Jeremy Thomas: The alchemist

Many film producers make money, some even win Oscars, but few make great art. Jeremy Thomas has done the lot. Neil Norman meets a very British maverick
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The Independent Culture

When the British film producer Jeremy Thomas was struggling to raise the money for The Last Emperor, he was often heard to quote the maxim of Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of the Communist Party of China: It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. The $22m film went on to win nine Oscars in 1987 and Thomas metamorphosed into the grinning Cheshire Cat who not only caught the mice but got the cream as well.

The forthcoming Barbican season of his films is subtitled Thirty Years a Maverick and it is not difficult to see why. Among the selection of films that Thomas has produced are movies by cinema's dark masters - Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg. For the man once dubbed by Bertolucci "a hustler in the fur of a teddy bear", it is an impressive legacy. And nor is Thomas living off past glories - in an age when Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title are producing British hit films, Thomas represents an altogether more fearless approach. He recently produced Terry Gilliam's Tideland: "Jeremy is the last of the breed," says Gilliam. "An endangered species. Because he loves film. Tim and Eric have made the money. Jeremy has made the difference."

All of Thomas's work bears the stamp of the 57-year-old's singular, left-field vision; but, more impressive still in an era of increasing dominance by the Hollywood studios, none appears to have been driven by the demands of the market.

"Not one, no." he agrees over lunch in a restaurant around the corner from his offices in Hanway Street, central London. "Which is a terrible thing. I accept the fact that I occupy a place somewhere between the establishment and the anti-establishment." Many independent producers ally themselves exclusively with one major talent - Emeric Pressburger with Michael Powell, for instance, or Andrew Eaton with Michael Winterbottom today. Thomas, though, has consistently diversified, forging links with directors for multiple movies as well as midwiving work from emerging talent, as he did in the case of director David Mackenzie and his 2003 film, Young Adam. He is, as Tim Adler writes in his book The Producers, that rare thing among the breed: an "auteur" producer.

"People don't credit producers with an idea," says Thomas. "But the trick is to make other people believe in what you believe in."

Thomas was born in July 1949 in London, virtually on a film set. His father was Ralph Thomas, director of The Doctor in the House movies, as well as A Tale of Two Cities; his uncle was Gerald Thomas, who produced the Carry On films. Among regular visitors to his parents' house in Pinewood were Dirk Bogarde, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth More; Katherine Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot also popped in. As a result, Thomas Junior caught the movie bug in much the same way his friends caught measles and chicken pox. After being educated at Millfield School, he immediately entered the film business, first in a film laboratory and then in the cutting rooms where he learnt the art of editing. His aim was - to a certain extent, still is - to become a director. Somehow, he got sidetracked into producing. After working as assistant editor on films by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, Thomas edited Phillippe Mora's documentary about the Depression, Brother Can You Spare A Time?

In 1976, at the age of 26, Thomas produced his first feature, Mad Dog, directed by Mora and starring Dennis Hopper as a notorious Irish outlaw in Australia during the gold rush. The drug-addled, gun-toting Hopper was mad bad and so dangerous to know he was virtually unemployable in Hollywood. Thomas thought he'd be perfect as Morgan, and thus it proved.

Quietly, a pattern began to emerge, as Thomas bought up books and stories that appealed to him and tried to locate the talents that would best serve the material. Provocative, philosophical, left-field, sexually provocative, disturbing and anti-moralistic, Thomas's films are threaded together by a calculated sense of the un-ordinary, the subversive. Even apparent genre films such as The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984) and Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000) exist in wilder dimensions than most crime thrillers.

And he was prepared to be patient. During my first visit to Thomas's old offices in Wardour Street in 1983 to interview Nic Roeg, I gleaned from a document on his desk that he had optioned the rights to the J G Ballard novel, Crash. When I quizzed him about it, he said he wanted David Cronenberg to direct it. It took 15 years for that particular collaboration to bear fruit.

The creative aspect of his work is manifest in the extraordinary deals he has constructed across continents. He is one part hustler, one part artist and one part diplomat. Perhaps his most nerve-wracking episode was the sequence involving 5000 soldiers from the Chinese Army in the Forbidden City for The Last Emperor.

"We were all consumed with fear over the shot. We had 5,000 Chinese soldiers who'd had their heads shaved and false pigtails attached. They were drilled to perfection. We were the first Western crew to shoot in The Forbidden City. Bernardo hid in his trailer all day because of the weight of the responsibility. Fortunately, I persuaded him to come out and we got the shot."

Thomas was also prepared to wait for his own belated directorial debut in 1998. All the Little Animals starred Christian Bale as a young man with learning difficulties attempting to escape the influence of his abusive stepfather. It did not exactly set the world alight, but its reception has not deterred him from trying again.

"I want to direct films. I want to do it again. I was burnt at the time but I have something else I have been working on for years. It took me over 20 years to do the last one. I got a lot of negative reviews but I also got a lot of really good reviews from people who understood what I was getting at. I was blind when I was making that film. I should have made it much shorter. I still love the film."

The increasing industrialisation of Hollywood and, by default, many other filmmaking communities, has been a concern of Thomas's for some years now. As chairman of the British Film Institute for five years (from 1993-97) he introduced radical changes of policy and operation that are still in the process of implementation.

And although he has always ploughed his own furrow, he has found it increasingly difficult to raise financing to get his kind of movie made. "My films aren't commercial," he admits, "but a lot of them aren't loss-makers, and there is a difference. I know the reality of the distribution process, and the money needed to get those films out. But the dilemma of having something great and original and then wondering if the audience is going to come is becoming more problematic."

He pauses, pops a soft-shelled crab into his mouth before offering an example of what he means.

"I did a film with [Nagisa] Oshima called Gohatto, starring Takeshi Kitano as a gay samurai. It was praised at Cannes and various festivals and yet there was no financial response; it was critical response only. And I realised that this great Japanese master - who is probably the greatest living Japanese master - has no audience anywhere, apart from Hong Kong. That cinema has gone. You make a totally attractive film but it's in Japanese with subtitles and it is rigorous, and the audience is minute. There is an audience for it but there is not enough money in it for theatrical release."

Nevertheless, Thomas's slate is full to bursting with projects from Bertolucci, Cronenberg, and Philip Noyce in various stages of development, plus his long-gestating film about the Kon-Tiki expedition. There's life in the teddy bear yet, even if the fur is a bit frayed around the edges. And while he may have a few interesting toys such as his six-litre Morgan car and a collection of motorcycles, he doesn't, as yet, own a Lear jet.

"I've been lucky," he says. "That's undeniable. And it's been fantastically enjoyable. You look down that list - 40 plus films, an incredible group of people, remarkable writers and great directors living and dead... Harmony Korine, David Mackenzie, Stephen Frears, Phillip Noyce. And I have good relations with all of them..."

He pauses over the last piece of cheese.

"...I think." m

Jeremy Thomas: 30 Years a Maverick is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (0207 638 4141), Thur to 12 Sept