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An interview with "Land Girls" director David Leland

By Ray Pride

JUNE 29, 1998:  How many times have we heard, "Oh we've seen this story before"? The gift of a true storyteller is spirited fluency that rises above the brute simplification of synopsis.

It's 1941 in England, and three city girls have settled at the Lawrence farm in the Dorset countryside, to tend the fields and reap the crops while the farmhands are off fighting for King and country. There's the Cambridge-taught wide-eyed innocent, Ag (Rachel Weisz); the upper-crust romantic who longs for love, Stella (Catherine McCormack); and the spirited, virginal hairdresser, Prue (Anna Friel). The gorgeous, rain-slogged scenery is brightened by their appearance, and they all have eyes for handsome young Joe (Steve MacKintosh), the Lawrences' only son, who is soon off to war.

If you didn't know the work of David Leland, co-writer of "Mona Lisa" and writer-director of "Wish You Were Here," the goings-on of "The Land Girls" might sound like the soup of third-rate cable television, a forlorn mix of sentiment and documentary. But Leland is a storyteller who thwarts expectation at most every turn. "The Land Girls" is exquisitely lit and composed, so its cheery wit and ready sensuality, developed in matter-of-fact ways, are sweet surprises.

Battle is far away, over the hills, glowing in fearful distance. But there are moments when deadly reality bursts into their lives. There is a beautiful, strange shot of an airman in flames, staggering left across the Panavision frame while a cow dozily walks left, both framed against the verdant landscape. Leland, an actor and playwright as well as writer-director, is reflective about the smallest details of behavior. "I told him to walk like it was a stroll to the canteen. Otherwise, actors wave their arms in the air. That's the difference, isn't it, between movies and when one sees pictures of people getting killed? There's a classic piece of film where this student in Korea kills this rather stately man with glasses at a podium. The young man runs at him with a blade like a samurai. As it goes in, he looks strangely at his attacker; he's trying to keep his glasses on while he's dying." Broad gestures, Leland observes, belong on the playing field and not in movies. "Soccer players aren't like that. They grimace dramatically, but they'll be back in five minutes. This is much more chilling. Much more real than the histrionics."

Much of the story's atmosphere is drawn from Leland's upbringing in an English village, but also from a great deal of research with his production designer. The same scene reflects an ambivalence not often shown. "I love all the photographs of German air crews being captured by land girls with pitchforks. Usually when you see these quite dramatic photos with planes burning in the background and the air crews being led away, in nearly every single one, the captured air crew is laughing. They'd walked out of the crack-up! And I think a lot of them were quite happy to be out of the war. In the area I was brought up, there were captured Italians who worked the land. There was a German who married and stayed in the village and lived there for years. His whole family came over."

The script is notably free of dialogue that rings of thesis sentences or characters who remain ill-considered archetypes. "We wanted turns of behavior," Leland says. "We start with a working-class girl, a middle-class girl, an upper-class girl. We didn't want to have it all vulgar [writing] --'Oh I come from fish-and-chips,' it was more subtle than that."

Still, even with the ongoing expansion of English film finance through the awarding of lottery proceeds, Leland found himself being questioned about his story again and again. "In the filmmaking community, there is an enormous amount of pressure to explain yourself [in a script]. But that's the difference between film and bits of paper. 'Well, won't people just be confused?' Well, no, not when you have a good actor. You have to stand your ground."

But Leland is more fascinated by the effects of an earlier, larger war. "Stella comes from money, Pru probably worked as a shop assistant in a small department store, but their lives were very predictable in terms of who they were. Going out beyond that was a relatively rare account. Stella's future was marrying the local bank manager's son, and everyone would say, 'What a good catch, she's a nice girl, she's done so well for herself.' But suddenly they're dealt the catalyst of war and they get rocketed into completely new and different situations. The war really did shuffle people, suddenly parachuting them into a new environment. That is the history of the war."

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