Jeremy Thomas Is the Man Behind England's Greatest Independent Films

We spoke to him about bringing the world <i>Crash</i> and <i>Sexy Beast</i>.

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09 June 2014, 5:00am

Dennis Hopper (left) and Jeremy Thomas on the set of Mad Dog Morgan (1976). All photos courtesy of Jeremy Thomas.

Britain doesn’t exactly nurture independent film. Bar the few directors making movies about skinheads or suicidal Irish hitmen, cinema that you actually have to engage with is a concept that we mostly tend to leave to the French and Italians – those of great artistic depth and little time for Keith Lemon box office spin-offs. However, since the 1970s, British producer Jeremy Thomas has been wading against the current, helping to sustain what reputation this country has for great independent film.

In 1987 he won the Best Picture Oscar for The Last Emperor, and without him you never would have seen Sexy Beast, Only Lovers Left Alive, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and a whole host of other films that make you want to quit your job and pick up a camera. The list of directors Thomas has worked with is staggering; Bernardo Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenburg, Takeshi Kitano, Jonathan Glazer and Nagisa Oshima are all in there, among others. Essentially: the man’s made a lot of films and they’re mostly very good.

His next picture is High Rise, an adaptation of the JG Ballard novel (Thomas produced the film adaptation of Ballard’s Crash), directed by Ben Wheatley. He was recently honoured by the BFI with a month-long retrospective of his work, so – a few days after he spoke there – I went to his offices in Soho to talk about his life in film. 

Jeremy (centre) at the 1987 Academy Awards after The Last Emperor won nine Oscars.

VICE: I’ll start with the obvious: What does a producer do?
Jeremy Thomas: Well, one thing is for sure: no film happens unless there is a producer. Somebody has to be between the money and the creativity. A producer like me – an independent producer – is a private man who’s got a business, who risks money to get books and screenplays and then starts assembling a team to make them. The producer is the manufacturer, the controller, the instigator and the person who takes the film from its first breath to its last. For me, that last breath means I’m still taking care of my patients right now – the films I made in the 1970s. I’m still looking after those negatives and trying to promote them.   

In some sense, the work never ends.
Yes, yes. Obviously there’s a cliché of film producers as being loud and unpleasant, with a young girl and a cigar. That’s a tradition from Hollywood movies and the Marx Brothers. It’s something that’s come through the era of powerful moguls, when there were singular people who’d say: “I like that. I want to do that. You’ve got the money.” Somebody as successful as Spielberg or Tarantino can probably find that, but that style of being a boss is over nowadays because of the dreaded words: “We’d better run the numbers.” That’s restrictive in terms of what films can be made, because the films need to fit into a certain pattern that will make them popular enough to have in thousands of cinemas.

How have you, as an independent producer, dealt with large investors and big studios?
I’m not really in that structure. There were moments when I thought about wanting to become a really big player, but my taste is against me. If you look at the films I’ve done, they’re not exactly going after what’s popular; there are no rom-coms. That’s managed to keep me in business longer than anyone else.

Have there been temptations?
I was tempted after The Last Emperor. It happened like a lightning strike, winning nine Oscars. After that, I was enticed to Hollywood, and at times I’ve had offices there and been there for months on end in rented homes. But I’m a European and this oxygen here gives me my energy, not the higher altitude oxygen of Hollywood. I said facetiously the other night that I can’t stay in Hollywood for too long because I get jealous of Jerry Bruckheimer. But it’s sort of true, because the aspirations are totally different there. The buzz of the movie business is much stronger than here.

David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

When you say you'd become jealous of Jerry Bruckheimer, do you mean that your priorities would change?
Well, what is the general meritocracy in America? Money. Here, you can be a well-respected man about town without being the richest and without aspiring to be the richest. You can survive in a different way and not be considered some sort of freak or loser by making the films that we make here.

Part of your job must be to try and consider the market, though?
I try to make films profitable and I try and make them interesting. Take my latest film with Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive; that film was made modestly with a very interesting cast and director. It’s fantastic, but it’s not a general audience film. 

Even though it’s about vampires.
It’s a special vampire film, which is why I made it. Just like when we made Sexy Beast, it was a special film about criminals. We could hardly get a promotional trailer out of it because it was all swear words, and it was very difficult to translate into French and Spanish.

Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast (2000)

It wasn’t a huge hit?
No. It has, like films we’ve made in the past – Bad Timing, Crash, Naked Lunch – a long life, because people are interested in seeing it. They’re always going to remain rich, like a book by Albert Camus. They’re things that will sell forever. How does one judge an artwork? We’ve got the meritocracy, but then how do you judge things by their life? We judge Picasso, Van Eyck, Beethoven, great blues by the fact that they’ve stood the test of time. Some things last, other things fall by the wayside, including things that were incredibly popular when they came out.

You also have great art that gets lost permanently, or rediscovered.
I’m talking about the rediscovery. There was outrage when Citizen Kane came out – it offended everybody and was closed.

For you, that happened with Crash – it was banned in Westminster and there was such an outcry. 
It only happened in Britain, and it was political, moralistic flag-waving. The politicians who banned it didn’t even see the film. It was a strange feeling to be so hated, but it was a fabulous film and I had to defend it. The Mail and the Standard decided to make a campaign against it. I was at a pub in the Isle of Man, where they were birching people 15 years ago, and I heard people talking about the outrage of Crash and using car crashes as pornography. I thought, 'I could be lynched here.' Of course, that’s not what the film is about, and people who go and see it expecting that are disappointed.  

Jeremy with Peter O'Toole on the set of The Last Emperor (1987)

Whereas, on The Last Emperor, the Italians were very supportive and got behind you and director Bernardo Bertolucci.
The Italians embraced the film. They wanted to help their prize-fighter, and their artistic prize-fighter was Bertolucci. We don’t have artistic prize-fighters in England. I mean, Fellini, Pasolini, Rossellini, Antonioni… they’re all incredible figures of Italian culture. You know, they’re proud to have such a thing as Fellini in Italy, but we couldn’t give a shit about any of our filmmakers. Michael Powell? Nic Roeg? Who? What? We don’t have the culture.

It’s true. Why don’t we have that culture?
Because we have a class system different to other places. In France, it’s something proud to have a film company. In England, film lives at the end of the pier. The metaphor for that is the BFI, which I love. When the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre were built, cinema said, “What about us?” They said, “Okay, you go under the bridge, and you stay under the bridge for the next 60 years.” 

When you won your Oscar for The Last Emperor you said that independent cinema could be great, that it could be “epic and popular”. Do you still believe that?
No. I can’t get the money to do that any more. I went to China with hundreds of people, with cars and food and tents, with no digital communication. I went across the Sahara desert with 400 people. I went up to the top of mountains in Bhutan and I did these things for real. No digital effects, nothing faked. You don’t have to do that any more. You don’t even have to go to China to make a film set in China; you can take a few photos of the Great Wall and use digital effects to show 300 people fighting in front of it. Films are made in a very different way today. The image is there at the end but the means to getting there has changed.

Distribution has changed, as well. I like the cathedral, watching in a darkened room. But I admit, and it’s true, that everybody’s watching films at home. That gives an opportunity for someone like me to cut out a few areas of middlemen, because at the moment I have to go through many other people. So I’m looking at a time in the future, if I can last long enough, when I finally get closer to my marketplace.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Many of the directors you’ve worked with regularly are people who Hollywood would consider mavericks.
That’s why I’m working with them. I couldn’t afford to work with the leaders of Hollywood – their fees are probably more than my films cost.

Are any of them actually difficult to work with?
No. “Maverick” is a label put on somebody – I’ve been called maverick – that means you’re not with the crowd. They’re just not in the super-mainstream. Someone like Terry Gilliam is pretty mainstream, but he’s not in the super-mainstream.

Your next film is a Ballard adaptation, and just as you have these long-standing relationships with directors, so you seem to have a long-standing relationship with him.
I was friendly with him. I like his books. I think JG Ballard is one of our greatest writers of recent history. A lot of his books are still ripe for adaptation.

What was your personal relationship with him?
We did Crash and he liked it. I saw a lot of him, we shared interests and he was a wonderful man. I gave a talk at his memorial – he was a special sort of guy, a very unusual person. He wrote every day. He was commenting on life and writing about situations through us. There’s a lot more in them than the story.  

There’s a prophetic element to a lot of what he wrote.
The situations all come to pass. He was a very happy man, but I’m sure he was also troubled by the world because how can you not be?

Is it a pleasure to look back on a body of work?
It is, but it’s quite frightening to think that you’re as old as you are and I don’t know how I did all that. Producers are pretty hidden figures, but I think my taste runs through all my films. I’m the chooser of what I’m doing and I just try and do what I like. That amazes people, but how else do you judge things? I like that, or I don’t like that. Or I hate that. I’m judging whether I like something. And that’s very unusual in the movie business.

Do you feel like there’s a specific film of yours that never got the attention it deserved?
I think all of them.

Thanks, Jeremy.

@oscarrickettnow

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