FILM / Mouth to mouth resuscitation: 'They brought out some floppy cardboard and wrote out two or three lines of dialogue in great big letters.' Daniel J Travanti talks to Sheila Johnston about working in Welsh

Click to follow
'I ALWAYS had a mystical connection with all things Celtic,' confides Daniel J Travanti. 'I'm amazingly attracted to leprechauns and Irish movies. Tony Hopkins and Richard Burton. And bagpipes] Mad for bagpipes, always. I'm the only fellow I know who went to the Royal Highland Fusiliers when they came to America. I saw them four or five times. And then, there I was doing a movie in Wales, and, to my surprise and shock, in Welsh and saying to myself: this really is spooky.'

It's not uncommon for an American actor to learn a limey accent for the sake of a movie (or in Ellen Barkin's case this week, an Irish one for Into the West). But you might feel that Travanti, known here as Captain Frank Furillo from the long-running TV series Hill Street Blues, displayed a dedication beyond the call of duty in twisting his tongue around the unfamiliar language for the Welsh children's film A Christmas Stallion. Pretending he knew how to ride a horse was a cinch by comparison.

'I said, fellas, I'm determined not to be concerned about any of this. They brought out some floppy cardboard and wrote out two or three lines of dialogue in great big letters. I read it off phonetically; talk about gall. I was a little afraid of watching myself afterwards, but I would ask Peter (Edwards, the director): do I look like a newsreader, do the eyes suddenly go stone-dead? But it actually seemed as if I were getting away with it.' And there were other ways of hiding the joins: 'We shot some scenes a little wider,' says Edwards. 'And sometimes he turns away from the camera earlier than he would otherwise. But it was good to have lip-sync on his dialogue.'

The Christmas Stallion is mainly unusual for another reason, however: like Elenya (reviewed opposite) it exists in two parallel versions, shot simultaneously ('back-to-back') in Welsh and English. The thinking behind it is that Welsh-speakers get a film in their first language, while the 'international' version attracts foreign finance and sales.

S4C, the Welsh television company which produced these two movies, has been trawling abroad for extra funding to boost its own small drama-budget - less than pounds 3 million a year for up to eight feature films - with some success: Elenya is part-German; the company's current series of animated Shakespeare plays has Russian money in it; The Christmas Stallion is an American co-production; The Beautiful Valley, a forthcoming project about a man from Patagonia who comes to Wales in search of his roots, has French money in it.

Apart from the financial carrot, these films are intended to break away from the sheep-shearing drama - small, rural, period stories - and to try for a more cosmopolitan flavour. Dafydd Huw William, the channel's Commissioning Editor, has no plans to embark on a remake of How Green was My Valley, although, he admits, 'I would if I thought there was any money in it.' Other stereotypes are equally non gratae. 'We have a typical Welshman - the South Wales, beer-swilling, rugby-playing boyo. I try not to deal in them.'

He reckons that making two versions is highly economic - they cost more than one film, but nothing approaching twice as much. Edwards adds that sales from the export versions help to boost the production values of the Welsh-language side. He believes that in the future there won't be the resources to make more ambitious films only in the Welsh language.

There is a historical precedent for back-to-back filming: just after the advent of sound, a number of European productions were made in several language versions, for much the same reasons (resisting a dominant language and culture) - a famous example is the first Dietrich/Von Sternberg collaboration, The Blue Angel (1931), which was shot in both English and German. But the practice was swiftly abandoned, and some film-makers believe that S4C is wrong-headed in attempting to revive it.

Karl Francis, who has worked in English (Giro City, Morphine and Dolly Mixtures, Rebecca's Daughters), Welsh (The Happy Alcoholic), and a mixture of the two (Boy Soldier), is vigorously opposed to back-to-back filming. For a start, he says, 'it means that an English speaker won't get the job. They can't use actors like Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins or Timothy Dalton who might actually raise some money for a project.' And even Steve Gough, the director of Elenya, admits, 'some actors don't like making two films - they get tired, or feel they don't give their best in either language.'

Gough does not speak Welsh (although, William says, 'we're trying to stamp that out') and relied on his associate producer to advise him on that version. He conceded that a different kind of character can emerge in Welsh without the actor being aware of it. 'There is a feeling that Elenya is more brisk and robust in Welsh; in English she is a bit more vulnerable because it's the actress's second language.' And there are deeper, structural changes that have nothing to do with an individual performance: for instance, the story is told in flashback by Elenya, an old lady who has lived in Italy for many years and now speaks in cut- glass English. 'The idea is that Elenya as an adult has repressed the past along with her Welsh accent, and has become a cold kind of person,' Gough says. In Welsh, that nuance is lost.

A similar effect occurs in The Christmas Stallion, a Disney-ish melodrama about a young girl's attempt to stop an unscrupulous property-developer buying her farm. 'The characters sit in their social and cultural context in a different way in the two films,' Edwards says. 'The baddie is not quite so bad in the Welsh version. He's still 'one of us' - being a Welsh-speaker carries a commitment to the community; it brings him into the tribe.'

It may that few people care about these subtle discrepancies - even those in a classic like The Blue Angel are of real interest only to dedicated film scholars. In an era of proliferating 'director's cuts' and 'special editions', after all, the existence of two language versions of the odd film or two might seem a small additional complication. But Francis believes that back-to-back production involves dilution, penny-pinching and compromise: 'They tend to make a film in English, then a Welsh language version that's completely different. It doesn't say much for the integrity of the original film.

'It is a cheap way of working. S4C is pricing itself so low that film-makers don't want to deal with them. (The Christmas Stallion, for instance, cost in the region of pounds 850,000 - small beer for one film, let alone two.) Standards there have fallen appallingly over the last few years. It's in the Dark Ages right now. They're too anxious to make film in Wales at any price. It's a dangerous game. And they are playing it because they've lost faith in the Welsh language. They're playing the market game and in the process they're losing their audience. And everyone gets a raw deal financially.'

Francis stresses that Welsh-language production itself is not in question. The worry seems to be that the double versions are falling between two stools. Even in its supposedly more accessible English incarnation, Elenya is getting only a small art-house release and the reviews so far have been respectful but not enthusiastic. A straightforward commercial project like The Christmas Stallion, on the other hand, is being syndicated on American television, but has not yet been bought for British transmission.

It's heartening to see Wales investing in film production, but it seems as if the language question simply brings into relief some of the same old problems that have always dogged the British cinema as a whole - the choice between internationalism, at the risk of blandness, and localism, at the risk of becoming parochial, between leek-flavoured cosmo-puddings and Celtic whimsy directed at people who are crazy for leprechauns.

'Elenya' opens today and is reviewed opposite.

(Photographs omitted)