Independent British cinema has been richly enhanced by the talents of veteran Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas and darkly humorous auteur director Ben Wheatley. The two met in London recently to discuss their new collaboration.
We’re in the world of make-believe and stardust for this month’s Conversation, meeting two of the most exciting exponents of the British and international film industries, one with 35 years experience, one a young(ish) buck on the rise.
Jeremy Thomas’s Recorded Picture Company has produced films famous and notorious across all genres: from the Sex Pistols mockumentary The Great Rock’n’ Roll Swindle to the hypnotic Japanese prisoner-of-war tale Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence via Jonathan Glazer’s maverick masterpiece Sexy Beast and Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The Last Emperor.
Ben Wheatley has quickly made a name for himself as a filmmaker who paints with a strange, candid and darkly comic brush: Kill List was a one-last-job buddy movie that became as dark as The Wicker Man; A Field in England was a bloody and psychedelic trip set during the English Civil War.
Thomas and Wheatley have recently joined forces to adapt JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, a dystopian vision of a middle-class tower block gone mad, bad and page-turningly dangerous to know. The collaborators sat down in Thomas’s memorabilia-bedecked office, just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, to talk about how they work and why they do it.
Founded: Recorded Picture Company in 1974
Production: over 50 films, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award-winner The Last Emperor and recently Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.
RPC’s key directors: David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Terry Gilliam and Jonathan Glazer.
First full-length feature: directed Down Terrace in 2009, in which a crime family tries to unmask a police informant in its midst. Previously, Wheatley directed British surreal comedy shorts entitled The Wrong Door.
Breakthrough film: Kill List, 2011, a violent buddy movie with dark undertones that made Wheatley’s name as a director.
Jeremy Thomas: High-Rise is in its nascent stage so I’m superstitious about talking about something in detail until it’s really real. At the moment we’re talking about how we’re going to make it, what it might look like and who the actors are going to be, apart from Tom Hiddleston who’ll be playing Dr Robert Laing. I’ve already tried to make this film before, trying to set it slightly in the future, and I didn’t manage to do it. Then I heard that you were interested and that you love JG Ballard and I thought, “This is a film I want to see.”
Ben Wheatley: I’ve never really been a director for hire in respect of looking through scripts and feeling, “Oh, I could bring something to it.” I’ve always made my own material, whether it’s been written by Amy [Jump, Wheatley’s script collaborator] or a combination of the two of us. This is what you might call independent cinema, where you develop your own work, write your own script and push it forward. The other is TV, advertising or big studio films, where as a director you become part of a big package that’s put together. I’ve always been a bit wary about doing all that stuff to end up in Hollywood.
JT: Hollywood is a different sort of cinema, though: an industrialised business that dominates 90 per cent of screens around the western world. It’s the cinema of Spider-Man and Batman; it’s something for mass consumption like McDonald’s. It’s very different to the ideas that we grew up with. The skills you learn to make independent cinema are the same ones you use in that conglomerate culture but we work in something that’s more tailor-made, more handmade. It’s hard to get strong ideas across in mass entertainment. Perhaps we work in something more provocative and thought-provoking.
BW: Cinema comes from two places. Its origins are as something to show next to roller-coaster rides in a fairground and the other side was film-plays. When those two come together you get pure cinema. A big Hollywood blockbuster is more of the fairground ride whereas a period drama is the film-play. In the middle you’ve got someone like Martin Scorsese who’s a mixture of the two – it’s rushing at you, it’s a visceral experience but it’s also drama.
JT: We can deliver that, too. You make decisions about the films you want to be involved with and they exist in such different landscapes, aesthetic and commercial. You and I watch the credits after the credits, the small print; these names and companies show you where the money came from. That’s like a roadmap if you know the industry well enough.
BW: That’s the end credit at the end of a very long process, for sure. In terms of starting projects, I suppose they’re all different from the beginning?
JT: For a producer like me it becomes something that I share with a director. The director is dominant on matters creative. The producer’s in charge of setting the movie up, financing and organising the film, getting it running and involved in matters artistic without being an interference. Ideally it’s a close, helpful relationship right until the moment the film’s released. Film sets are a tricky place: high-pressure, creative, a director has to make a thousand decisions a day – everything from the real creative process to “What colour do you want this comb to be?”
BW: It’s exactly like that. I think directing can be a lot of different things depending on the project. I try to understand as much about the nuts and bolts of on-set directing as I can but I’m also thinking about the life of the film and how it might be marketed. Sometimes I think directing is like the rock’n’roll thing of people wanting to do it because they want to be rock stars rather than because they want to make music. You’ve got to just want to make films.
JT: Directing a film is very intense. Once you’re on that train it consumes every moment other than when you’re asleep. It’s something you have to put your whole life into.
BW: Films change with your experience, don’t they? I’ve watched The Shining many times and it’s seemed a bit different on every occasion.
JT: Those films that you love are often in the back of your head, especially when you’re trying to explain your vision of a film to someone who you’d like to support it. You can’t exactly give them an idea of the atmosphere and design of the film so you give them a couple of movies as an example. It’s quite a fun game so long as you don’t sell your vision short.
BW: I’ve always wanted to cross Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and Psycho!
JT: You’ve got it. That’s a Friday night cocktail game! Working with a director with such rich knowledge of film isn’t essential but it’s lovely when it happens.
BW: For me, ideally it attains the status of mulch: nice and rich but something that never turns into quotation. Once you’re there and the set is up and the actors are there and the cameraman, you’re feeling the mood; it tells you what it’s going to be. The thing you’ve caught in the camera becomes the reality. You’ll try and push it one way but sometimes you just have to go with its nature.
JT: A lot of things happen by chance. You can get lucky; you need to have an attitude where problems can be seen as opportunities. I’m on set every day; I want to understand it and watch it made.
BW: As the filmmaker you have to be the film’s first fan and you don’t let it out until you’re sure. After that everyone’s point of view is valid but you can’t listen to it. Likewise it’s important to watch the film with an audience but their opinion of it isn’t important. You can feel an audience’s emotion; that palpable emotion can be useful.
JT: Casting’s a magic part of the process. First of all, it’s practical: they’ve got to be available on the dates you want them, there’s a pressure to make your film attractive; trying to get people in the movie who the retailer wants. And you have to want the people as a director. It’s great when you find an actor who’s very good and also wants to do your film very much.
BW: Exactly. Tom Hiddleston was who we wanted from the start when Amy and I had a whiteboard of people we thought would be good. When you’ve got the actors involved it really comes alive.
JT: “One/take one” is my favourite moment. The first shout of “Action!” In Japan everyone wears brand-new clothes for the first day of shooting, it’s a tradition. People love the movies because they’re larger than life. It’s life that’s small, you see.
BW: Anything else?
JT: Well, catering’s very important on a film.