Thesp-turned-producer signs on for risky projects

PARIS — In the opening scene in the French comedy actioner “Dead Weight”, a hapless gangster collapses dead after being shot in the chest. The unfortunate victim, whose screen appearance begins and ends there, is played by the pic’s producer, Thomas Langmann. Perhaps the bit part betrays Langmann’s expectation that, as the son of France’s famed filmmaker Claude Berri, he could get shot down at any time for having the nerve to embark on his own producing career with a first film that cost $26 million. Indeed as an apparently archetypal poor little rich kid — complete with turbulent, drug-tainted past — Langmann’s progress as a producer is being watched with interest.

“The ‘sons of’ in France are people who mustn’t succeed, who are incompetent,” says Langmann wearily from his stylish beige-and-white fifth floor office in central Paris. Black clothes and a shock of thick black hair emphasize his slight, boyish build. “But my father is neither involved in my company nor any of my films,” Langmann asserts. “It’s nothing to do with our feelings for each other, which are very strong. He has always liked his children to make their own way in the world.”

Langmann also insists that his wild child days are over: “I’m 30 today, and let’s just say it is easier to be 30 than 20,” he says. Having started out in the film business on the other side of the camera, picking up three Cesar noms for his acting, Langmann also is clearly happier as a producer.

“My life is more balanced today. I’ve a career in which I get up every day and I’ve got lots of things to do. When you’re an actor, you are waiting for phone calls, you depend on the desires of others. It’s not very good for one’s equilibrium.”

While “Dead Weight” received positive reviews and has been seen by nearly 3 million French cinemagoers so far, making it a moderate success in Gallic box office terms, it is still too early to judge Langmann’s talents as a producer. However, he has already proved he can attract talent to projects and persuade backers to loosen their purse strings.

“He’s very good at playing one company off against another,” comments an industry insider.

Not only did Langmann get Warner Bros. to pony up $10 million for “Dead Weight,” but even before the pic had hit Gallic screens, rival film company UGC was signing over another $37 million for Langmann’s next two films.

The Jan Kounen-helmed English language $36 million actioner “Blueberry” is currently shooting in Mexico. A $34 million remake of the French classic actioner “Fantomas” is still at the script stage, but Jean Reno and hot comic actor Jose Garcia are attached. All three pics were originally with StudioCanal before the Vivendi Universal subsid got cold feet about spending such huge sums by French filmmaking standards. Langmann had the last laugh, wooing Vincent Cassel to play “Blueberry” opposite Juliette Lewis when the actor had already tentatively agreed to the lead role in StudioCanal’s upcoming cartoon-inspired actioner “Bob Morane.”

Langmann has seemingly leapt straight into the big leagues with what he describes as his “haute couture” popular films, but he insists that budget size isn’t everything.

“With ‘Dead Weight’ I didn’t set out to make an expensive film. But as I was writing it, I wanted to see something spectacular. To do that well costs money.”

In the movie’s most memorable action scene, a giant Ferris wheel on Paris’ Place de la Concorde becomes unhitched and causes mayhem as it rolls, clanking ominously, through the crowds in the nearby Tuileries gardens. The scene, along with most of the other action sequences, was helmed by Frederic Forrestier, who ended up sharing the director credit with Alain Berberian after repeated clashes between Berberian and Langmann.

Production insiders point out that Langmann was a tough, exacting taskmaster with both helmers — a “workaholic”, in the words of one. His ambitions as a filmmaker go back to the early 1990s, when, between acting jobs, he worked as a hired hand on Coppola’s “Godfather Part III” and served coffee on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s “Kafka.”

“I worked as an assistant on films abroad because here in France nobody would understand why a successful actor wanted to be an assistant,” he says. “Seeing such great directors at work gives you an idea of what high standards, perfectionism and talent are all about,” Langmann says, “and now I’m less easily impressed by directors. That’s a good thing, because it is up to the director to impress the producer and not the other way around.”

During that time, while kicking around for movie ideas, he decided to pursue an adaptation of a bigscreen adaptation of “Asterix.” He went out and acquired the film rights to the cartoon character, persuaded Gerard Depardieu and Christian Clavier to star and Jean-Michel Poiret to helm. (The pic was eventually helmed by Claude Zidi).

“At that time, I couldn’t produce a film that cost 250 million francs, but I managed to convince my father to do it.”

Langmann received an associate producer credit on the pic, which went on to be one of France’s biggest grossing commerical hits. The money he earned from the film — “it wasn’t that much, less than 1 million euros, much less” — was sunk into developing his ongoing projects.

Today Langmann’s company, La Petite Reine (the name an allusion to Berri’s Renn Prods.), is one of France’s most active, with about a dozen projects in various stages of development.

“I want to make films that as a spectator I would like to see,” says the producer. But while unwittingly paraphrasing Luc Besson, whose Europa Corp. has quickly burgeoned into one of France’s most dynamic film companies by making popular films, Langmann balks at any comparison with that man.

“I’m a fan of him as a director but not of what he produces,” Langmann says bluntly. “He’s the only filmmaker in France whose name alone can pull in foreign distributors. He could make films that are really, really ambitious, but he doesn’t.

“La Petite Reine is tiny, but we want to make films that are much more risky.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more