Thomas Langmann, the French producer of The Artist, War Of The Buttons and Patrice Leconte’s upcoming 3D animation The Suicide Shop, tells Melanie Goodfellow about arriving as a complete unknown to shoot his tribute to classic cinema in Los Angeles

If The Artist wins the best picture Oscar in February, its recipient, French producer Thomas Langmann, will carry on a family tradition: his late father Claude Berri won an Academy Award for his short film The Chicken (Le Poulet) back in 1965.

The 15-minute tale about a boy’s quest to keep his pet chicken off the dinner table was 32-year-old Berri’s directorial debut, and presaged a prolific directing and producing career, which included the Bafta-winning French classic Jean De Florette.

“He couldn’t afford the ticket to America so they sent it to him in the post,” says Langmann, who produces under the La Petite Reine banner, a nod to his father’s company Renn Productions.

The 40-year-old producer has spent much of this autumn jetting back and forth between Paris and Los Angeles in support of the Harvey Weinstein-masterminded Oscar campaign for The Artist.

“Harvey has told me to ‘get the speech ready’, but I’m superstitious,” says Langmann. “He loves the film. He said to us, ‘This film has one defect — I don’t know where to cut.’ Of course we’ll go to the ceremony if we get a nomination. That in itself would be exceptional.”

Busy production house

In Paris at the beginning of December, Langmann is catching up with business at La Petite Reine. A constant stream of people flow in and out of its offices, in a classic 19th-century block in Paris’ busy 9th arrondissement. They include Omar Sy, star of French box-office phenomenon Intouchables, another Weinstein acquisition, who stops by for a chat, signing a flyer for Langmann’s young daughter (“Who loved the movie”) before he leaves.

In the meeting room — decorated with posters for past pictures such as the Vincent Cassel gangster biopic Mésrine: Killer Instinct and ongoing productions including Patrice Leconte’s 3D animation The Suicide Shop and Alexandre Aja’s Maniac, starring Elijah Wood — a group of producers brainstorm over crew for the upcoming feature Colt 45.

Langmann describes the $16.9m (€13m) film, to be directed by Belgian Fabrice Du Welz and featuring Gérard Lanvin and Joey Starr in the cast, as a police thriller in the vein of Alain Corneau’s 1976 Police Python 357, which starred Yves Montand as an unconventional investigator.

A poster for The Artist dominates one wall of the meeting room. It is easy to forget, amid the picture’s extraordinary ongoing career, that nobody wanted to invest in it when director Michel Hazanavicius first started looking for producers nearly three years ago.

“It was the film’s weaknesses which attracted me — the fact it was to be silent, black-and-white and shot in 1:33. I knew we needed a miracle for it to work, but I also knew that if it did it would be wonderful,” says Langmann.

“It wasn’t that easy pitching a silent, black-and-white film and our decision to shoot entirely in the US also excluded us from accessing French film tax credits and the avance sur recettes scheme. We had no choice — the actors, extras and decor all had to be American. The film is a tribute to Hollywood. It had to be shot there.”

Langmann managed to sign up state broadcaster France 3 on the back of Dujardin’s involvement and Hazanavicius’ script, followed shortly after by pay-TV outfit Canal Plus.

“That raised about $5.2m (€4m). The budget was roughly $16.9m (€13m). Warner Bros also picked up French rights but not until much later. I ended up putting roughly $7.8m (€6m) of La Petite Reine’s own funds into the film,” he says. “I am lucky enough to also make commercial films. I’ve always said that if I work on films like Asterix, it’s in order to be able to make films like Mésrine and The Artist.”

‘Crazy, overambitious…’

The shoot in Warner Bros studios in Los Angeles at the end of 2010 with a mainly US crew, bar French director of photography Guillaume Schiffman, was a humbling experience in the beginning, says the producer.

“In France, Jean is a big star, Michel is a respected film-maker and I’m well known within the film world… but in LA we were no-one,” he says with emphasis and a laugh.

“At that point we didn’t even have an American partner. We were these crazy, overambitious French people trying to make a silent black-and-white film… but bit by bit we won the confidence and respect of the crew.”

Both Langmann and Hazanavicius say they will work together on the latter’s next feature, whatever it may be. The producer also plans to collaborate with Dujardin again, casting him opposite Cassel in a remake of Berri’s 1977 comedy A Summer Affair (Un Moment D’Egarement), about a forty-something divorcee who gets into hot water after sleeping with his best friend’s daughter.

Further projects in development include a remake of Bob Swaim’s 1982 classic police thriller La Balance, for which there is a script and a cast but no director as yet, and an adaptation of the Gothic horror series Fantomas about a murderous master criminal, to which Brotherhood Of The Wolf director Christophe Gans was previously attached.

“It’s been in development for some time but we didn’t have the right script. We’ve renewed the rights and are starting over again,” says Langmann.
He is also mulling whether to pursue a recently announced project about the true story of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was kidnapped in 2006 by a group calling themselves the ‘Gang of Barbarians’ and tortured so badly he died of his wounds within hours of being released three weeks later.

“I am writing the script. The title is Ignorant. If it goes ahead I will direct, but it’s complicated because there are other projects on the same subject,” he says.

Langmann has just come out of a highly publicised spat with producer Marc du Pontavice of One World Films over the simultaneous production of an adaptation of Louis Pergaud’s literary classic The War Of The Buttons (La Guerre Des Boutons). He remains adamant La Petite Reine’s production — La Nouvelle Guerre Des Boutons — starring Guillaume Canet and Laetitia Casta was the legitimate one.

“We knew from the beginning and we know it now, that our production should have been made and not theirs… for a very simple reason that we had Canal Plus, two broadcasts on TF1, a distributor in the shape of Mars and $5.8m (€4.5m) worth of foreign sales… We’re in pocket, they’re not,” he says.

“But what happened over The War Of The Buttons isn’t why I’m hesitating [over the story of Ilan Halimi]… There are the parents, family and memory of this young man to think about. I’m not sure it would be right to get into a battle over this story, morally or ethically,” he continues.

Langmann started out in cinema as an actor in his teens before moving into production in his mid-20s because he “couldn’t handle depending on the wishes of others”. He is now also readying a Paris production of the Tony Award-winning play Red about artist Mark Rothko, in which he will play the assistant Ken opposite Niels Arestrup as the painter.

But producing remains his greatest love. “Producing is all about realising dreams, mine or those of a film-maker, and putting stories that I like onto the big screen,” he says. “It’s a fantastic profession.”

Thomas Langmann

  • Born in 1971 to producer and director Claude Berri and Anne-Marie Rassam, sister of producer Jean-Pierre Rassam.

  • His first role was in Berri’s 1980 Je Vous Aime, starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Serge Gainsbourg.

  • Appeared in 17 films from 1980-2006, picking up two most promising actor César nominations for The Sandwich Years in 1988 and Paris S’Eveille in 1991, and a supporting actor nomination for Le Nombril Du Monde in 1994.

  • Set up La Petite Reine in 1994. He spearheaded Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar (1999) but ceded control to his father, picking up associate producer credits on that title and Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (2002).

  • In 2001 he started developing the $51.9m (€40m) two-part French gangster biopic Mésrine: Killer Instinct and Mésrine: Public Enemy No1. It hit the big screen in 2008 and 2009, winning Césars for best actor (Vincent Cassel), best director (Jean-Francois Richet) and best sound.

  • Over the decade, Langmann produced a dozen pictures including the $101.2m (€78m) Asterix At The Olympic Games, Jan Kounen’s Blueberry, The War Of The Buttons and The Artist.