Jeremy Thomas - And I'm still a fan
updated: October 29, 2010
“At the Cutting Edge" – Producer Jeremy Thomas, interviewed by producer Sandy Lieberson, Berlinale Talent Campus, February 14, 2006.
Sandy Lieberson: It has taken us three years to get Jeremy to come here. We have invited him every year. He is either usually busy or because of his own peculiar personality he is a guy who likes to be behind the scenes rather than in front of the camera, and so he is extremely modest. So what we are going to do today is run through Jeremy’s career. Not just to find out what he produced but to get some insight into what it takes for an independent producer to exist in today’s film world. Because I would say your company is one of the oldest independent companies in Europe. It is extraordinary how companies come and go and one minute they are riding high and the next they are out of business. I was looking through the list of filmmakers you have worked with: Bernardo Bertolucci, Nagisa Oshima, Stephen Frears, David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Terry Gilliam, Takeshi Kitano, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Richard Linklater, just to name a few. It is a pretty amazing group of filmmakers isn’t it?
Jeremy Thomas: And I am still a fan.
Sandy Lieberson: You are rather unusual as a producer because you have actually worked your way up into being a successful producer, and it would be interesting for us if you wouldn’t mind, telling us a little bit about your own background and how you started and made the breakthrough.
Jeremy Thomas: I was very lucky because I was born with a silver reel in my mouth because my father was a director of nearly fifty movies, so I grew up in a background near Pinewood Studios in England. So apart from when I was at school I was at the studios. When I left school at 17, I didn’t go to university, I went straight into a film laboratory, working on the set as assistant director, clapper boy until I focussed on the cutting rooms. I worked with some wonderful directors like Ken Loach and on THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), directed by Perry Henzell.
I worked on various feature films as an assistant and I graduated to edit a film for Ken Loach. And then I met Sandy and he gave me a very nice film to edit called BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME (Philippe Mora, 1975), when I was about 22 or 23 years old. We lived in America for a year and researched this film about America from the great crash of 1929 to Pearl Harbour. And it was a fascinating education about films for me, and I suppose that is why I would like to show you the first clip.
A film clip is screened.
DISCOVERING THE COMPILATION FILM
Jeremy Thomas: That was an eye-opening experience for me, working on this film, because we got to destruct and deconstruct lots of feature films to make this story, and it was the beginning of me understanding the power of images, and the putting together of images. You couldn’t make a film like this today because there were so many clips in it which we bought for very little money in those days, and it was a bit like sampling. As musicians today would sample pieces we were really sampling on film. When I think of the technical side of the editing it was very difficult bringing all the elements together, you had 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, black and white and colour film. It was a great exposure and I must say thanks to Sandy very much because the company’s name that was on the screen was Good Times, which was Sandy’s company, which was a very thriving company in the early 70’s and late 60’s in London.
Sandy Lieberson: So, what we did was we discovered the compilation film, we discovered that it existed, the people that had made compilation films in the past, and we wanted to treat this subject of the depression in the United States through the compilation format. We literally cannibalised probably 60 or 70 feature films, documentaries, newsreels or private archives. What we did was, we took Jimmy Cagney from a series of his films from that period and by editing them we made him the leading character in BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME. So in effect he became the storyteller of the depression of that era.
One of the interesting things about BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME was that we sold the film very easily. We sold it to the United States to a company that was owned by Francis Coppola, so he owned the movie. He brought myself and the director to San Francisco to meet with him to talk about what he was going to do with the film. He ran the film in his private screening room for Walter Murch, a three-time Academy Award winning editor for all the GODFATHER-films and THE CONVERSATION, and he ran it for George Lucas who was working for him at the time, and he ran it for a few other people. When the film was over he turned to the director and said: “How could you have done that? in a really disgusted tone. And we didn’t know what he was talking about.
He said: “How could you have re-cut CITIZEN KANE? Because we had taken extracts and reconstructed it to fit our own narrative. He wanted to re-cut BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME to make it into his own film because it is compulsive, and fortunately Walter Murch and George Lucas said don’t bother, just release the film as it was. It must have been quite an experience from the editing point of view?
Jeremy Thomas: It was a lengthy process and very complex without the digital help of an Avid. This was the day when every bit of film had to be rolled up and logged. Very tedious but today on an Avid it would be a different job.
Sandy Lieberson: So, an independent company today couldn’t make BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME because the rights situation, the music clearances, etc would be prohibitive. But the concept of making compilation films, of taking newsreel, archive, private collections of films, particularly with what is going on in the world today, I think has really exciting potential for filmmakers, and it can be an inexpensive way and a powerful way to make films.
Jeremy Thomas: The collage, or compilation, is a very inventive way to tell a story or get an idea across.
FROM EDITOR TO PRODUCER
Sandy Lieberson: So, that takes care of your editing career. Do you think being an editor had any effect on your work as a producer?
Jeremy Thomas: I think it is very hard to say what a producer does, but certainly a producer, in a classical sense, should understand how films are made or constructed, apart from the deal. Producing a film is not only about business it is also about taste and the physical side of making films. So I was very lucky that I graduated or apprenticed in a way which encompassed all areas. I didn’t go to film school but there was a very thriving industry in England and you could work all over the place.
You could go from studio to studio and get jobs, unlike today which is more restricted in terms of the amount of films that are being made. But I still couldn’t make my own films. So straight after the film I left the UK for two or three years with Philippe Mora, the director of BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, who was an Australian, and we thought we could get some money in Australia. So I left Europe for that time, because there was very little state funding for films, and you couldn’t really have an idea how you could make a film out of the mainstream. I didn’t understand how. So I went to Australia, and that was a good idea because I managed to produce my first independent film: MAD DOG MORGAN (Philippe Mora, 1976).
The film starred Dennis Hopper, we got Dennis Hopper somehow to be in this film and I think there were something like 120 speaking parts and only 400.000 dollars to make this film which was very much in awe of Sam Peckinpah. We made a Western in Australia. And that film got selected for a side-bar event in Cannes, and a film festival as usual came to my rescue, and rescued me from Australia to come back to Europe. So I moved back to Europe having had the hands on experience of making a film. The budget was made on a piece of paper, just page after page, and that is how the budget was constructed, never having made a film before, and a lot of the people who worked on the film were complete amateurs. I don’t know how it was completed or done because we were very irresponsible, but I think it is a very good way to start with a colleague or friend.
THE PRODUCER’S RELATIONSHIP TO DIRECTORS
Sandy Lieberson: I think that is fairly consistent in the films you made, in the working relationship with your directors. It is unusual because you have maintained relationships with, and made a number of films with the same directors.
Jeremy Thomas: All the choices I still defend as being from taste, not market driven. If you think about film, you don’t have to be an expert to be a filmmaker or film producer. Whereas if you are working in literature or the art world or architecture you have to know a lot about it, so you really should as a producer understand what filmmakers do and what each of them does in terms of what they can do with their camera and how they make films. When you look at a painting by an artist you normally recognise their style of painting. When you make film you should be able to somewhat be able to recognise the filmmaker as well. To understand what they will do with a story. One type of story and one type of director will make one version of that story and another director will make a completely different version. So it is very important to have that understanding or to learn that understanding as you progress through your career.
THE FIRST TIME AT CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
Sandy Lieberson: So, what was the reaction to MAD DOG MORGAN?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, innocently I sold the film in the Cannes Film Festival to an American company, signed a document...
Sandy Lieberson: So, you took the film yourself to the Cannes Film Festival?
Jeremy Thomas: I took it in the trunk of my car, drove it from London in the trunk of my Mini. And had to stagger around with the cans of the film.
Sandy Lieberson: So, how did you get it shown?
Jeremy Thomas: It was invited to a side-bar event of international westerns during the Cannes film festival. I have still got a horse’s head made of glass which was the prize. Philippe took the cash and I took the glass. So that was sold to an American company, and I did that myself, very stupidly.
Sandy Lieberson: How did you know how much to ask for for the film?
Jeremy Thomas: I don’t know. I thought of a number and quadrupled it. We ended up getting a contract for a film that cost 400,000 dollars for 500,000. So it was a fantastic deal but then we didn’t get the money so it was poetic. But it was very good learning. And that was the first hard knock.
Sandy Lieberson: Were you encouraged by the reaction to the first film?
Jeremy Thomas: I loved it. I remember going to the opening in New York and there were three people in the cinema in Times Square. I hated the poster, in fact I have got the poster on my wall, it is such a bad poster that I kept it as an example of a shocking piece of artwork. It was very sad, it was a cold, freezing night, I went down there with a couple of people and there was nobody in the cinema. It was a sad beginning but you know it is a school of hard knocks and it is the best way to start. You don’t want to start off with success because there is nowhere to go after that. Success is very beautiful but painful.
SUCCEEDING WITH THE SECOND FILM
Sandy Lieberson: Following that you made your next film THE SHOUT (Jerzy Skolimovsky, 1978).
Jeremy Thomas: All knowledge is connected you know, and all contacts are connected. So all the contacts you are making here at the Berlinale Talent Campus will hopefully be used for the rest of your life maybe. And so somebody I met on the balcony of the cutting rooms on BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME was a writer called Michael Austin and he gave me a screenplay of a Robert Graves short story called “The Shout, which was a very evocative story about a man who maybe was a lunatic, who believed he could shout a man to death. And you didn’t really know if he was a lunatic or not.
But the script was very effective, and I was a big fan of a polish director called Jerzy Skolimovsky, who had just done a film called DEEP END (1971), which was set in England but shot in Germany and it was a great film. I went to Warsaw, saw him, he wanted to do the film, and I found the money to make this film from some commercial sources but mainly soft sources.
Sandy Lieberson: Soft sources being funding from the government.
Jeremy Thomas: Yes, some government money, some commercial money. And because I had a great director, and a very quality piece of literature I managed to get a wonderful cast such as John Hurt and Alan Bates. The film went to Cannes again and won the Grand Prix de Jury. We were incredibly lucky and the film was appreciated by the jury. It was a very small festival then, nothing like the Cannes film festival of today, it was a small event in a cinema of 800 people or so. Skolimowski had a sense of shooting style then, and this was the second director who I had worked closely with, and I was watching how they were making the films, and it was fascinating watching Skolimowski work. He came from a Polish tradition, the Wajda Film School, he had a different background to other directors I had been working with in the cutting rooms or elsewhere. And it made the film much more creative to me. I saw it more as an artistic endeavour by him. Before Skolimowski came to direct this film I was a very big fan of Nic Roeg’s, who had directed PERFORMANCE, which Sandy had produced in the 60’s.
So I tried to get him to direct THE SHOUT but it didn’t appeal to him. After that film I was approached by Sandy to work with The Sex Pistols. I had a very unusual experience with The Sex Pistols making a movie called THE GREAT ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SWINDLE (Julien Temple, 1980). This was I suppose about a year and a half of my life working with them and working on other films. But certainly you, Sandy, were responsible for some of the terrible nightmares of my life.
Sandy Lieberson: I think The Sex Pistols was a good learning experience for you.
WORKING WITH NICOLAS ROEG
Jeremy Thomas: So, another important crossroads was working with Nicolas Roeg. I did three movies with him and he was a great teacher as well, about what films were and about the reason for making films and the emotion. He is a very intense person and he puts this intensity into his films. The films were getting a little more refined that I was making, and I managed to find money from a company in London, and from Twentieth Century Fox, at which Sandy was working at, so again Sandy was very much involved in getting me some resources to make the film BAD TIMING with Nic Roeg – the director who I think is for me the greatest living British director.
Working with Nic was working with a director who was really like a method director. He really got into the movie so much that he damaged himself emotionally. It really was part of his life. I had never seen anything like it. It was like living theatre. It was a different level of involvement with the film.
MAKING FILMS FOR ONESELF?
Sandy Lieberson: You are setting off on a road with particular kinds of filmmakers and subjects that were rather unusual to say the least. What is it that attracted you?
Jeremy Thomas: At the beginning I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I didn’t understand on business terms and I didn’t understand probably in taste or cultural terms, but it was about now I was beginning to refine what I was trying to do. I was trying to think what sort of films that I wanted to make, what sort of audiences I was trying to find. And I am the type of independent producer, I am looking for a film to make my next film and to make profits and successful films, but I am not working in the arena of super profits. I am not working in an industrialised process. I am making global films but not films for a globalised market.
Sandy Lieberson: So in effect you are making the films for yourself?
Jeremy Thomas: I would never admit it but I suppose that really was it. That I set them up to find the passion to convince others to join on a journey. You have to love it and the filmmakers and you have to feel able to convince others to make the film. The other night I was having dinner with somebody who was trying to persuade me to make a film of a very successful video game and I couldn’t explain to him why I just couldn’t have an interest in it. For me, I couldn’t find the energy to be serious about that. Not that I want to only make serious films, but there is a certain kind of space which I am prepared to work in.
PRODUCING NAGISA OSHIMA
Sandy Lieberson: So, you set out on a path. And this next movie in a way confirms the fact that you are not going to be like any other producer. You are going to make what you want to make, because one of the next films you made was MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE (1983) by Nagisa Oshima. A Japanese director with a subject to be made in Japan. What brought you that? How did you meet Oshima?
Jeremy Thomas: Coming back again to film festivals, I met him at the prize-giving of THE SHOUT at Cannes. We sat next to each other and we couldn’t speak to each other because I couldn’t speak Japanese and he couldn’t speak English. But we did exchange cards and we smiled a lot at each other and toasted each other, and got a little drunk. Several years later, a long 300 page adaptation of a great English book called “A Seed and The Sower by Sir Laurens Van Der Post, which was a sort of semi-autobiographical story about characters in the prisoner of war camp in Java in 1942 – 1943. I was fascinated by the idea that a Japanese master wanted to make a film in a prisoner of war camp.
Because I knew the prisoner of war camp of David Lean, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), and I suddenly saw a film to be made, a prisoner of war story on the surface, but a story of incredible male love underneath in a prisoner of war camp. Oshima originally wanted Robert Redford to play the part that David Bowie played. There was a long preparation for this film and I went to Japan for the first time in 1980 and I met him and we talked about the script.
And then it was very difficult to understand where to make the film. Finally it was made in an island in the Pacific, which was part of a New Zealand tax-bracket. So this was my first dusting with tax money. And the film, although it looks like it is set in Java, in fact it was set on a little desert island which had New Zealand tax status. We had to bring a Japanese crew, and an Australian and New Zealand crew to shoot this movie. Also it was my first experience of meeting Takeshi Kitano who was in the movie. The music was produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto and starring him, Jack Thompson, Tom Conti, and various other people I had worked with. It changed my view of things and begun my love affair with Asia and the cinema of Asia.
Sandy Lieberson: Oshima had done THE REALM OF THE SENSES (AI NO CORRIDA, 1976).
Jeremy Thomas: He had made brilliant radical films in Japan. I had seen a lot of them in London.
Sandy Lieberson: You are a British producer, so what was the attraction of Japanese culture to make this kind of a story and to work with somebody who doesn’t speak English? Why would you want to do that?
Jeremy Thomas: I don’t understand now, but it was an adventurous spirit. And as I said in the beginning, I am a fan of films and I was a big fan of Oshima’s films. If you ever see REALM OF THE SENSES, and I would recommend to anybody to see that film, it is the most truthful film.
THE FIRST HIT WITH JAPANESE POP CULTURE
Sandy Lieberson: Did you have a particular feeling for Japanese culture?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, I liked sushi. And the aesthetic of Japan I thought was very pleasing to the eye and the culture is very traditional. And I do think there is some kind of bond between the Japanese and British people because we are a sort of xenophobic island people. Japan is a country that has never been invaded apart from the end of the Second World War, but its culture was completely pure and intact, and there are few places remaining in the world with such tradition.
When I see that film I understand the interests of pop culture and you can flow the pop culture into other cultures and this film had Sakamoto and Bowie in it, and BAD TIMING had Simon and Garfunkel in it, and other films had musical sensibilities. So I think that Oshima did that in a very interesting way, and brought those things together to make this film more popular. It was very popular amongst a young audience all over the world. He managed to hit the spot.
That was the first film I had that was a hit I have to say. I suppose it was about the tenth film, and there were other films that we haven’t talked about, but this was the first film that was a hit, and it really helped me to establish my business. And at this moment I sort of understood about how the movie business worked for me, in terms of divide and rule, and splitting the world up, to own part of the world, which as an independent producer is a very difficult thing to do. At that point I was understanding the film business as well as being a filmmaker. I was fusing the two together.
ONE OF THE HIGH POINTS OF THOMAS’ CAREER
Sandy Lieberson: It is interesting because in today’s world, which is much more complicated to make a deal nowadays than it was then, it is one of the most important parts of understanding how to actually make a deal, of how you can promote a film. How was the film released?
Jeremy Thomas: The film was shown at Cannes in competition, again. It was an incredible success. There were riots outside the cinema, the medical staff were on strike, people were throwing condoms full of paint onto the front of the cinema and burning tyres, and we couldn’t get into the theatre, we had to go round the back of the theatre with David Bowie, and there were helicopters, and it was like a war outside. And inside was this incredible moment unfolding for us of suddenly realising that they really like this film.
That they more than really like it, they love this film. It was a wonderful moment and very memorable, I remember it very clearly. It was one of the high points of my film career to date, making that film, and I was pleased that I was able to somehow marshall all that stuff together, and put cultures together without making them banal. Because you can make puddings by putting too many things, too many ingredients into a film, and that film was so full of ingredients and cultures, but out of it came, because there was a master in control, Oshima, he made this very moving film.
Sandy Lieberson: We are going to jump around a little bit in terms of your films because we are not going to show clips of every one of them, you would be here until midnight. Let’s just go to the next clip.
A clip is screened.
MAKING OF THE LAST EMPEROR
Sandy Lieberson: You are well onto the Orient now.
Jeremy Thomas: When I look at that movie today I have got no idea how it happened because it was a four year process. It started off with a phone-call from Bernardo Bertolucci because he had seen MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE. I met Bernardo and I suggested a Chinese restaurant near my office. I was just ordering the food, and he said: “It is funny you chose a Chinese restaurant because I want to make a Chinese movie.
He gave me the books which turned into THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), which was a very long and difficult period to set it up, full of nightmares, it was like a dark tunnel, to shoot for six months in China, not being able to stop, but out of it came this beautiful thing, and I have totally forgotten all the nightmares and I just think about what an extraordinary experience it was to be in China at the beginning of open doors, to be allowed to make that film there, with a filmmaker like Bertolucci, with whom I have managed to continue a wonderful relationship and friendship for more than twenty years now and six movies. So that was a big point for me in my life and career.
The difficult thing about the success of that film was that it was a difficult film to emulate, and I have never been to that pinnacle of a certain type of film. And I doubt if I ever would or could make a film like that again. We made three movies, Bernardo and I, and I don’t know how one would have made those films in the independent arena today. There were no digital shots, it was before digital, and filmed with real people. Today you would just have fifty people there and multiply them and it would look like TROY or something like that. You would never be able to dress thousands of people.
Sandy Lieberson: Tells us a little bit about the process of making the film in China. You have got a studio in Beijing, a studio in Shanghai, how does it work?
Jeremy Thomas: When you make films in different places you need to find the mercenary warriors to help you make the film because no man is an island and you work with the experts. The best technicians came to work on the film, like Vittorio Storaro and the designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and James Acheson the costume designer. So a group of professionals plus a tremendous amount of support from Italy because the Italian government and the Chinese were very close, because there was this eternal argument about noodles or pasta, what came first? So there was a bonding between the Italians and Chinese. In fact the British Council and British Embassy were rather hands off when we arrived there, they came to claim it later but... If an Emperor can become a gardener then what better and one day they will tell this story and then we came and we told that story. Of an Emperor, son of Heaven, ruler of a quarter of the world, one man, and he died as a gardener. So this was an irresistible and grand epic idea. It was terrifying but it happened.
Sandy Lieberson: So this was a hot potato for China? You are dealing with the Last Emperor, you are dealing with the dynasty, it is something that China was trying to eradicate from the memory?
Jeremy Thomas: There was a kind of approval process of the screenplay but it was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came. And they let us have help with the army and the studios, full support.
Sandy Lieberson: You were up against it to get the money for that film. That was a tough film to finance wasn’t it?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, it was much bigger than anything I had done before, it was a different scale of film. I think MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE was 5 million dollars and this was 25 million dollars, so it was five times bigger in terms of the scope of the film. There was resistance because Bernardo’s previous films, TRAGEDY OF A RIDICULOUS MAN (1981) and LA LUNA (1979) hadn’t done big business. MERRY CHRISTMAS was a success for me but it wasn’t in the league of the success of a 25 million dollar movie. But somehow people came, a French company, a Japanese company, and one by one companies came to believe in the film. I made wonderful presentation books and travelled around the world raising money, and finally found enough money to start the movie.
Sandy Lieberson: And what about the distribution of it? You made some pretty dodgy deals didn’t you?
Jeremy Thomas: Always the dodgy deals unfortunately involved. But I made a deal with somebody I had to later sue again but litigation happens in the film business quite a lot. It ended up that Columbia distributed the film in America, and although it was nominated for all these Oscars, it never got into many cinemas because Columbia were in dispute with the exhibition chains at that time, so the film never got out into a broad release in America.
Sandy Lieberson: What did the story mean to you? What was your reaction to the story itself?
Jeremy Thomas: It is a theme that is in films quite a lot. Can a person change? Is it possible for somebody to change?
Sandy Lieberson: It is very interesting because for most of us in Western society there is still this opaque curtain across the Orient. We don’t really understand Japanese culture, we don’t fully understand Chinese culture, so for me it was a real revelation, an insight into the culture of China.
Jeremy Thomas: Watching Bertolucci work, and watching all of these different directors work, they all work in a different way. And Bertolucci likes to investigate for years on a film, he wants to understand everything, how the knives and forks were used, or the chopsticks, or what the food was like and what people had in their cupboards. He wanted to know everything about the characters, not necessarily to show it, but he wants to know everything. So, when he makes a film he researches every little idea, every idea is examined and read and thought about.
IT IS A CURSE, THE ACADEMY AWARD...
Sandy Lieberson: As the film progresses it is impeccable in its detail. And then of course, the Academy Award. I am surprised you didn’t bring it with you today.
Jeremy Thomas: It is a curse, the Academy Award. You think it is a load of rubbish unless you get nominated for one...
Sandy Lieberson: It is rubbish unless you get nominated for one!
Jeremy Thomas: I believed in it that year, but I never believed in it again. I recently did a film with Terry Gilliam, and the sound mixer won an Oscar for a film, and he arrived at a hotel, in the middle of nowhere, and he took his Oscar out of his bag and plonked it onto the reception desk and says: “I want a good room!
Sandy Lieberson: So it does have a value!
Jeremy Thomas: And I have other producer friends who I know who won Oscars. I went to visit this guy in Cannes, and it was in his sitting room on the table in his hotel suite. People travel with them as well.
Sandy Lieberson: Did you meet Chinese filmmakers whilst you were working there?
Jeremy Thomas: Yes, I met a lot of Chinese filmmakers and have a lot of Chinese friends, who I still have today. I haven’t been back to China in fact since then.
Sandy Lieberson: It must have been one hell of a night getting the Academy Award, for Best Film. How did Bernardo feel about winning this prize?
Jeremy Thomas: His quote as an acceptance speech I think says it all: “If New York is the big apple, Hollywood is the big nipple. Everybody was very confused about this, and then at the backstage, the press said: “Excuse me, Mr Bertolucci, what did you mean by the big nipple? “Because tonight I drank the milk of Hollywood.
THE RECEPTION OF LITTLE BUDDHA
Sandy Lieberson: So, that was the beginning of your collaboration with Bertolucci. The next film of you two was LITTLE BUDDHA (1993). Why that subject?
Jeremy Thomas: It was an interest in the story of Sid Arthur, and what Tibetan Buddhism meant in Western society after the expulsion from Tibet. It was a very ambitious film, and largely shot in Kathmandu and Bhutan on location.
Sandy Lieberson: Were you surprised by the reaction to the film?
Jeremy Thomas: I was at the time, but like many things when you look back of course, trying to promote a film about Buddhism as an epic is maybe a tall order. It is very important to have a self-criticism, it is a crucial element for all of us. It is very hard once you have just made a film to be critical of that film. But over time when you look at it again, you think maybe some things should have been different.
Sandy Lieberson: And, shooting in Nepal and Bhutan?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, you couldn’t shoot again in Nepal currently, unfortunately that is somewhere off the shooting map. And Bhutan, it was a joy to film in Bhutan and I built a good relationship with a Tibetan Lama, who was the advisor on this film and went on to help make a couple of other films later on.
Sandy Lieberson: Let’s look at the next clip.
A clip is screened – CRASH (David Cronenberg, 1996).
Jeremy Thomas: I met David Cronenberg in Toronto in the year that BAD TIMING showed there. Again film festivals are everywhere regarding these meetings. And there was this party, and we met, and he said: “Have you read ‘Naked Lunch’? And I said: “Yes, I love that book, it is a very powerful book. And he said: “I would like to make it into a film. It was like a light in my brain that he was the only person who could do NAKED LUNCH (1991). So I optioned the book for a thousand dollars a year from William Burroughs, and he loved the idea of Cronenberg adapting his book. Whilst we were doing that he said: “Have you read ‘Crash!?. I said: “Of course I have read ‘Crash’. “Crash is one of those books you have to look away from it as you are reading it, it has such a powerful text. CRASH took eight years to realise, from optioning to the finished film.
WORKING WITH DAVID CRONENBERG
Sandy Lieberson: What about the working relationship with Cronenberg?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, again, he is a completely different director who works in a totally different method, a different way. He is much more like a Japanese director than other directors because he is very precise, he is a real professor. He arrives at work at 9.00 in the morning, takes an hour for lunch, and leaves at 6. He is perfect! He is on budget, on schedule, he is very rigorous but he makes a wonderful film, and a unique film.
You can tell a David Cronenberg film virtually, if you look at one of his films and were not told who made it, I am sure many people in here could recognise David Cronenberg, because he has a certain kind of style that he has developed with his cameraman and his designer, who are always the same people he works with. He has a certain sort of style of his own. Even in his new film HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) has a special tonality in it which other people cannot make. It was great to make two films with him and I would like to make a film with him again.
Sandy Lieberson: Two unfilmable books in a way, nobody thought you could make a film from “Naked Lunch.
Jeremy Thomas: YOUNG ADAM (David Mackenzie, 2003) is another film which we will come to later which is also from a novel that needs very special thought to get them filmed. They are books that work so strong when you read them, not in a traditional who-dunnit sense, or like a Tom Clancy book. There is something underneath the book which warrants the film to be made.
FINANCING UNFILMABLE BOOKS
Sandy Lieberson: So, how did you manage to get the money to make a film like NAKED LUNCH, or CRASH? Directors had been fooling around with that book for many years and nobody could ever get it made.
Jeremy Thomas: Well, we are 25 years on now, so you become skilled, you get a knowledge of how to do it, and you cannot really explain it exactly but there is a kind of alchemy involved, and you are working with colleagues all the time. It is represented by me but I am working with lots of people. A lot of people are working together to try and make money. I think John Boorman’s quote “money into light is very accurate and poetic.
Sandy Lieberson: What was it like after having made those films? How did you manage to get them released?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, it was hard to get films like that released. In fact CRASH was very controversial in many places, but it fuelled a certain level of success in the box-office, and I think that film is actually in profit. NAKED LUNCH was a different case, but I do feel NAKED LUNCH will last forever, and it was a very interesting adaptation about writing.
A BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVE
Sandy Lieberson: Then you have gone from NAKED LUNCH and CRASH to Hollywood in one big move: BLOOD AND WINE (Bob Rafelson, 1996) with Jennifer Lopez, and Jack Nicholson.
Jeremy Thomas: It was actually made in the same year as CRASH. I wanted to make a Hollywood movie. I did one movie for the studios, EUREKA, and it was a different experience for me, because growing up as an independent producer it was difficult to interact with a corporate system. But then I got this screenplay which had Jack Nicholson attached to it, Bob Rafelson, who I knew quite well, director of EASY PIECES amongst others, and so I thought, I had never gone near a genre-type of film and so maybe I will try some noir-ish sort of film, set in Miami, which is the flavour of Hollywood, and see if we can do it. It was certainly an incredible cast with Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Caine, and I sold the film to Twentieth Century Fox, and I had a moment of flirtation with a studio movie type of film. I am very fond of the film but it didn’t work. It sort of missed the target of what you were trying to do.
Sandy Lieberson: Did you know that when you were making the film?
Jeremy Thomas: I don’t think anybody starts a movie off thinking they are not going to make a great movie, and I thought too this could be a great movie. Because that cast was delicious, and the setting, and the idea of the film. There was always a problem with completing the script, we didn’t ever get the script completely ready before we started shooting that film.
Sandy Lieberson: You went from Bertolucci and Cronenberg, and people like that, to Rafelson, who, although he was an independent director, for some of his career he also made movies for Hollywood. How different was the relationship working with someone who works and lives in Hollywood?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, he is actually more of a European director, and this is why I was attracted to him. I like him a lot, but it just didn’t click in the way it should have done. And I wasn’t there a lot, I was in London, and wasn’t working on the film maybe as closely as I should have.
FROM PRODUCING TO DIRECTING
Sandy Lieberson: ALL THE LITTLE ANIMALS (1998) was the turning point in a way in your life and your career because you decided to direct your own film. That is a brave thing for a producer to do, or crazy.
Jeremy Thomas: I read the book when I was young, in my twenties, and it stayed with me, and I thought for a 50th birthday present I would try and make a movie, to direct a film. Which I had always intended to do when I started in the business as an editor, and I was arising to fifty and I had never made a film of my own, although I had been very involved with other people’s films. So I made this film. It was a personal film, because I think it is a nice thing as a first film to make a film about some sort of centre that is important for you to centre you on the movie and to keep you driven, with an ideology behind the film. So I wanted to make a film about the heart of this book, which is about simple animals that we see every day in nature. It is an antidote to the other movies basically. But I can see that theme in the other movies that I have chosen to produce as well underneath.
Sandy Lieberson: For me it was a beautiful and sensitive film. What was the reaction to the movie?
Jeremy Thomas: It was shown in Certain Regard in Cannes, and that was a very nice moment. But I didn’t manage to get a big success. That film was very well received in America but in my home country there was a bit of a shock-horror that a producer should chose to direct a film. But I am going to try and direct another film next year or the year after.
Sandy Lieberson: Do people resent the fact that you had decided to direct a film?
Jeremy Thomas: I don’t know. Of course it is comfortable to perceive that people did feel a difficulty about maybe somebody being a bit greedy and trying to do everything. But it is certainly the best job in the movie business, being a director, there is no doubt about that.
Sandy Lieberson: Let’s go onto the next clip.
A clip is screened – THE CUP (PHÖRPA, Khyentse Norbu, 1999).
Jeremy Thomas: The director Khyentse Norbu is a Tibetan Lama who went to NYC film school, who wanted to make a movie, and I had become friendly with him. There was this charming story, which was a teaching for him but a story for everyone else, about little monks and the World Cup. It was shown in the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and we brought a lot of the Tibetans to the screening and it was well received and sold all over the world. It was a very happy story for everybody involved.
Sandy Lieberson: That is pretty much risk-taking. A Tibetan monk story.
Jeremy Thomas: It was less than a million dollars to make. It was very modest in price. The relationship I formed in this film continued with another movie, TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (Khyentse Norbu, 2003), and will continue probably into the future.
A clip is screened – SEXY BEAST (Jonathan Glazer, 2000).
Jeremy Thomas: SEXY BEAST was the beginning of a new phase for me of working with first time filmmakers. Jonathan Glazer was a television commercials director in the UK, and a wonderful talent. We were sent this script which he was attached to and out came this wonderful film. It was very stimulating having a first time talent, and that went onto working with other first time filmmakers, which became YOUNG ADAM, and now we are working with two other first time filmmakers.
Sandy Lieberson: How did you feel about working with first time filmmakers?
Jeremy Thomas: The dialogue as you see in this film is exceptional. I had never read a script like it, and I thought, this has got to be made. It was very difficult to get insurance on the film actually. When the American studio who bought the film, the legal department said: “You cannot make this. It has got something like 300 uses of the word “cunt, and 400 “fucks, but somehow it passed the censorship and got out there.
SETTING UP HANWAY FILMS
Sandy Lieberson: It had an amazing impact when the film was released, and if any of you haven’t seen it you can get it on DVD, it is quite an amazing movie. But around this time, something else happened in your life, which in a way changed everything for you as an independent producer, because what you did was you set up Hanway Films, you set up your own sales company. Every independent producer is dependent on somebody else to raise the money, to sell the film, and you decided to take that responsibility yourself with your own company. How did that change things for you?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, our talk has been so brief, that I haven’t been able to go into all the details that much, but around the time of MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE I started a sales company with somebody else. So I had had a sales company for a few years, and then this friend of mine who helped me sell my films, he retired, and I had a few years in the wilderness with various companies. Then in 1997 or something I decided this was a crazy thing to do, because you are losing so much touch with the market place. Not only losing touch with the market place in a personal sense, but also in a business sense that there are too many middle men. So I decided to start Hanway with the help of a couple of movies, a Kitano film and a Bertolucci film. This company, once started and founded, was very important for me in setting my films up in the current climate, and it has been very useful to finance films which are in the same style as the Recorded Picture Company makes. Other people have also come to use the group of people to sell and deliver their films.
Sandy Lieberson: So this is a big turning point, establishing this company, making films that were sold through this company and taking other people’s films to sell through Hanway Films. And it is one of the most important tools for an independent filmmaker is this ability to sell. But if you go back to MAD DOG, your very first film, you took that film to Cannes, you sold it yourself, you made the deal, and this is what has to happen with producers. They have to be able to take control and the responsibility. Even if you get a sales agent it isn’t as if you have given up the responsibility of how to sell the movie.
Jeremy Thomas: An entrepreneurial spirit is an important element of being a producer, some sort of inner workings that is pushing you forward. Because there are a lot of knock backs and you have to wear a sort of armour so you can continue believing in your films when everybody around you is telling you: “Don’t do that.
Sandy Lieberson: This is what distinguishes you from most other producers. The fact that you are willing to take these films on, you believe in them and you get them made and you don’t give up on them. They are not easy films to distribute. So to have that kind of dedication, that energy, that concentration to be able to do it is a fantastic thing. On the one hand you are combining the highest artistic filmmakers in the world, and you are doing business at the same time. How do you do that as a producer?
Jeremy Thomas: I am not alone you know. I am working with a lot of people, and I may the best known in my group of people but I am working with a lot of people. The focus is on me, and I can claim my films but I am making them with lots of people. it is different from at the beginning but it is a learning process and it is something you have to teach yourself or be taught.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Question: How much do you participate creatively in the films you produce?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, it depends on the director. If the director lets me in I will be very involved, and if he doesn’t let me in I will not be involved. Also some directors don’t need you. Some directors need your help and some directors don’t need or want your help. I try and guide the film and I am very involved in all the elements of casting, and in the preparation and preproduction. I am less involved on the set or disturbing the shooting, because it is a terrible thing to do, to disturb the actual shooting process, but I will try to keep and see everything, and to keep a hand on the movie. So I am involved in the films that I produce myself. On the films that I executive producer I am obviously less involved.
Sandy Lieberson: I am sorry, but we have got to stop. Thank you for coming. And I want to thank you Jeremy. It is an extraordinary collection of films. Usually we would be saying this to a 75 year old man, but the fact that you are in the prime of your producing career, and you have got FAST FOOD NATION coming out in the summer, I think it is an extraordinary testament to your staying power, your talent, and your ability to make unusual films. Thank you very much.