Interview: Kevin Allen – Director Of Under Milk Wood

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC EIFF 2015 - Review: Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood needs no introduction. That short poem by Dylan Thomas. Ok, I jest but it is akin to a Welsh national treasure and who better to adapt it for audiences in 2015 but a Welsh boy himself, Kevin Allen with a fellow countryman in the lead role: Rhys Ifans. He talks to us about making Welsh and English versions back to back, the former now selected as the UK submission for best foreign language category at next year’s Oscars and caravan film screenings at festivals and why farming helped him get to where he is today!

No pressure then, Under Milk Wood is like the Welsh National Anthem – a very important cultural moment. What did you think you could bring to it that hasn’t already been done?

Pressure wise, I think there was more pressure on Rhys [Ifans]. You know Under Milk Wood really is so much more about [Richard] Burton. It has been swept under the carpet for such a long time. It was on O level and I did it as O level as a kid in my days. All that is gone and there’s a generation who doesn’t know who he is.


He isn’t the great hero of Wales that we think he is. He also fits into the cultural dichotomy that is very complex in Wales. He was shunned by the Welsh Nationalists for such a long time for something he wrote that was taken out of context: Wales: The land of my fathers. My fathers can have it. He was demonised for not being a Welsh speaker when his parents were. That was the world he inhabited. He was fighting his roots and aspired to Bloomsbury. He aspired to be a literary heavyweight. He was a bar room bagarre and he lived that life. Under Milk Wood is exactly that it’s; cartoony, bawdy on one level and quite purile at times tempered by this incredible deep poetry. He’s probably appreciated more outside of Wales.

You think so?

I know so without a shadow of a doubt. He means more your side of the bridge than our side of the bridge. There’s a whole generation that don’t know him, they really don’t, apart from Swansea and they still consider him an old drunk.

Really, no!

Of course.

It’s really about Burton and to a lesser extent Tony Hopkins. They were of a time, of an Anglicised Shakespeare Company, that we were really keen to stop and bring it back to Wales through Rhys. So he had the pressure to be compared. I’m not going to be compared to Andrew Sinclair.

I’m a child of the late 70s and remember hearing it on the radio. It is quite defining like Shakespeare. When you think of Wales, you don’t think of much unfortunately: Tom Jones, Under Milk Wood, Shirley Bassey and, of course, Twin Town. It does feel culturally significant, even though you say no pressure, I would have thought there was still some pressure to not completely mess it up.

I couldn’t. I never thought I’d mess it up. In fact I was afraid at various points along the way and then thought this is going to be ok. We went with it. No. That audience is out there and what I’m most interested in with this whole project is in some way contributing to making poetry accessible to a much wider audience that’s a little dream of mine. I ran a literary festival for 5 years in Ireland on our land where we lived for 9 years. I got to know poets and and how different they are really. It’s sacred. We just did a huge tour of festivals – did you see the picture from festival no 9 [shows me on his laptop]. We showed the film to 2,000 people. I’ve been going round the festivals circuit: Latitudes with a caravan that’s been decked out with a 10 minute loop of the film and it has been packed from 9 in the morning until 2am. We show the film and 80% of the people never heard of it and say what: Under The Milk Wood, Charlotte Church and they see it and what is it. That’s why we did it.

It is quite fast and really gallops through the prose. Was that intentional?

Yes it was. We really believed the [Dylan Thomas] rushed it so badly to get it on the BBC [radio]. What I love about it is it’s unpolished. Narratively it is all over the place. In terms of flow we edited it in a way that after first 20 minutes is goes woosh. Some people feel it is a sensory overload. For us we feel good about it as it’s got multiple viewing possibilities. We are going to be releasing the soundtrack of the movie i.e. the movie without pictures not a remix [and provides ] a whole other experience. It is drenched in music.

I would need to see it again.

I really want to say the ultimate date movie on the publicity. It’s really raunchy.

For your next movie would you do this as a way of connecting with the audience?

It depends on the film. I personally wouldn’t watch a movie at a festival. An hour is the limit. An hour half and you’re f—-g cold.

I think it’s great. You receive instant unsanitised feedback.

I was only ever a gun for hire – I was never near the process. Had I not farmed I could never have made this journey and the sustainability of farming; breeding my own pigs, slaughtering them, making sausages out of them and putting them in a bun and selling them for a fiver. This story meant I could do that in films now. I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago so it’s like farm to fork. It’s literally what I lived like for 9 years bringing my kids up. I can do films like this and then go out on the road [and promote them].

I know Under Milk Wood was written in English and you shot the Welsh and English versions back to back. Did you ever think at one point why don’t we just put out the Welsh one with English subtitles?
No because you cannot translate it. it’s not a translation but an adaptation. You cannot see this as two versions of the same film. It’s a different language.

Now that you’ve done this type of iconic piece what’s next on your radar?
We’ve got a good slate of stuff with Fatty Films in Wales [the production company Kevin set up in Wales] lots of stuff: series, a big commercial contemporary film, develop turn of century political piece .

Is it always Welsh focus?
Yeah, we’ve relocated to Swansea to develop [projects] and try to get people employed in Wales in creative industries. I could happily make films in Wales there are plenty of stories.

Under Milk Wood opened in cinemas nationwide on 30 October.

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