“Have I done terrible things?” – Producer David M. Thompson (The VH Interview)

BAFTA and Emmy award-winning producer David M. Thompson has been a driving force behind British film and television for decades. Thompson founded the corporation-led but independently-run BBC Films up until 2007, when the division was formally re-integrated into BBC Fiction. Thompson then left to start Origin Pictures, his own production company.

He’s spent his career championing the work of new directors, and is credited on a swath of well-regarded films including Billy Eliot, Dirty Pretty Things, In the Loop, Men Who Stare at Goats, Eastern Promises and Revolutionary Road. 

I had the chance to speak with him about his recent feature The Sense of An Ending, starring Jim Broadbent and Emily Mortimer.

Tell us a little bit about The Sense of An Ending

It’s a film about memory; the tricks that memory plays on us and how our memory is so partial and unreliable. It’s also a film about a sense of longing and loss. It’s really difficult to pin down what it’s actually about as the film is open to a great deal of emotion. It’s about people trying to reassess their past, come to terms with what kind of people they were in the past and the way they explore their past.

In some ways, for our central character, played by Jim Broadbent, it’s about learning about your past, though not in a preachy or judgemental or obvious way. Most of all it’s about the unreliable tricks your memory plays on you, and how you recreate or reconstruct a version of yourself. It’s very much about longing for a sense of connection. About a man who wants to be emotionally in touch, or apparently wants to be. It’s not an easy thing to summarise, everybody takes something different from it. It’s elusive, and allusive in a way.

The book that your movie is based on won the Man Booker Prize. You’ve worked on adapting material before with films like Revolutionary Road. How was it adapting The Sense of An Ending?

It was really challenging, but Julian Barnes is such a wonderful playwright: “go ahead and betray me” he said when we met. We were given plenty of license while remaining true to the spirit of the book. Certain things have been built up, such as the character played by Michelle Dockery.

It’s a very much loved and very famous book but it’s a very difficult book to pin down on the screen. That was the central challenge of it because it’s not a straightforward emotional journey with straightforward character arcs, as they’d say in Hollywood. It’s much more complex than that – it’s a subtle tale.  It’s not a film with a satisfying ending, at least not in a normal way; it doesn’t have a conclusive ending. The trick is to try and have an ending which is open-ended but still satisfying, in a way which is true to the book.

It’s interesting that you talk about nuance and subtlety, as it’s been made clear that Jim Broadbent was the first choice as the main character. What is it about Jim which made him perfect for this sort of story?

He’s very subtle, he’s very nuanced. He doesn’t give a lot away, and he stays locked in brilliantly well, as he’s playing a very locked-in character – a man who’s done a terrible thing in the past. Not Jim – the character!

It’s haunted him without him even knowing that it’s haunted him, he’s not even sure if it is him that’s done it. It’s a film which is about a man unlocking his own emotional world, in a way.

Do any of the film’s themes resonate with you?

[Laughs] You mean have I done terrible things? I think it resonates with everybody at a certain age. One finds oneself thinking “Christ, did I really do that?”, “was I really that person?”

One doesn’t have to be Jewish and guilt-ridden to identify with this. We all try to work out where things went wrong and apportion blame in life. In our story Jim’s character hasn’t actually killed anybody, but he does feel a sense of responsibility.

It’s a kind of emotional and psychological thriller, in a way.

The Sense of an Ending jumps between timelines and decades fairly often, what kind of challenges did that present?

Moulding the flashbacks in was very challenging for ourselves and for the director, trying to find a style that worked. Even getting an actor to look like your main character and trying to weave it all in a seamless form was very challenging.

You already have experience doing just that with The Woman in Gold.

Yes, and it’s quite similar in that respect. Both films presented challenges; when you do these films you get lost in the past and people don’t want to come back to the present if you’re not careful. Both films have that kind of challenge, to make it all mesh, and we spent a lot of time in the cutting room to make that happen.

How was it working with Ritesh Batra?

He was great; he’s new to filming in England, and as you’ll see when the film comes out, he has an eye for all these English mannerisms. He was a very inventive and focused – really emboldened the actors. It was great working with him, he had a real vision for it. We saw that as soon as we saw The Lunchbox. He’s very passionate about the material and incredibly meticulous.

As a producer are you more involved with line production, or do you focus on creative aspects of production?

Both, as I’m in charge of my own company we’re very focussed on budgeting and organisation as much as creative vision, and that’s the way I’ve always worked ever since I was working at the BBC. You try to keep track of every aspect of it – it’s a delicate balance. Creatively, once you have a director they’re in charge of shooting the film, but as a producer I’ve always thought I’m not just in charge of raising the money and sorting the catering truck, but very much involved in the creative aspects, from the very start of the scripting stage.

Sometimes with a director you have healthy disagreements, and you challenge each other. That’s all part of the experience. As a producer I’ve always tried to focus on the creative vision, and make things worth telling. Also I try to make something audiences will go to see.

Often it’s a real joy to be on set, and often it’s a real pain. It’s a mixture; the agony and the ecstasy.

Once they’re shooting, it’s much harder to influence their shooting style if that’s what you want to do. I’ve worked with some amazing directors – people don’t know who they are. One of the most amazing directors I’ve ever worked with was Alan Clarke; working with him, one was just in awe of his vision. I’ve worked with Sam Mendes, where we watched a masterclass of acting going on together from Kate Winslet.

What are some changes, trends and challenges facing modern British Film?

There’s so much brilliant work on television now, it’s so hard to know what’s going to get through. When it does work, it’s important to know what kind of style will work in Britain. It’s harder and harder to find the space to pull people in to the cinema now; it’s hard to differentiate because there’s so much great storytelling on television.

I am finding it quite hard, as is everybody else, I think, to navigate their way through this; literary property is a good thing to have, as it gives you something to kick off with, and get over the first hurdle. I’ve done a lot of films like X+Y, which is a really sweet film about a maths genius, which are a lot harder to market. There are gentle comedies like What We Do in the Holidays, and we’re struggling now to grapple with what could work, what brings people in. It’s not straightforward at all. Really powerful, well-told stories are perfect, ideally with a bit of an epic sweep. Sometimes intense, emotional stuff can work just as well.

What sort of work can we expect from you in the near future?

We’re going to do a film with a very powerful story about the breakup of a marriage, from the perspective of a son. Really strong and emotional sort of drama.

We’re hoping to do another film with the guy who gave us What We Did on Our Holiday, that’s Andy Hamilton; lots of other things at various stages.

We’re still hoping to make a movie of A Tale of Two Cities with a wonderful script from David Farr, as well as lots of other projects we’re picking up. There is lots of television coming up: we’ve got The Woman in White coming up on the BBC shortly, a great project about Catherine the Great, and a big Sci-Fi project.

We’re trying to balance between film and television, which is not easy as there’s a double set of relationships. It’s a great place for a business to be, but there’s a lot to keep up with.

The Sense of An Ending is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from Monday.