Vengeance in the dark forests near Bewdley; The usually picturesque Wyre Forest became a sinister setting for the filming of the latest Hollywood blockbuster
By Alison Jones
It's just a perfect day. The midwinter sun casts a pale but clear light across the woodland. The fallen leaves create a carpet of crisp ambers and reds. The cottage nestled in the middle of the trees, like something out of fairy tale, albeit a Grimm one.
A slight redhead pulls up in a car. She walks down the path and stands at the doorway, assailed by memories of the last time she was there, apparently unaware of the watchers standing silently by.
Suddenly she breaks into a smile.
"Okay, that was good" she says, and conversation ripples around the trees while the buzz of wood being cut in the nearby sawmill suddenly starts up again.
The redhead wraps herself in a big downy coat to try to combat the cold that, in spite of the sun, turns fingers and toes to blocks of ice.
The only respite from it is some battered caravans standing nearby and a converted double decker bus with a heater in the doorway that fitfully pumps warmth up the stairwell.
Welcome to show business. Hope you brought your boots.
The small figure with the commanding presence is Gillian Anderson. Better known as The X-Files Dana Scully and more recently as the aristocratic but secretive Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.
The location is a clearing in the Wyre Forest, somewhere close to Bewdley.
Normally a picturesque spot, today it has taken on a sinister aspect.
Instead of being a place for nature rambles and bracing walks it has became the perfect cover for a story of violence and revenge.
Director Dan Reed picked it as the ideal place for Straightheads, his first film feature after more than a decade as a documentary maker.
"We looked at the Forest of Dean but then we came up here to work with Screen West Midlands and they said 'we've got forests that are at least as good' and I have been delighted by it.
"It has got that deep dark quality to it. that 'if you go down to the woods today . . . ' you'll never know what you will find."
He is full of praise for the locals, the couple who have moved out of the cottage they are filming in for the duration of the shoot and the extras who helped fill the crowd scenes at a glamorous party set in a grand house in the middle of nowhere.
However, one wonders if they would have been so accommodating if they had realised that this was not going to be an everyday story of country folk, but something that has been compared to the notorious Straw Dogs, the brutally violent, once banned film starring Dustin Hoffman as an academic forced to fight off a mob of villagers after they rape his wife.
In Straightheads Gillian and cinema's geezer-for-hire Danny Dyer play a couple who are viciously assaulted by a group of strangers after hitting a deer as they drive home through the woods. She is raped and he loses an eye.
When the police fail to bring them justice, Gillian's character Alice, falls back on the training her soldier father gave her and hunts them down, her vengeance literally an eye for an eye.
The idea for the plot was borne out of Dan Reed's experiences as a documentary maker, which have clearly let their mark on his psyche.
A formidable presence, he is a big bear of a man, but was so haunted by what he saw in war-torn Kosovo as well as South Africa, Bosnia, and Russia as they struggled through the bloody transitions from old orders to new - while trying to record the rise of Russian mobsters he was expelled from the country and the gang leaders were assassinated - that for years he stopped dreaming and even today he admits to being terrified by fireworks.
"I flinch, they sound like gunfire. I don't enjoy that slightly traumatised part of being me.
"I spent a long time being very scared and very worried. One of most exciting things you can do as a filmmaker is to go out into the real world where you are at the centre of dramas much bigger than you. But it involved being at physical risk and I'm no hero.
"If you live in that climate of anxiety, when you come home it's difficult to translate yourself into a nice warm person. So that is the psychosis behind Straigh theads."
The plot itself came out of a near-rape he witnessed and managed to prevent.
"The idea has been kicking around since 1999. I was out in Havana, Cuba, driving through an underpass at night and saw what I thought was a youn girl playing with her father.
"My girlfriend, who later became my wife, said 'stop, there is something wrong'. I realised this woman was running away from this guy on a bike who was chasing her.
"I stopped the car and by the time I got to them he was on top of her and tearing her clothes off. I scared him away and he got on his bike and ran off and we took the girl home.
"I started having dreams again after that and in one of them I played both the rapist and the person who stopped the rapist. There was a collision with a deer on the road and the whole thing was very brightly imprinted on my mind.
"I always wondered how do normal people - straightheads -cope when their lives are blown apart. What does that do to you and how far can you go in committing evil deeds for the sake of a moral outcome."
The finished film is graphic in its portrayal of the sexual relationship between Gillian and Danny, whom she picks up after he comes to fit a security system into her plush London home, and also in its depiction of the acts of violence and rape.
It was a hurdle that Dan admits had the producersrunning scared "although Screen West Midlands were great. Lee Thomas (the independent producer who heads it) was 100 per cent on our side".
What changed it was when American star turned BAFTA nominated actress Gillian Anderson accepted the role of the career focused Alice, who wants retribution when she is violated and to take back control of her world.
"Gillian is a powerful and scary actress," says Dan. "Very beautiful but you can believe in her as an intelligent successful woman who would be able to turn to violence.
"There are so many films about men taking revenge you expect the protagonist to be male but I think the desire is just as keen in women."
Tucked away in her trailer on set - not the lavishly appointed winnebagos of a big budget production, but a rather battered caravan with suduko puzzles strewn across the floor - Gillian looks slender enough to snap, but there is a steeliness about her.
She seems all sharp angles compared to the titan-haired alien investigator she played in The X Files. The vibrant carrot colour has gone, replaced by strawberry blonde highlights and even the American accent has disappeared, as she has reverted back to the English accent that became second nature after she spent nine years growing up in north London.
"I hadn't played a character like Alice before. The script is wonderfully twisted, yet somehow recognisable," she explains.
"This character is tough but it is a boyish toughness, not a mature woman toughness. She is a lad in some respects, swears all the time. Scully was serious but quite contained whereas this character is serious but light. She is a sexual being.
"This is the first time I've had a script cross my path that just floored me in its darkness. I think its always been something I wanted to jump into and express that side of myself.
"It is not often that you see this situation in a relatively realistic set-up that isn't Tomb Raider, without the female coming in with huge machine guns strapped to her shoulders.
"It was an interesting opportunity to explore that cathartic level of rage that might be pent up over time through being a victim."
The script is explicit in its depiction of sex and rape, particularly in the scenes where Alice confronts her attacker and metes out an eye-watering level of justice.
However buttoned-up a character Gillian may have played in the past, she was not deterred by anything asked of her in Straightheads.
"There is not much that scares me in that way. And not much I won't do," she says briskly, before she is called back onto set.
For Dan the experience of making the film has clearly been cathartic.
"I have seen enough real violence not to want to portray it as glamorous or entertaining. It has been brutal for the actors and has taken them to places they hadn't particularly been to.
"It's a way of exploring things that have perplexed and preoccupied me over the years of witnessing acts of violence and being shocked by them.
"If you walked into a village where the people had been slaughtered you put your emotions behind you because if you go to pieces you are not doing your job as a filmmaker.
"Straightheads shows that violent revenge is problematic, you can't control what happens once you resort to it. Alice manages to save herself to some extent, she's done a deal with her demons, but at the end you get the impression that a lot of the dirt she has waded through has stuck to her.
"This is a harder, shorter and meaner film than the first script but that is a good thing because if you are going to say something you should do it in a focused way.
"I keep telling myself I need to do a romantic comedy now, something more mainstream and healthy. But I only really get fired up by the things that obsess me and at the moment that is people's behaviour when they are in extreme situations.
"My friends think I have got a real problem but I am not a violent man, I don't even watch violent movies. I perhaps have the odd dark thought that the man in the street doesn't have but I've found film-making therapeutic.
"A trouble shared is a trouble halved and I get to talk a lot of people at the same time and get paid for it."
Straightheads shows that violent revenge is problematic, you can't control what happens once you resort to it . . .