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Jeremy Thomas talks to The Economist about the role of the producer


THE ECONOMIST – 18th March 2016

A PIONEER of independent film-making, British producer Jeremy Thomas, 66, has never shied away from controversy. Some would say he courts it. Born into a film-making family, Mr Thomas has produced some of cinema's most revered and reviled films. Over the past 40 years his repertoire has included Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor" (1987); a moving account of the life of Puyi, China's last emperor, which won nine Oscars, to "Crash" (1996); David Cronenberg's contentious psycho-sexual thriller about a group of people who experience erotic pleasure from car crashes. He only makes films he is drawn to. "If I like the literature or the material then I feel it in me and have to do it", he says.

"High-Rise", his latest film, is a dystopian tale of class warfare in a tower block. Adapted from J. G. Ballard's 1975 classic novel, the film brings Mr Thomas back to familiar territory with a controversial yet colourful rendering of the underbelly of society. Set in the 1970s, the film follows the travails of Robert Laing—a young physiologist, convincingly played by Tom Hiddleston—as he moves into a high-rise where the rich and successful inhabit the higher floors and the poor and destitute live at the bottom. Tenant relations soon break down with brutal and bloody consequences. Anarchy and mayhem is astutely observed and cinematically powerful, but the explicit subject matter is not for the faint-hearted.  

Mr Thomas spoke to The Economist about the challenges of making "High-Rise" and the business of independent film-making. 

This is your second adaptation of J. G. Ballard's work after "Crash".  What is the author's appeal?

Like other authors I have adapted (like William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles), Ballard appealed to me as literature. I am not an academic or even well educated—I never went to university, but those authors appealed because they were strong and I suppose à la mode at the time, and wrote about things that moved me. Later, when I was able to utilise my taste and choice I went for those types of authors and Ballard falls into that category 100%. I love his books, I like his short stories, I like his autobiography, I liked "Empire of the Sun" and I also liked his books written around "High-Rise" and "Crash"; two of his novels which are arguably his strongest which I always wanted to adapt. 

You have said this film has been in the pipeline for years.  You first approached Nicholas Roeg to direct.  Why did it take so long?

As soon as the book came out I wanted to make it into a film but legally, I only got the rights about a decade ago. Usually with books like this the rights have already been bought and you have to deal with a trail of people to buy them. Nicholas Roeg first talked to me about it.  I was a big fan of his and I was trying to get him to direct the second film I produced called "The Shout" in 1978. When I went back to see him again he talked about wanting to make "High-Rise".  I tried to get the rights then but didn't manage to. However, I did make three films with him after that. When I heard Ben Wheatley was interested in making it I could see from his previous films that he could do it.

Although J. G. Ballard died in 2009 he was cheerleading from the sidelines, and I know he would have been happy with the adaptation and hopefully he would have been happy with whatever happens to the career of the film. He loved what happened to "Crash"—especially the fact that it was banned in London. 

What were some of the challenges?

The subject material: it didn't have a happy ending. It is not your "traditional" type of material. It is "Ballardian"—a word which describes what "High-Rise" is, the essence of Ballard—which is very strong here. He is very good at describing the gated community where people are going totally mad so translating that onto the screen was a challenge, and translating dystopia to the screen is always very challenging. Then I couldn't get the adaptation right with the various people I had been working with. I tried to make it slightly "future-world dystopic" rather than adapting it to when the book was set, and I was wrong. Although you are making it for entertainment, you are also making something quite profound, so it is a very delicate thing to do. Especially if you are adapting something that is held dear by so many people.

It is not an easy film to watch and contains graphic scenes of sex, violence and drug taking. Some people will also see the treatment of the  female characters as degrading. What do you hope audiences will take away from it, especially those who haven't read the book?  

I don't think people will be shocked; every day we see this kind of thing in the newspapers, especially in the red tops (a reference to Britain's tabloids such as the Sun and the Mirror).  I see it all the time in the Daily Mail—the degradation of every sort of human life, paraded in the national newspapers. You can't open a red top without seeing every scene in "High-Rise" described. The idea of the richest and most successful people wanting to live at the top, rather than at ground level, is very aspirational. It is very simple to me, and it doesn't take lots of interpreting to understand that the people living at the bottom of the building, who are living in the rubbish from the people at the top, have some reaction to that. 

What exactly is it that film producers do?  Are you able to define that role? 

The producer often brings together many people but it starts with him. There are so many different kinds of producers and I can only talk about what I do. A producer can find the source material, find the people to work on it, shepherd it through the financing process, the manufacturing process, the editing process and then open the film. It can be a one or two year process, 20 years or 30 years. However the independent nature of films and the need for money has weakened the role and the identity of a producer.

All I can say is that I haven't seen a film that didn't have a film producer attached to it. Although we are faceless and we tend to be a sort of joke figure, nothing happens without a producer. It is very hard to define because the role has changed so much over the years. In the old days there was only one producer—now you can have 20 or 30.

Tom Grievson