Smuggling the Impossible into Reality: An Interview with Jeremy Thomas, Part 2 (Web Exclusive)
by Jonathan Murray
Jeremy Thomas can claim as extensive, adventurous, and audacious a career as that of any living film producer. His CV to date impresses in terms of quantity (sixty producing or executive producing credits), quality (collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Ôshima, Nicolas Roeg, and many other distinguished directors), and diversity (features covering a multitude of film genres and traditions and shot in all corners of the world). Moreover, Thomas shows no signs of becoming more conservative or less productive as he approaches the fiftieth year of his filmmaking career. The current decade alone has seen him collaborate on no fewer than sixteen features or features-in-progress, a list that includes work with Wim Wenders (Pina ); Takashi Miike (13 Assassins , and Blade of the Immortal, currently in postproduction), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive ), Ben Wheatley (High-Rise ), Matteo Garrone (Tale of Tales  and Pinocchio, currently in preproduction), and the Academy Award–nominated Kon-Tiki by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg ).
Thomas’s remarkably energetic, enthusiastic, and enquiring self-immersion in the art and business of filmmaking is testament to a life lived from its very outset in cinema. Born in London in 1949, the son and nephew of British filmmakers Ralph Thomas and Gerald Thomas respectively, Thomas grew up around the environs of Ealing Studios and Pinewood, two of the most enduringly evocative names in U.K. cinema history. He left school at the earliest possible opportunity in order to make movies and has not looked back since. Cineaste met with Thomas twice during 2016: a public interview at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June and a subsequent one-on-one conversation in September at the offices of Thomas’s Recorded Picture Company in central London. On both occasions, Thomas was generous, self-effacing, and highly forthcoming about his distinguished career specifically and the evolution of the movie business more generally.
Because of the cumulative length of our conversations with Thomas, the primary version of this interview appears in our current print issue (Vol. XLII, No. 2, Spring 2017); what is presented online here is the unprinted remainder of his remarkable array of personal and professional memories, anecdotes, and insights.
Cineaste: At what point in the production process would you start to think about, or have a guiding input into, casting? Would that happen early on?
Jeremy Thomas: Yes. I’m doing a new film with Matteo Garrone now, and we’re talking about who’s going to be in it. I need some names, I need some people, I need to make some sales. But I do believe that cream rises to the surface—generally, not exclusively. Therefore, when you’re casting actors of maybe about age thirty, you’re drawn to the people who have been attractive to people as good actors. It’s not very complicated. Obviously, casting unknowns, however good they are, is not going to make a film attractive enough. I’m not making low-budget films, although I do support that. Occasionally, I’ll work on a film like that with more of a helping role, and star casting is not necessary because the films have a certain quality: you can’t put stars in a Bhutanese film shot in Dharamsala. But with a film that you want to be a contender on any commercial platform, you need stars or a very strong wind behind you. Even a Palme d’Or doesn’t help today.
Cineaste: Do you think that’s something you’d already learned in your childhood? Pinewood Studios and the J. Arthur Rank Organization in the 1950s and ’60s understood the importance of sellable and attractive actors and that was always part of that historic production model.
Thomas: Very much: there was the “Rank Glamor School.” The actors were contracted and the director had to work with those actors. Occasionally, they would supplement them with a Hollywood star, but there was a basic film factory with a full- service studio: contracted stars, cameramen, editors, and a prop store. Everything you needed was there to make a film. Carpenters, electricians, and riggers were all there on the payroll. So, it was a different system and the job in hand was making entertainment—films that would fill U.K. cinemas at a time when there was no television or DVD. Then the world changed: the world became full of screens, but not in cinemas. Today, we very seldom consume our films in the cinema. Even film professionals and critics consume them online.
Cineaste: You’ve mentioned this idea of your personal taste as something that you see linking the films you’ve produced. Could you say a bit more about that? What do you feel the defining characteristics of your taste are? And how did it develop in the first place?
Thomas: We all have taste about things we like that we develop ourselves. It’s nothing to do with resources. Punk showed us that you could be the most fashionable person in the world with a few safety pins and some ideas. My taste relates to areas in which I’m choosing to work. I never merely make a film because I think it’s going to hit the market. I’m making it because I like the people and the subject involved, and I think it’s going to hit the market, but it’s not made for the market—it’s made for a passion. I join somebody’s passion or they join my passion. And it’s worked: I’ve managed to have a long run, a longer run than many. I’m still running, maybe not on eight cylinders, but on seven. I’m still pushing hard to find original films, original ideas, original filmmakers, and enjoying my journey through cinema that has had some incredible highs and some incredible lows. I still wake up every day thinking about the movies.
Cineaste: You’ve talked about 1960s and ’70s counterculture, London counterculture most specifically, being a formative influence. I wonder if you would say a few words about that?
Thomas: I was twenty in 1969: the Beatles, Dylan, Pop Art, and Cut-Up came from that period. It was a very vital time to be young; the musical landscape and the freedom of life today have narrowed, in my judgement. Now, every older person, every parent, says that about the past, so it’s a cliché me saying that. But I’d rather have John Lennon than Adele, you know?
And politics was important to all of us, and now people couldn’t give a shit anymore. There’s a lack of political movements, of thought and debate; you don’t talk about politics, about nuclear disarmament, with anybody. The world has changed—not only in terms of peoples’ taste and where they consume culture, but also with social networking. That period of the late 1960s and 1970s delivered my favorite films, including The Godfather  and Apocalypse Now . I mentioned some British filmmakers of that period before, and I could do the same with Americans—Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese.
It was very fertile, super-fertile then, because the film bosses were different. A boss would make a decision. You would go into a studio and you’d meet the boss, pitch your story to the boss, and he’d say, “I like that. We’re going to do it.” I’ve never heard such a thing in the last twenty years: film production is not done like that anymore, and those figures don’t exist anymore in cinema. Now, a group of people say, “We like it, we’re going to do it,” and that includes an enormous amount of electronic and digital correspondence and input that goes into the final decision.
Is that better or worse? It’s not for me to judge, but I think the idea of the independent film that is entertaining and profound is on the wane. Now the “Wow” factor comes from special effects and visceral entertainment, and that’s a very different thing from what I still hold dear. It remains to be seen whether others will be able to have the same creative freedom I enjoyed in my career—I still have a lot of the latter left, but I’m not as free as before. I experienced a period where people would believe in you: “I believe in you, Jeremy, I’ll back you.” That’s a very rare thing now.
That’s why film production has changed a lot: you can’t have a group of people who believe in you anymore. You earn that belief by making lots of money for people and you get creative freedom for a while. I had periods of freedom when I made lots of money for people with my films. People think you know something when you don’t, really. But there’s a moment when peoples’ perception of you as a producer changes; it has to do with the amount of zeroes on the end of your gross. That’s where the industry is now. People are no longer looking at you, thinking, “He made the last Godard.” They’re looking at you because your last film made $200 million. How do you judge the best anymore?
Cineaste: Would it be fair to say that when you’ve been making such judgements, you’ve been thinking, “Who is iconoclastic? Who is provocative? Who is brave?” The presence of big thinkers and big ideas is a constant refrain within your movies.
Thomas: Well, I’m the ringmaster of that because that’s what interests me. I’m interested in psychoanalysis [Bad Timing (1980) and A Dangerous Method (2011)], and I’ve approached Darwin [Creation (2009)], Einstein in Insignificance , Burroughs [Naked Lunch (1991)], Ballard [Crash (1996), High-Rise (2015)], Bowles [The Sheltering Sky (1990), Trocchi [Young Adam (2003)]. I’m prepared to go anywhere, do anything, because I’ve got an endless stream of ideas for what I want to make.
It’s a tour, a grand tour of cinema culture, where I’ve been trying to go places that I like. I’ve been drawn a lot to Asia, because I like Asian cultures, Asian literature, and Asian cinema. When I was young, I liked Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Satyajit Ray. They were the filmmakers for me. They were the people whose films I saw at the National Film Theatre. I also loved American films of the 1930s. I love so many films. As for current cinema, I really am drawn to watching an old film on MUBI more than going to see the latest Star Trek or whatever: I’d rather watch an old John Huston film.
Cineaste: So would it be fair to say that those directors with whom you’ve worked recurrently—Cronenberg, Ôshima, Bertolucci, Roeg—that there’s an intellectual connection between you and them?
Thomas: Absolutely: a thousand percent. There was a fantastic love affair with Ôshima. In the 1980s, when I went to Japan, it was so exotic. Today Japan isn’t, but you have to think about the period I was working in. It was really exciting. I like being the first man, or an early man, into a fantastic place to go and work when you’re on your own and nobody else is there, like I did in China or in Africa. I want to continue doing that. That’s the sort of bait that will often get me, if I think I can produce a film with a bit of exotica in it.
Cineaste: Are there films on your résumé that, when you look back on them, now seem like particularly important points of personal or professional development for you?
Thomas: I’m missing out the first proper job I had in the editing rooms after I left the labs, which was on a film called Tam-Lin , produced by Alan J. Ladd and Stanley Mann and directed by Roddy McDowall. I got a job as a third assistant and numbering assistant on the film, working for an editor called John Victor-Smith. I don’t remember how old I was—probably eighteen or nineteen—and I got exposed to all that. They liked me as this precocious boy who had a sports car and was included on the edges of it all: Ava Gardner, the film’s star, and Hollywood. I became friends, and have remained friendly, with these people until today. I got an early foot up through that.
Cineaste: Are there people who stick out for you now as having been especially important inspirations? I was struck, for example, with one interview quote from you about Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell: “He managed to commercialize his taste.”
Thomas: Yeah. I saw him at work on The Harder They Come . At twenty, I saw this very charismatic person who was enjoying his life more than anybody else I could see. He was throwing out this unbelievable music through his business, but he was also living the life. I thought, “I want to be like that.” I was going to Jamaica, and I got some music there and sent it back to London to the film’s director, Perry Henzel. Cut to ten years or so later, and I came back in touch with Chris. I was a thirty-year-old man then, and I was able to interact with him. We became best friends and did lots of business and other things together. We co-owned cinemas—The Gate and The Ritzy in London, The Cameo in Edinburgh—and we had a distribution company [Recorded Releasing] with Chris Auty and Pete Buckingham that distributed lots of films. We also had a video clip company with young directors and designers. It was a nice, fertile period.
Then it all went belly up and Chris sold his business to Polygram. But we still see each other all the time. I looked at the way he worked, and I thought, “Ah, I want to be like that,” because he was imposing his own taste on it. That’s where all that incredible King Crimson, Traffic, and Bob Marley stuff came from—because “I like it.” Even if nobody else liked it, he liked it and made somebody else love it. He’s not the biggest, but he was pure, in that Island Records’ taste never went far from what his taste was. The label’s influence is deepening even to this day, when you hear those records again.
Cineaste: You’ve directed only once during your career to date—1998’s All the Little Animals. Can you say something about that project and also about your experience of inhabiting a different creative role within the filmmaking process from the one you’d continuously inhabited since Mad Dog Morgan  a quarter-of-a-century before?
Thomas: I waited thirty years for the rights to All the Little Animals to come up, and then I waited another ten years, I think, to make the movie. I read the book when I was young: it’s a sort of fable, and I really like animals. They’re elegant, they don’t need any Armani; they’re very clever, they don’t need any compass; and they’re innocent, noble things. But mankind, as we all know, has trashed them badly, and I thought I’d make a little story about that. All the Little Animals is the story of a naive, abused young man who finds solace in the company of an older man who, we discover, committed a very bad crime, so it’s a morality tale as well. I wanted to do this film when I was very young, with John Hurt playing the part that Christian Bale eventually played, and I wanted Dirk Bogarde to play the part that John Hurt eventually played: that was my dream when I was young.
Cut to many years later. Sidney Bernstein owned the book, and Don Siegel had it before that. Anyway, I bought it and my wife wrote the script for me, and it was like a home movie. All of my friends made the film with me in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, and it was really enjoyable. But I never found another subject that drew me away from what I’d become, which was a producer who really enjoyed and was fully engaged in producing films. My business virtually collapsed because I had become obsessed directing this film, and I felt what it was like to be a director. And I went over budget. I’ve made seventy films and the only film I ever went over budget on was my own film! I was producing my own film and I was arguing with myself, so I always won either way.
Cineaste: There’s an element of fairy-tale-like unreality in this film that makes me think of things like Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale , or some of Neil Jordan’s best work: really rooted in everyday, recognizable, mundane things but there’s also a really rich, strange atmosphere because the story is told straight—quite deadpan, almost. What were you thinking of in terms of reference points or inspirations?
Thomas: Well, I like all the films you mention and I like very much The Night of the Hunter  and Badlands , and I suppose I was thinking of films like that. But I sort of made the film on autopilot. Like the filmmakers I’d worked with, I started this film very confident. I didn’t do storyboards. I’d seen so many films being shot by great filmmakers, and I thought, “Well, I know what I’m going to do.” I got on the set with John, Christian, and other experienced people—Mike Molloy, my director of photography, worked with Kubrick on Barry Lyndon  and Nic Roeg on Walkabout , John Victor-Smith edited Help! , A Hard Day’s Night , all Dick Lester’s films—and Mike turned to me and said, “Where do you want the camera, guvnor?”
It was really difficult: where do you want the camera? You have a thousand choices. So, I took a deep breath and I got a little bit of help, and then it became enjoyable. I wasn’t really thinking about anything, just shooting scenes how I wanted to compose and shoot them. It was playing. I was having a really, really good time with fabulous actors. Looking at the film again today, I wish I had had a producer with me because it’s too long and I wouldn’t listen to any of the people who were working with me. I wish I had taken ten minutes or more out of it.
Cineaste: Did your experience of directing change the way you worked with, or understood the needs and aspirations of, directors on other films that you’ve produced since?
Thomas: I’ve thought about that, but not really, no, because I was already in the zone. I already understood the monumental challenge and the gift needed to be a good film director. It’s something I approached lightly because that’s the way I’d seen the best directors approach it—not in a heavy way because everyone’s so aware of what’s going on around you. Of course, some directors work like that—in an atmosphere where nobody can speak. On a Cronenberg set, nobody is allowed to speak: people have to whisper and tiptoe around. If somebody drops something, he reacts badly. On a Bertolucci set, he wants people dancing: a fiesta, chaotic, even shouting over the actors when they’re acting, because he gets so emotional about the scene. I’ve seen so many different styles, and so I just went natural on the film I directed. I’ve absorbed all these films over the years and you can’t help but quote some things. I put some things in there out of films that I’d liked, just as a way of playing. Everybody does that, but not every film viewer will get that. Many filmmakers put things into films for themselves, to make it fun. They’re quoting from something, and viewers either do or don’t recognize it. Filmmakers often do that, consciously or unconsciously.
Cineaste: I remember being very surprised when I first saw All the Little Animals because I had thought—and still think—of you as an international and internationalist-minded artist. But this seemed to me to be intensely local and English: almost a kind of cosmic Englishness. There’s stuff at Glastonbury Tor, for example, and the love of and immersion within the land and the landscape.
Thomas: Glastonbury Tor and the sort of cosmic nature of it—it was a hippie text sort of thing. Walter Hamilton wrote the source novel in St. Agnes in Cornwall, out of a caravan. I was educated at a school on the site of Glastonbury Tor. I must have walked up Glastonbury Tor a hundred times. The Chalice Well is also there, and Stonehenge, arguably a very special place, if you believe in ley lines and all that sort of stuff. Plus, I enjoy the Glastonbury Festival, so I liked putting silly things in. For example, a scene when the Christian Bale character hitches a lift with these hippies in a van, and they stop at Glastonbury, and one of them says, “You have to get out here, we’re turning off to Avalon.” Well, it didn’t mean anything to anybody else, but it meant a lot to me. Silly things like that make you feel closer to what you’re doing—taking what someone else has done and remixing it for yourself.
I’ve always lived in England. I grew up in London, I live in London, and it’s a great film place to work. But I see cinema as a world. I don’t agree with Truffaut, and his oxymoron—“Isn’t there a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’?”—makes me laugh. We like social realism a lot. The Powell and Pressburgers and the Danny Boyles of the day—those special filmmakers who have a liking for the metaphysical and the philosophical side of life, while entertaining everybody as well—are very rare. Nic Roeg, for example, was continually talking about books I’d never even heard of, and he was always taking texts or images and trying to mix them in with what he was doing, although I didn’t really understand. A lot of the things that happen today I don’t really understand, but it’s all part of the process of making a film.
Cineaste: How much of your time and creative energies now are devoted to looking after the catalogue of work that you’ve already produced and saying, “OK, how do I make sure that this continues to find an audience?” Whether through restored prints, DVD re-releases, or previously excised footage?
Thomas: I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a five-hundred-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house.
Cineaste: Can we talk a bit about your business model? It strikes me that having your production outfit, Recorded Picture Company, and then HanWay as a separate sales arm represents a very particular way for an independent producer to do business.
Thomas: I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films with Terry Glinwood, right up from The Shout  onwards. He had a company that I became involved with in a certain way, and eventually we formed a joint venture together in the 1980s and early ’90s. In 1993, we stopped because he retired. He was one of the key people who helped me work because he was with me through my best period. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor  today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”
Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that.
Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.
Cineaste: Would it be fair to say that travel—physical, intellectual, cultural—has been a big part of your career to date? You’ve talked, for instance, about how moving to Australia for Mad Dog Morgan kick-started things for you because if you’d stayed in Britain you’d probably have had to wait something like twenty years before you’d have had the chance to direct something.
Thomas: Well, that’s what makes the world go round for me. I think the old industry apprentice system has broken down, which is great. A young person now really has an opportunity: as soon as they’re cogent, anybody can do it. It was more difficult in the early Seventies, when the apprentice and assistant director system—a class system that’s now disappeared—was still in existence.
Cineaste: Traveling physically seems to have been especially important in the early stages of your career, making films on location. Has there been a change within the industry since?
Thomas: The digital world has changed a lot. You can become intimate and exchange ideas without physically going to a place. You can also re-create locations digitally, so you don’t have to go there. I still like to, as much as possible, travel and make films on location because you get more bang for your buck. In addition, the element of surprise—what are you going to get?—is always there, and it’s much more enjoyable to make films on location. When you make a film and everybody’s away on location, when you go “home” at night, you’re not talking about emptying the washing machine, you’re talking about that incredible shot we did today. This has an element of traveling players to it—a band that makes a film on location—and it’s a very fertile way to make films.
I’ve worked fifty years in the film business—can you believe such a thing? I’m sixty-seven and I started when I was seventeen. I’ve been working all the time; I’ve never had time off. My life is time off because it’s not like a job. You’re not good at this if you think it’s a job, because it’s a life, a lifestyle.
To purchase a copy of the Spring 2017 issue of Cineaste that includes the primary version of this interview with Jeremy Thomas, click here.
Jonathan Murray, a Cineaste contributing writer, teaches film and visual art at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2