Written by Adam Ganz and directed by Marc Isaacs, This Blessed Plot will be released across UK cinemas on 26 January.
When Lori, a young Chinese filmmaker, arrives in the small English village of Thaxted, she discovers it’s a place where the dead surround the living and the border between the two is easily crossed. Her landlady Maggie introduces her to the village church and Lori becomes fascinated with long dead Socialist Vicar, Conrad Noel, who speaks to her from beyond the grave. And he’s not the only one.
Lea: This Blessed Plot is filmed and set in this town, how would you introduce the audience to this town if they have never been here before? What makes it special to you?
Marc: I didn’t know about this town before I started making this figure. It was a little bit of an accident how we ended up there because I was thinking of doing a film with one of the main parts being a total. When we were doing research and went to speak to him, it just so happened that he was living in that place.It was through Keith living there that we got to discover more about that town. So it was kind of completely new to me that I didn’t know that it had one of those traditions of Christian socialism and this whole Morris dancing and folk aspect to its character.
The discovery for us was really interesting, and myself and the writer started to build more of the town into the story, also through Lori who discovers this town.I don’t think the audience needs to know anything about the town before watching the film. But what they discover is, as Lori discovers it, in some ways, it’s kind of a typical small English town, but it has this interesting past to it, which we found really resonated with a lot of the themes that we were thinking about in the film.
The beginning of the film is really what I wanted to explore, thinking about the film with Keith and Lori together. Somehow, I was interested because I teach a lot with Chinese students in UCL, another documentary course. We often send the students out to make films, and I got interested in what Chinese students, who have often never been to England or many other places outside of China before they come on the course, think about England.So, all of the images that they have when they come to the country, the reality when they arrive here. That was interesting for me, like with the students that I’ve been teaching, and Lori was one of those students.
Originally, she started on the same course. I thought it could be interesting to do something about a character like that, their encounters with a certain kind of Englishness. That was the starting point, and I wanted to do something else with Keith because he was in a previous film of mine. Those two elements were there from the very beginning, but the rest of the film really developed as we were progressing in the research phase, and even during the shooting.
Lori came in to talk to my students one time to show her graduation film to them.That’s how I originally got talking to her. I liked her film a lot, but it wasn’t quite finished. So I said to her, if you want to finish, I’ll give you some help. That’s how we kind of started to get to know each other. It was at that time, and Keith, I’ve known for maybe 6 or 7 years because I was making a film many years ago about Arsenal Football Club. That’s when I met Keith. Yeah, and then he was in the filmmaker’s house film of a lot of people who live there. Probably, sometimes, they would have moved out from London to move there for a kind of quiet life. It’s a very conservative way, as a kind of, you don’t find many immigrants living there.
It’s a very white English place, like a lot of small English towns, and that sort of side of it was interesting. It’s definitely a town that would have voted for Brexit to leave the European Union, and yeah, at the same time, it has this aspect with this Christian socialist vicar that really makes us think about the wider changes that have happened in the country over the last 100 years.
The idea of socialism in this country now is completely impossible, whereas back then, that vicar and his community really felt like there was a possibility of another kind of society. Just a small group, really, because the church itself is a really beautiful historical church. I think a lot of people kind of meet around that church. But I wouldn’t say they are like it’s a particularly religious town. It’s like most towns in the UK. There’s probably a kind of core of people that really just go there, but it’s more like a kind of museum in a way, okay.So that side of it really interested me. And now today in the town, people celebrate that vicar, they celebrate his ideas through this Morris dancing, but they don’t really believe in what he believed in.
I think that the town itself is really interesting because it’s a town that’s quite a very kind of middle-class town mainly. It’s not that far from London,so the people in the town, they come out and they celebrate those kinds of traditions, but they don’t really believe in the ideology of the vicar, this Christian socialist world that he wanted to create. Yes or no, the town itself, like in my films, I always think about how to build the kind of world of the film, and in this film particularly, that town became very important.
So we see some of the streets and the church and the area around the church, and Lori’s character especially, kind of wanders around in the landscape. And then there’s also in the film, you remember there’s an archive film, 1920s. So that the film is interesting because it really talks about the rural peasants’ workers. We kind of used it in that way to think about how, at that time when that film was made in the 1930s, you could really talk about such a thing as a kind of working class.
Whereas today, there isn’t that kind of class of people involved in either rural jobs in a mass, as they were then, or in the factories. There are some very big, there’s one particular very big factory, in fact, that used to produce sweets.I think that when we were thinking about how to construct the world of the film, that archive film became very important to give us a sense of the changes. Yeah. It’s almost like the factory of today is almost like a museum to the past.
Lea : You use a lot of archives in this docufiction, do you think this undermines the credibility or historicity of the archive?
Marc: Yeah, I like some of the 1930s film that we see as a real film, but it is interesting because, like, I called this film a documentary fiction; it’s kind of a mix, a documentary fiction.The archive film itself feels like it’s part of that traditional British documentary films of the 1930s, as a very specific form to it that was very common at that time. If you imagine in the 1930s, trying to go out on location was difficult because the cameras were huge. The technology was really industrial and big. You could not, like, our small little cameras today.
So when they were filming that film, they also had to use kind of fictitious techniques because they would ask the characters to do things so they could be filmed doing things. That side of the use of the archive is also, and the archive itself is also a kind of documentary fiction. So I’m using it in that way to talk about the fact that what we think about as documentary has always been arranged and constructed, and in a sense, it’s always telling a story.So it questions the difference between documentary and fiction.
The other archive in the film is from the characters themselves from some years ago. So you see pieces of archive of Susan, the ghost character. You see Norman, who played his kid’s brother-in-law in the films; his brother, you see archive of him working in the financial district in the city. That’s a shot of him walking through the offices.There’s also archive of Keith, and all of that archive was originally from other films of mine that I made 10 years ago in which these people were part of the films.
The ghost character, she was in a film of mine called “All White in Barking.” Barking is the name of the town. “All White in Barking.” And then the Norman character with that shot in the office is from the film of “Men of the city – norman”. In that film, you see Lori watching old newsreels. “Ripe earth – boulting brothers,” the brothers that made that film, they went on to make some quite big fiction films.
So, when I started casting this film, I was thinking about people I knew who might fit into this film, who might play characters that could help us build this story. And then I ended up casting two people that I had filmed with before. And then I was thinking about how can I use maybe there’s a way to use some of that material I have of them already from 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And that’s how it kind of ended up in the film. The archive is either my own archival or this ripe earth film from the 1930s.
Lea : It’s 1930s is the particular history you are focusing on？
Marc: It was in the 1910s and 20s when the vicar was alive in that town, so that film would have been made. The vicar, the dead vicar in the film, is in that material, and that’s really him who we see. So that period was when the vicar was alive and working in that town. In that sense, that was interesting to us. It was interesting because I think that obviously, when you work with people that you’ve worked with before, there’s a kind of immediate trust and understanding between oneself and those people because we’ve known each other for some years. Whereas when you meet somebody new, you have to build that understanding together. It takes some time.
So the character who plays Maggie, who is the woman that Lori stays with when she arrives in the town? I didn’t know her before, and we just met her in the town itself. I had to build a relationship with her, and she had to understand what we were trying to do. Whereas with the other characters, they all kind of already knew me and the way that I work. So it was a little bit easier, but it wasn’t difficult. It was just different because we didn’t know each other before. Yeah. But in all of my films in the past, I’ve always been working with strangers. So I quite like that, meeting people and then building a film around a discovery. It’s not like I’m asking them to film for 2 weeks in a row in a studio or with a big crew. It’s very intimate. We filmed in their houses and different places, and it’s spread out over like 1 year.
Lea: How would you characterize Keith in the film, and how does his characterization relate to the town, Lori, his deceased wife, and his brother?
Marc: What interests me about Ethan, and why I wanted to make another film with him in the beginning, was that he, in a way, is a very certain person, very masculine, very mature, in a way, a kind of solid man.
I started to imagine what it would be like if he played a character where his wife had passed away and things weren’t so solid, they weren’t so certain, which is not the case. He’s never experienced that grief or the death of his wife; his wife is still alive. I was interested in how he might play that kind of character, and I thought that we could really explore the real case. We can enjoy watching the real Keith playing a character, imagining himself as that Keith in the film.
Lea : It’s also part of an experiment.
Marc: Exactly, I think with all the characters, there’s a sense that I want the audience to sort of enjoy the characters, imagining them playing this character that I’ve given to them. But some of the things in their lives that they play in this film are very real. Like Maggie, Macy’s husband really did die. He really was that person that she talks about in the grave. That’s a real story. So when she’s reimagining that or when we’re staging that for the film, she’s drawing on her real emotions.Then there are other things that aren’t real. Sue isn’t against; she lost her son in the previous film of mine, “All White in Barking.” I’ll send you the link.
Sue talks about her son dying when he was just like 30 something; she has a relationship, she goes to his grave very often and talks to him.So I started to imagine Sue would be good to play a character, a ghost character, who knows something about the other life or death. A lot of the people have this aspect to their characters in the film where some of the storylines are both real and they’re not real at the same time.Norman isn’t Keith’s brother-in-law, is not Sue’s real brother at all, but because they come from the same kind of cultures, the same kind of background, like class ways even, they grew up in similar areas. It feels like they could be.
Lea: So, do you appreciate incorporating this aspect into your film, where individuals express their personal emotions? Some directors prefer actors to avoid bringing their own personal emotions.
Marc: Exactly, I’m the opposite. With me, I really like the reason why I’m interested in these characters and for this film is because they can bring all of their real selves to this stage.In a way, I created a kind of fictional family in the film. Do you remember the character who turns up, who’s left the bag of money at his house? We called him Uncle in the film? so he’s a real friend of Keith and me. I met him because I went to the pub with Keith for a drink.
We went to watch an Arsenal game once, and his friend was there, his character was there, and then he had just come out of prison, and he was telling me his story. So I thought this could be a good story in the film. So all of that story about him leaving a bag of money and coming out of prison is a real story that’s based on his real life, which is also quite interesting.
Lea: Do you think love is the reason Keith believes in that town?
Marc: I think he needs, in this film, he needs to hang on to the fact that he had something loving with his wife and special because if that was to vanish, she would have nothing apart from Arsenal.
Lea :What aspects of politics, culture, religious beliefs, and concepts of life and death pose conflicts for Lori, an unfamiliar student from China, in the town? How does she represent such conflicts, and is there an element of experimentation in portraying this Chinese character?
Marc: I think that it was interesting because during the making of the film, I asked her to go and stay in the town for 3 or 4 days on her own, which she wanted to do with her small camera. Some of what she filmed is in the film.In the beginning of the film, near the beginning, there’s a scene in the pub where two guys are arguing with each other. And that’s really her material that she filmed. So I think she got genuinely interested in that place, and she went there. She got to know people and encountered characters there. I think, like unsurprisingly, when she came to England, she had all these preconceptions about what England is like.
I that maybe it’s the same for yourself if you grew up in China and you remember reading stereotypes. I think that, especially making this film, she’s been here for a long time now, but with making this film, she started to go deeper and understand the complexity of people, and she had mixed feelings about that place.She kind of liked it, but she didn’t like it as well. Yeah. Because she just encountered life, people with all of the contradictions, people with all their problems, and some good people and not so good people, some drunk people.Yeah, so she encountered all of life there that was interesting for her, I think. And I think Lori found all of that really interesting because it wasn’t maybe what she expected.
Lea :What kind of difference exists between her and this character?
Marc:I think that when we were thinking about the scenes, we were very keen to make sure that the real Lori can find her place in the film.So, it wouldn’t have worked if myself and the writer created scenes that Lori somehow couldn’t relate to. I think that there’s a lot of her real character in the film. Lori is a person that I could imagine would go to a place like that to try to make a film.
Lea : Discover a new place？
Marc: Yes, to discover and she also really connected with Maggie in real life. She went back to see her a few times and spent some time with her when we weren’t filming.And I think she got very interested in questions of the difference between the sort of older people and younger people and how people live their lives when they become 50 or 60 or 70. So there’s a lot of the real Lori in the film, the curiosity and all the doubts about film making. I can I be a filmmaker? What do I want to make films about? I think that’s also part of Lori’s real.
Lea :What is the necessity of Lori’s farewell or letting go to Keith and his wife at the end of the film, when Keith apologizes to Lori, and Lori leaves town?
Marc: In the film, the change came about. He somehow blames Lori for bringing up all of these things, all of the past about his friend having an affair with his wife. In a way, he feels like she has caused all of this problem by turning up with a camera and Sue, the ghost, talking to her.So he blames her at some point, which later on they resolve together when he finds her lying on the floor in the mud by the grave, but he becomes like a child, and his anger at this past and his wife gets kind of projected onto Lori.I think it’s kind of up to the audience in a way, but I think that for me, when Lori decides that it’s time to leave, it’s big.
It’s partly because our story with Keith runs out, like it’s come to its conclusion, but she leaves with her camera and all of the material that she’s filmed, some of which we’ve seen, but there might be more that we haven’t seen. I think we don’t know really like exactly why Lori has gone there or how she ended up there, and we don’t know where she’s going afterwards either, which I quite like. She kind of just arrived there. Maybe the whole come.
Lea :Come as a stranger and leave as a friend？
Marc: Yeah, that’s what Keith says, but maybe she imagined this film, who knows? Maybe she was lying in her bed and she imagined what it would be like if I went to make a film in a small town.
Lea :It would be a fantasy.
Lea: The combination of experimental, mockumentary, and drama reflects a novel creative approach. What were your intentions in combining these three genres during the pre-writing stage? Did the actual outcome differ from your initial expectations?
Marc: It’s interesting because I think, years ago, when I started making films, I understood that most of the time when you’re making films, like documentary films as they’re called, for me, I always felt like I had to have a lot of intervention to make the films interesting because unless I intervened in some way, the reality was always kind of not revealing enough. I always felt like I had to find ways to intervene.
And in the last couple of films, the intervention has become much stronger, which I think is for many reasons, but also because I really feel like in the world that we live in now and the kind of where we are with storytelling, sometimes what I think it’s necessary to really find ways to. I always feel like my films are about the real world in some way, but I think it’s become much more imperative to use multiple forms and methods and approaches to talk about reality.
If you just use reality itself, it becomes very flat, and I’m against. I don’t like documentaries that are just informative or journalistic. Yeah, or like current affairs for me. The form of the film, the shape of the film is really important. So I’m always looking to inject as much kind of creativity and experimentation into the work from the very beginning of the idea. And as we develop the idea, I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out. I don’t know in the beginning; the film is not all written before I start. We may have some ideas and written to a point, but we start filming, and then we adapt as we go along.
Because that allows you to reflect on what you’ve filmed and then just think about how you might continue the journey in the most interesting way, rather than doing all that before you start the process, which is obviously what most fiction films do.They’re written and then shot, whereas because I’ve always made documentaries, I’m still keeping that way of working where I’m filming a little bit, thinking, editing a bit, and filming a bit more. And we constantly kind of change and evolve the film in a direction that’s unknown, unknown from the beginning, which makes it very exciting and also very open to discovery.
Lea: As a professor of anthropology, how did you integrate academic perspectives into the documentary to provide the audience with a deeper understanding of the cultural context between the town and the characters?
Marc: That’s a good question. I think that in this film, myself and the writer were thinking a lot about different questions. One of them would be about performance. We were thinking about what does performance really mean when we watch a good film and we say they played it really well. What does that mean? So we’re kind of asking questions about the nature of fictional forms. The creation of myths—our country creates its national mythology, and how people do that as well. We’re asking questions about how people curate and mythologize their own lives.
So what I like about in this blessed part is we can enjoy Keith showing Lori his life, which is also he’s kind of mythologizing himself. Yeah. So I think those are the kind of questions where we’re asking about and how this town particularly draws on its history to tell a story about itself. How much of that story is true or false is not really the interesting thing. What is interesting is how and maybe why people need to do that. There’s a Keith sings a song at the end of the film. Yeah. And I think it seems to me that we’re living at a time where a lot of people really feel uncertain about where they belong, who they are. They need something to believe in because all the big ideas of how we should live or what kind of society we should live in. They’re all kind of falling apart, and nobody quite knows how we should live anymore. And most people live through the identities which are often informed very much by consumerism.
Lea :During the production of this film, did you encounter any interesting stories during the field research process?
Marc: I think it was interesting how we met Maggie because we didn’t know Maggie before we went to that town at all. We went to the church, and somebody was showing us around the church, telling us about the church, another woman.Maggie was kind of in the background just following us around and quite quiet. At the end of that discussion, we went back to the car, we had to walk past her house. I noticed her in her living room through the window, and she opened the door, and we started talking a bit more. That was fascinating because then she started telling us the story about her husband, who used to be a Morris Dancer, one of these dancers in the town and would play the accordion.
We also have all kinds of him. I love that moment because it’s serendipitous, it’s all about chance.I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I would meet somebody who could be such an important presence in the film. So I really like that discovery, and that’s why it’s really important when you do field research to just have your eyes open and your ears open and be sensitive to the possibilities of what we were experiencing and how that might feed into your work. It would just be different. If you’ve never encountered Maggie, you wouldn’t miss Maggie, but the fact that you do and then she brings so much to it is really interesting.
Lea :That’s an intriguing aspect of experimental documentaries and documentaries.
Marc:Yeah, but I think it’s like I really enjoy either being open to that conversation with reality, even though I’m creating a film that is fictitious, it’s always in conversation with reality.
Lea: You might have had some inspirations and random thoughts when you arrived at that time.
Marc: Yeah, exactly random chance encounters.
Lea: In your view, what other possibilities exist for innovation in the documentary film form?
Marc: One of the things I personally feel is that I’m gonna try something different and keep challenging myself. But one of the problems in the industry is that the finances are not interested in innovation and taking risks. As soon as you have any funding organizations attached to the project, at least the organizations that I know, like television or BFI, they expect very conventional films and they’re commercially driven, and often experimental work doesn’t make any money.
Lea :The funding may have some standards and requirements for the topic of this documentary.
Marc: Yeah, and people always get very nervous about new things. New films, they like to relate it to what they know, which is anathema if you’re trying to do something different. You could say, look, it’s a bit like this or a bit like that. But actually, what you really want to strive for is that it feels fresh, and funders don’t like that because they don’t know how to think about it.
Lea: As a professor of anthropology and a documentary practitioner, do you consider this work a successful attempt? Do you have any new plans for innovatively creating documentary films in the future?
Marc: I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next. It’s early days at the moment, so I’m not sure. I’m kind of churning through a few different ideas, putting them in my mind to see which one feels like the right thing to go further.And I’m really happy with this film, like I said in the beginning, and you never know how things are gonna turn out. But when I look at the film now, I like the fact that we took these risks. I like the fact that it has a unique, strange form to it. And this is what I set out to do, to be open to these possibilities. And I think that we really enjoyed making the film, and I think that people are starting to enjoy it.Now, it’s coming out next week, so we’ll find out more.
It’s early days at the moment, but I’ll be starting another film soon, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s gonna be yet. I need to kind of let this film empty out from my head a little bit.And then I can start to think about the next one more clearly.
Marc is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with an extensive teaching background in anthropology and documentary practice,complemented by ongoing practical experience. He is enthusiastic and productive about exploring innovative documentary filmmaking approaches. The interview with Marc offered valuable insights into his perspectives on formal innovation within the docufiction genre and his dialectical approach to navigating the creative environment.
In This Blessed Plot, the hybrid nature of the film blends experimental, mockumentary, and drama elements, presenting a unique and innovative storytelling experience. Marc brings a fresh directorial perspective and a unique approach to the film’s characters, emphasizing the creative process of building relationships to portray the human experience intimately. This engenders a distinctive connection among the characters, the temporal dimension, and the spatial setting of the small English village of Thaxted.