The Telegraph interviews Jeremy Thomas – Britain's auteur film producer
British super-producer Jeremy Thomas tells Tim Robey about his greatest films, from the controversy of Crash to the madness of Naked Lunch and the triumph of Sexy Beast
TIM ROBEY – THE TELEGRAPH – 31st March 2014
It’s not often that the BFI devotes one of its month-long retrospectives to a producer, rather than a director, but Jeremy Thomas thoroughly deserves the accolade. He was born into a film-making family – his father was Ralph Thomas, director of Dirk Bogarde’s Doctor series, his uncle Gerald Thomas, who took the helm for 30 Carry On films. Over a 40-year career, he has become a titan of worldwide film production, forging vital partnerships with some of cinema’s most uncompromising artists – Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima. But his overall output bears just as much of an auteur stamp as any of theirs. His production offices in Soho’s Hanway Street are an extraordinary jungle of posters, props, artwork, framed honours and other memorabilia; for each of the 10 films we discuss below, there was a relic or reminder sitting within arm’s reach.
Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980) – A twisted love story in which Alex (Art Garfunkel) becomes sexually obsessed with the free-spirited Milena (Theresa Russell)
I had admired Nic Roeg as a young film technician and as the already legendary DoP who had made Performance and Walkabout. Rank was the principal financier. Remember, Rank had started out distributing religious films, and you couldn’t get much farther than Bad Timing from the ideology of Lord Rank. And so when the chairman finally saw the film, he threw his hands up and said, "The Gong Man is coming off that film!" And so it opened with no trademark. It was very explicit in terms of human relationships and extreme behaviour: sadism, masochism, Freud. George Pinches, who was at the time the head of the Rank circuit, called it “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”. Nic and I were very close, by that time, and shouldered it together, and went on to make another movie.
Eureka (Nicolas Roeg, 1983) – Gene Hackman plays a wealthy gold prospector who begins to suspect that his family may be conspiring against him to steal his fortune
This was a very big experience in terms of the size and the scope of the film. It was made in northern British Columbia, the Yukon, Miami and Jamaica. And shot in those places with big movie stars – Gene Hackman (above), Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer. It was a baptism of fire – the only studio film I’ve ever made that was shut down by executives and started again. Because of the new regime, the film only opened in minimal, contractual cinemas. I understand why the film was received in a mixed way. A lot of our favourite movies, including Citizen Kane, had a very rocky ride when they opened.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983) – Based on Laurens Van Der Post's experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, it tells the story of a pair of British PoWs (David Bowie and Tom Conti) and their complex relationships with two of their captors (Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano)
I met Oshima at Cannes the year The Shout won the Grand Prix. He sat next to me in a kimono, didn’t speak any English, but we drank a lot of wine and exchanged business cards. A few years later I received a 300-page screenplay based on Sir Laurens Van Der Post’s book The Seed and the Sower. I’d loved Oshima’s films, and had seen them all in the Sixties. He must have directed 20 of the most original films ever made – completely radical and modern even today, yet largely forgotten: Death By Hanging, and Boy, and The Ceremony, my own particular favourite.
It was a PoW film like no other, because it was about a man loving and admiring a man in a very unusual way. When the commandant saw Jack Celliers, played by David Bowie – JC, Jesus Christ – he was so amazed by this blond god, that there was this frisson that led to everyone’s downfall. When I started with Oshima, he wanted Robert Redford in that part, and then we got to Bowie. Bowie knew all Oshima’s movies, as you’d expect David Bowie to!
Oshima shot very fast – the sequence with Bowie in the sand (above) would have been done in a day. There were difficult moments, what with being stuck on an island, and no money. But I think about it as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, because we were on a desert island, a coral reef of its own, with Japanese and Western crew having complete respect for each other’s culture and wisdom.
The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) – A biopic of Puyi, who became the last emperor of China when he was two years old, and whose life was upended by the Chinese Revolution
I was very lucky that Bertolucci loved Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. I was pretty amazed to get an opportunity to work with a master like that. Bertolucci is of the most significant filmmakers that ever walked the Earth, when you think of his debut, made when he was 21, his screenplays with Leone and Pasolini, the films he directed, his poetry.
He’d been given these two volumes, the official biography of Puyi. What an amazing story: he was born son of heaven, Lord of 10,000 Years, absolute ruler of all the world, and died as a gardener watering plants. And it was a hidden story from history. Without knowing this, I suggested we meet in a Chinese restaurant.
It was made for adventurous reasons, and boy, was it an adventure: finding the permissions, getting it ready, getting the money, putting all the people there, and the costumes, and the cars, and the food. Shooting where nobody had been before.
The Chinese authorities gave us a lot of support, including permission to shoot in the Forbidden City. We actually shot in the Supreme Harmony building, which is the throne room where Pu Yi sat. [Cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro was there with all the lights, even though it’s like a tinder box. You can’t even get in there now, you have to stand 20 metres away today.
There were hundreds of Chinese people working with us, making sets and costumes. Everything was real, there were no tricks. You saw 5,000 people, there were 5,000 people there.
The Oscar? It’s at home. It’s in my bedroom, actually.
The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990) – An adaptation of Paul Bowles' 1949 novel, in which a couple (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) struggle with their marriage in desolate North Africa
The book is one of the great books. It had been owned by Robert Aldrich since it came out. People buy books outright and then can’t make them. There’s a scene in Bad Timing where you see a copy of The Sheltering Sky; Nic Roeg wanted to make it very much. I went on a run to try and get the rights out, but it was absolutely closed.
Then, post-Last Emperor, there was an approach from Warner Bros and the son of Aldrich to make the film. We were strong enough to wrestle the project away, to make it an independent film to be distributed by Warner Bros.
We recreated the journey of the book. It’s something you would never dream of doing today, because we built a fort in the middle of the desert, in the Sahara. We travelled to the south of Algeria, to the sand dunes, where Paul and Jane Bowles stayed, on their journey. Hundreds of miles from anywhere. And then we crossed the Sahara to Niger, where we continued filming, in Agadez.
Like the characters, we nearly went too far. We had lots of illness and difficulties. It was an enormous production with hundreds of people. It was complete lunacy. The amount of equipment, with Storaro, hours of preparation. The actors, John Malkovich and Debra Winger (above), were very much part of the troupe.
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) – An adaptation of William Burroughs' seemingly unfilmable 1959 story of the adventures of the junkie William Lee
We had Paul Bowles actually in The Sheltering Sky, narrating, and Burroughs and Bowles knew each other at the time when Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch. Before The Sheltering Sky was shooting in Tangier, I’d been there with William Burroughs and David Cronenberg, staying at the El Minzah, a beautiful hotel in the Medina that Burroughs aspired to when he was down and out in Tangier. And we went on an atmospheric pilgrimage, so to speak, looking at places. And then Cronenberg wrote the script.
But it was a very difficult film for me to finance, Naked Lunch, for obvious reasons. Nobody got it.
Crash (Cronenberg, 1996) – JG Ballard's controversial novel about people sexually excited by observing and participating in car crashes became infamous in its screen adaptation
Alexander Walker’s line was “A movie beyond the bounds of depravity.” I knew Alexander very well and admired him. His very shocking review of Crash was brilliant. But it was very damaging. And then the Daily Mail came in, front page headlines – “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film”. And then they ran a full-page boycott of Sony, who were distributing Crash here. And it was all very unpleasant, like with Bad Timing. I’m not seeking controversy, though – I just make whatever appeals to me!
We showed it at Cannes, and there was Alexander Walker at the press conference waving his newspaper – “It’s outrageous! It’s disgusting!” He walked out and set the tone. JG Ballard loved it all, he’d been through it before with the book, and David handled it extremely well. It got banned in London. This film got a regular certificate from the BBFC, but it was a political thing, you know. Virginia Bottomley hadn’t seen the film but got it banned. I was actually chair at the BFI at the time, which added an additional layer to it.
Alex didn’t want censorship like that, he was a very sophisticated man – a very conservative person who loved artistic things. I had a fierce relationship with him and he often censured me in the reviews, because he was friendly with my father.
Blood and Wine (Bob Rafelson, 1996) – Jack Nicholson (above, with Jennifer Lopez) and Michael Caine play partners in a jewel heist gone wrong
The idea here was to challenge America! I knew Bob Rafelson a bit. The light was not shining for him after The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). It’s one of the things I look at, who’s a great filmmaker who needs me? He needed me. And we managed to put together Blood and Wine, with Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Caine and Judy Davis, a film I think is a little bit overlooked.
We shot on Miami Beach, just at the moment Miami Beach was becoming hot. We got the vibe, and the music. It will be shown in the season and I think people will be pleased with it, as they will with other films that are completely hidden, like Everybody Wins (1990), written by Arthur Miller. That one, again, was stifled by the original reaction to the film. Debra Winger, again – the second collaboration with a magnificent actress, who unfortunately doesn’t work as much as she should, out of choice. She left the business. I hope she’ll come back, because she could be Judi Dench.
All the Little Animals (Jeremy Thomas, 1998) – A troubled young man (Christian Bale) falls in with a stranger (John Hurt) who has dedicated his life to giving proper burials to roadkill
When you’re making a $5m or $10m film, the reviews are important for the business of the film, but not important to me in my desire to continue making films. Including my own film that I directed. I received a review from a broadsheet saying, “Better luck next time, if ever, Jeremy.”
Everywhere else in the world, it was popular and successful – two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert, official selection in France. But here [in the UK] it was, what does this guy think he’s doing, directing a movie? I wanted to direct a movie! And I was totally capable of directing a film. It was a heart-on-sleeve sort of film, from a book I’d read when I was a lad, before I’d gone to Australia. I wanted Dirk Bogarde to be in the part John Hurt eventually played, and I wanted John Hurt to be in the part that Christian Bale played. It was a mad dream, but anyway. I even wrote to Dirk, because Dirk had been in many of my father’s films.
It appealed to me because I like animals a lot, hedgerow animals, badgers, and foxes and dormice. I maybe mixed it up a bit too much, I was too freestyle on it, overconfident in what I was doing. I didn’t go with storyboards. It’s the only film I’ve ever been over-budget on, because I couldn’t tell myself as a producer to stop shooting.
Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000) – Ray Winstone's retirement from the criminal life is shattered by the ominous arrival of the sociopathic fixer Ben Kingsley
The beast! I was a lucky recipient of a draft of a screenplay, which was sent to me on a Friday, and on the Monday morning I optioned the script. The script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto was brilliant, and by chance an assistant of mine here had been showing me these commercials by Jonathan Glazer. And the stars were aligned – I got the script, Glazer’s name was there. The dialogue was something that sparkled off the page. Inspired casting of Ben Kingsley, and of course Ray Winstone. When I meet people they quote the dialogue from it. If you see a little clip of it, you want to watch the whole film. Like when you turn on the television. I caught Barry Lyndon the other day, and I had to stay with it. Another film that got very lukewarm reviews. It’s a strange business.