It’s been over a decade since British indie director Thomas Clay had a new film set for release. After 2008’s Soi Cowboy, Clay spent time researching the English interregnum: exploring its political and social upheavals to find an untold story buried within a less frequently mined period of history.
The resulting film, Fanny Lye Deliver’d, is a surprising mix of bodice-ripping and political philosophy, musket fights and early feminism. Ahead of its release on digital platforms, we chatted with Clay about the perils of hiring star geese and the forgotten sex lives of the Ranters.
Tom Duggins: I want to start this interview with a real hard-hitting question. There’s a great shot in the film of a goose making its way across a farmyard. Did you have an expert goose wrangler on the set?
Thomas Clay: There was yeah. We actually had two geese. As the camera was moving down, the goose had to be positioned in-shot just at that moment and the second goose kept cutting across the other one, so it took a few takes. We tried swapping the geese as well. There was a star goose and then, I guess, a supporting goose. Initially, the star goose was struggling. For some reason, he just wasn’t performing. So we swapped them over. That didn’t work. We were about to give up and then we said: “Let’s give the star goose one more shot.” We swapped them back and it just happened, he did it on cue.
TD: The production notes mentioned Heaven’s Gate as an influence. I had an image of you making everyone wait all day for the ‘perfect’ goose shot.
TC: I wish we could’ve gotten it in one shot, it was always going to be tricky to capture. Heaven’s Gate was more of an influence because, with Giorgos, the DoP, we were looking for a film which we thought had the right feel in terms of lighting. Heaven’s Gate was the one we both struck on. Especially because of the mist and the smoke and the slightly sepia look to it.
TD: Some film critics really dislike that film.
TC: I love the film, I think it’s great, the long cut. I know it was spliced up when it was first released, and that put people off, but the extended version is great. The reference for us though was mostly photographic.
TD: The film’s set in a really interesting time period. It made me think about Witchfinder General and, more recently, A Field in England. Approaching your own take on that period, do you try not to think about what other directors have done?
TC: It’s an underrepresented period of history and that was part of the inspiration. You have Winstanley as well, the Kevin Brownlow movie. There’s also a biopic of Oliver Cromwell with Richard Harris in it. I was actually working on the script when Ben Wheatley’s film came out. There have been a few films set there, but not a great deal. I think that was part of the appeal, to take a crack at something which hadn’t been too thoroughly taken apart by other film-makers.
TD: Most period dramas which go to the lengths you’ve gone to, to preserve historical realism, I think they often function to uphold quite a nostalgic view of British history. With Fanny Lye Deliver’d though, a lot of the ideas expressed are quite modern and challenge that more innocent view of the past.
TC: I wanted to tell a story about ordinary people and their lives. I think that’s still quite uncommon in British period films. The story is fictional but it’s based on reading a lot of pamphlets from the era and speaking to expert historians who gave me a sense of what it would be like to live in those times. They were dangerous, violent, uncertain times for most people.
TD: I feel like some people might think it was inconceivable that anyone would have a threesome in the 17th century.
TC: If you look at the key sets and groups from that period, you have the Levellers and the Diggers who’ve been dealt with in other films. The third main group is the Ranters, who’ve never been properly portrayed on screen before, so an early decision was: we wanted to include them. I don’t think you can make a film about Ranters without having sex in the film. There’s a number of real historical figures who inspired the characters in the film: prominent Ranters like Abiezer Coppe and Laurence Clarkson. They went around writing pamphlets and encouraging orgies. There was also a couple – Mary Gadbury and her partner William Franklin – who travelled around the country. He said he was Christ and she said she was the bride of Christ. They were tried and thrown into prison around that time, 1650.
TD: Did you spend much time discussing the film’s political philosophy with the cast?
TC: At the beginning, before we shot the film when I first met Maxine [Peake], that was something we connected over. We both had an interest in the political philosophy of the period. Later, we had conversations with Freddie and Tanya in particular, but most of the time, during the shoot, you’re just trying to get on with it. The discussions become a lot more mundane.
TD: In the production notes, again, you talk about the significance of Puritanism in the history of the United States. Was this film trying to throw light on present-day America at all?
TC: The history of England at that time is the history of America, in a way. The Protestant dissenters went across and formed many of the institutions there. That conflict between the Puritans and the Quakers was going on in the ‘New World’ as well. In Boston, in 1660 I think, the Puritan community executed some Quakers. I guess that tension is still there today in American society between the egalitarian Quaker view and the more money-driven Puritan idea. Puritanism is all about land and property and properness. I wrote the script in 2012 though, it isn’t addressing the events of the last few years.
TD: Did you feel that a woman’s perspective hadn’t been shown enough in films set in that era?
TC: It’s important to the 17th century, especially in the Quaker movement, there was this emphasis on women’s rights. Margaret Fell was the co-founder of the Quakers and helped to established the idea that a woman wasn’t the property of her husband, that a woman should be free to speak in church. Things that seem obvious today but were radical at the time. So it was important to have a female perspective. I also saw the film more as a western – since 2012 this has become less unusual – but I liked the idea of making a western with a female protagonist.
TD: The film was shot somewhere in the West Midlands. Where was the set exactly?
TC: It was a farm a little bit south of Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Some remnants of the building may still be there. The land-owner agreed to keep it in the end. The last time I saw it was a year after the shoot. They took off the roof and the cladding but the frame was still there. It’s a planning issue I suppose, but I think they were hoping to turn it into a holiday home.
TD: Tell me a bit about the decision to use voice-over in the film.
TC: It was something I came to in post-production, which isn’t too unusual. If you look at Apocalypse Now, Days of Heaven, there are two examples where the voice-over came later on. The decision came through a number of things. I wanted to get the running time down a little bit, so it was quite practical at the start. As it came together though, I really started to fall in love with it and appreciate what the voice-over can do to help us enter the world and feel the inner lives of the characters more.
TD: It definitely brings Terrence Malick to mind.
TC: Once you move to it, it’s hard to give up. You can see why he’s kind of addicted to using it. It allows you to move so much faster as well and it helps you avoid exposition in the dialogue.
TD: Fanny Lye Deliver’d was quite a long time in the making. Are you hoping your next project might move a little quicker?
TC: It would be nice, to make a film quite quickly. One doesn’t have too much control over these things, they just take a long time. Once we arrived in post-production it took longer than anticipated, mostly due to the music. But hopefully, the next one will be along sooner.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is released on digital platforms on 26 June.
Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom