At a time when the UK film industry seems increasingly inward-looking, a recurring theme of the 46 films which Jeremy Thomas has produced has been cross-cultural — whether it’s Japanese director Takeshi Kitano looking at America in Brother (2000) or Bernardo Bertolucci retelling Chinese history in the Best Picture Oscar-winner The Last Emperor (1987). He also exec-produced Takeshi Miike’s 13 Assassins, which competed at Venice last month and will work on Miike’s next pic. Thomas specialises in filming the un-filmable, whether William S Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch or JG Ballard’s notorious Crash or his latest plan: a pic about North Korean dictator Kim-Jong il. Currently in post on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Thomas gave the keynote interview at Wednesday’s Film London Production Finance Market as part of the BFI London Film Festival which is where I interviewed him.
As the former chairman of the British Film institute, he urged the British government to reconsider rejoining European super fund Eurimages to boost co-productions and had harsh words for UK leaders: “The problem with these politicians is that they’ve never made a film. They’re planning the war but they’ve never been in the trenches and had their faces splattered with blood. But when it comes to movies everybody thinks they’re an expert. It wouldn’t happen in any other business.” Thomas unlike most producers owns the rights to his films and believes that should be the endgame of any independent moviemaker. (He even owns the freehold on his office building.) He launched his own sales agency Hanway Films in 1998, which has become one of the biggest in the market. “Raising the money, shooting the film, distributing it – it’s all a nightmare,” the 61-year-old said. “But it’s better than working.”
Deadline London: Given the kind of films you make, are you disheartened by the state of filmmaking in Hollywood today?
Jeremy Thomas: Even the people who run the studios themselves – and some of them are friends of mine — when they go home at night, are dismayed that they entered a business in which they’re doing such unoriginal work. If you look at Hollywood’s output over the past decade there’s a very small percentage of original work. It’s all remakes, sequels, prequels. What you have going on in world cinema today is like a peanut compared to the 1970s. You look at the films made then compared with the films being made today – they’re thin and empty. I don’t think anybody came into the movie business to be unoriginal and plagiarising and not having an original idea in their brain. The studios are financially moribund. They are worried about their financial model because they have to spend so much money on marketing costs. Digital exhibition hasn’t saved any money. I’m still waiting to see this digital dividend.
DL: At the Film Festival Cannes there are now so few U.S. distributors for indie producers to sell to. It’s a market with few buyers.
Thomas: It’s very difficult. That’s why I tell U.S. colleagues don’t even bother trying to get a U.S. pre-sale. My American colleagues are coming here to find money to make films — they’re not finding it in their marketplace. American independent cinema is suffering much worse than we are because they don’t have co-productions, they don’t have a support system for that dreaded word “culture.”
DL: So, what advice would you give to an American indie producer?
Get a Canadian or a European passport. My advice to American filmmakers is to marry a European. I’m not kidding. Otherwise they don’t qualify for international co-production treaties.
DL: If U.S. pre-sales have dried up for most indie producers, how do you finance your films?
Thomas: If you’ve got a film by a master filmmaker, with a great script and a great cast, you can still pre-sell. But you still need to get 120% coverage of your budget. If you can’t do that you have to fill up the empty portion with investors and other tricks. With something like A Dangerous Method, I’m trying to make something irresistible to a buyer. What I’m looking for is a self-promoting film; a movie which immediately gets people’s imagination is something I can promote — a project which writes its own publicity. Provided it’s at the right price. Into that mix then goes a Canadian filmmaker making an international co-production that I can access local German subsidies with.
DL: Can you tell me more about Kon-Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdhal’s 1947 sea voyage, which you’re planning to shoot next summer?
Thomas: This is a project that I’ve been developing for 11 years. It’s a story that inspired me when I was young; 6 naked hippies going across the Pacific in a raft. I initially tried to make it as a $50M-$60M film because it’s an epic subject. I couldn’t make it like that so I had to reconceptualise it. I’m assembling it now. This time around I feel I can do it, which I didn’t feel before. The directors are Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning. It’s being structured as a Norwegian/Scandinavian/UK co-production involving Eurimages, the European co-production fund – even though Britain doesn’t belong to it anymore. I don’t really understand why we pulled out in the first place. I mean, is the UK in Europe or are we an island like Japan?
DL: What else are you planning to shoot soon?
Thomas: I’m planning a film about South Korean dictator Kim-Jong il, which I’m seeing as a dramatic collage. I’m also developing High Rise, based on the JG Ballard novel about a dystopian block of flats. And I’m working on a film about The Kinks with Julian Temple. None of these projects have start dates yet. Look, I don’t really don’t like talking about films still in the planning stage. I don’t want anybody to know what I’m doing. And I don’t like talking about projects at this nascent stage because it might damage them. When information does leak out, it’s bad for me.
DL: You’ve advised younger producers to cultivate relationships with film festivals rather than studios. What’s a festival going to do for you that a multi-billion dollar distributor/financier can’t?
Thomas: Film festivals are far more important than studios for an independent producer. Hollywood spends the equivalent of what each movie cost to make on marketing it. You haven’t got a hope of competing against that. But you’ve got more than 3,000 journalists in Cannes with their eyes all on you. If you do it smartly with a good PR man and spend $50,000 you can get onto the culture pages of newspapers around the world. It’s a gift. For that one day you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the latest Hollywood blockbuster on the steps of the Cannes Palais. For me, it’s not a shotgun blast, it’s not a 12-bore – I’m more a rifle shot. When I decide on a movie that I want to make my target is to be one of those 19 films In Competition. That’s an aspiration for me, that I can get the film into Cannes. I aspire to making films culturally important enough for Cannes or for Berlin or for Venice – any of the big 3 festivals where I can do my work as a producer/entrepreneur. I’ve done it twice this year with Essential Killing, which got 3 prizes at Venice, including best actor for Vincent Gallo, and with 13 Assassins, which has just won the audience award at Sitges. You’ve got to know the audience you’re making these films for.
DL: As a former chairman of the British Film Institute, what’s your view on the UK government abolishing the Film Council? What would you like to see happen next?
Thomas: I hope that a phoenix will rise from the ashes. Because it was good the Film Council was there, even if it could have been refined a bit more. I hope the government’s being advised by people who know about the business. What really annoys me about it all is that it seems to me to me de rigueur that in our business politicians who make the decisions don’t know anything about the business. The problem with these politicians is that they’ve never made a film. They’re planning the war but they’ve never been in the trenches and had their faces splattered with blood. But when it comes to movies everybody thinks they’re an expert. Not in literature, not in architecture, not in music. It wouldn’t happen in any other business. What happens in our government is that you get a Film Minister to understand about film and then he’s moved on. Film culture in Britain is treated like the end of the pier show.
DL: One of the themes of your work has been injecting a director from one culture into an alien society.
Thomas: I’m not a Little Englander. Historically, British people have always been travellers. I look in the world as one place. You have to think in a global sense. Cinema is a global endeavour. My roots are in England but my endeavours are worldwide.