The director of Welsh classic film Twin Town, Under Milk Wood, and its Oscar submitted Welsh language adaptation Dan Y Wenallt, Kevin Allen, spoke with Luke Owain Boult about Dylan Thomas, Welsh history, and the Welsh language.
How would you describe Under Milk Wood for someone that was unfamiliar with the story?
“I would describe it as a 90 minute kaleidoscopic dream. It’s such an anomaly; it’s a tough one to describe. Yeah it’s a dream that you cwtch up with. My vision really wasn’t pushing an idea through corporate. It was a collaborative effort between a poet, Murray Lachlan Young who is very passionate about visualising poetry, the main actor, Rhys Ifans who loves the piece, and Michael Breen, who’s an expert in all things symbolism. We made a decision to basically make the whole thing a dream; an escape, picking through a narrative menu, and the vision started there. We discussed where and what we’d like to do over a period of time, and we ended up with the culmination of that journey. I didn’t want to take a literal approach, so that was one decision I made, I didn’t want to just put up pretty pictures that were a mirror image of the language, I felt that would’ve been a mistake. I wanted to explore a joy in the piece that I’d rarely seen before. It’s often presented as quite a dour, fairly miserable piece, yet there’s a lot of fun and eroticism.”
Do you think there’s much difference between the English and Welsh language versions?
“No, they’re very well connected. Thanks to Jim Jones’ Welsh text interpretation the screenplay remains the same for both films. Text wise, the English one sticks faithfully to Thomas’ original text, the Welsh one is Jim’s adaptation, not a translation. Nobody could possibly just translate English poetry, or language to be honest with you, it doesn’t work like that. Jim’s was an existing, highly regarded adaptation. Then it was a case of shooting the actors’ dialogue back-to-back. First shoot the English version and then switch to a Welsh version. The bilingual actors could learn it quite easily so that was fairly straightforward. It’s important to realise Jim’s adaptation is an adaptation, it’s technically a different film, although they look the same.”
“I’d just like them to immerse themselves in what we have, it’s an immersive experience. It’s strange because it’s not just the movie, it’s not just a film; you’ve taken a piece of classic poetry, and I tried to turn it into a cinematic experience. That experience has led to hostilities down the line from anyone who feels strongly that it shouldn’t really be anything but a radio play that they can just listen to in the car. Maybe they should come to a cinema and close their eyes, I don’t mind. I want them to leave the theatre feeling that they’ve experienced something different, and something that is just linguistically rich with the added dimension of visual treatment, culminating in – what I hope, for some- would be a piece of digestible, enjoyable cinema. That’s all I want. There will always be purists. We played the film for more than just people who know it as a piece of literature, we played it to artists, who see it as an art piece. That’s a tough thing to sell, it’s a tough thing to distribute, to get to terms with. The whole world is fairly well conditioned to doing what they do, to ticking boxes. It’s a film you can revisit, and look at in a different way. One you can just watch, maybe a few times. The original piece is a popular piece of work, globally – it’s tapping into that audience and beyond. That’s why we tried to connect with the counter culture festival audience in the summer, it’s not for your normal cinema-going audience.”
Are there any other projects you’d particularly like to work on?
I think my next project will be very, very different. We’re developing a lot of stuff. I’d really like to do a turn of the century political film, based in a South Wales coal field, maybe somewhere like Merthyr Tydfil and we could look into the birth of socialism. It’s what the British Empire was built on, and there’s some good literature that’s been buried for a long time; a lot of decent Welsh literature set within that very important time period. The first red flag was flown at Merthyr, and the Empire was built on the mud and sweat of that environment. I’d like to look into the lead up to the First World War, the birth of modern socialism as we know it. I think it’d be expensive but there’s an appetite for it; to revisit the world of How Green Was My Valley which is untouchable. Something like that I’m very interested in. I’ve also got a very low-tech TV series that we’re developing, which is multilingual, set in the arse-end of industrial South Wales. It’s multilingual; Welsh, English, Polish, Cantonese, and Arabic. It’s set amongst young people and it’s an ambitious piece, but low-tech.
Bilingual stuff does interest me. Directing in the Welsh language doesn’t faze me, I’m just trying to develop more work here, get more people employed. There’s some good literature around worth revisiting. Zac Jones has a good one called Black Parade, which is an epic story of a matriarchal character spanning three generations. It’s really very powerful stuff, when you see what conditions people existed in so that others could build an empire. While we’re moaning about Chinese people not being very nice, there’s a lot of hypocrisy about what the British Empire has got away with. These are issues that have been swept under the carpet. But developing these film takes money, so to make a big film about that period you’ve got to get the story right. It’s got to be an accessible story, just like Suffragettes, Labour of Love, and The Life of Alison Owen. It took a long time to craft those into accessible pieces of cinema. It takes time, you know.”
Kevin Allen, Under Milk Wood/Dan Y Wenallt, On DVD Now. Price: £17.77. Info: www.amazon.co.uk