Seeking guidance and support from a mentor who you have long admired is often a beneficial and critical way for many people to achieve their goals and success in their lives. But when their advice, personality and behavior unexpectedly fails to live up to your expectations, the work they accomplished that you have long admired unfortunately begins to lose its appeal and acclaim. That emotional struggle of contending with losing respect for your hero, particularly when they have heavily influenced your career and beliefs, is grippingly chronicled in the biographical drama, ‘Set Fire to the Stars.’ The film, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, and was helmed by Andy Goddard in his directorial debut, is based on American poet and literary critic John Brinnin’s 1956 book, ‘Dylan Thomas in America.’ Elijah Wood portrays Brinnin in the drama, which was co-written by Goddard and Celyn Jones, who also portrayed celebrated Welsh poet Thomas, the critic’s long-admired mentor who ultimately failed to provide solace to his protégé.
‘Set Fire to the Stars’ chronicles the week in 1950 when John, who was working in New York as a poetry professor, convinces his superiors to bring Dylan, his writing hero, to the city. The professor wants to sponsor the writer on a university reading tour across America, and serve as his guide as he performs his beloved work. But John is cautioned by his mentor at the university, Jack (Steven Mackintosh), that he’s taking a risky chance on collaborating with the poet, because even though he’s talented, his behavior is often unpredictable and irresponsible. However, the professor overlooks his colleague’s warnings, as he doesn’t initially believe one man can cause so much havoc.
But once Thomas arrives in New York, John quickly realizes that Jack’s prediction is true, as the poet thoughtlessly does whatever he wants, without any regard to the consequences to himself or the people around him. After learning that John even has a strained marriage with his wife, Caitlin (Kelly Reilly), the professor becomes increasingly cautious while contending with the poet’s personal and professional lives.
After Dylan becomes so disruptive in public that he’s forced to check out of his hotel earlier than planned, John decides to bring the writer to his family’s isolated cabin in Connecticut, where he can detox as he prepares for his all-important reading at Yale. During the process, the two spent an eventful evening with John’s neighbors, ‘The Lottery’ author Shirley Jackson (Shirley Henderson) and her husband, Stanley (Kevin Eldon). The poet and the professor’s time at the cabin forces each man to not only contemplate the choices they have made in their lives, but also what they truly hope to accomplish in their futures, and the people they wish to become.
Wood and Jones generously took the time to sit down for a roundtable interview in New York City to talk about making ‘Set Fire to the Stars.’ Among other things, the actors discussed how Wood has developed a practical expectation when it comes to meeting people, so he doesn’t become disappointed if they don’t live up to an unrealistic sense of anticipation, but Jones has had a vivid imagination since he was a child, so he would feel discontent if things didn’t meet his predictions; that while researching the lives of the men they played, Jones learned to appreciate Thomas’ ability to view everyone as a potential person to speak to, no matter who they were; and how there was a lot of dialogue that Wood and JOnes both had to recite in the independent film’s 18-day shoot, which was a struggle for them, because they had to film something that was imperative to the narrative’s storytelling every day.
Question (Q): Have either of you ever met one of your idols, only to be let down?
Elijah Wood (EW): I’m happy to say that I haven’t been let down. I think I have a relatively healthy amount of realistic expectations when it comes to meeting people. I don’t build people up too much and expect them to exceed or meet those expectations. I have a relatively realistic perspective. So I’ve never been terribly disappointed, and certainly not by people I didn’t think I would care for if I met them.
Celyn Jones (CJ): Yes, then they wouldn’t be your idol! I’ve never thought of that. I’ve met some wonderful people. But I’ve got a huge imagination, so as a kid I was always disappointed wherever I went, because it always seemed better in my mind. (laughs)
Q: Have either you ever have a friend who fell apart with alcohol and drugs? Maybe not to Dylan’s extent, but have either of you known someone like that?
CJ: I’ve known people who have definitely had their finger on the self-destruct button, and I think with Dylan’s behavior, there is booze in the equation. There’s drink in the equation, of course, but there are also people who add to the way he was.
During the scene in the movie when Dylan says all those rude limericks in Yale, he is sober. He’s been drunk, and he’ll get drunk after it, but at that point, he’s sober and sticking up for John. So his behavior wasn’t just always dictated by booze. But there are definitely certain surroundings when there is unfairness or an expectation in play. I’ve known people who definitely had their finger on that pulse, where they might take it a bit too far.
EW: I haven’t known anyone who seemed like they were spiraling out of control. But there are certainly people that like to have a good time, and would mix drink with a gregarious personality. It could be very entertaining until it’s not.
Q: Was there something positive you both learned from the real people your characters were based on?
CJ: There were some positive things about Dylan. I definitely came out of the process with some love for his human side. I love the way that he would be able to walk into a room and wouldn’t just see a waitress, two old ladies and a drunk at the bar; he’d see hope, dreams, passion, a feeling, a story and someone to listen to. He used to say he went to the pub to talk first.
So I felt enlightened after playing Dylan. The film that we made shows the sort of person that he was, including his genius and self-destructiveness side. Geniuses are well known, and I suppose there are people working in all kinds of areas that would have those sort of traits. But is being a genius about asking questions? I don’t know. Is it about looking for answers and getting closer to a personal truth that creates bad behaviors? I don’t know about that, either, but it is an interesting debate. But I definitely took something away from our mad ride.
EW: I certainly took something away from our 18 days of shooting in Swansea, Wales. We had a tight schedule, especially when the script is all dialogue, (laughs) So it was intense.
Q: What was it like smoking all those cigarettes while you were filming?
EW: I’m a smoker, and Cel smokes on occasion. The funny thing about shooting in Wales is by law, you’re not allowed to smoke on set indoors. So if you’re filming indoors, it has to be an electronic cigarette. They have this whole system where they make it look like a real cigarette, but it’s an e-cigarette. It’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever seen in my life. (laughs)
CJ: If you’re outside with herbal cigarettes, they looked realistic. If we were indoors, we could have an herbal cigarette that was blocked and was burning on the side…
EW: …with wax on the end.
CJ: We did not inhale (laughs) We also had these hybrid ones, which seemed to look as if it’s they were the most natural thing in the world. We became smoking ninjas. Then they’d yell cut and we’d go for a real cigarette.
EW: It was a whole production to deal with all the smoking in the movie, because it wasn’t as simple as just lighting up cigarettes. But there’s something so great in the fact that we captured the romanticism of black and white cinema and 1950 America. Everyone smoked at the time, so there’s something kind of iconic and romantic about that imagery. It was fun to partake in that that atmosphere.
CJ: There are a couple of moments in the movie where we’re sitting on the boat and smoking. I thought, I always wanted to be in a movie like this.
Q: Were there any other challenges you faced, besides smoking the e-cigarettes, while you were filming?
EW: Absolutely. We only had 18 days to shoot this, which is no time. But there weren’t not a lot of characters in the film. You know a lot of people populate the world, and come in and out of the story. But for us, there were a lot of pieces and dialogue that we were trying to encapsulate in those 18 days, which was a real struggle. Everyday mattered, and there weren’t any easy days. We were shooting something imperative to the storytelling every day.
CJ: There’s a crucible of the story where there’s a huge horror story. I don’t know how many pages that scenes was; it was probably about 10 to 12 pages. It’s amazing and Elijah did it all. We were in this log cabin, and it was always felt like there was this thing was coming.
EW: It was looming on the mountain on the horizon.
CJ: Yes, and then it happened, and it just worked.
EW: Yes, it did. Well, Shirley Henderson started it off, and she was so extraordinary that she inspired everything.
CJ: Kev(in Eldon) and Shirley just came in with this energy.
EW: It felt like we were making another movie at that point, because we were alone for quite a bit before they came in. Then their characters brought this energy and new life into this world.
Q: Do you know how many liberties Andy took with the real story, in order to make it work for the movie?
CJ: Well, we co-wrote the script very quickly, and we based it on a book John Brinn wrote called ‘Dylan Thomas in America.’ Elijah describes it as a first kiss-and-tell book, which is right. John got a real hard time for writing the book because people generally didn’t write books like that at the time. Our film spans about seven-and-a-half pages of the book. But when Andy and I co-wrote the script, we saw the saw pages of John bundling Dylan into a car and taking him to a log cabin. We were also drawn to them having a night with Shirley and Stanley, as well as them going to a diner and then getting ready for Yale.
We thought it had the whole John and Dylan story was in that week, and that was a film we’d really like to make. So the liberties are taken in that we only used that chapter. I suppose we took liberties in the supporting characters, as we also thought of the type of people that Dylan and John might have met.
Q: How did you both prepare for your roles? Did you do a lot of research into John and Dylan’s relationship?
CJ: I dyed my hair, since the film’s in black and white. I dyed my hair ginger and my eyebrows blonde, so that they would look very dark. As actors, our preparation was getting into the research and writing. I looked at the clues that Dylan left by the way he described himself; he called himself an unmade bed. I also studied his accent, which was Cambridge Welsh.
EW: I did some research on John Malcom Brinn, but that turned up a lot of dead ends. There isn’t not a lot of biographical information out there about the man, which in itself is very telling. He was a very private individual, and didn’t want a lot of attention. That increased after the release of the book and the negative reception that he received from writing these tawdry tales of this man. Also, you can learn a lot about who Dylan Thomas was in America by reading the book, as it pertains to his love of Dylan. That’s where I discovered who John was, funnily enough.
CJ: I remember you talking about reading the book, and then asking the question of why he wrote it. But no book is a one-stop shop, but it looks into the apex of their relationship. They were together for three other American trips after the events in the movie, and John was very intrinsic…
EW: John also went to London and Wales.
CJ: They were together again, but we think they probably weren’t as close after the Yale incident. John may have protected himself maybe a little bit more from the whirlwind that Dylan was. John tells Dylan in the movie, “You’d better get that train so you can terrorize somebody else.” When we were writing the script, we felt that it’s important that Dylan doesn’t change. Dylan arrives as Dylan Thomas, and he leaves as Dylan Thomas. But with John, it’s like what T.S. Elliot said, “Everyman goes on a journey, and when they arrive back from that journey, they’ll be back where they started, but they will know the place for the first time.” His foundation has been shaken.
Q: Elijah, you’ve certainly come a long way in your career since you starred in ‘Back to the Future 2.’ Are there any other art forms or mediums you want to get into?
EW: Well, I DJ on the side, and that’s very gratifying. I’ve been in love with music for a long time, so I’ve been taking that more seriously.
CJ: I’m looking forward to the Elijah Wood directorial debut.
EW: Oh, I’m very much looking forward to that as well, thank you.
CJ: I think you’re amazing.
EW: Thank you, I would love to do that.
Q: Elijah, you have starred in several blockbusters throughout your career. Did you decide to take on this project because it’s an independent film?
EW: I often don’t draw a distinction between the two worlds, even though there is a great distinction between them. ’m just drawn to material, and it’s not defined by its size. I’m just drawn to something that just moves me, and that can be on a large scale or on a small scale.
But more often than not, I’m drawn to stories that tend to exist in the independent sphere, because those are the kinds that of stories that you can take more risk with. With independent filmmaking, you can make a black and white movie about Dylan Thomas and John Malcom Brinnin, but the story wouldn’t do as well in a major studio space. I like taking risks and pushing things, and am drawn to things that tend to excite me more than roles where I would play it safe. Independent films tend to take those risks, so I’m more often than not drawn to that world. But overall, size has nothing to do with it a role.
If there was a film that came along that I was moved by, and it happened to be large film, then that is what it would be. Whatever it takes to facilitate the story and the vision, whether it’s on a small or large scale, I’ll do it.
In some ways, the two worlds are very different, and in some ways, they’re not very different. There are financial issues on large scale movies, too, and they require problem solving. People are always running into all sorts of issues, and are running over schedule. They also have budgetary constraints, just as there are on independent films.
The thing I do prefer on an independent level is that the teams tend to be smaller, so people are a little bit more unified. No one is there to make money, as there’s not a lot of money in independent cinemas. So the people that are there are equals who trying to achieve the same goal, ad I like the energy around that.
Q: Besides ‘Set Fire to the Stars,’ do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
EW: I did a film called ‘The Trust’ with Nic Cage in February. It’s a heist movie in which we play two cops who perform a heist, and it was so much fun. I also did a movie called ‘Cooties’ that I also produced, and that is coming out in September. It’s a horror-comedy about a virus that affects children who haven’t gone through puberty yet. It turns them into savages. That one was written by Leigh Whannell, who wrote (the first three) ‘Saw’ films and (the three) ‘Insidious’ films. He co-wrote the script with Ian Brennan, who co-wrote and co-created ‘Glee.’
CJ: There’s love child! (laughs)
EW: It’s pretty awesome. It premiered at (the 2014) Sundance Film Festival, and it’s finally coming out this September. We love it, and it’s so funny.
I’m also in the movie ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ with Vin Diesel, Michael Caine and Rose Leslie, which comes out in October. I would say it is a hybrid of what you’re familiar with, in regards to Vin’s work, but he’s also a huge fantasy nerd. He talked to me at length about Tolkien and ‘The Silmarillion,’ and a character he wants to play in that film. So he’s deep, and he’s a big Dungeons and Dragons fan. So the movie is about witches and how they’re all around us. In some ways, it speaks to the part of him that he hasn’t gotten to articulate that much.
Q: Celyn, what are your next projects that you’re working on?
CJ: I’m doing a couple of independent films in the UK. I’m doing another movie that’s a bit like ‘Night of the Hunter.’
EW: I love ‘Night of the Hunter.’
CJ: I also have a script that Kristoffer Nyholm’s going to direct, and it’s going to be his first feature film. I’m really excited about it. Then I’m adapting a novel that just came out, so it’s a bit of writing. I think I’m also going to do a comedy thing.
EW: You’re doing some cool stuff. Jerry Lewis is in that movie with you as well, and he’s going to plays Nicolas Cage’s dad.
CJ: The beautiful thing about ‘Set Fire to the Stars’ is that I’m making other films with the company that made it. So it’s really this family atmosphere that produces absolute trust.
EW: Make movies with your friends. I really believe in that.
CJ: It makes sense. If you’re going to risk time and effort and money, and really commit to something, then it’s best to do it with the people that you really care about. So ‘Set Fire to the Stars’ has been a great opportunity for me. I get to play the part that I have always wanted to play. I got to do the film that we wanted to make. I got to meet Elijah Wood, and act opposite this man and who has been one of the great gifts of all this. From this, we have this sort of desire to keep making more.
Q: What do you both think about the TV shows that are on the air right now, like ‘True Detective,’ that are like movies. Do you have any favorites?
EW: ‘True Detective’ is great, and ‘Game of Thrones’ is brilliant, I also loved ‘The Killing.’ TV is an exciting landscape because there are great actors, directors and writers that are moving to that space, and just doing really interesting things. ‘True Detective’ is a great example of that, because it’s really about telling one story over the course of eight or nine episodes. Then it’s about switching it up and telling a different story, which is wonderful. It features long-form storytelling that you couldn’t encapsulate into a film, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a regular TV series, either.
CJ: I loved ‘Mad Men,’ and I was with it right to the end. There was just these things that would happen on the show that would make you would go, “Wow, Peggy and Pete are in the same room, and we all know something that everyone else doesn’t know.” I felt like that was a really cool experience. Americans changed the game for television, as there are so many amazing shows out there.
EW: There’s almost too much content now.
CJ: You have to quit work and just watch TV…
EW: …so that you can catch up.
CJ: You watch it and go, “Oh, I have eight episodes of that I have to watch because it’s consistently brilliant storytelling.”
Q: Do you both connect with fans on social media?
EW: I’m on Twitter, and it’s great, I love it. I was actually adverse to it for a real long time. I was on Facebook with a private account. But I thought, I don’t need to be on this medium for which everything that I say can be viewed by other people. I had social medium shyness, I suppose, before I realized that it kind of is brilliant.
I’ve totally fallen in love with Twitter, and I prefer it to everything else. I don’t really use it to write about my life or share anything personal. More than anything else, I use it as a platform to support things that I think are great, such as Kickstarter campaigns, films that I think people should see and music that I love. I do tweet about some mild political things that I believe in, and it’s fantastic for that.
The other thing that is brilliant about Twitter is that it cuts out the middle man, so it’s a great place for artists to meet other artists and communicate. That has happened to me so many times-I’ve become a part of a creative endeavor after meeting someone on Twitter. I was in a Flying Lotus video, and the group asked me to do it via Twitter. I had never spoken to anyone on the phone, as it was all through email and Twitter communication. They were like, “I hope that he shows up to the shoot.” No one had actually spoken to me, and I just said I was in through Twitter, and we ended up shooting this really beautiful video.
CJ: In 21 characters? (laughs)
EW: It’s a great place for people to share ideas.
Written by: Karen Benardello