Jeremy Thomas likes to lie low. He is certainly prominent in film circles and, just over a year ago, was a popular choice as the new chairman of the British Film Institute. But he doesn't have the highly visible public presence of, say, Richard Attenborough, his predecessor at the BFI, or David Puttnam. His cuttings file is thin; he looks a mite disconcerted by a big magazine profile of himself among my papers, and his face falls completely when our photographer arrives, although he poses with good grace.
Thomas is one of a handful of imaginative producers for whom 'international' does not automatically mean 'American'. His filmography includes Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout, Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Julien Temple's The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. He presided over The Hit, which ushered in Stephen Frears' return to the big screen after over a decade in television and Everybody Wins, Arthur Miller's first original screenplay since The Misfits.
He produced David Cronenberg's strange, surreal, cerebral rendering of William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. He made three films with Nicolas Roeg, Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance, then three more with Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha. The Oscar was for The Last Emperor, which swept the board in 1988 with nine nominations and nine awards, an unprecedented strike rate. It is a list that anyone could be proud of. And (this is a bit more unusual) there is nothing to be ashamed of either.
It is often remarked that Thomas prefers to work in terra incognita: few of his films, and none of the later ones, have been set here. The remoter the better; for his latest film, Little Buddha, he was the first producer to venture into the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. 'All my films are made out of personal taste. And it happens that I love the East. Of course there is also the element that a truck stop in East Grinstead is less interesting than a truck stop in Tulsa. That's cinema and I can't help it. But I prepare my films in Britain, and a lot of post-production is done here: I want to make films here.
'We have the opportunity to be a world leader in a modern business, the audio-visual business, which all the pundits say will have the greatest level of employment in Europe by 2010. Yet our government is still creating an ambience which makes it impossible to flourish. We have won 30 per cent of the Oscars over the last 20 years - why are we so pathetic? Do people want no more fish and chip shops, just burgers in a fibre-glass box?'
It was not always thus. Thomas was born into a movie dynasty, at a time (1949) when the industry was still sturdy enough to support such a concept. His father, Ralph Thomas, and his uncle, Gerald Thomas, earned their bread and butter making film cycles: respectively, the Doctor films and the Carry Ons (which had no exotic foreign locations, including Carry On Up the Kyber, filmed at Camber Sands).
Jeremy spent his formative years hanging around Pinewood - 'I knew every little alleyway and manhole cover' - and even had small speaking roles in a couple of his uncle's movies (which he firmly declines to name). It seemed inevitable that - like his sister and cousins - he should go into the family business. He was 17, it was 1966 and England was swinging. 'There was never any choice for me; it was so seductive. I trained in all areas, I went from job to job - I must have worked on 20 films as an assistant editor in maybe three years. There were, like, 10 or 15 studios in London, all packed full. Then everything slowly collapsed . . . .
'But it was fantastic here: there was an enormous group of films about Britain and the British people which were popular all over the world. Now the knowledge that you cannot get enough money to make a big idea in a big way has driven all our film-makers overseas. And that's one reason why our perception of Britain as a background for movies has been lost.'
Thomas went abroad too, although he kept his base in Britain: he has no permanent office in LA. But he kept thinking big, and proved adept at raising finance. Bertolucci famously described him once as a 'hustler in the fur of a teddy bear'.
The budget of Little Buddha (bankrolled by the French company Ciby 2000) was dollars 33m. 'It wasn't as difficult to raise as it might have seemed. It's a major film about the last part of Bernardo's supposed oriental journey, and you could stimulate people's imagination about what it could be. The Last Emperor was difficult, because it was a departure from what we both had done, and I couldn't point to anything like it. Before they finance anything, people in this business want to see what it was before.'
Although Thomas was, post-Emperor, fairly unassailable, his three subsequent movies, The Sheltering Sky, Everybody Wins and Naked Lunch, did less well. But the kind of films he makes aren't ephemeral popcorn movies; they will enjoy a long-term longevity, in revivals and on video. Eureka, which slid down the tubes on its original release, has just popped up again on video. So, even if Little Buddha does poorly on its initial outing (the auguries so far are hard to divine) it should, appropriately, enjoy many later incarnations.
There has been great speculation over the film's lengthy re-editing (some 15 minutes have been nibbled away) since it opened in Europe earlier this year: the new version was only ready early this week. If the film wasn't broke, why fix it? 'Bernardo just felt it was playing too long. Certain scenes have been trimmed, but it's still the same identical movie.'
And this is not the Reader's Digest edition for fidgety Little Englanders and obtuse Middle Americans. 'It is the version that will be seen everywhere it is released from now on: it's the new director's cut. Normally one's absolutely appalled by the idea. Normally it's the other way round, but it's sort of . . . sophisticated to be able to do that. It's a big film for a broad audience. Hopefully, a family audience. People get used to a certain diet. But I'm not trying to make films that are left of field, believe me. I'm just trying to make films that are not exactly like the ones made last week.'
Dotted through the few interviews Thomas has given over the years are regular references to his hopes of directing. 'I do want to do it, I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it imminently, it's just my fear and weakness that has stopped me. And I feel ready now, actually. I liked a piece of material very much and managed to buy it. Everyone laughs at me when I say it, Bernardo chuckles, but I do want to do it.' Asked about this mysterious piece of material, Thomas's answer is typical of an elusive, private man (too elusive, one suspects, to expose himself on celluloid). 'You'll never get it out of me. There's no point in even looking for a clue in the room.'
'Little Buddha' opens next FridayReuse content