UK producer Jeremy Thomas is back on the awards trail more than 30 years after Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, produced by Thomas, won nine Oscars.
The founder and chairman of London-based Recorded Picture Company is a producer on Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio, which has two Oscar nominations for make-up and hairstyling as well as costume design.
An independent Italian-language film, launched during the pandemic, Thomas suggests Pinocchio was not an obvious Oscar contender. “Nobody was going to the cinema and it was very hard to get any traction in terms of people seeing the film,” he says.
However, sold internationally by Thomas’ sales outfit HanWay Films, the film was released in the UK by Vertigo Releasing in August – doing strong business in between lockdowns. It was released in the US by Roadside Attractions on December 25.
Pinocchio marks Thomas’ third collaboration with Garrone after Tale Of Tales and Dogman and the producer believes a large part of the film’s appeal is that it showcases “the finest Italian artisan work… the tradition of hand-making films”, that stretches back to the movies made in Italian studios by his old partner Bertolucci and the likes of Federico Fellini.
UK craftspeople also feature strongly, notably make-up effects artist Mark Coulier, whose prosthetics work on Pinocchio has earned an Oscar nomination, as well as visual-effects supervisor Rachel Penfold and composer Dario Marinelli, who is Italian-born but has spent most of his career in the UK.
Some 50 years after his career began as an assistant editor on films including Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971) and Perry Hernzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), Thomas is moving in front of the camera for the first time as a the subject of a documentary directed by Mark Cousins.
With a working title of The Storms Of Jeremy Thomas, the film details the career of a man once described by Bertolucci as a “hustler in the fur of a teddy bear” and celebrates his work on the 70 or so films he has produced to date including Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka and Bad Timing, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.
Thomas says the experience has proved a nostalgic one. “It has been moving for me because Mark is a good filmmaker and we were very intimate in as much as it was just him and me,” says Thomas. “He knows cinema like me and we can rap about cinema.”
Produced by David P Kelly, the film is told against the backdrop of Thomas’ annual trip to Cannes, with Thomas and Cousins driving to the festival in an Alfa Romeo ahead of the 2019 edition. The journey includes a stop-off at the Drancy Internment Camp, where Jews were rounded up by French police prior to being sent to Auschwitz. “I talked about that because I am Jewish,” says Thomas.
Further stops along the way include Paris, Lyon and Orleans, where they discussed Carl Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Once the pair reach Cannes, the film catches the moment the staff at the Carlton Hotel greet the veteran producer like an old friend and follows Thomas as he attends screenings and meetings.
The documentary also touches on Thomas’s recovery from recent illness and his philosophy about cinema, and includes interviews with Tilda Swinton, Debra Winger and other collaborators.
Made in the UK
Although he is renowned for his collaborations with Italian, Japanese and North American filmmakers,and has been cutting deals and making films abroad since he was in his 20s (when he headed to Australia in the mid-1970s to produce Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan starring Dennis Hopper), Thomas has a legacy and heritage forged in the UK. His father Ralph Thomas and uncle Gerald Thomas were key figures in post-war British cinema, the former making Doctor In The House comedies and the latter directing all 30 films in the Carry On comedy series.
Thomas himself is an ex-chair of the British Film Institute (BFI) and a passionate champion of the National Film Archive. Over the years, he has worked with leading British directors including Roeg, Stephen Frears, Bernard Rose, Claire Peploe, Julien Temple, Ben Wheatley, Jonathan Glazer and David Mackenzie. He has also collaborated closely with US-born, UK-based Terry Gilliam on some of the filmmaker’s most outlandish and visionary projects such as Tideland and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
As ever, Thomas has several projects on the boil. These include Bernard Rose’s Travelling Light, shot in California during the pandemic, and a planned new feature from Japanese maverick director Takashi Miike, with whom he previously worked on films including Blade Of The Immortal and First Love. The producer also remains doggedly loyal to long-term collaborators such as Wim Wenders and Israel’s Amos Gitai, whose recent Venice festival entry Laila In Haifa was sold by HanWay.
“HanWay is looking after [Gitai’s] wonderful catalogue and he is a major filmmaker who is represented every year in a fantastic film festival with a great movie… of course he’s mine,” quips Thomas. “I like to support my friends and colleagues in life where I can. He has been very supportive of me over the years. I am very happy to work with Amos and Wim [Wenders] and all the other filmmakers who are part of my support system.”
Another friend who continues to receive the producer’s support is Johnny Depp. Thomas executive produced The Brave, Depp’s 1997 directorial debut, and HanWay has recently been selling Andrew Levitas’ Minamata, in which the US actor stars as wartime photographer W. Eugene Smith. Depp was also a producer on Julien Temple’s Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, also sold by HanWay.
Thomas is vocal in his support for the now-controversial actor following his bitterly contested divorce from Amber Heard, which resulted in Depp’s loss in a UK libel case during which he was accused of domestic violence. Depp denied the allegations.
“I can only say that I find him a wonderful person from my personal experience and he is still my friend,” says Thomas. “[Depp’s troubles] have been challenging. I hope Minamata gets its day.”
The film, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, was acquired by MGM last autumn for North America, Germany and Switzerland and has been secured by Vertigo Releasing for the UK.
As for Thomas, he has spent most of the pandemic in his cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside. He has chickens, vegetable gardens and a greenhouse but is clearly itching to return to filmmaking in earnest.
“I hope I can get back to moving around the world easily,” says Thomas. “What has kept my business going and my joy in it is moving around.”
After many years in which the Recorded Picture Company and HanWay Films were based in a building owned by Thomas in Soho’s Hanway Street, the producer is now operating out of offices in west London, near Ladbroke Grove.
“I very, very luckily got out [in 2019] before Covid and went into a place which is more airy in west London,” he adds. “It’s still the same idea of everybody in the building, which is a breathing thing. I am looking forward to getting back to the office, which is a living organism. I am looking forward to us all being back.”
By Geoffrey Macnab
8 April 2021