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Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas, who scored a best picture award in 1988 with Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Last Emperor, said he simply couldn’t imagine how to go about making the Chinese set epic if he was mounting it today.
Thomas, who took part in a special event on Thursday evening hosted by the British Film Institute and its chief movie programmer Geoff Andrew on stage at the BFI Southbank, said the experience of shooting in the colossal Forbidden City in the People’s Republic of China was “unrepeatable.”
“It got made because the Chinese wanted it to be made,” Thomas said. “I think it was a period of megalomania in my life when I made that film. It was mad to try and do it but we pulled it off.”
Thomas said the idea that a Western film crew would be able to land at the Forbidden City and close it down to everyone else “for a couple of days” is unimaginable now.
Thomas said the Chinese authorities were completely behind his efforts. “I’d pick up the ‘phone and ask for 2,000 Chinese extras to turn up with shaved heads. And they did the next day.”
Thomas said the biggest single challenge of the shoot was sourcing “good pasta” for the talented, artistic, but very hungry, Italian crew with Bertolucci.
Thomas, whose father, Ralph, and uncle Gerald were both movie directors, left school “as soon as I could” to be in the movies, describing films and the film business as a “virus”. Smiling, Thomas noted he “had not been inoculated against it and was infected.”
The veteran producer, who has produced multiple films with celebrated British director Nicolas Roeg, Bertolucci, Nagisa Oshima and David Cronenberg and the Johnny Depp-directed The Brave, said: “You either choose a project or a project chooses you.”
Born in London in 1949, Thomas began his career in film in the cutting rooms and spent much of his childhood and early career at Pinewood Studios, the U.K. facility on the outskirts of the British capital where his father and uncle shot much of their output.
He noted that back in the day, Pinewood had an onsite restaurant with waiting staff in full bib and tucker serving Elizabeth Taylor and her entourage on one table, an actor dressed as a “red Indian” on another and other stars being waited on, as an example of the old-school glamor that had added to the allure of the movies.
“Now there’s not a restaurant, just a canteen and people wear T-shirts and Nikes, but that’s just the way of the world now,” Thomas said.
Thomas, noting that Hollywood and London remained one of the two most important places to make movies in, expressed his own conflicted view.
“I have made films in Hollywood. I don’t like it. I like it. I like some of it,” Thomas said light-heartedly. “I feel ill at ease [in Hollywood] because I get jealous of Jerry Bruckheimer.”
On a more serious note, Thomas said that setting up an international sales, finance and distribution banner HanWay Films, to sit alongside his Recorded Picture Company production house in 1998, was “a conscious act of survival” to help him continue to be able to make movies as the times changed.
He also said he had no desire for a private jet or the other materialistic trappings of being in the movies and has no unfulfilled ambitions. “It’s revolting, I know,” Thomas laughed. “I want to live and I want to keep making movies.”
He added that he would also like to direct another movie after 1998’s All the Little Animals.
Thomas is currently producing High Rise, a movie by hot British director Ben Wheatley that is set to begin shooting this summer.
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