Thomas Clay is the British director who made his feature-length debut in 2005 with The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael. He followed it up three years later with Soi Cowboy, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard. He now returns with Fanny Lye Deliver’d, set in 17th Century post-Civil War England. Maxine Peake stars as the downtrodden Fanny, whose life with her son and cruel husband (Charles Dance) takes an abrupt turn when two strangers arrive at their homestead.
ASFF: What drew you to this particular period of English history?
TC: Well, what partly makes the 17th century so fascinating is you had a confluence of two things. You had the invention of the portable printing press. And then at the same time during the Civil War, there was a breakdown of order to a certain extent. The government lost control outside the major cities. And the Puritans were encouraging dissent against the King. And so suddenly, there’s this explosion of pamphleteering and people expressing their views. Because of that, you hear the voices of the common people. History, I guess, up to that point is mostly about kings and queens and large grand scale events and then suddenly we get this snapshot that opens up.
ASFF: Was it always the intention to make Fanny’s emancipation central to the story?
TC: I think if you’re gonna deal with that kind of history, then one of the key things is you have the emergence of women’s rights, particularly in the Quaker movement. So if you’re going to tell that story it’s something that has to be in there.
ASFF: What led you to casting Maxine Peake as Fanny?
TC: She has something in her eyes that can bring the sense of having lived life. We wanted to feel that soulfulness in Fanny, in her past and history, and that’s something that I thought Maxine could really bring to it. And then we met up. She came on board about a year before the shoot. She’s very passionate about 17th century history as well. And we both have a similar idea about how the film should be made with this attention to detail and a 360 degree set enveloping her in the world of the film.
ASFF: You filmed in Shropshire. Was it a difficult shoot?
TC: It went on a bit longer than we anticipated. It was cold and muddy, I guess. Those were people’s main complaints and we had a little trouble with the mist. That was something that became a little bit of an albatross. Originally the idea was to make a ‘snow Western’ and have the family stuck in this big snow drift, isolating them, and we couldn’t really do that. So I was looking for another way to create that feeling and our special effects team turned up with these machines. You have these tubes that are connected to these big fans; there were three of them. They set them up and they turned them on and it happened to be a perfectly calm day. And within seconds, the whole valley shored up with mist and smoke and we all fell in love with it. And then once we started shooting, we very quickly realised that any kind of small changes in the wind direction could cause complete havoc. So I think the mist ended up dictating the schedule.
ASFF: You also composed the score, which was recorded with 17th Century instruments. What was behind your thinking?
TC: Every character has their own instrument. So Fanny has a cornett, John has a sackbut. So casting each of their instruments was the thing; we had to find the right person to play that instrument to the required level. And so we had musicians coming in from Italy, Holland, France. I think the budget for the music was about the same as the budget for Soi Cowboy!
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is available to stream from 26 June. For more details, click here.