I had the great pleasure to talk to Jeremy Thomas and visit his extraordinary office back during the 2015 London film festival. Thomas had High-Rise in the festival and we talked about that film but also his extraordinary career which includes producing such films as The Last Emperor (which he won the Best Picture Oscar for), Naked Lunch, Crash, Sexy Beast, Eureka, Bad Timing and Terry Gilliam’s little seen masterpiece Tideland. He remains a rarity in the film producing world because he only makes films he would like to like and not because of what the market demands.
You’ve had the rights to High-Rise for a long time so how did this version come round?
Well 14 years, not since it came out. Initially when I started working with Nicolas Roeg around 79 he wanted to do it but I couldn’t achieve the rights so we made Bad Timing instead. Then I did Crash and I wanted to buy High-Rise, then I got High-Rise. Then I tried to adapt it a few times and I didn’t really get it right and then I was approached by my son, who is in the same company as Ben Wheatley’s agent. Within a couple of days Ben was in this office and when Wheatley’s name came into view it was a bit like when I did Naked Lunch and I met David Cronenberg and he said I want to do Naked Lunch, I saw it immediately. My producer brain saw some incredible things because I saw Burroughs’s literature and Cronenberg as a filmmaker as being a perfect combination for my taste, that could be something great thrilling and unusual and right no one else the world could do it. When Ben and told me his idea he to set it at the same time as the book instead of today in 2015 it’s a brilliant idea, I mean he saw that.
You’ve worked with Tom Hiddleston before [Only Lovers Left Alive] how was it to get him again this time?
He’s a great actor and he’s a man who appreciates the finer things in life especially culturally and he immediately understood exactly what the film should be about. We went to see him in Coriolanus and stay out during the night, he got on very well with Ben, and he stuck with us and we did the film together. He wanted to do it, when you find an actor like that it has nothing to do with anything else except him wanting to do it. It was very helpful for me having him involved when we were putting the film together.
You’ve worked with may up and coming directors how was to help Wheatley achieve his very distinctive vision on the screen?
It was all about freedom within the resources that I could find, because you need to be as free as you can be to make a film that would be audacious and beautifully made. It was just a soft collaboration and making sure that Ben had as much as we could deliver him to make the film he wanted.
Is that your approach on every film pretty much?
Yeah that’s pretty much my approach and the correct approach I think because to make a good film it’s very difficult there are so many films that are not that good. You always start of thinking your going to make a good film but nobody starts of thinking they are going to make a fantastic film and to get there it has to involve this kind of freedom.
So High-Rise as I’m sure you know is getting pretty mixed reviews which is kind of expected, do prefer getting really positive reviews or do you prefer actually getting mixed reviews, because there’s more of a debate?
I don’t really care, I’m immune to it I mean my earliest films many of them are loved today and a lot of them I think would be the films which the most loved and well-remembered from the years they were made. I’m talking about Citizen Kane which was trashed, or Peeping Tom was trashed, Performance which was trashed or The Shining that was trashed.
Or Tideland which was trashed…
or Tideland which was trashed, or even A Clockwork Orange that was trashed. If you’re not meant to like it you’re not meant to like it. It’s not one of those films your meant to like you’re meant to be stirred by it, it’s like Straw Dogs or a Cronenberg film or something with a vision. [High-Rise] when it played last night at the London film festival the audience was full of people laughing, if you didn’t like it you weren’t mean to like it but it will have a propound impact. I hope it’s successful when it opens but it will be liked Eurkea, Bad Timing, Crash, Naked Lunch etc. High-Rise will still be special and unique in 20 years and people like you will keep it alive.
I’ve been banging on about Tideland for years
You’ll keep it known for the next 50 years, these sort of people keep these films going, but another film that is a sort of wash of entertainment won’t sustain. I mean it’s only satisfying later it’s not satisfying at the time and it’s much better to have that. I’m deluded enough to think that the reviews are pretty good.
That’s why you should never read The Guardian one.
I read the Guardian review and it said I don’t get it.
It’s a ridiculous review.
I didn’t understand but I didn’t understand it when I read that sort of hysteria around Bad Timing, but they have to live with their reviews. The Guardian is disappointing because the Guardian is THE Guardian you know I have friends who read the reviews about my films so it has a weight, so you read The Guardian with two stars and it has a weight even if it’s a piece of shit.
Well Pete Bradshaw might like it, He liked Tideland, which got some of the worst reviews I’ve ever read. I also thought it was a very sweet film.
I did too, totally original Terry Gilliam film but it didn’t get the break it deserved.
You’ve been around for ever and the landscape has changed a lot in the last 10 years, what do you think the future holds for cinema?
Well I’m an optimist, by nature and well the cinema itself the darkened room the cathedral to see movies in I believe that will natural sustain itself as an entity for mass entertainment. Filmmakers making films will still have the same kind of platform. I mean nobody is going to stop telling stories for the camera. It is going to change and we have to mutate or die in this business. I mean I’ve changed so much since I started off in the film industry I’ve seen it change and had to change myself.
What do you think of streaming and Netflix and Amazon and all that kind of stuff?
I think it’s part of life and we have to deal with it.
Are you still working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote?
It’s still in the works but I’m not longer the producer I’m the executive producer, I’ve been busy making other films and it’s in the works. Terry deserves to make this film and we’ve all been working hard for him. Everyone wants to make this film so I’ve got my good luck wishes I hope we make the film. (Gilliam is currently in pre-production and scouting the locations in Spain)
I was really amazed by the production design of the building and the car park, was it a mixture of CGI or was that matte-paintings?
It was CGI done by two or three different companies and there where a lot of effects shots obviously looking down and out. For example the garden was a walled garden we had found and they made it look like the top of the High-Rise. Those cinematic tricks were used to make it appear using CGI to make that work but you know a lot of it was real so it’s a combination of both.
Can you tell me a little bit about the trip to Tangier?
The one with Burroughs.
Oh right Naked Lunch, we also did one for Bad Timing, I’ve done a lot of shooting in Morocco it’s a good place to shoot movies. This particular trip was William Burroughs, myself, Cronenberg and James Grauerholz who worked as Burroughs’ companion and the keeper of the archives and things (he is now the executor of Burrough’s literary estate) so it was a very nice group. We went for a few days for Burroughs to show us “His Tangiers”, it was amazing going some thirty years later after he had written the book he had a similar kind of suit, same cane, hat on and he was recognised by all the people so it was extraordinary to be there with him. We went round to Paul Bowles’ flat which was an amazing thing to see the those two literary giants in the setting of Tangier.
And you had just come of doing The Sheltering Sky.
We shot an enormous amount there for that but the thing with Naked Lunch was we ended up shooting it all in Toronto and you wouldn’t know we weren’t in Tangiers. We shot nothing in Tangier but for The Sheltering Sky we shot extensively in Tangier, weeks and weeks all the trains and it’s where the boat arrives at the beginning, that was a remarkable film to be involved in. I mean you couldn’t do that kind of film anymore it’s a relic from the past The Last Emperor and Little Buddha they’re not feasible anymore and they wouldn’t be made the same way anyway because it all made analogue. There were two primitive digital effects in Little Buddha. The army and that was all brand new and it just looked awful sorry, didn’t mean that didn’t look awful it looked primitive. So those films were all made on the canvas or stage? It was a different experience with those old style films beucase they were made with artisans from around the world.
Well The Last Emperor is one of the last real epics
Well yeah that was an epic we were just fortunate that the Chinese wanted to make that film and they gave us lots of people.
Was it after Empire of the Sun?
No I think it was before, but that was, I didn’t even know that was shot in Shanghai.
Some it was I believe so
We were the first western film there like that, in the Forbidden City which you can’t film in anymore. They wanted us there and we had a lot of leeway, and a lot of people on the set thousands or more and the army showed up.
Can you tell me little about making Tideland?
Well Terry Gilliam sent me the book and it written by Mitch Cullin who is a lovely guy. I liked the book and Terry and Tony Grisoni wrote the script then we found the money somehow. So then we made the film some of it in British Columbia even though it was set in Texas. A really good film and extremely difficult film to make physically, when the train crashes and wildernesses in the kind of Wyeth with the landscape of the big crumbling house. It was also difficult due to the extreme nature of the film in that setting and the innocence of it and the shockingness of the dad being a junkie.
The thing is if she was shooting her dad up with insulin nobody would care.
Ya, Anyway it was shocking it was meant to be a shocking film but that goes on. It’s real it goes on he’s not a malevolent father he’s just a stupid dad.
He’s quite a good father in some regards you know.
He’s playing games with the children and then he unfortunately overdoses. She’s is then exposed to being a child in that place, it’s frightening but it’s a very good film and I hope it will have it’s day in court one day.
I think it it’s starting to I think it has in the last couple of years.
It’s always disappointing when you make them and that happens.
So what are you working on at the moment?
I always keep our films pretty secret because I don’t want to jinx them.
Yeah understandable I know you’re doing a Kinks biopic.
I’m trying to do the film with Julian Temple about the kinks and that’s known about, the other films are still under wraps.
Buy High-Rise and Buy Tideland