by Tonja Brown
Thomas Morgan is an award winning documentary filmmaker. He brings inspiring stories to screens around the world, yet his is own life and career journey are just as compelling. He sat down with Glass Ceiling for an introspective career interview. In this first installment of a three-part interview, Thomas shares the multiple paths and life experiences that led to finding and eventually living his true passion.
Thomas has made a career out of documenting the journeys of strong women in his films, which has helped his subjects to promote their careers, provide economic stability and provide a new sense of success int heir lives and for those around them.
This interview series is a reminder that our careers and lives are never linear. At Glass Ceiling, we strive to go beneath the surface of success – fueled by curiosity and without judgment – to uncover lessons and realities that can help inform your career.
Email us with any thoughts or questions. We welcome debate and respectful discourse.
Thomas’s most recent documentary “Soufra” is being shown at film festivals around the world including Cannes in May 2018.
You went from the banking industry to the film industry. That is a fascinating career leap. Did you become interested in film making before or after becoming an investment banker?
I was always interested in film. As a kid I was interested in film, I loved it.
I remember I stole my dad’s Polaroid camera. I would set up army guys and take a picture, then I would move ’em slightly. I would put little balloons above their head for what they were saying and I’d take another picture. He would find it and he would scream that I’d used all of his expensive film, but I was always fascinated by films, I just loved it, I always felt like it was such a great escape.
But then I forgot about it for a long time because it wasn’t a reality where I lived. It certainly wasn’t a reality to go to film school when I went to university because my father would have nothing of it. I was really in a place in my life where I just wanted to make him proud, so it wasn’t a possibility. I just kinda put it off…
After putting it off and having grown up in an environment that discouraged your early passions, what prompted you to write your first script?
I’m like a lot of people who just enjoyed movies. I wrote some scripts, because I wanted to find ways to express myself, to get out a lot of feelings that I had.
After my sister passed away, I wrote a script about what could have happened. And so I wrote scripts because I found I could write it in dialogue. Dialogue, for me, came much more naturally. I was able to think about the way that other people thought, what they said and so on and so forth.
Even then it was just this idea that it is for fun, it’s for a side thing. I had insomnia and I’m up all night anyway, I might as well write a script or do something with my time.
How does one go from writing scripts as an emotional outlet that was a “side thing”…to finding a topic that inspired you enough to make a documentary?
Quite by chance, I came across this issue of Homelessness in the United States. I learned a lot about it before it was made clear to me that there were four homeless kids in my daughter’s class. I couldn’t fathom that one of her best friends lived in a Walmart parking lot.
How was homelessness in her class brought to your attention, did your daughter tell you?
No, she didn’t tell me. I was in the school talking to her teacher. I don’t know how the subject came up. Her teacher said, “Yeah, there are four homeless kids in this class.” And I was just like so taken back by that. Later, quite by chance, a friend of hers was supposed to come have a play date and I said, “Well you can go to Justine’s house or Justine come to our house, doesn’t matter to me.” And Carly said, “Dad, can’t go to Justine’s house. Justine and her family live in a Walmart parking lot, can’t go over there.” She knew all along. For some reason this was very natural to her. This was the reality of people’s situations where, I guess she assumed at the sixth grade level that was a reality that everybody kind of knew.
Suddenly this whole thing was just very heavy and I didn’t know what to do about it. So I called the National Coalition for the Homeless – but again, had no intention of going off and doing anything crazy.
So, at this point you had no intention of making a documentary?
I just wanted to know how do I spread the word about this? Then I found myself in New York quite by chance trying to do an investment bank deal and I ended up at this party. I talked to this guy who asked if I was in the film business and I said “No,” but “Somebody should do a documentary about homelessness in the United States.” And he said “Well why don’t you do it?”
And it all came back, from the time when I was a kid, like “Yeah, why couldn’t I do that?”
But then I thought, I’ve had a couple of drinks, I’ve got a good job, I’m like not really in a place in my life where this seems very rational or reasonable.
Moments of doubt can be paralyzing for some, what happened after those thoughts crept into your mind?
I said, “How about you? Are you in the business?” And then he said, “Yeah.” I said, “What do you do?” He said, “I’m a director.” I said, “Anything I would have heard of?” And he said, “Supersize Me.”
Suddenly I realized that I’m standing there talking to Morgan Spurlock and as this realization’s coming over me, Susan Sarandon is coming over. Morgan pulls her aside, “Hey, Thomas is gonna make a documentary about homelessness in the United States.” She said, “how do I help you?”
Was this moment a turning point for you?
All of those moments kind of just collided. I was also professionally in a place where I was really questioning what good I was doing for the world or what bad I was potentially doing to other people through some of the bank dealings that that although totally legal, just didn’t feel very good or moral or ethical to me. So it all kind of happened at one time.
Really the lynch pin was going home the next day and saying to my wife that “I know this sounds crazy, but I wanna downsize our entire lives and I wanna make a film.” I told her why and I was expecting her to say no and then I was gonna be off the hook, right? I wasn’t gonna have to do it.
“Well, my wife said now, so that’s it.” Because I was really scared just saying it out loud. I almost came to tears just thinking I’m really gonna do this. Her response was “Of course.” And then she followed up with the statement: “How are you gonna tell your kids to chase their dreams if you’re not willing to change yours?”
Then I was just like “Yeah, why not? What’s the worst that could happen, right? We lose money? We lose some time? But at least I know.”
That level of support is pretty powerful, but was it really that simple and clean cut?
That’s how it started. People do think there’s this one moment and I just decided. And it kinda was that way but it didn’t come without a huge amount of angst and anxiety and self-doubt and questioning.
Not just my own internal, but people from outside saying “What in the hell do you know about making films?” Asking me to seek therapy and all kinds of crazy stuff…but after dealing with that I never looked back.
I’ve never looked back, so I’m very thankful that it’s worked out.
Part II of our interview will “look back” and delve deeper into the challenges Thomas dealt with and the sacrifices he made before and after officially resigning from his job as an investment banker. Come back next week…