Teesside film graduate AJ Riach tells Steve Pratt about how he recruited Elijah Wood to star in a movie based on the notorious US tour by poet Dylan Thomas

WHILE filming Set Fire To The Stars with Lord Of The Rings actor Elijah Wood, Teesside producer A J Riach avoided watching the daily rushes, the rough footage shot that day. He saved viewing it until the movie was nearing completion – and he liked what he saw.

Back in his family’s Eaglescliffe home, the day after seeing the film Set Fire To The Stars, the former Stockton Riverside College student says he’s pleased with the result.

More than happy with a project that began with an idea discussed over a cup of tea at an actor friend’s home.

“I watched the film for the first time yesterday,”

says Riach (the AJ stands for Andrew James). “I was so proud of it when I saw it. I felt like I’d made a piece of cinema.

It’s a strong character piece. I hope it will get a following and people will love it.”

The film tells of Welsh writer Dylan Thomas’s first trip to America in the 1950s.

Wood, who played Frodo in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, plays US poet John Malcolm Brinnin, who set up Thomas’s book tour which was hampered by drunkeness and bad behaviour.

Producing the independent film is the biggest project to date for the former Egglescliffe School pupil who’s still only 26.

It came about through actor Celyn Jones, with whom he had worked on another movie.

“It was about being in the right place at the right time. I was round his house and over a cup of tea he told me he’d always wanted to play Dylan Thomas. I said he should write something and make a film,” recalls Riach.

Jones knew director Andy Goddard, best known for directing episodes of ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey, because they’d worked together in the past and had talked about making a film about Dylan Thomas for some time. They went away and wrote a script about Thomas’s US experiences, which Brinnin recalled in his book Dylan Thomas In America. Then Riach was brought on board to produce the film.

Since graduating from Sunderland University, he has been working full-time in various capacities for London-based New Black Films and had, as he describes it, “itchy feet” and was looking for a new project on which to work.

He studied on the film and television production course at Stockton Riverside College because he was keen to get into the practical side of things. “I wanted to start making stuff rather than talking about it,” he says.

Looking back, he says college tutors Kelly Fairhurst and Neil Stockton, were “an inspiration”. The former put him in contact with an industry professional who got him his first job as a runner on One Night In Turin, the film about England’s adventures in Italia ’90 World Cup.

Contacts made on the set led him to New Black Films where he’s worked on feature documentaries, feature films and short films.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work in film and television from going to college. I had no idea in what capacity, but was driven to work in the industry,” explains Riach.

“I was into drama at school and have always known I wanted to do something in the creative world. After university I finally decided I wanted to produce.

“It’s films not TV that I want to do. I’ve always loved watching films since I was a kid.

At New Black Films I worked in various capacities including runner and production assistant. I did everything to learn about all aspects of film-making.”

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Elijah Wood

Things moved quickly on getting Set Fire To The Stars in front of the cameras after that talk over tea. Goddard and Jones wrote the script in a month, several more months were spent developing the film and then Elijah Wood came on board. Eventually the budget – Riach is shy about saying how much the film cost – was raised.

“When Andy and Celyn wrote the script I thought Elijah would be great for the part.

We had nothing to lose by asking him. His agent read the script and liked it. Then Andy Goddard was in Canada filming the Dracula TV series and I got a meeting for him with Elijah in LA, at a downtown Venice coffee shop,” he recalls.

Other well-known faces recruited include Kelly Reilly, who starred opposite Denzel Washington in Flight and in TV’s Above Suspicion, Harry Potter actress Shirley Henderson and Steven Mackintosh.

He also discovered that another member of the cast Maimie McCoy comes from the North- East. The actress daughter of restaurateur Eugene McCoy plays Milady in BBC1’s series The Musketeers. “I didn’t realise she’s from this part of the world. Then we met on set and heard each other’s accents and realised,” says Riach.

The entire film was shot in Swansea, which stood in for New York.

With editing and post-production in the process of being completed, Riach says the film will be ready for screening to potential buyers by next month. He hopes to launch the film at an international film festival this summer.

He’s also thinking about what he’s going to do next. “I have a few projects in development,” he says, refusing to be drawn on details.