Fanny Lye Deliver’d writer/director Thomas Clay on making his “Puritan western”

Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d has turned out to be more of a personal project than he ever could have imagined.  He started work on the story of a 17th century farmer’s wife in remote Shropshire who has her life turned upside down by the arrival of two strangers back in 2012.  After screenings at last year’s London Film Festival, it eventually gets its digital release this Friday, as well as on Curzon Home Cinema as part of the Ed Film Fest At Home line-up.

Clay recalls the film took a long time to piece together in terms of getting funding, but the shoot eventually took place in 2016, three years before its first appearance on the big screen.  The reason?  “I ended up doing a lot of the post-production myself.  We went a bit over budget on the shoot so one of the ways to claw that back was for me to take on more of the post-production.  Part of that was me deciding to write the music, which wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did.  And once that happened it was like a whole other project, really. I guess over a year was spent on the music and time was creeping on and on and it took about three years in the end to finish the post-production.

“We had been looking for a composer for quite a long time and couldn’t quite find the right person to do it. I’d studied music at university but it had gone on the back burner but during this extended search I’d been thinking about the music a lot and these themes and ideas came into my head.  I had such clear idea in my head of what it would sound like that I made a couple of demos and played it to everybody else.  And we decided I should do it myself.  I decided we should only use instruments that were around in the 17th century and that meant replacing all the brass and wind instruments with strange and wonderful things.  Each character has their own instrument, so we had to cast them in much the same way as we cast the film.  And we had people coming in from Italy and France who were specialists in their particular instruments.  Fanny’s instrument, for example, was a cornet, while John was a sackbut which is an ancient trombone.”

While the film has the flavour of being based on a true story, Clay took his inspiration from Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down, an examination of religious fanatics in 17th century England.  Fanny herself was not a real person, but she echoes several important figures of the time.  “Ever since  reading that book, I’d wanted to make a film about these radical groups in the 17th century.  But I couldn’t find a way in.  The Eureka moment for me was the idea of making a western of sorts, of combining that period in history with the iconography of a western. And once I’d decided to bring those two together, the idea sprang from there.”

The film has already been called difficult to categorise, an oddity even, but Clay is more at home with the description of “Puritan western”.  The border country setting, with the lawlessness that comes from being a long way from the seat of power, riders emerging out of the mist ….. they all reflect the familiar iconography, transposing it to another country with little effort.  He believes the use of the single setting is the key to this.  “If you look at something like Ride In The Whirlwind, a Monte Hellman film, where you have a single location and a small number of characters, there’s an incredible tension throughout the film and I felt this was something we could achieve without a huge budget but still create a lot of drama.  Originally, I wasn’t a100% sure where to set it, but Shropshire came through when one of the advisors on the film identified the border area with Wales as a place where there was a lot of back and forwards with the land and it was shifting quite frequently.  And also it was an isolated area where it was feasible you would have that kind of farm, but that just came from the history.”

That farm, and Clay’s insistence on creating it from scratch, wasn’t without its problems, namely several floods.  The mud in the exterior scenes is a testament to this.  But, despite its pitfalls, it gave him the flexibility and the camera angles that he wanted, as well as the authenticity.  “The idea was to create a 360 degree set so that we could film inside and outside.  And we brought in traditional craftsmen and built it in the traditional way.  We used roof thatchers and a blacksmith and carpenters, as well as somebody who specialised in fencing so that we could have traditional split hazel fences and that was woven on site.”

Thomas Clay was talking to Freda Cooper

Fanny Lye Deliver’dis released on digital on Friday, 26 June 2020 and is available as part of Ed Film Fest At Home on Curzon Home Cinema from 24 June to 5 July.
Read our review of the film here