Conducted By: Darryl Griffiths
Possessing such vast experience within the confines of TV through the likes of Torchwood and Downton Abbey. Did this hold you in good stead.. Or were you initially daunted by the prospect of making the jump to cinema?
I think my TV chops definitely held me in good stead. Television shooting schedules are often tighter than a gnat’s chuff – so you learn to problem solve on your feet quite efficiently. You learn to make some drastic but necessary choices when you really have to and you learn to kill your darlings in order to keep the wheels on track. But I think TV, with an excess of content, is not strictly a directors’ medium. There are exceptions, but I agree with Joss Whedon’s assertion that most television is radio with faces. That’s why when someone comes along in TV and dares to buck convention, using the pictorial to tell story as well as dialogue, the effect can be quite liberating to watch. I’d hold up Channel Four’s Utopia and Steven Soderbergh’s vision on The Knick as two very good examples in recent memory. Coming from a background in television, the prospect of telling a story for cinema wasn’t so much daunting for me as achieving everything we wanted to do in the narrow timeframe and with the strict resources available to us.
Set Fire To The Stars released in the centenary year of his birth. What were your first instances of the famous poet Dylan Thomas?
I think, not unlike Celyn, growing up I had an awareness through my dad about writers and literary figures. I don’t recall a specific moment or a key poem – a trigger point, if you will – but once I reached the age where I was actively reading and choosing what I read, I was loosely aware of who he was. Later, I was a big Charles Bukowski reader and, by extension, I became aware of other writers associated with drinking and finding the muse in the bottom of a glass. Brendan Behan; Dorothy Parker; Hunter S. Thompson etc, etc. Dylan always cropped up, and it’s a shame that it’s the alcohol and hell-raising spin that often first attracts. I think when you’re young you’re drawn to these literary bad boys – and girls! – you want to read about history’s rebels and their outrageous behaviour.
In my late teens and twenties when I became a more discerning reader I gravitated to a lot of American writing, especially the crime genre. I loved Hammett and Chandler; the cat-sat-on-the-mat staccato rhythm, few words exceeding three syllables. This was the stuff I devoured so, at that time, I rejected what I regarded as purple prose from my reading sphere – and that included Dylan Thomas. I thought him extravagant; just too many words. I was into pulp and punk and agitprop slogans; smash-and-grab aesthetics and getting your message across on three minutes of vinyl. Bukowski’s books were called things like ‘Ham On Rye’ and ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’; it all had a deceptive simplicity that appealed to me.
But you learn to adapt and grow up and now I read things in Dylan I couldn’t appreciate when I was younger. Textures; I guess I missed the textures. I don’t claim to understand it all; and I rather like that, to be honest. His work is like a foaming torrent of words that swells around you; you grab on to the bits that connect while the rest crashes over you like a wave. Like music. I don’t think it was ultimately important for both Celyn and I to be dyed-in-the-wool authorities on Dylan Thomas. I knew Cel had enough knowledge and passion on the subject to take care of business and while, obviously, I read and researched across the writing process and in the run up to filming, I felt the story we were telling was about so many other things – things that I felt complimented my mindset and the way I saw the world. Things that I felt I could bring to the table with a knowledge and passion to match Cel. That’s why we worked so well together.
The film doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional narrative trajectory of biopics. Was this a clear intention of yours from the outset?
Absolutely, and I wince a bit when I hear the film being referred to as a biopic; which actually happens a lot – so maybe we failed in our intentions, I don’t know. To tell the whole story, plaster the whole canvas, takes a lot of time and a lot of money. We had neither. We knew we’d never have the resources to shoot this in America nor to populate it with the size of cast required to illustrate boy-to-manhood decades in an artist’s life. So we were looking for a snapshot; a window in time; an overlooked footnote to the bigger story. Something containable that could act as our stage to imply the bigger story beyond. I think Cel has referred to ‘the story behind the curtain’ and that’s an accurate way of describing the shape of this piece. I would say Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a biopic; Nixon is a biopic; Frost/Nixon is not and neither, grammatically, is Rush, for instance – our experience of James Hunt is largely filtered through Niki Lauda. In our movie, we filter Dylan Thomas through the eyes of John Malcolm Brinnin; it was always the fan-hero relationship that popped with me more than anything else.
So distinctive in its aesthetic and an abundance of style that perhaps defies its modest budget. What were the greatest challenges you faced in bringing this film to the big screen?
I’d say making it stand out from the pack, using our limited resources creatively to place as much value onscreen as possible. It’s already been well documented that we shot this film in eighteen days on a shoestring budget, the challenge was in telling a story before the lens that defied its shoestring roots. We were always punching above our weight. That’s where the television background payed off; I was able to flick through my little black book and cherry pick an A-team of seasoned dept heads from a decade-plus career. This was a small movie but the pedigree of talent behind the camera was stellar. With the amazing team we had we met the challenge of shapeshifting Swansea Bay into Fifties New York; of making a black-and-white movie with a nod to post-war noir and scoring the whole bloody thing in shades of Super Furry. Where does it say in the filmmaking almanac that you can’t do that? Why can’t a story centred around Dylan Thomas be made in that way? I think when you’re coming from the position of the underdog it pays to be defiant, to stick your head above the parapet and make bold choices. You have nothing to lose but the courage of your own convictions.
Of course you co-wrote the film with your chosen ‘Dylan’ Celyn Jones. What was the writing process like, considering the challenge undertaken to ‘dissect’ such a beloved Welsh figure?
The writing process was relatively short and intense, there was definitely a concentrated month – September 2013, as I recall – when we both cleared the diaries and treated it like a day job for about five to six solid weeks. We’d write together; we’d write solo; we’d piggyback on one another and swap scenes. We were rarely ever in the same room – thank god for Skype! – but we were constantly in touch and supporting one another, that’s the curse of writing alone – it’s so bloody lonely. But behind that month – behind the curtain, if you will – was about eighteen months to two years of talking about it; much of that time was actually working out our gateway into the story we wanted to tell. We explored and rejected several iterations – other snapshots, other footnotes – before we focused on the lakeside boathouse in Connecticut. There was definitely a lightbulb moment where we could each sense the other was excited by this premise, so many ideas and scenes spewed forth and it was clear we’d found our gateway. From there on, everything kind of flowed, I don’t intend that to sound glib or anything, there was still a lot of heavy lifting to do in the writing but so many good things clicked into place and spurred us on. In the end, it’s all about finding your story; this was a good fit for both of us; it just felt right.
The lyrical and poetic tendencies of the film are brilliantly channelled by Celyn/Elijah’s compelling relationship. How do you assess their on-screen chemistry?
The onscreen chemistry between Cel and Elijah is a kind of magic that can only come from a real and organic place. Seeing the bromance blossom offscreen was as gratifying as witnessing them gel onscreen, their synergy informed the work and sparked the John-Dylan chemistry. Without it, the movie is only so much window dressing; a story without soul. This can only happen with trust, generosity and, it has to be said, a modicum of luck. Trust is the key component, not only between both actors but also in the actor-director relationship. Knowing your history and research will only get you so far, there comes a point where a leap of faith is required and you throw the clay to the wheel.
As you progressed through production, did your view of Thomas and the complex relationship he had with Brinnin alter at all?
I think making the words come alive through actors can often amplify or reveal new flesh tones in the text. Elijah has this great capacity to elicit sympathy – it’s those Bambi eyes! – he makes us ache for John, the put-upon companion and confidante; the scholarly fan blind with love. Yet at other times we can objectify John’s buttoned-up stiffness and understand why Dylan clashes with him. In a similar vein, Celyn’s Dylan delights and entertains as the Falstaff-ian fool; the naughty rascal at the back of the classroom. But when the laughter dies, we are appalled by the selfish drunk who bullies John; the selfish monster behind the genius poet. The relationship is indeed complex and, across the narrative, it’s these pendulum shifts of sympathy from John to Dylan, and back again, that keeps the story alive and moving.
Is there a particular sequence in the film you deem a favourite? One you’re most proud of?
I’d have to single out Dylan’s Yale recital of And Death Shall Have No Dominion; it’s where we doff our cap to the legacy of Dylan the poet and, purely on a performance level, I think Celyn transcended to some kind of higher plain. I also like the kitchen confrontation between John and Jack (Steven Mackintosh) towards the end of the second act, two brilliant actors going toe-to-toe in a one-shot-wonder. I’m proud of some of the more offbeat choices we made in the writing which made it to screen: Dylan in the bathtub fully clothed like Chaplin or the cast recital of Love In The Asylum where we break the fourth wall. Sometimes, it’s the beauty in the small moments that matter, like the way Shirley Henderson holds up three fingers like a child learning to count.
You’re currently Stateside, shooting your latest film ‘The Blunderer’ with fellow Brit Eddie Marsan along with Jessica Biel and Patrick Wilson. Could you give us a brief insight Andy?
The Blunderer is a feature adaptation of the 1954 novel by Patricia Highsmith. It’s a wronged man thriller set in New York 1960 and, in the classic Highsmith tradition, it charts the strange and symbiotic relationship between two men: one, a murderer; the other, who has murder in mind. The story explores the grey area between action and intention: how guilty is a man if he thinks of the crime, but does not commit the act? From a taut script by writer Susan Boyd, the movie was shot in Cincinnati late last year – lensed by Set Fire cinematographer Chris Seager – and is produced by Killer Films. Patrick, Eddie and Jess comprise a fantastic cast that also includes Vincent Kartheiser and Haley Bennett. I’m really thrilled for the future of this independent movie, we sourced some truly cinematic locations in Ohio with a great local infrastructure and crew. I’m currently in post editing in New York – so watch this space!