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Jeremy Thomas shares his tricks of the trade

The Chairman of Recorded Picture Company and HanWay Flilms is featured Mogul in TIFF’s industry events line-up.

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As part of the Moguls industry event series underway at TIFF, Jeremy Thomas looked back on four decades in the film production industry in a conversation yesterday with AFI Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga. The British producer is in Toronto with his new film Kon-Tiki, an epic adventure across the Pacific directed by the Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.

Known for his production of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor, along with an impressive array of over 50 films, Thomas described his upbringing in the world of cinema in detail. The son of a mainstream director, he admitted that he grew up with privileges that many others didn’t have, and recalled playing on the set of Cleopatra as a young boy.

Thomas explained how he was uninterested in school and instead became a runner and director’s assistant, eventually working as an editor for Ken Loach. He started his transition into production with Philippe Mora in Mad Dog Morgan – he was meant to help edit and produce the film, but said he never got around to editing since actor Dennis Hopper “needed full-time wrangling”.

Since then, Thomas has developed an independent producing style driven by his eclectic taste in films, one that tries to balance “entertainment and profoundness’”. Despite the market-centric view of most people in the industry, the producer urged young professionals to follow their own individual preferences. “The market is fickle,” he said, “but taste can be sublime”.

With his independent choices, Thomas tries to distance himself from popular culture’s caricature of the cigar-smoking movie producer. “The word ‘producer’ engenders an enormous amount of suspicion,” he said. 

Reflecting on his methods of production, Thomas talked about how he enjoys working with the same directors and established auteurs – indeed, he has repeatedly made films with renowned auteurs such as Bertolucci, David Cronenberg and Wim Wenders. Thomas claimed that collaborating with filmmakers that have a distinct voice is less difficult than working with first-time directors, since the producer’s job of trying to imagine what the final product will be like is usually less challenging. He also said that he is open to letting films “mature in the barrel,” describing how he often mulls over projects for decades and makes financial investments long before scripts are written and shooting actually begins.

Thomas’s conversation with Lyanga took on a nostalgic tone as he described how cinema has changed since his start in the industry. Harking back to an age when the flatbed was “a revelation” in editing, he spoke about how he has lived through many transitions in the film world and shared memories from the set of The Last Emperor in China – where Bertolucci insisted on crew lunches with pasta and wine each day – and his participation in the 1987 Cannes jury with Norman Mailer. Thomas lamented that the experience of theater-going, with the magic light of the projector cutting across the room, is now becoming obsolete. “Certainly film is dying,” Thomas said.

In the face of the new practices of production, distribution and exhibition that have transformed cinema culture in the digital age, Thomas has embraced the “mutate or die” attitude instilled in him by his father. By founding his own sales, distribution and marketing company HanWay Films – named for the street the office is located in London, as well as a tribe of brutal Chinese warriors, Thomas noted with pride – in 1998, he said he has been able to keep up with the changes and ensure his continuing success.

In particular, Thomas described how he has incorporated advanced digital technology in his recent HanWay Films ventures. With Wenders’s 2011 documentary Pina, Thomas helped revolutionize the use of 3D, though the producer warned that it can be distracting if not used well. Now in Kon-Tiki, he and directors Roenning and Sandberg have brought sharks to the screen. “Without the cliché of Jaws, you can get an incredible effect from the fear,” he said, reflecting on the crowd’s strong response to scenes at the film’s screening Friday night at TIFF.

Kon-Tiki is also screening on Sept 14.

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