If there’s a kerfuffle on the Croisette, the prolific U.K. producer is never far away…
Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas knows a thing or two about making waves. The man once described by director Bernardo Bertolucci as a “hustler in the fur of a teddy bear” has lived both at the heart of the U.K. film establishment and as a passionate advocate for counterculture, whether in the novels of authors William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles or the punk-rock anarchy of the Sex Pistols.
But none of the 75+ features the 71-year-old Thomas has worked on has created as much of a stir as David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which debuted on the Croisette 25 years ago. The drama, about an underground subculture of scarred, omnisexual car-crash victims who fetishize auto accidents, became a lightning rod among critics and politicians.
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After landing 18 films in Official Selection, few living producers are more synonymous with Cannes than Thomas, who this year is the subject of a new documentary about his decades-long connection to the festival. The Storms of Jeremy Thomas by Northern Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins will get its debut in Cannes Classics section.
DEADLINE: What sets Cannes apart for you?
JEREMY THOMAS: There’s a particular ambiance. It has something special. It’s a unique combination of business and curation. That sets it apart from most other festivals. It’s very good for a producer like me.
DEADLINE: By my calculations, this edition of the festival marks the 50th anniversary of your first ever trip to Cannes, and you’ve hardly missed any over the years.
THOMAS: Is that right? I first went with Bernard Delfont and his daughter, Susan Delfont, who have both now passed away, sadly. I stayed at their apartment, and I went to the premiere of The Go Between. I was very young because I was at school, working for Delfont.
DEADLINE: Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, 1971… That’s a great place to start.
THOMAS: And I’m not so old. I mean, in my heart, I’m still a child… You know, it’s taken so long to do all this stuff, but it just went by in a flash, boom. But after all these years I’ve still got the same philosophy about the films I make: be a disruptor.
They said, “Do you like controversial subjects?” I said, “Well, I mainly look for controversial subjects.” I mean, that’s a hard drive for what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something that doesn’t need a huge P&A commitment. There can be a natural interest in what I’m doing because the counterculture area is enough to try and bring the project into the mainstream. I’m drawn to counterculture: Ballard, Burroughs, Bowles. Most of the filmmakers I’ve worked with, they all sit in that sort of area. Yes, I love my cars and boxing, but outside of that, it’s a lot of interests outside the mainstream.
DEADLINE: You caused a scandal at Cannes in 1996 with a counterculture film. David Cronenberg’s Crash famously kicked up a storm. Did you have any idea while making it that it would provoke such outrage?
THOMAS: No idea. No idea. Having done Naked Lunch with David and having seen Dead Ringers, I was very broadminded. I never dreamed that it would create this absolute maelstrom. None of us David, [EP] Robert Lantos or myself—thought that it was going to be like that…
[Novelist J.G.] Ballard was with us on the podium at the press conference in Cannes. He was the only one waiting for it, and ecstatic by it because it had worked. The film had worked, and it really got to people. He told David he thought the film was better than his book. But then the film was banned in London, and I was ostracized by the film community in Britain.
DEADLINE: You really felt completely ostracized by the film community?
THOMAS: Well, among the people who were deciding things, it was a hot potato. My career was impacted by it. You had politicians and cinema licensors on national television talking about the outrage and how everyone involved in it should be ashamed of themselves. The tabloids couldn’t get enough of it, even telling people to not buy goods from Sony because they were distributing the film. One day, I was in the Isle of Man with [director] Philip Noyce looking for locations for a movie, and I heard the people behind me in a restaurant say, “These people should be strung up.”
DEADLINE: What do you think Crash is about—what does the movie mean to you? It’s interesting to try and understand the frustration people had with it.
THOMAS: Well, it could be interpreted as being as simple as, “Wear a safety belt.” But it’s really about the erotic opportunities of a car crash and wounds. It’s about people on the fringes of society. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, the film. When I first saw it, I was so thrilled.
DEADLINE: What do you recall now about the film’s Cannes screening?
THOMAS: Some people left the auditorium. There was a lot of banging of seats, as usual. They had to get a bigger room for the press conference because they couldn’t get all the press in. There were hundreds of journalists in there. It was like an assault.
My friend, the journalist Alexander Walker, was there waving his newspaper at David and he was in a fury pacing up and down the back of the theater. There was reporting of it in the UK press for weeks. It was something else.
DEADLINE: Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail and Walker from the Evening Standard really went after the film didn’t they?
THOMAS: I knew Alexander. I never met Chris Tookey, and I don’t care for his criticism because he comes from a different place, he uses different eyes to watch films with. Alexander was a brilliant critic, and he wrote brilliant reviews, and his review for Crash was very, very good, it was just that it was sensationalized, and we had really offended him. “Beyond the bounds of depravity” was the headline. It crossed a line for him. He really thought it was a sick film by sick filmmakers for sick people. That’s a very strong take from one of the top few critics of the day.
The movie is still not allowed to be shown in central London due to censorship.
DEADLINE: Crash won a special jury prize, even though jury head Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t keen and didn’t want to give it anything at all.
THOMAS: He didn’t want to give the film a prize. I’ve heard from friends of mine who were in the jury that Francis felt very strongly about it. But the jury is ultimately a vote. Jury heads can be very influential, but it’s still ultimately one person, one vote.
DEADLINE: Did all that noise bother you at the time?
THOMAS: No. When you make films like that, you think: it wasn’t made for you. Not everything can be made for everyone. I was at the center of the maelstrom. To be in that center, for someone like me, it doesn’t get better than that, because you know you’ve made an impact.
It was like that on the film I made about the Sex Pistols [The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle] and even as a teenager going down to Powis Square where they were shooting Performance with Mick Jagger, James Fox and Anita Pallenberg, it was always about trying to reach the center of the maelstrom.
That’s just one day in Cannes; your story goes all over the world. You can’t buy that. That’s the whole point of being a disruptor. You disrupt.
DEADLINE: And how did David respond to all this? Did he take it in stride or was he upset by it?
THOMAS: No, he took it in his stride. He was on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, and they tried to animal him, but David just dealt with him like the super brain that he is. He wiped the floor with Paxman.
DEADLINE: How did you feel about the film’s box office? It didn’t exactly rake it in.
THOMAS: Good in the U.K. It made around £1.5 million. There was no need to take out advertising because it was on so many front pages. The movie had some champions at Sony in the U.K., unlike its experience in the U.S., where Ted Turner had seen the film with Jane Fonda and they were very offended. It really got hammered.
DEADLINE: By that stage, you were well steeled for Cannes’ unforgiving side. You were on the Competition jury in 1987 when Maurice Pialat won and was booed by the audience even while accepting the Palme d’Or. Yves Montand was jury president that year.
THOMAS: I was only 38. I had built up a good bond with the festival already, especially after Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. They really were happy with that film. It was quite a memory for me to be on that jury with Norman Mailer, Elem Klimov, Jerzy Skolimowski, Theo Angelopoulos, Nicola Piovani, Danièle Heymann… That was a jury. Fuck. Very strong people. Klimov was very heavy.
DEADLINE: And Pialat defiantly got up and gave the audience as good as he got.
THOMAS: Yes. But I’m very happy with that choice. There was no influence on us. It was an excellent film.
DEADLINE: More recently you encountered Croisette drama with Terry Gilliam’s film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which you were very involved in over the years. It was pretty dramatic. I was there at the impromptu press conference called by producer Paulo Branco in which he laid out the legal issues facing the film on the eve of its premiere.
THOMAS: It was very sad for Terry. I didn’t produce the film. I owned some rights and tried to help him get it made. In the end, the film was damaged, heavily damaged by all that malevolence. The distribution deals that were in place dissolved, and so the film was torpedoed at Cannes.
DEADLINE: Johnny Depp’s movie The Brave, another one of your movies, also had a bumpy ride in 1997, didn’t it?
THOMAS: The Brave was a heartfelt and very fine job from Johnny, which we maybe shouldn’t have taken to Cannes. Maybe it wasn’t ready. It’s very enticing to go to Cannes, of course. The film had Marlon Brando and Johnny and wonderful collaborators on set. I think it was a sensationalistic moment, it got lost a bit, and I’m sad for Johnny. I hope he makes another film. After that sort of Cannes experience, it never really got a proper life afterwards, and it’s a little bit of a… I suppose, a hidden gem, in a way.
DEADLINE: One last question on Cannes as a crucible, and disruptors associated with the festival. What have you made of Lars von Trier over the years, and do you think he should be welcomed back to the festival?
THOMAS: He has been a magnificent filmmaker. His films have broken ground and that’s not an easy thing to do. Europa, Breaking the Waves, these were brilliant films. His work has morphed into many different things over the years. I think there is a place for Von Trier at Cannes, but he should understand that he took the jokes too far.
DEADLINE: In that sense, has the #MeToo movement caused you to reappraise what’s acceptable?
THOMAS: It’s very hard. I don’t really want to discuss it a lot, but I’ve been through a lot with filmmakers over the decades. I have been on film sets since the age of 10 and I’ve seen some very dominant people. I have worked with very extreme people. I’ve seen directors get performances in incredible ways. Look at Hitchcock. But life has changed, the game has changed, relationships have changed. That said, how many crimes can we pull up from our ancestors? Are we to take books off shelves, and ultimately burn them? That’s not very appealing either.
DEADLINE: What’s taking up your time now? Mark Cousins has made a film about you and your connection to Cannes.
THOMAS: Well, I can’t say too much about that just now but there’s plenty more to come on that soon… Bernard Rose has made a film called Traveling Light, which I’m helping on a little. It was shot in lockdown and stars Danny Huston, Stephen Dorff and Tony Todd.
DEADLINE: I’m sure you’ll want to work with Takashi Miike again after making multiple films with him, including Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the first 3D film in Competition at Cannes.
THOMAS: If I can. I love going to Tokyo, but I haven’t been able to get there. And I love Italy, of course. All my old filmmakers that I can work with. But I can only do so much.
DEADLINE: Given your close connection to Ballard, I was quite surprised to not see your name listed when I reported on a new series adaptation of his novel Super-Cannes, with Brandon Cronenberg directing.
THOMAS: Yes, years ago, I developed a script of that novel with John Maybury aboard to direct. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with the central theme of the book. There are some very controversial moments, including underage sex, and I couldn’t deal with that. But this will be an adaptation, of course, so it will have its own rhythm, I’m sure.
Ballard was my good friend, and I knew him well, for more than 20 years. I spoke at his funeral. I managed to make two films of his novels, but he died just before we started the third, High Rise. There are a number of books of his I’d still love to make into films. But time is limited.
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