French producer Thomas Langmann is as much of a hybrid as the film he is currently promoting: the silent, black-and-white The Artist, the Weinstein Co’s awards-season ode to Old Hollywood written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Like The Artist‘s Hollywood matinee idol George Valentin, who lives between the worlds of silent films and talkies, Langmann’s producing sensibility straddles the spheres of Hollywood and France. As the son of director Claude Berri, he knows what French audiences want, evident in his French blockbuster producer credits Asterix At The Olympic Games and the Mesrine French criminal series starring Vincent Cassel. However, Langmann is also familiar with the American way of making movies, having cut his teeth as a gofer on such productions as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (produced by Langmann’s uncle Paul Rassam). The Paris-based Langmann spoke to AwardsLine contributor Scott Timberg about his roots, producing style and rolling the dice on a long-lost film genre that was considered a gamble by French and U.S. standards.
AWARDSLINE: You came into the film at a pretty early stage. What was it about Michel or his idea that made you want to get involved?
LANGMANN: I’ve known Michel for quite a long time: I’ve known his movies and wanted to work with him on a project called Fantômas, based on a very famous character in Europe. He said, “I want to do it as a black-and-white silent.” I responded, “Well, that’s not really what I want to do for Fantômas, but if you like black-and-white silent movies — it’s an original idea — why not do an original script?” I paid him to write a script and he completed it within four to five months. The script was a well-written, simple story.
AWARDSLINE: As artistically exciting as the idea was, didn’t it seem like a black-and-white silent movie would be commercial suicide, especially outside France?
LANGMANN: Yes, even in France. I knew it would be extremely difficult to finance, maybe impossible. Both Michel and I are lucky that we’re making commercial movies in France. But television channels here have no interest in black-and-white movies. We had to change distributors; Warner Bros France came in just as we were shooting.
AWARDSLINE: Michel described you as the craziest man in France. Do you see yourself as a risk-taker?
LANGMANN: Well, that’s the way I’ve been told to make cinema. Cinema is gambling. It is better to gamble on a unique film even if it seems like suicide. I told (Michel), especially when The Artist went over budget — he kept asking for more money, we went to the U.S. to make it a real American movie, because of the subject — I told him: “The only way is if you make it a masterpiece. Otherwise we are in deep shit.”
AWARDSLINE: Let’s talk about the Weinstein Company. What did the Weinsteins see in the film that made them want to distribute it?
LANGMANN: Harvey (Weinstein) flew to France just to watch a black-and-white silent film he knew little about. He came about eight weeks before we went to Cannes. The film wasn’t completed [in its entirety] at that moment, but Harvey sat alone in the screening room and loved it. He’s also a crazy man. Harvey wasn’t with anyone else from his company nor friends. He was the only one in the screening room. Afterwards he said, “I want this film.” The movie at that stage was nothing. The movie wasn’t even assured to be released in France.
AWARDSLINE: What did the film cost and who put the money up?
LANGMANN: There are different ways to make up a budget. Michel and Jean reduced their salaries from their usual take. We were close to 11 million euros and went a bit overbudget to 14 million euros. Funding was provided by French pay TV channel CanalPlus, France’s Studio 37, France 3 Cinema, Warner Bros France and my own production company, La Petite Reine.
AWARDSLINE: Did the French government put any Euros in?
LANGMANN: There were no subsidies at all because we decided to shoot in the U.S. with an American crew. So we didn’t even ask. We tried to get a tax credit from California, but we were unlucky on it. There’s a lottery.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve been a successful blockbuster producer in France, with Asterix and the Mesrine films. Did that make financiers more comfortable working with you on this film?
LANGMANN: Not this type of film.
AWARDSLINE: The Weinstein Company has had success with movies like The King’s Speech and Inglourious Basterds. But there have been some foreign films, i.e. The Concert ($658,000 domestic box office) and foreign-themed films, i.e. Miral ($373,000) that they couldn’t break in this country. What made you think they were the right company to take an eccentric film into the American marketplace?
LANGMANN: We’ve known the work of Harvey going back to Miramax. I know Harvey is not perfect. But he loves movies. For that kind of movie, that’s what you want. You don’t think about making money first. For this movie, you need to be passionate. I knew Harvey could be passionate, but I was in front of him when he saw the movie. We were known for making movies for Europe or just for France.
AWARDSLINE: Did the Weinstein Company give you any assurance of an Oscar push?
LANGMANN: We always spoke about going the first step. We said if we got a nomination for best (foreign-language film), that would be great. But it’s not really a foreign film — it’s a silent film, shot in the U.S. with American actors (John Goodman and James Cromwell); it’s almost more American than France. It’s a rare case. Harvey didn’t just want to acquire English-speaking countries but non-English as well — that gave us confidence.
AWARDSLINE: Are Oscars important to you? Has the Academy been fair to French films?
LANGMANN: I have at my home, for more than 15 years, an Oscar from 1965, The Chicken (Le Poulet), for best short film. [The film came out in 1965; the Oscar was awarded in 1966.] When my father won, he did not have the money to come to Hollywood, so he received it by mail. He gave it to me years ago and I’ve never touched it. It has the look of ’65: I love this object; it has a lot of symbolism.