BRITISH film producer Jeremy Thomas was last in Melbourne in 1975 producing his first film. It was Mad Dog Morgan, directed by Philippe Mora and starring Dennis Hopper - one of the resurgent Australian film industry's more peculiar bits of casting - as the bushranger. It was a wild time, with stuntmen setting themselves on fire for real and every day's shoot ending in a tide of amber nectar. ''I came here from a country where apprenticeship was everything and you couldn't really get your break if you were over 20. Here, everything was up for grabs,'' he says. ''And it was exciting being parachuted into this culture of Melbourne, which was a very, very interesting place. It was good to be here at that beginning moment.''
Thomas now has 53 films behind him, a best-film Oscar (for The Last Emperor in 1988) and ongoing relationships as producer with such film-makers as Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg. Even so, he can't stop casting glances out of the hotel window at the changed skyline, trying to see if he can spot his old Acland Street stamping ground. He is here to talk about Kon-Tiki, the story of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl's epic voyage across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft in 1947. It is a film he spent 16 years trying to get made. Now it is not only complete, but one of five final contenders for this year's Oscar for best foreign film.
Thor Heyerdahl, who died 10 years ago, was a hero of Thomas' boyhood. He was probably a hero of every boy his age; his voyage across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, made in 1947 on a balsa-wood raft with no modern equipment, captured the public imagination across the world. Heyerdahl - a war hero, arrogant, single-minded and uniquely charismatic - set out to prove that voyagers from pre-Columbian South America had travelled the oceans and, as he then theorised, settled the Pacific islands. Subsequent research proved him wrong, but that doesn't matter. His big idea - that the currents were like roads - is still thrillingly convincing.
Many other filmmakers had wanted to make his story, Thomas says, but he would never give permission. Heyerdahl had made his own film from footage shot on the raft; the resulting Kon-Tiki won the Oscar for best documentary in 1951. Thomas went to meet him at his home in Tenerife; he was in his mid-70s then, married to a former Miss France. ''I persuaded him with The Last Emperor card,'' he says. ''I left him with a copy of that and The Sheltering Sky and finally he said 'all right, you can make the film.'''
At that point, says Thomas, he imagined the film as a Hollywood blockbuster with Leonardo DiCaprio. He couldn't raise enough money. This film was made by Norwegians, but shot largely in a water tank in Malta; digital technology, says Thomas, has transformed what is possible. ''The raft never went to Polynesia; it was all done with sleight of hand. The whale shark, which was so terrifying in the film, you would never know there were four frogmen pulling a wooden thing in a tank, linked to images of a real whale shark: it's seamless.'' But he still has his Scandinavian actors speaking English. ''I wanted more than 10 people to see the film,'' he says bluntly. ''Somehow, in movie houses, very few people know how to read subtitles.'' The Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg shot a version in their own language for the local market.
Thomas thinks the film should have a particular resonance for Australians, most of whom live on the edge of an ocean. ''This journey makes the Sydney to Hobart race look like a puppy,'' he laughs. ''They were on a raft with nothing: no safety equipment, no clip-ons, no distress flares in these gigantic waves, a whirlpool over here - you could hear it - it was extraordinary.'' It certainly has resonance for him, which has been his guiding principle as a producer since he first hit the Riverina with Philippe Mora. ''I'm not just making films for the machine,'' he says. ''I'm principally making films I want to see. That's kept me in business for 40 years.''