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Film: Making a land fit for heroines

For his latest film, The Land Girls, David Leland sent his three leading actors on a course in farming and shot a sex

scene in the freezing cold. As you might expect from a director with a reputation for cinematic realism.

"WHEN YOU cast someone as a shop assistant and you know they're going to have to slice ham," David Leland reflects, "the last thing you want to do on set is spend two hours making sure that the actress doesn't cut her bloody fingers off in the bacon-slicer."

He is explaining just why he made his cast learn how to hand-milk cows, plough fields and shovel manure before shooting started on The Land Girls, his adaptation of Angela Huth's novel about the Women's Land Army in the Second World War. "There is nothing worse," he scowls, "than seeing actors in physical situations when you know they've just walked out of a caravan." He sent his three leads - Rachel Weisz, Catherine McCormack and Anna Friel - deep into the countryside for a two-week course in how to farm, Forties- style.

"Some of the skills we didn't even end up using in the film," remembers Weisz. "There was a gentleman in Devon who collected vintage agricultural machinery - tractors from the Forties and Fifties and that sort of stuff. He was completely potty. We drove his tractors around. We found an original threshing machine."

Leland is not a likely choice to make a nostalgic period drama about the emotional lives of young women working in the fields in the war years. This is the same man who used to act in Hammer horror pics (look out for him as "First Officer" in The Scars Of Dracula); the same Leland who wrote Made In Britain (with Tim Roth as a ferocious skinhead) and directed The Big Man, an adaptation of William McIlvanney's novel about bare-knuckled boxers. Admittedly, Leland's comedy Wish You Were Here was also set in the past (a seaside resort during the Fifties) and had a female protagonist, but Linda (Emily Lloyd) was a natural-born rebel who needed only to shriek "Up your bum!" to send polite society running.

The writer-director admits that "it was against instinct, against principle" to deal with source material as soft-centred as Huth's book. "The Land Girls is very romantic, but I hope it doesn't mythologise."

Asked about his own impressions of the war, Leland is belligerent. "It was a time of emotional, sexual and class anarchy and some people really relished it," he says, before embarking on a quick survey of recent British social history. The benevolent anarchy of the war years, he suggests, was ruthlessly suppressed in the dreary, consumerist Macmillan-era and really blossomed again only in the Sixties. With Thatcher, though, British society hurtled backwards. "She brought out that amazing avarice and greed that only usually shows itself in the January sales; she made that legitimate for 12 months a year."

Leland grew up in a small village not far from Cambridge. He remembers his parents telling him that during the Blitz, they could see the glow in the sky as London burned more than 60 miles away. He seems fascinated by the period. It is not the accounts of stoicism and courage under fire that intrigue him; not the Dads' Army-style comedy of busybodies and bureaucrats muddling through on the Home Front. His interest is altogether more basic. How did people keep warm, and not go hungry? What did they do for sex? What did they wear? He talks of one scene in which dozens of local kids play potato pickers. The young extras arrived in their trainers; by the time they had had their hair cut and exchanged their trainers for leather shoes and put on balaclavas and woollen socks, it was as though they had become different people.

Weather plays an important part in The Land Girls. As Leland explains, if he had set the film during the summer, it would probably have come across as a good-natured romp. By shooting in the dead of winter, he ensured that the mood was altogether harsher. The shorter days meant that cast and crew were generally freezing and short of sleep. The actors were not initially enthusiastic about being made to wade through freezing mud all day.

"Rachel Weisz thought I was insane," Leland says. "It was so wet, cold and miserable, it was hard work." The resulting film has a realism about it that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. When Prue (Anna Friel) seduces the handsome young farmer's son Joe (Steven Macintosh) in the barn, the hurry is for real. "They're doing it in the cold," Leland explains. "If you take your trousers down, it really does have to be a quickie because then the elements take over."

Part of the research he set his actresses was to meet with old-timers who had served in the real Women's Land Army. "After speaking to those people," Weisz remembers, "you realise that away from the sight of war, life goes on. In fact, it may go on more intensely than at other times. Even though there was rationing and really ghastly things going on, it was a time of camaraderie - of people pulling together and communities helping each other. There was some fun too. It wasn't just miserable, people living in terror."

Leland is currently adapting JG Ballard's novel Running Wild. The original story is set in England, but (like Cronenberg before him) Leland has relocated the action to North America. He is reluctant to say much about it other than that the film will be "very dark, extremely dark" and a long way removed from the rustic comedy of The Land Girls. He has no idea when, if ever, it will be produced, and is clearly exasperated at the length of time it takes to get any new project off the ground. Only now, he points out, is his long-completed screenplay White River Kid (adapted from John Fergus Ryan's novel The Little Brothers of St Mortimer) going into production.

With a budget of more than pounds 5m, The Land Girls is Leland's most ambitious film since The Big Man. He is still bitter at how British critics helped sink that movie, which starred Liam Neeson as a Scottish bare-knuckle boxer. "If it had had subtitles, they would have loved it," he insists. He denies that the film glorified violence. "That character was a very strong, dominant man from a culture that is very male-dominated. But the film was about the humbling of that kind of man. As soon as you confront the realities of violence instead of its myths, you can't help but upset people."

Violence is not a major factor in The Land Girls. Although he never shirks from showing death and bereavement, the main focus is on the lives of the three women farmers. "I hope the film is true to the spirit of the real Land Girls," he says, acknowledging that they are likely to be his most demanding audience. "But I haven't shown it to them yet..."