Film producer Jeremy Thomas wins Coolidge Award for 'Last Emperor,' 'Sexy Beast' and more

Ed Symkus

It’s the age-old question that’s been kicking around Hollywood since the days of the silents: What exactly does a producer do?

British producer Jeremy Thomas, who’s coming to town next week to be honored with the annual Coolidge Award, still hasn’t figured it out. But he’s comfortable offering up one simplistic description: “You take charge and you make things happen.”

Thomas has done just that over the past three decades on a string of films, including “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” “The Sheltering Sky,” “Naked Lunch,” David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and “Sexy Beast.” He took home a Best Picture Oscar for “The Last Emperor.”

That 1987 film, for which he’s best known and which was fraught with enormous challenges that he shared with director Bernardo Bertolucci, is one that he still thinks about often.

“It was the first film to be made — and on an epic scale, pre-digital effects — in the Forbidden City and all over China,” he says by phone from his London office. “My job included supporting, emotionally and physically, the film and the filmmakers involved, keeping people’s confidence up and keeping the show on the road, day after day after day, through five months of filming.

“I look back on it now,” he adds, “and wonder how we on Earth we managed to do it.”

Thomas, 58, was born into the film business. His uncle, Gerald Thomas, directed the entire series of “Carry On” comedies from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, and his father, Ralph Thomas, directed a number of entries in the equally popular “Doctor” series from the 1950s to the 1970s.

“I worked in the film labs when I was 17,” says Thomas, “and got to work in the cutting rooms and on the floor loading cameras and everything else.

“My father told me that making films was better than work,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t a good student, and I couldn’t wait to leave school. Anyway, I was committed to making films at an early age. It was a life I found fascinating. It was glamorous; I was surrounded by movie stars and directors.”

Thomas worked his way up from assistant editor spot on cult items such as the reggae-flavored “The Harder They Come” to his first producing credit on the Australian outlaw film “Mad Dog Morgan.” But nothing prepared him for taking charge of the dazzling Cronenberg masterpiece “Naked Lunch.”

“That was an extraordinary experience,” he says. [My film] ‘Bad Timing’ had won the most popular movie award at the Toronto Film Festival. I was celebrating in a reggae bar downtown, and there was David Cronenberg, right next to me. Over a Red Stripe we started talking about books, and then we got to ‘Naked Lunch.’ I told him that was an incredible thing and it affected me when I read it. And he said he wanted to make it into a movie. Then there was a moment in my eyes, having seen all of his movies, and knowing his films well. I said, ‘You’re the only person who could make it.’ So I got the rights from [author] William Burroughs. He was very keen for Cronenberg to be the writer-director, because he loved David’s films.”

Thomas, Cronenberg and Burrows headed off to Tangier, where they planned to shoot the film. Cronenberg later wrote the script, and about four years later they made the film. But it didn’t happen in Tangier.

“The first Gulf War had happened,” recalls Thomas, “and we had to move the film. We shot it all in Toronto, and that’s why the film looks even stranger than normal. We shot it making you think it was Tangier, but on the streets of Toronto, with camels and things.

“We even recreated a bit of the Tangier medina, and in fact it worked out at quite a saving,” he says, laughing. “Saddam saved us a couple of million bucks.”

Thomas is the first to admit that his films don’t fit into the comfy categories that Hollywood prefers. That’s why it’s hard to find the money to make them.

“They’re not market-driven,” he explains. “They’re driven by [my own] taste.”

But he finds that there’s always room for surprise. One of his biggest ones came with the release of Cronenberg’s “Crash,” taken from the J.G. Ballard novel about people who find it kind of sexy to engage in car accidents.

“It was a shock-horror for people when they saw it,” he recalls. “I had no idea that ‘Crash’ was going to rub so many people up the wrong way. It’s sort of an intellectual movie; it’s not an exploitation film in any way.”

The film flopped at the box office but went on to win a special jury award “for audacity” at the Cannes Film Festival. All part of the game for Thomas, who’s known all along that he chose the right profession.

“I’ve been very fortunate, and luck has played a part in the amount of films I’ve made,” he says. “It was in my blood.”

Jeremy Thomas receives the Coolidge Award at an award ceremony at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline on April 16 at 8 p.m. Actors Debra Winger and Tim Roth, and directors Julien Temple and Nicolas Roeg will be in attendance. Admission is $35. An afternoon with Jeremy Thomas stars at 2 p.m. on April 17. Admission is $9.75. A panel discussion with Thomas and colleagues takes place on April 17 at 8 p.m.

Ed Symkus can be reached at