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Capturing England's Wild 'Red Riding' On Film
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Capturing England's Wild 'Red Riding' On Film

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Capturing England's Wild 'Red Riding' On Film
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. An ambitious trilogy of British films opens today, all three at once. Their subject: Northern England at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered at least 13 women from 1975 to 1980. The case haunted Yorkshire amid charges of police incompetence and corruption. It also inspired four novels by David Peace that make the foundation for the new films. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL: "The Red Riding Trilogy" takes its title from the fact that the Yorkshire region of England is divided into sections called ridings. And in these stories, the ridings are red with blood. Novelist David Peace was born and raised in Yorkshire. He says it's a place with a fierce regional identity.

Mr.�DAVID PEACE (Author, "The Red Riding Trilogy"): There was recently, for example, a poll about people identifying with England as a country, and it was interesting but no surprise that Yorkshire people had the least identification with England as a country. It's a kind of very independent, very resistant streak to London and the South, and it does have kind of quite good qualities to it, but it also has a kind of - quite a darker side, really.

DOWELL: Epitomized in the books and the films by a brutal police force that uses public fear over the murders for its own ends. The police are even a source of terror to possible witnesses.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) You don't like the police much, do you?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Well, not much, no.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So when someone kicks down your front door, kills the dog and rapes the wife, who are you going to call?

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Well, it certainly wouldn't be the West Yorkshire police. They'd already be in there, wouldn't they?

DOWELL: At the time of the ripper murders, Yorkshire was also a place of rising poverty and unemployment. James Marsh, who directed the second film of "The Red Riding Trilogy," says there was great turmoil in the North over the policies of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr.�JAMES MARSH (Director, "Red Riding: 1980"): Across the years that she's in power, the welfare state is dismantled, and there's a great, enormous sort of social upheaval, particularly in the North of England, which has this sort of rotting industrial base that is no longer viable in the modern world, and she deals with that very ruthlessly. And so this is the backdrop to, I think, what's sort of going on in the foreground of the three films.

DOWELL: This obsessively detailed evocation of Yorkshire in the 1970s and '80s was actually written in Tokyo in the '90s, where David Peace was living at the time.

Mr.�PEACE: I think it would have been almost impossible for me to have written those books had I stayed in West Yorkshire or in the North, in Manchester. The way I wrote the books was, for example, when I was writing 1974, I only listened to, say, music from 1974: Davie Bowie, T-Rex, bands like that. I only read novels from 1974. I only watched any, you know, films from 1974. Like, I watched "The Exorcist" quite a few times during that period. And it allowed me, in Tokyo, in the room I was writing, to recreate, if you like, 1974 in West Yorkshire. The problem with writing them had I been in West Yorkshire is I think that the present would have intruded. I was really trying most of all to recapture the voices of the past.

DOWELL: Voices that include everyone from serial murderers and their victims to corrupt land developers and the police in league with them. David Peace emphasizes that the books are fiction, but the stories echo reported incidents of British police misconduct at the time.

"Red Riding" portrays a place where brute force is the quickest problem-solver. In the first film, two torturers from the local constabulary prepare to toss an interfering young reporter out of a speeding van.

(Soundbite of film, "Red Riding: 1974")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Do you see this? This is the North. We do what we want.

DOWELL: This is the North, we do what we want, is a continuing thread through the trilogy.

(Soundbite of film, "Red Riding: 1974")

(Soundbite of screaming)

DOWELL: Adapting "Red Riding" was a daunting task for screenwriter Tony Grisoni, who relied on giant wall charts tracing the interconnected stories and characters, the twisting flashbacks and the fact mixed with fiction. He also struck up a lively email correspondence with novelist David Peace to sort things out.

Mr.�TONY GRISONI (Screenwriter): I trusted David's books, and I always looked to them for the answers to anything. I always looked to them for a turn of phrase. And then beyond that, I would know that David was there on the other end of the computer. And I would ask him a question, and very often David either couldn't remember or didn't know, and we'd look together for the answer. And sometimes there was no answer, and we'd have to make one up.

DOWELL: Grisoni also worked with all three directors, including James Marsh, who won an Oscar for his 2008 documentary "Man on Wire." Marsh says it was Grisoni's screenplays that attracted him to the project.

Mr.�MARSH: That's why the films have a coherence across the trilogy because there's one author who is creating images that rhyme with each other across the three films. That overview that Tony brought to the trilogy was vital and necessary because each director was going to interpret it subject to their own understanding of it. So there wasn't a great deal of collaboration amongst the directors, but the screenplays made the whole venture coherent, I think.

DOWELL: Marsh says that his shooting schedule often overlapped with those of the other two directors, Julian Jarrold and Anand Tucker.

Mr.�MARSH: There was quite a logistical challenge, as you can imagine, to schedule three films that have some of the same locations, many of the same actors. And indeed, they were shuttling back and forth, putting sideboards and beards and moustaches on. Within one day, an actor could be doing a piece for each of the three films.

DOWELL: Confusing for the filmmakers and perhaps for the audience, too, but the way the stories double back to pick up on past events - some of which are never fully explained - is one of the trilogy's strengths, says critic and historian David Thompson.

Mr.�DAVID THOMPSON (Critic; Historian): We are so used to movie stories being cut and dried and tied up neatly with bows on every point, whereas we know that real life is frequently much less tidy, much less organized. And I think there's a place for movie narratives where a good deal is left unsettled.

DOWELL: And, says Thompson, "Red Riding's" challenging tale of the ragged boundaries between good and evil some 30 years ago never turns away from the truth of our own times.

Mr. THOMPSON: The full story of the Detroit bomber on Christmas Day, that's a very confused story. And yes, there was a lot of information around, and, well, we can't actually be precise about how it did or didn't get through. There's an example of a potentially terrifying situation where we are left in the dark. We are judged not fit to know exactly what happened, where confusion, darkness, mystery, obscurity reigns. What I'm saying is that situations like that, where the public is left to make the best of it, they're going on all the time in liberal, parliamentary democracies. We know that there's darkness at every corner.

That's what this show says. This show says: Don't trust authority. It is not an easy, comfortable, reassuring show. I think if you see the whole thing, however, you will never forget it.

DOWELL: Hollywood won't forget. Ridley Scott has already acquired the rights to squeeze "Red Riding" into one movie, set in the American heartland.

(Soundbite of film)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) To us all, and to the North.

Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) To us all, and to the North.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) Where we do what we want.

DOWELL: For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(Soundbite of music)

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