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Straightheads - Dan Reed interview

Gillian Anderson and Danny Dyer in Straightheads

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DOCUMENTARY filmmaker Dan Reed talks about some of the challenges of making Straightheads and why he’s fascinated by the darker side of human psychology…

Q. Can you talk about the unusual inspiration for the film and the almost rape you witnessed?
Dan Reed: The idea for Straightheads has been kicking around since about 1999 in a form that was quite different from what ended up in the finished film. But several things happened that helped to make it more concrete and catalyse the process of writing.

One of them was the fact I started to have bad dreams again – not having had any dreams at all for quite a long time. I was making documentaries for many, many years and while I was making one in Kosovo I completely stopped dreaming.

But shortly before I did start dreaming again I was out in Havana, Cuba, and was driving through an underpass at night and saw what I thought was a young girl playing with her father, running along this walkway on the side of the tunnel. My girlfriend, who became my wife, said: “No, no, stop, something’s wrong.” I realised that the woman was in fact running away from this guy on a bicycle who was chasing her and running her down. So, I stopped the car in the tunnel, got out and by the time I got to her he was on top of her and tearing her clothes off. I scared him away and took the girl home.

It was shortly after that I started to have dreams again – and they were all the same. I played both the part of the rapist and the person who scared off the rapist. And there had been a collision with a deer on the road at night. A lot of the atmosphere, fear and paranoia of that dream ended up in Straightheads.

Q. How difficult was it to then get the film made?
Dan Reed: Well, I wrote the script and the second draft had most of the elements of the finished story. That came about quite quickly, over the course of about six months. Then Film Four and The Film Council came in and financed the development. I think they were attracted because the script was quite unusual. It wasn’t like the other stuff they were financing. But at the same time it had a lot of inflammable and potentially controversial elements to it that they were quite scared of. So, there was a kind of love-hate relationship between the financiers and the material for quite a long time.

It wasn’t really until Gillian [Anderson] came on board that the whole thing acquired much more reality in their eyes. Gillian’s endorsement made the whole thing much more acceptable for the financiers.

Q. Were you ever worried that the final scene [of revenge] may have been going a step too far?
Dan Reed: Well, when I wrote the scene I could hardly believe it. It’s almost an exotic level of violence and certainly something you’ve never seen before on the screen. Part of me wanted to take it out of the script but then every time I toyed with doing so I thought “no”, he whole meaning of the film comes together at this point.

Q. What do you think of the film’s comparisons with Nick Love’s recent Outlaw?
Dan Reed: Well, in Straightheads – and this is a very important point and one of the reasons why I wrote the film having been exposed to a lot of violence in my documentary career – the film shows that revenge is problematic. It always has consequences, a lot of them unforeseen. You can’t control what happens once you resort to violence and you can’t control the outcome. You also can’t control how the people who go with you on your mission of justice – or whatever it might be – might behave.

So, at the end of the film Gillian loses control of her partner in crime. He’s possessed by very different demons and goes off on his own course. She manages to save her soul to some extent, although you should get the strong impression that a lot of the dirt she’s waded through stops her even though she’s managed to come out with some kind of peace of mind. She’s done a deal with some of her own demons.

It’s not a case of walking off hand in hand like in a classic revenge movie. Violence does not erase violence. Meeting violence with violence is not the whole answer. The balance of the world is not restored. It’s a dirtier and more complicated place at the end of the film than it is at the beginning.

Outlaw possibly puts forward a different kind of philosophy that actually you can meet violence with violence provided you have the gumption to get up and do it. But the revenge in Outlaw actually doesn’t work because the guys aren’t quite good enough and they get shot at by police before they can do any serious damage. So they’re two different approaches. My take on violent revenge is, I’d like to think, an informed one. It’s more of a cautionary tale than a call to arms.

Q. Can you talk about another of the film’s comparisons, Straw Dogs?
Dan Reed: In Straw Dogs, the Dustin Hoffman character is forced into a situation where he, as the rational man, the democratic man, had to take a certain course of action that involved protecting a child murderer from the wrath of the mob. Dustin Hoffman takes violence into his own hands in order to defend the rule of law, reason and democracy and rides off in the end knowing he’s done a good thing and feeling good about himself. He knows he’s actually managed to save his soul from the barbarians out there in the west country [laughs].

Whereas at the end of Straightheads, Gillian’s character rescues an important part of herself but it’s by no means a triumph of the system or of reason. She has discovered some answers but she’s had to make difficult decisions between right and wrong. But there’s been no guiding framework there for her.

This isn’t a class of civilisation versus barbarism as Straw Dogs was. This is two individuals who are completely isolated morally and physically from anything that can help them. There are no ready made answers to how they should behave in this situation, so they kind of make it up for themselves. It’s a very different kind of dramatic set-up and political set-up, although the idea of two outsiders coming into a place and being assaulted by the bad guys from the countryside does give it something in common. But I think the message is very different.

Q. How far was too far? The final scene is a difficult one because there’s a moment when you even start to feel a bit of sympathy for Heffa?
Dan Reed: Going back to my trade as a documentary filmmaker, when you go into situations where something terrible has happened and you know who’s responsible then you start to dig into who they are and the reasons why they might have done it, it’s always very, very difficult. When you go into it thinking it’s black and white it turns very quickly into shades of grey. That doesn’t mean you don’t aportion blame or have a sense of right and wrong. Everyone has a story, or everyone tries to make you believe that they have a story. One of the things about Straightheads is the difficulty of taking revenge in a morally satisfactory way.

When Gillian’s character comes face to face with the man that raped her, he tells her a story that starts to muddy the waters. Whether you believe him or not is up to you but he certainly constructs a reason where he says he felt compelled to commit this horrendous act on a complete stranger.

Q. Did you have to compromise in any way?
Dan Reed: The short answer to that is movie making is often a process of compromise – but hopefully a creative one where I’m not always right, and the financiers not always right, but my job is to navigate through a whole host of questions, doubts and make a film that’s true to what we all set out to make. I think I’ve done that.

There were changes which at the time may have felt like compromises but with hindsight they were a good idea to drop. But there were other things I was inflexible about and I’m glad I was. Overall, I don’t feel the film has been compromised. It’s a harder, shorter and meaner film than the very first script I wrote. But I think that may be a good thing because if you’re going to say something in the marketplace or in the world, you have to say it in a tightly compressed and focused way. I think the film may have been helped by all the flack it came under.

Q. What about the back story surrounding Gillian’s character, which may have helped to explain her motivation for doing what she did in the end?
Dan Reed: Well, there’s a very simple answer to that. When I watched the assembly of the film with the back story, I felt I’d got everything that was in the back story just from watching Gillian’s performance and her face. The back story became redundant because I got a much more subtle sense of her past experience from the way she played Alice. I was pretty amazed at how it blew me away.

We shot the rest of the scenes just because there were certain bits of the plot that had to be reinforced. It was a shame to lose it because there were some nice moments in it but I think the film came out stronger as a whole.

Q. Do you think for your next project you’ll tackle something lighter? Is that what you’ve been working towards?
Dan Reed: Basically, I’ve spent a long tme being very scared and very worried. It’s one of the most exciting things to do as a filmmaker to go out into the real world and be at the centre of dramas that are much bigger than you. If you can record some of it and bring it home that’s great. But it involves being scared a lot of the time and being at physical risk. I’m no hero but you live in that climate of anxiety and worry, so when you come home it’s very difficult to then translate yourself into being a nice, normal person at home. So that’s the psychosis, if you like, that’s behind Straightheads – that 10 years of anxiety.

I really, really want to do a romantic comedy. I keep on telling myself I need to do something mainstream and healthy. But I can only really get fired up about things that interest me and at the moment it involves the darker side of life and people’s behaviour when they’re in extremes. I think people reveal a side of themselves in extreme situations that they don’t otherwise do. Everyone can play a part and put on an act until they’re in a situation where that act will no longer hold.

I’m still interested, motivated and sort of obsessed by it. But I hope it’ll work its way out and that I’ll be able to do a musical or a romantic comedy. My friends that have seen Straightheads say: “Dan, we think you have a real problem. We didn’t know you were like that.” But I’m not a violent man, I don’t enjoy watching violence and I get scared at fireworks, I flinch. I don’t enjoy the slightly traumatised side of being me. So I hope it will work itself out and I can go on to being a family man and leading a quiet life.

Read our review of Straightheads