of the period. That concept just formed over the course of a few days and then it just gradually built from that.
I really enjoyed the period accurate dialogue; did you have to do a lot of research for that?
I was reading a lot of pamphlets as part of the research. It was a really exciting time in English, history, the printing press had just been invented and because of the war, the government began to lose control of the country. And suddenly, you’d have all these pamphlets popping up and ordinary people, common people expressing themselves and their philosophical views and suddenly you have this wealth of information. I guess over time as you’re reading that language, it starts to kind of get into your brain. Then having done that I wrote the script. The script actually went over to Nigel Smith, he’s a specialist in the language of the period. And he picked through it and pulled me up on the places where I’d maybe slipped or used something I shouldn’t have.
It’s not easy to pull off all that dialogue convincingly and making it seem natural but the central four actors (Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds), they’re just so fantastic. Did you have anyone in mind for the role of you writing the script?
I didn’t have anyone specific when I was writing it, but very early on I had the idea of casting Maxine and she joined the film about a year before we filmed. Everyone else actually came aboard very close to shoot or even during the shoot. The date kept on shifting, partly due to the financing, partly due to the set build, so we weren’t quite sure when we were going to film. It wasn’t until the very last minute that most of the other actors came on board.
Do you like to rehearse a lot before filming on set?
Yes, but because of the way that the cast came together, we didn’t have a lot of time before the shoot, there was only a couple of days, so we incorporated rehearsals into our schedules. What would often happen is, the first thing in the morning would be that the actors and I will come on set and we’d rehearse and I’d have an idea of the shot list and what I’m looking for. But that would be adjusted based on what we were doing.
You build the actual farm and I believe you had some trouble with some flooding on set as well. Do you think all that helped as well to get into that mindset of that time rather than doing extensive table reads?
It was definitely helpful for most of the actors and they all have their own processes. Certainly, I think Maxine and Freddie both really love to have that kind of realism, to get together and stand and feel that they’re there.
What’s so remarkable about the film film is that it feels so topical still today. You wrote the script quite a few years ago, but did you ever think that it would still feel this timely with obviously women’s rights, and just the idea of two men going head to head with their different ideologies, in 2020?
I guess I didn’t set out to make it feel timely. There could be the strands that are a part of the British consciousness, the more conservative and progressive forces, is something that hasn’t gone away since that time, or even earlier. it’s tapping into something that is ongoing and I’m sure still will be.
This was Tanya’s first professional film. How did you find her and what did she do to convince you that she would be right for the role of Rebecca?
We did a pretty wide audition for the part, we had combination of personal auditions and tapes. And it was actually a tape I think her mother filmed. She came out of nowhere and seemed to really understand the character, which is kind of rare in an audition, somehow, she actually connected with Rebecca, in a surprising way. Immediately from that tape there was something really exciting. She then came in and did a personal audition and immediately it was apparent that she had to play the part.
She’s fantastic and she has great chemistry with Freddie, who plays Thomas with a lot of charisma, and he really effortlessly plays both sides of that character. Can you talk a little bit about Thomas as a character and his logic, and his relationship with Rebecca especially?
He believes what he’s saying, but sometimes what he’s saying isn’t correct it, isn’t true and he’s a bit of a hypocrite but he’s not quite aware of that. There’s a kind of sincerity to that hypocrisy. In the beginning of the film, Rebecca continues to believe in him and then she starts to form her own views as time goes on and realise that he is not as perfect as he maybe first appeared.
Absolutely. And the film is very visceral in terms of the sexuality and the violence, why did you feel that it was necessary to have that shock factor there?
There aren’t many films made about this period. There’s been a couple of the three main radical groups, you’ve got the Levellers, Ranters and the Diggers. Kevin Brownlow did a film about the Diggers, Winstanley, and there was a TV show on Channel 4 that dealt with Levellers (The Devil’s Whore), but the Ranters hadn’t really been shown. Once you decide to make a film about the Ranters, you can’t really do that without having a certain amount sexuality in the film, it’s their identity. So, to not have that would be untrue to that reality.
And how did you approach the sexual scenes and the nudity? Did you have any intimacy coordinators or what kind of conversations did you have with the actors?
We didn’t have intimacy coordinators, it was 2016, I guess it was before that happened. We discussed it all as a group as well as individually, answered questions, making sure that everyone felt comfortable with what we’re going to film, and obviously we kept a very, very closed set for it and also making sure that Zak (Adams, playing John and Fanny’s young son Arthur) was not present. He’s referred to being there in a couple of scenes but his moments were filmed separately. And it was the end of the shoot, the actors were very much a team and everyone knew each other, they were comfortable in each other’s presence, which I think helps as well.
The High Sheriff, who shows up later on in the film, is the truly the traditional villain here. But other times, the lines are blurred, between Thomas and John. Did you approach the male characters from the very beginning with the idea that they’re both kind of villains? Or is there a villain?
They all represent different aspects of male villainy. The sheriff is the most blatant, he commits atrocities and doesn’t even think about it twice, whereas both John and Thomas, in their own way, have a moral code, which obviously is very much of the period. I wanted there to be shades of grey to the characters in comparison to the sheriff.
And you were inspired by the filmmaking the 1970s and it really shows in the visual aspect of the film. What was it about those films specifically that inspired you?
That period of cinema from mid-60s through to the late 70s for some reason has always kind of inspired me. There were radical changes occurring in film and this cultural moment that hasn’t been repeated. Coming to Fanny, looking at the film as kind of a Western, it then just naturally felt right to kind of give it that look of the late 60s, mid 70s.
You directed, you wrote the script, you edited and you scored the film as well! Do you like doing everything and having such a big hand in post-production yourself, rather than handing it over to other people?
I wouldn’t say like but it’s something that seems to happen fairly often. I guess it’s hard for me to hand over big jobs. My first two films didn’t have a lot of music. Mostly I was taking previous recordings. Whereas this film’ score, once it became apparent how much music was needed, we were getting into new territory. And we spent some time trying to find a composer, but by the time we found someone I had already started to write the music, that just popped into my head. I studied music in university and hadn’t actually written music for about 15 years but it just started to come to me. And by the time I was trying to collaborate with a composer it was almost impossible. I sat down, wrote a couple of cues and showed it to everybody. And that’s when I got the idea to this might actually work and it went from there really. Next to the shoot, doing the music was probably the most time-consuming aspect and the biggest thing, it became a project in itself and it took a little over a year to do it. Casting the musicians was kind of like casting the film as well. Every main character in the film has an instrument. So each of those lead instruments had to be cast because they’re all playing archaic and historical instruments. And there aren’t that many people that can play those instruments well so it became quite a thing, we had people coming in from France, Holland and Italy. It was probably my favourite, most enjoyable part of the whole process, recording the music.
I love the bit where the camera spins around Fanny and the music just soars and Maxine Peake is just absolutely amazing as Fanny. Can you talk a little bit about what Maxine specifically brought to the role that no one else probably could?
Maxine has integrity, she’s able to convey what Fanny has been through in her life, that sense of history in her eyes. I think her approach fits really well as well, she’s really thrives on being given historical details and the fact that you’re not just standing on a soundstage, you have the buildings there. Everything feels real, you put her into that world and she responds to that. It’s a great thing she was able to bring to the film.
And just lastly, what do you want people to take away from this or what do you want people to talk about after they after they’ve watched the film?
I guess I wouldn’t want to try to describe that. Hopefully people will have their own individual reactions to them.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is released on Digital 26th June
The official soundtrack album is out now on CD and digital formats