In a game of word association “film producer” and “money man” would follow one another as quickly as frames in a film reel. But has money tarnished the producer’s image, detracting from the vital creative role that some play in making a film?
That is the view of Oscar-winning British film producer Jeremy Thomas, a veteran of 62 films who challenges the unflattering caricature – ironically, one that cinema itself helped create. “The idea of a producer as a vulgarian with a cigar, money, a Rolls-Royce and a fur-lapelled coat is a cliché from movies of old,” he says.
Thomas, at least, does not fit that description. A softly spoken, cultured man, there is no fur on his workman’s safety-jacket when we meet in a cavernous London bus depot – one of several locations for his latest film, a black comedy titled Dom Hemingway starring Jude Law and Richard E Grant.
Producing can be a “very creative role”, he says, recalling “a golden age” when directors and producers forged long-running relationships that repeatedly bore creative fruit: “David Lean had Sam Spiegel, Milos Forman had Saul Zaentz, James Ivory had Ismail Merchant. These were necessary relationships.”
Thomas does not include himself in this roll call of fame, but without him Bernardo Bertolucci might never have made The Last Emperor, his 1987 epic that garnered nine Oscars, including Best Picture. It took years to raise the finance and secure permission from the Chinese authorities to shoot a film about the 12th Qing Emperor in the Forbidden City, and the two collaborated again on 2003’s The Dreamers. Without Thomas behind them, Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, with David Bowie as a British prisoner of war, and Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 Brit gangster hit Sex Beast, might also not have been made.
Far from focusing solely on budgets, Thomas is involved in every process of film-making: “Script development, choosing the people to work on the film and in the film, editing, the release.” When it comes to choosing a director and cast, he says: “It’s like understanding what a painter does. You know what you’re going to get from David Hockney or from an abstract artist. So you have to understand that about directors ... and what’s going to equate to the look of the film. That’s a skill.” But he also stresses the importance of knowing when to step back: “I’m not an interferer. Once I’ve made the decision to work with a director, I support them completely ... behind the scenes.”
Thomas describes himself as a “producer and entrepreneur” who makes “grown-up films about grown-up subjects for grown-ups” and, most importantly, films that you can watch again”. He is a rare thing – both independent and successful. Unlike production company Working Title Films, for example, which is supported by US giant Universal, he is not beholden to a studio. He manages to make at least one film a year.
Film-making is in Thomas’s blood. His father Ralph Thomas was a British film-maker of the 1950s and 1960s, who directed Dirk Bogarde in the popular Doctor films and A Tale of Two Cities among more than 30 movies. His uncle, Gerald Thomas, directed 30 of the much-loved Carry On series of bawdy British comedies. Visitors to his childhood home included Katharine Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, while Bogarde, Kenneth More and John Mills were family friends. “Nothing else was talked about in the house but cinema,” Thomas recalls.
Leaving school at 17, he started his career in the cutting rooms, eventually working as editor on Ken Loach’s 1973 Chekhov TV adaptation A Misfortune. He went on to work with some of cinema’s biggest names, including Bertolucci, David Cronenberg (on Naked Lunch, Crash and last year’s A Dangerous Method) and Nicolas Roeg (on Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance). He understands how it feels to be in the director’s chair, having helmed 1998’s All the Little Animals, starring John Hurt, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. He says he prefers producing, leaving the minutiae of directing to others.
We return to the subject of money. Thomas, a CBE for “services to the film industry” and former chair of the British Film Institute, says that raising funds is “punishing”. Part of the problem, he believes, is the UK’s lack of respect for film as an art form – even though British films are “as good as anywhere”.
Even after The Last Emperor’s success, with banks getting a return, he says the City was wary: “There’s something about the City and movies ... If you’re an opera or ballet or the National Theatre, you get a lot of very large institutions and wealthy people backing you. That is to do with our still archaic class structure for the arts. Cinema is the end of the pier in Britain’s culture.”
At the age of 63, he says the excitement of watching a film being made has never dimmed. When a film is shooting he goes on location every day, and he exudes an infectious enthusiasm as we watch Law play the part of a charismatic safe-cracker in Dom Hemingway at the Westbourne Park bus depot in west London. The role sees the British star transformed into a brutal but sometimes comical ex-con.
Law has been made up with yellowing, broken teeth and a broken nose. We watch him attacking a man for having had an affair with his ex-wife. There is a chilling realism to the fight but the bus drivers looking on, between shifts, are clearly enjoying themselves. As technicians prepare for the next take, Law comes over, laughing: “Breaking people’s noses, it’s a wonderful part of my job.”
Film-making can be a bruising business for all concerned. Thomas knows this better than most, but as he watches his latest production take shape, it is clear that even after 60-plus films he has no intention of throwing in the towel.