Tom Thurman [Interview]

Documentaries are a wonderful thing, wouldn’t you say?  They are the truth in life, spoken to us in such a fashion that one can not help but feel both informed and entertained.  Unlike a ficitonal based story, a documentary manages to offer excitement in things that actually happened, yet still leave us in awe.  And documentarian Tom Thurman has been a mastermind behind the art of documentaries in his long lasting career.

Tom may be known to folks for any number of documentaries he may have done.  But, for literary junkies and drug culture fans such as myself, I fell in love with Tom’s work when he created Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride:  Hunter S. Thompson On Film.  Essentially the film is simply a who’s who, star laced cast talking about how they knew Hunter.  But, if you look beyond the surface, you will see something far more phenomenal.  Thurman documents it best when he catches a certain celebrity mentioning that other celebrities never really fascinate a celebrity.  But, Hunter?  Hunter was the man people from every accord wanted to know.  The likes of Sean Penn, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, Johnny Depp, Bill Murray, and on and on.  They all wanted a piece of Hunter.  And Hunter wanted a piece of them.  It might have been a piece of their ear in which he would shoot off with a .45 magnum at his first liking, but it was a piece.  Hunter was  a man who lived the life he wanted to know, and didn’t give a damn about the fame.  Fame was simply the sort of being that could keep him on a steady diet of Chivas Regal and grape fruits.

And Tom Thurman brought the power of Hunter out better than any documentarian has ever managed to do.  But, given the man’s reputation and past bodies of work, it’s not hard to imagine he could do such things with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.  He is one of the hardest working cats in the business, and you may not know it.  But, you should, and you should feel ashamed for not recognizing it.  It was a rare treat to get Tom to sit still for a few moments to answer a few questions I have been dying to as the Master of Nolte, the cinematographer of truth, if you will.  So, take a moment to see what Tom has to say, and then get your ass some education through Thurman himself.  Start with Netflix and see Hunter S. Thompson in a brand new light.  Enjoy!

What is it about documentary filmmaking that you love?  What is it that draws you to this format over feature films?

I love storytelling.  And the simplicity and intimacy of working one-on-one with people has many advantages over dragging around the bulky apparatus (logistically and financially) of a feature film.  Opportunities for distribution for docs have really improved over the past two decades, so the fear of making something that no one will ever see has diminished as well.

 From a professional stand point, how does one prepare an interview with the likes of someone like Johnny Depp, Aretha Franklin, Charlton Heston or George McGovern such as you have in your illustrious career?

You have to do your homework.  Enjoy yourself, and not take yourself too seriously.  And be patient.  Aretha made me wait for 2 days, but everyone has to wait a while on The Queen, right?

Out of everyone you interviewed during Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride, who would you say was even as close to being as eccentric as Hunter S. Thompson?

Nick Nolte.

Hunter S. Thompson.  John Ford.  Harry Crews.  And…..Nick Nolte?  How did the idea of specifically profiling Nick Nolte come to life?

Nick narrated my Thompson doc, and we got to be friends.  We wanted to do something together, but we didn’t know what it would be.  I wanted to profile him, but I wanted to approach this one differently.  The breakthrough came in a late-night conversation with the British film critic and historian David Thomson.  He suggested the idea of having Nick interview himself, and right then I knew that—if I could get Nick to agree to it—I would have something special.  That simple suggestion changed the course of the entire project.  Sometimes, you just have to be open to the ideas of others.  Of course, coming up with an idea is one thing; implementing it is another altogether.  But it worked.

You’ve drawn from very diverse subject matters in your work.  How do you usually decide what are you are going to research and sub sequentially shoot?

American film history is often my topic.  And in some ways, my projects are liked filmed essays.  But I’ve gotten to an age where I now have promised myself to have the funding and distribution in place before turning on the camera.

Is there any subject out there that you absolutely refuse to take part in documenting?  

I am not particularly interested in documenting a subject that comes with the guarantee of losing money.  I’ve done that before, and I’d prefer not to return to that arena.

If you were to create a film based on your own life, what would the title be?  Why? 

First of all, I wouldn’t make a doc about myself.  Secondly, if I did, I would call it “Do Not Watch This Film.”  Thirdly, given the subjects I’ve covered over the past twenty years (film history, literature, sports, etc.), maybe I’ve been making a film about myself all along without knowing it.

What do you feel is your greatest artistic achievement to date?

It is not one particular project, but the fact that—in addition to teaching, producing programs for Kentucky Educational Television, producing programs for ESPN, and being a father and husband—I have directed and produced 18 independent documentaries within the last 20 years.

Can you tell us what you are currently working on?


A doc. about Wendy Whelan for Kentucky Educational Televison’s Kentucky Muse series.  She has been a dancer with the New York City Ballet for over 20 years, and she is a remarkable talent.


What was the last thing that made you smile?

I was thinking about the writer Harry Crews this morning, and the film I made about him.  Every time I think about Harry, I smile.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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