Long-awaited UK movie Fanny Lye Deliver’d, a regular fixture on Cannes prediction lists, has finally been delivered.
Thomas Clay’s third feature, shot in 35mm, bows this week at the BFI London Film Festival after more than three years in post-production, a delay that prompted speculation over the movie’s health and whereabouts. Ahead of the film’s premiere, Deadline had the first opportunity to sit down with multi-hyphenate Clay and get the inside track on his passion project’s winding road to screen.
“It’s going to be strange putting the film in front of an audience, it has been so long,” the 40 year-old director tells us. Clay, whose previous two feature-length films played at Cannes (The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael in 2005 and Soi Cowboy in 2008), has spent the best part of a decade working on this feature.
Styled as a “Puritan Western,” Fanny Lye stars Maxine Peake (The Theory Of Everything) and Charles Dance (Game Of Thrones) living a harsh, oppressed existence as a couple on an isolated farm in 1657 England. Their spartan existence is shaken by the unexpected arrival of two strangers in need, a young couple closely pursued by a ruthless sheriff and his deputy.
The production got off to a challenging start. Back in 2013, two years into the film’s development, Clay and the team were dealt a hammer blow following the tragic death of 33-year old producer Joseph Lang, who had worked on all three of Clay’s prior features (and written two).
“We decided that we really had to see it through [after Lang’s death]. It gave us an extra impetus to make sure we made it happen,” recalls Clay.
Producer Robert Cannan continued on the feature but was also busy on his own directorial project, documentary The Lovers & The Despot, so the team brought on Couple In A Hole producer Zorana Piggott at the recommendation of the British Film Institute, the UK’s lead film organization.
The BFI backed the film’s development, and later its production, investing more than $1.5m (£1.2m) all together. Paris-based sales company Coproduction Office also boarded sales early in the early stages, having worked on Soi Cowboy.
After a prolonged development period in which Clay refined the script and the concept, extensively researching the period, the team began designing the farm house that serves as the single-location setting for the story. The team built the house over the winter of 2015-16 in consultation with experts on construction from the period.
The location allowed for flexible, 360-degree cinematography and injected an authenticity into the piece, but shooting in the English countryside in February 2016 was fraught with difficulty: extreme weather caused regular flooding. “The set started to flood halfway through the shoot, we were constantly clearing the water out and drying the floors,” says Clay.
Ironically, Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate, the movie that “sunk a studio,” had been an early stylistic reference point for Clay. The parallels became a little too real, despite the vastly different scale.
Fanny Lye‘s budget ultimately grew to $3M, with disparate backers including Creative England, Germany’s ZDF, KNM, Film-und Medienstiftung NRW, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenberg, Sweden’s Film iVast and prolific arthouse producer Michel Merkt (Toni Erdmann), who put up money to cover some of the music recording costs.
The film hit a snag in post when the money ran out. But Clay refused to compromise his vision after such a long journey.
“One of the ways we realigned the budget was that I agreed to take on a lot more of the post-production,” recalls the director. “On my previous films I’ve done a lot of the post myself, and we decided I would do the color grading, a lot of the sound work, among other things. We didn’t want the quality to drop.”
Those “other things” included editing, with an initial assembly taking a couple of months after wrap. What really took time, however, was composing the score.
“It became apparent that the score I had in my head was different from what I had imagined [in development]. It needed to be bigger. The visual style was retro, so I wanted the score to have recognizable themes and hooks, which have gone out of fashion and not a lot of composers are doing anymore. I spent months after editing watching movies and speaking to people, trying to find the right composer, but most were too established and completely beyond our budget level,” remembers Clay.
“We did find one composer but from the first demos it was apparent that it wasn’t what I had in mind. I had started to write some themes myself and it was becoming clearer to me what the music should be, which made it harder for someone else to do it. I made some demos and showed them to everyone, and we decided I would just to it myself.
“I studied 20th century music and composition at university, and behind the scenes on my other films I’ve had a hand in the music. But this proved to be a big undertaking. It took me a year to write the whole score. Luckily my producers were patient,” explains Clay.
The director was frequently tweaking the movie during this time, evolving the on-screen images as the music evolved. Eventually, the completed score was organized to be recorded in mid-2018, a year after Clay had begun writing it. The recording process also took time as the director only wanted to use instruments from the time (with a bit of leeway), which in turn required sourcing pan-Europe musicians.
“The idea was that every character had their own instruments: ‘star instruments’. It was like casting a film,” he says.
After finally arriving at his score, Clay continued to tweak the film. The tweaks will continue right up until the film’s long-awaited launch this week.