Catching Up With Producer Emma ThomasMeet Christopher Nolan's producer — for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in Gotham or in Dunkirk.
ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2017 ISSUE OF PRODUCED BY, PUBLISHED BY MOON TIDE FOR PRODUCERS GUILD OF AMERICA.
Her situation is, admittedly, a little different than most of her producing peers. The “resting state” of many producers is to have a multitude of projects in various states of development or production, following the heat wherever and whenever it appears. As opposed to Emma Thomas, who at any given moment is working on one project, and that project alone. Most producers are constantly seeking and cultivating new connections and industry allies. Thomas’ career to date is the product of a single relationship that spans her personal and professional life—she’s the producer, wife and essential creative partner of visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan. A chance meeting during their first days at University College London blossomed into a decades-spanning collaboration, yielding not only contemporary classics like Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy, but four children as well.
If Thomas’ role as a development producer is by its nature narrower than that of her peers, the challenges she faces in prep and production are almost certainly more expansive—service as Chris Nolan’s producer means that it’s on her to bring to life such elements as interstellar travel, dreams within dreams within dreams and a teetering-on-the-brink Gotham City. One of the few filmmaking teams who appear determined to push the envelope with every new outing, Thomas and Nolan most recently have raised the bar with their thrilling war film, Dunkirk. A compact epic, its elegant cross-cutting narrative, historical authenticity and exhilarating camera work have earned the duo some of the best reviews of their storied careers.
We were fortunate to catch up with Emma Thomas at the Dunkirk press junket at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar. For someone whose work has taken audiences to the outer and inner edges of the known universe, Thomas is reassuringly grounded and accessible. Nearly 30 years into her film career, she sounds as surprised as anyone to have wound up an essential contributor to some of the most successful and admired films of the current generation. Even amid the buzz of the junket, she’s relaxed and friendly. She admits that it helps that everyone seems to really like the film, and anyway, with regard to the press, the stakes for her are lower: “Nobody is that interested in producers,” she deadpans.
Not if we have anything to say about it.
I have to imagine that being in this position, as a blockbuster movie producer, was not your career target, growing up.
It never occurred to me that it was even a possibility.
So, what left turn brought you into producing?
I completely fell into it. My dad was a diplomat, a civil servant. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I assumed I was going to go into the Foreign Service like my dad.
And my first day at university, I met a guy called Chris Nolan. He had always wanted to be a director. I was really fascinated by that, because I didn’t know anything about that world. It was right at the beginning of the school term time when everyone is joining lots of different clubs and societies. And he said, “I’m going to go make films in the Film Society.” I thought, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” I mean, how do you even do that? I had no idea.
So it really started as a social thing. That was just the group of friends that I connected with. I had no idea what a producer did, but I started helping Chris make his films, and that was kind of the beginning of it.
So by the end of university, I decided I didn’t want to go into the foreign office. Chris had some ideas for films, and I figured I’d try and get a job in the film industry. But of course we were in England; there weren’t a huge number of film companies around. But there was one called Working Title. They ran an internship, where you could be a runner for two weeks for free. I did that, and afterwards got my first job with them as a receptionist. I remember my dad came down to meet me. He took me out to lunch and he had a pile of brochures from the civil service in England. I think he was pretty horrified that I had gone to university, the first one in my family to do so, and then I was taking a job as a receptionist.
But that was the beginning of it. I learned an enormous amount from watching Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner but also Jane Frazer, who was my immediate boss. I ended up working as an in-house physical production coordinator. In the meantime, on weekends, we were making our own films.
“I THINK THAT OUR FILMS, WHATEVER THE SIZE, ALL FEEL VERY SIMILAR ON SET, AS STRIPPED BACK AS POSSIBLE AND REALLY FOCUSED ON THE WORK AT HAND.”
So talking about Tim and Eric and Jane, what sort of information and experience did they impart to you?
Tim and Eric, they were head and shoulders above everyone else in England at the time, making films in what I want to call an “American” way. They had very commercial sensibilities but at the same time really cared about script and the artistic integrity of their films. Jane taught me everything about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and what it takes to make a film, from how a production report works to insurance and budgeting. What was most amazing about her was that she was incredibly generous with her time and her expertise and never made me feel like I didn’t have a right to ask questions. She was incredibly encouraging and I’m enormously grateful to the three of them.
When the time came, Chris had finished making this film called Following, which we shot on weekends with no money whatsoever. We were looking at the way independent films were discovered in the U.S., and it seemed very much as though we needed to do the film festival thing. I was talking to Jane about what I wanted to do next and she said, “Well, you could go and work on one of our productions, if you want. Or maybe you could go and work in our LA office.” And of course I went straight for the LA office. That was where I needed to be if we were going to figure out how to put this film that we had made out there.
Landing In LA for the first time, was there a major culture shock?
The system here is very different, with the agencies and the studios and so on. Just learning who everyone was and how it all worked was an incredible eye-opener for me. In the meantime, we were submitting Following to festivals. I look back now and I think, “Gosh, you were so naïve.” Because we really believed that if we just sent these tapes out cold, they would get discovered. We were incredibly lucky that anyone ever watched the film or managed to pick it up from the pile. We did manage to get Following into a couple festivals, including the San Francisco Film Festival. We had shot the film on 16mm but cut it on tape, and we had to have a print to show, which was going to cost us $6,000. We had to raise the money. It was the most intense and insane experience of our lives because we got the print made in the UK, and our lead actor flew the print up to San Francisco. I mean, it had just been finished. He flew it out with hours to spare before our first screening at the festival. The first time we saw this print was when it ran in the theater. I look back on it now and I think we were mad to do that.
After we had a successful screening in San Francisco we hooked up with an amazing guy named Peter Broderick who ran a company called Next Wave Films. Peter gave us finishing funds so that we could blow the film up to 35 mm, and helped us get distribution. We played a bunch of other festivals, while in the meantime, Chris had been writing Memento. On the back of the small-scale success that Following had, we managed to get Memento going.
One of the great things about your and Chris’ careers is that the earlier films each demonstrate a clear growth in terms of scale and production complexity.
Exactly. I would say that the leap from Following to Memento is by far the biggest leap we’ve made. When you look at Chris’ body of work on paper, you would probably think that Insomnia to Batman Begins would be the biggest leap.
I admit, that was my thought, at first.
To me, the biggest jump was actually Following to Memento, because although Memento was a miniscule budget by comparison with the films that we subsequently made, it was the first time that we were making a film with somebody else’s money. You’re no longer pleasing yourself. On Following, we could do whatever we wanted. We controlled every aspect of it. We didn’t have anyone giving us notes. I mean, it was incredible, looking back. On Memento, there were a lot of people with a great deal of money invested, and if they didn’t have money invested, they had their reputations invested. So you find yourself having to do a lot more explanation of what you’re doing.
Especially with a story like Memento.
Especially with Memento. Memento was a script that when I first read it, I remember very clearly a lot of going back and forth among the pages. It was definitely a challenging script, pushing boundaries in a very unique way, just a very different experience. All credit to Newmarket and [producers] Aaron Ryder and Jen and Suzanne Todd for taking a chance on it. It was an incredible act of faith in Chris and in the script and just ballsy beyond belief. I mean, it changed everything for us. I’m eternally grateful for that.
What about the leap from Memento to Insomnia, your first film in the studio system?
Yes, that was the first film that we worked on with Warner Bros, with Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove of Alcon financing and producing it along with Ed McDonnell and Paul Witt. I went into the project with no credit or position guaranteed, but after seeing the way I worked with Chris, Andrew and Broderick generously gave me the credit in addition to allowing us to develop our own relationship with the studio. It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish then an independent film. It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish than an independent film. I mean, Memento, for example, we didn’t have distribution when we were making that film. That was a process that came later. So when we shot Memento, it was a very pure sort of production process. Whereas on Insomnia, we were already in the studio system …
You have a slot and maybe a release date…
You have a slot. And in casting of the film, there are names that you have to attach. It’s just a massive education.
Many producers say that’s their favorite part of the gig, the way the job is a constant learning process.
Exactly. Somebody asked me a question earlier, to the effect of, “How do you keep excited about your job?” And I felt like, it’s so obvious to me! Because every two years, it’s like we’re living in a different universe. Every film has a new set of challenges and a new set of people and personalities and I think that’s massively exciting.
What about the education in blockbusting franchise filmmaking, with Batman Begins?
That was definitely a kind of baptism by fire. It was a whole different level. For a long time on Batman Begins, right up until we started shooting, it was just Chris and I. There was no other producer on it. In fact, Chris wasn’t a producer on Batman Begins.
Chuck Roven produced it, right?
Yes, Chuck came on to produce it with me, and we formed a great working partnership which lasted for four films, including Man of Steel, where he took the lead. But we approached it very much as we approach all of our films, which is that we keep it to as small a group as we possibly can. Particularly on set, I think that our films, whatever the size, all feel fairly similar, as stripped back as possible and really focused on the work at hand. In many ways there are a lot of benefits to making a film like a Batman film within a studio system because it’s so important to the studio that you’re never going to fall between the cracks when it comes to marketing or whatever. As long as you’re all on the same page about the film that you’re making and there’s a level of trust between you and the studio, it’s a pretty fantastic way to make a film.
I think it’s much harder to make a non-branded film. I mean, they don’t even make films like Insomnia these days. But if you were in the $50 million cop thriller category, fighting for their attention against these huge branded properties I think would be really, really tough. So Batman Begins was eye-opening all around, but I definitely feel like we benefited from the high-profile nature of the character. Of course, that makes the pressure harder in some ways, but we felt very confident about the film we were making. As long as the core of the project is solid, then you can deal with that stuff.
I really can’t reiterate it enough: Chris does produce on all of his films … I think Batman Begins was the last one that he didn’t. But as a director, he is a producer’s dream. I remember Chuck saying that once—and it’s because he’s incredibly responsible and articulate in terms of what he wants. People, I think, have the notion that everything is very secret and closed-in with Chris. He does ask that we keep the circle small. But he never holds the studio at arm’s length. He brings them in, because ultimately he understands that it’s a partnership and if you fight them, they’re going to come down on you harder. It’s so much better to have an open dialogue, show them what you’re doing and bring them into the process, so that they can be invested in what it is you’re trying to achieve as much as you are.
At this point I imagine Chris has built the trust that a studio is going to let him do what he wants to do. But earlier in your guys’ career, before you built that trust, how did you work with the studio to convince them to take the risks you felt you needed to take?
I think you just have to work harder. We’re very lucky in that Chris has achieved that level of trust with the studio that has enabled him to make a film like Dunkirk, that I think another filmmaker, who wasn’t in his position, might not be able to make. For that film, the process of explaining to Warner Bros. what it was about the story that we felt was the reason we should make it was a fairly easy process, because they know that when Chris says he’s going to deliver something, he will deliver it.
Obviously that wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of Batman Begins, for example, where we were taking the studio’s crown jewel and doing something different with it, I would say the biggest difference was in the pitching process, whether it be pitching what the story was or illustrating for them what the design was going to look like, on the car, for instance. We had to devote a bit more attention to that. To me, it speaks to Chris’ openness, which I generally don’t think people realize is a characteristic of his because they tend to think it’s all secrecy. But on that film when he was developing the script with David Goyer, we had Nathan Crowley simultaneously working in our garage in a sort of early form prep, designing an early version of the Batmobile. So when the studio read the script they also were able to look at the very early designs for the car, which was a very good illustration of how different the world was going to be.
It makes a big difference to be able to give them something concrete like that.
So, in terms of your personal and professional relationship with Chris, how does the partnership work at the various stages of production? That collaboration must operate at different levels at different stages of the project.
Definitely. I would say I’m usually the first person that gets to see the script. From the moment he has an idea, he’ll tell me, generally speaking, what the idea is. And then he’ll go away, and he’ll write something or he’ll think about it. Then he’ll come back and tell me about it. And then I’ll read the script. I’ll tell him what I think. But I very much view my role as being a facilitator, someone who’s there to help him achieve his vision.
That’s the producer’s job, after all.
That is ultimately what we’re here for. Being married to each other, he can be very confident that I only have one agenda, which is to make the best film that we possibly can make. I don’t work with other directors. I don’t work on other projects. I don’t have anything else going on other than making the best film that we possibly can, and I have utter faith that the best film that we can make is going to be the one that he wants to make.
Okay. well, let’s just take Dunkirk for example. From the moment he says, “I think Dunkirk is where my heart is taking me,” where are you? Is there a moment where you start thinking, “Oh no. That means we’re going to have to shoot a movie on the water…?”
At what point do you start having independent ideas that you may or may not share? At what point do your “producer wheels” start turning?
From the beginning, from the moment I read the script, I’m thinking about those logistical aspects. “Oh my God. How on earth are we going to do this?” Particularly as it related to this film. We’re at the point now where I have such a good sense of how Chris is going to want to make a film that when I read the script for Dunkirk, I knew he was never going to be satisfied making this on a green screen stage in LA. I knew immediately that this was going to be the “location version” with real planes and real boats and real everything to the degree that we could get them.
Including—significantly, I have to believe—a real ocean.
That’s something we hadn’t really done before. The first thing that enabled us to pull it off was finding a really fantastic marine coordinator, Neil Andrea. Because the logistical issues with shooting on water are just bananas, even assuming that the weather is good—and that’s a big assumption to make when you’re also shooting in Northern Europe. We were shooting on a small boat that fit maybe three actors on there at any given time and a bare minimum crew: Chris, [DP] Hoyte [Van Hoyteme], first AD, sound. I would be on there if I could be.
As well as one of the biggest cameras in existence.
Oh yeah, plus an IMAX camera! It was just so fascinating. I mean, I have this amazing visual in my head: There’s the Moonstone [a small family boat that plays a significant role in the story] and then behind it you have the safety boat, the camera boat, hair and makeup boat, stunts. I mean, just a trail of boats, one after the other. It was absolutely incredible.
It sounds like you needed your own little Dunkirk flotilla for every shot.
Exactly. And then of course the shot is all fine, but then as soon as it turns in the other direction, then all of those people and boats have to get out of the way. And then there’s the question of where everyone goes to the bathroom. How does everyone eat? It took us at least 45 minutes to get out to where we were shooting every day. So we would go out there, shoot, then we had a PA just bringing lunch boxes out to everybody. We’d eat on the boat and then come in at the end of the day.
It was insane on every level. Things like boat-to-boat transfers are incredibly dangerous. So you have to be really careful about making sure that when you go out in the morning, as far as possible everyone is on the boat that they’re going to stay on. Obviously people do have to go from one boat to another. But you’ve got to be really careful about it. The making of the film is very important, but the most important thing is safety. Because it’s going to be a great film, but ultimately we want everyone to get home in one piece.
“THE FACT THAT HE IS VERY RESPONSIBLE ABOUT MAKING COMPROMISES IN OTHER AREAS MEANS THAT I TOTALLY TRUST HIM WHEN HE SAYS, ‘NO, THIS IS SOMETHING I NEED.'”
Nothing wrecks a shoot like somebody getting hurt, or worse.
Exactly. As I said, he’s a producer on the film, and he’s a very responsible director. Safety is paramount. Likewise, he’s not a director who has any interest in making a film that doesn’t have the chance to succeed. Yes, Dunkirk would’ve been a lot easier to make if we’d have doubled the budget. I think there is a world in which we could’ve fought to try and get more money than we ultimately asked for. But Chris never wants to make a film that is asking to fail. If we had made this film for too much money, then it would’ve made it that much harder to make a film that would be financially profitable for the studio.
Ultimately, we want to keep making films. So we were in lock step from the beginning about how much we felt was the correct amount to ask for to tell this story. We knew it was going to be extremely challenging,shoehor because we have significantly less than we had on the last few [films], given the fact that we knew we were going to be casting unknowns in a lot of key roles. And it’s a very English story. It doesn’t feature anyone in tights and a cape.
Are you sure you couldn’t have shoehorned someone in there? “Dunkirk Man” could’ve really put you over the top.
Oh, I know! [laughs] But we agreed on what the budget was going to be. Then we started talking. “Okay. Well, within that number, how exactly are we going to do it?” That’s when we begin to get slightly more into the territory of him saying, “Well, this is the way I wanted it.” And I don’t say, “No, you can’t do it that way,” but what I say is, “Are we really sure that that’s where we want to devote our resources? Is it really going to be worth it? Are we going to, at the end of the day, feel like, ‘Damn, we should never have spent that money there because we could’ve put it somewhere else?’”
Can you recall a conversation like that that you guys had on this movie?
There’s a shot in the film where all of the little ships are approaching. They’re on their way to Dunkirk and the Moonstone goes past a big destroyer. And there’s this seemingly endless row of soldiers on the deck, all lined up on the side. That destroyer was a real French ship called the Maillé-Brézé. It cost us a lot to bring that. It was in a berth in Nice or somewhere near there, and it didn’t have an engine. We had to tow it up. It was a very big deal to get it, but it was the only destroyer that we were able to get. We were getting fairly close to the shoot, but we hadn’t quite pulled the trigger on it coming yet. I was asking, “Are you sure? Couldn’t we just do this with visual effects?” We had all these other ships that kind of looked enough like destroyers that we could have made it work.
Shooting the bow from this one, the stern from that one…
Exactly. I was thinking, “Can’t we just do something like that?” I really made quite a half-racket to get rid of the Maillé-Brézé. And Chris said, “No, I think that this is going to be an important shot. I think it’s going to be a defining moment in the film. I really want to be able to see the little boats next to the destroyer.”
So I gave in. “Okay, fine.” And when I watch the film now, for me it is a defining moment. I don’t think there’s any way that we could’ve replicated it with a visual effects solution. So I think that a big part of a producer’s job is knowing when to trust your creative partner, and I am extremely lucky in that my creative partner is somebody who is very clear about what he needs and what he doesn’t need. The fact that he is very responsible about getting rid of stuff and making compromises in other areas means that I totally trust him when he says, “No, this is something I really need.”
Another massively important part of our job as producers is working with the marketing department of the studio. At every step of the process of making our films, we’re bringing the studio in to see the early concept work or to see designs or just to talk about what it is that we see as being the reason for making this film. One of our jobs as producers is explaining to people what’s special about this film, why they should bother to come out to the cinema and spend two hours in a darkened room looking at lights dancing off a screen. And over the course of making the film, we gradually develop that from those earlier conversations about design and concepts.
The people at the studio… they’re your first audience, basically.
They’re our first audience. Exactly. I think that completely crystallizes what it is that I’m saying. We want the studio to be as invested in this, in our film, as we are. The thing about producing, which I always think is so fantastic and fun, is that there are so many different elements to it. Other than the director, there’s really no one else who’s on the film from conception to beyond release. And I love that.