Director Kevin Allen is the latest to attempt an adaptation of Welsh poet and author Dylan Thomas’ celebrated ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood, starring Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church. He filmed two versions, back-to-back – one in the original English, and then a translation in Welsh. Candid caught up with him to talk about Welsh influences, American blockbusters and Irish farming.
First, congratulations on being chosen to be the British foreign language contender for the Oscars. That’s very exciting.
Yeah! Great! Good shot in the arm! We need all the help we can get.
What made you decide to do the two different versions, one in English and then the new translation in Welsh?
Money! We couldn’t have done the English version without the Welsh version. I couldn’t have made it without the soft money from S4C (a Welsh-language broadcaster) for broadcast. That was half my budget. So the back-to-back thing is something that has been done before; it’s not problematic especially when so much of the movie is in voice over. But I could not have made the English version without S4C; they were incredibly brave. It is an English piece of text. Dylan Thomas has been treated in an odd way in Wales; more so than in any other territory because of the Welsh language element. There are people that didn’t like him for writing in English. It was a good time to do it and the Welsh adaption is particularly good, quite bardic. It is an adaptation in its own right rather than a translation. You can’t translate this stuff. It is not possible. It is a different film and yet it’s the same film.
How did you first come across Under Milk Wood?
School. It was on the curriculum. Everyone did Under Milk Wood, it was a set piece. We want to get back into the curriculum. We’re going to be trying to do that in Wales first then UK and worldwide. It was an accepted classic of piece of literature to be studied by kids. God. I’m from Swansea. My aunt’s farm is down the road from Fern Hill where he wrote one of his greatest poems. I just wanted a nice, big, juicy, iconic piece of Welsh work. The centenary was coming so you know… And it was a challenge.
Would you say your time growing up in Wales has influenced this film?
Totally. Completely. I’ve made three movies here. I’ve done my best work here. I hear it… I’ve spent most of my childhood here. I feel this is completely my home. This is my spiritual home. I’ve always seen myself as more Welsh than English even though my dad gets very upset when I support them in the rugby. I’ve travelled. I’ve travelled a lot but yeah, I think my best work comes from here. That’ll continue. I want to make films in Wales, based in Wales. I really want to do a post-turn of the century industrial revolution, birth of socialism… That story needs to be told. They literately tried to eradicate the Welsh language and came very close. So I think there’s a great story there. There is a zeitgeist for that. My sister-in-law just did Suffragette. It’s a great time for that.
How did you come up with concepts for the images?
It’s a process. I wanted to bring on collaborators. Murray is very passionate about visualizing poetry. I’d hired him for some other stuff and we got well. I thought, “Hmmm, he really loves visualising poetry.” He brought Michael Breen to us, who is just an unbelievable guru of all things symbolism, existentialism and all things ‘ism’. He’s the ‘ism’ bloke. And then Rhys you know. Rhys was part of this pie. We just went off in this car to West Wales and ate a lot of curry. Visited a lot of places and talked and talked and talked. We discussed another piece of work called The Town That Was Mad that was much more dystopian. We just talked about everything. We thought about a modern, contemporary one, a post-industrial revolution one, caravan sites at one point was one. We just found this place and then we thought, “No, no. It really should be period set, ‘50s-ish. And we made it a dreamscape, which Thomas kind of messed with as well. Captain Cat and the Narrator are one and the same. It just felt like it was the right thing to do. It’s a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s all a dream guys. (Laughs)
There are all kinds of things you couldn’t possibly take in from one viewing for sure.
Yeah. And listen to it. We’ll be going on vinyl and CD. We’e remastered it for CD so you can get on the M4 and listen to it. Get into bed. Have a spliff. Have a bong. Listen to it. It’s still beautiful. We haven’t messed with the words. Whether you like it as a piece of cinema or not, I don’t think anyone can complain of the audio quality of the delivery. It is beautiful words, spoken by professionals.
You could very much be credited with discovering Rhys Ifans in Twin Town. How did you come across him?
He came to audition for Twin Town. I was looking for twins and finding it very hard. He came in with his brother ‘cause they’re a couple of years apart. I shortlisted them. Then they came in again and had been to the Oxfam shop and bought two identical shirts to kind of try convince me. And they got it. We’ve been mates ever since. We’ve always just remained in touch. In fact, I gave up filmmaking for 8 years and became a farmer in Ireland. I just didn’t give a fuck about it anymore.
Yeah, then Ireland went tits up and I came back to doing what I know. And I couldn’t have done this piece of work without having lived in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, farming, in a small community. In a way, I couldn’t have attacked this material without having had that experience farming pigs.
And with regard to your career, some people might be surprised to know you actually made Agent Cody Banks 2 and Benidorm.
(Laughs) I’m proud of the diversity of my work. Some people don’t get it. Benidorm was a really interesting journey for me. I took a bit of time off from farming and get away from the horrible weather. A great producer friend of mine who’s dead now, Jeffrey Perkins, asked me to do it. It was meant to be more of a one-hour drama type thing. I loved the idea of big, fat Brits abroad. I just thought, “Oh my God. I love this idea!” I was proud of setting it up as the first series. It degenerated into panto after I left. I’m glad I did it. It was a big hit series. Agent Cody Banks was just my ticket out of Hollywood. I just had had enough. We had two kids and we wanted to get out. It built my house. Sorry. (Laughs) The rest I’m really proud of.
How would you describe your directing style, especially when comparing a big budget Hollywood film like Agent Cody Banks to something like this or Twin Town?
I respond creatively with my back to the wall a bit; having to cut my costs accordingly. I love that creative process. I love rehearsing. I like actors. With Agent Cody Banks I despised the process. It was franchise movie. $34 million. Any problems, you just throw money at it. It was the worst year of my life. It’s not filmmaking. You may as well be working in a bank. I got paid a huge amount of money but it was just horrible. They would call me up a week before wrapping a 14-week shoot. “We gotta have a few jokes for the finale.” Yeah. I’m working 18-hour days. Then they got whoever was the flavour of the month re-writer in Hollywood to call me. I think I had 2 conversations with him and I used one line and… they paid him 98 grand!
Yeah. They hired another editor, they pulled me back over from London back to L.A. Again, just execs going through the motions. So I’m doing my edit. They’ve paid another editor to edit his version of the film next to me.
No way! Next to you.
Next to me! In the next room. And at great expense just in case I didn’t test well. And when I tested 98 I just told them to shove it up their arse. (Laughs) That is not why I make movies. It’s not me. With this project, we had just under two million quid to make this. Great. It felt like, let’s be quick. Quick energy. You don’t want it all just by numbers. I can’t work like that.
So do you have any advice or tips for the young wannabe directors out there?
Don’t put so much emphasis on making shorts. There just seem to be a million shorts made and yes, that is part of the discipline, but it’s not the whole thing. I’ve done a bit of lecturing and these media courses have become really ubiquitous and not of a very high standard. Too many kids are fascinated by the technology. I find it very hard to find story-tellers, with voices. So you know. Stories. Learn to write. And there are lots of ways of learning to write. Whether you end up writing the screenplays or not it’s still a story-telling process. More emphasis and more work into telling stories, not showing off HD. I couldn’t give a fuck about HD or all the cameras that are out there. Learn to use sound. It’s half the experience. It’s this obsession with gadgetry. I want stories. Stories that mean something. Where are they? Where the fuck are they?
Words by Hamza Mohsin