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. Thomas shares the multiple paths and life experiences that led to finding and eventually living his true passion.
Part I of our interview explored doubt and the role it played in Thomas’s career. In Part II we are looking back at the challenges he faced after deciding to take the leap from investment banking to film.
Thomas’s most recent documentary “Soufra” has been shown at Film Festivals around the world and will be coming to select theaters starting Oct. 11 2018, International Day of the Girl.
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.
Somewhere in between being encouraged by your wife to take the leap into film -and- your “never look back” moment, you had to officially resign from a highly compensated role as an investment banker. Was it easy to quit?
No, it was not easy. I was still like “Is it the right thing? Could I hold on? Can I do both? Is there some way I can do both at the same time?” But it wasn’t just the job itself. I never cared about the job, but I worried about the stability. I also felt like “How can you be planted in one moral and ethical mindset working on this film about homelessness, while on the other side you’re in this place where you question the morality and the ethics of everybody in the business…”. I just couldn’t stand in both places at the same time. I had to decide which side of the fence I wanted to be on.
You had the full support of your wife but you mentioned people on “the outside” questioning your new career choice. How did your friends and other members of your family react?
My immediate family, being my wife, kids, in-laws, and some other people I consider family, they were hugely supportive. They were all my biggest cheerleaders, like “Yeah, this is gonna be amazing.”
But what I found was a lot of the friends – that I thought were friends – it was just about the stuff. Suddenly I couldn’t go to the same places and have dinner at Ruth Chris, Morton’s or wherever on a regular basis. We couldn’t go on holiday. All of that went away. What I found is really the only commonality we had with those people, were those things. Once you took those things away, there was nothing to the basis of our relationship.
Big life changes can have unexpected and unfortunate ripple effects…
At this party not long after I quit my job, I said “I wanna make a film on homelessness” and this guy looked at me and said “Oh, thank god, they’re on the street, they’re always asking me for money, we just need to get ’em out of here.” And I was like “No, it’s really not the position I’m gonna take.”
That’s when I also thought “Oh my gosh, how can I feel one way and this guy feel some other way, but for years we’ve been friends…?” What we know about is fantasy football, drinking beer, swimming at a pool and watching games. It’s just so superficial. Everything about my life at that point was so on the surface and a veneer.
When you really start going deeper into who you are and the things that you care about, a lot of people run away. A lot of people are afraid of that…
With this going on, how long did it take you to actually start filming?
Nine months total. After that party, within two weeks, I was out of my job raising money, trying to make a movie. Then a few months later we started shooting.
Let’s go back to the moment when you’re at this party. Set the stage for us. What type of party was it?
Well, it was in the back of a Ping-Pong club in a private room. Malcolm Brooklyn was the guy who invited me. His son was part owner of Spin, the Ping-Pong club at Park Avenue and 23rd in New York. I get there and all this paparazzi is standing by the door. And I asked Malcolm, “What’s with he paparazzi?” And he said, “…my son dates Susan Sarandon.”
So I walked in knowing Susan was gonna be there but thought, “I have nothing to say to Susan Sarandon.” Then I had this conversation, with Morgan Spurlock who honestly I did not recognize. Suddenly I’m standing there in the middle of this conversation with two people who are supporting this idea of a documentary on homelessness, who are willing to help figure it out. I couldn’t believe the space I was in. It felt very cosmic. What are the chances this all comes together in one place?
So an investment banker walks into a Ping-Pong party?
Yeah, that sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?
There are people who clam up around celebrities. When you realized it was Spurlock, what made you open up to him?
Well, the good thing about me – the ignorance part – is most of the time I don’t recognize celebrities. I really don’t. I’ve asked Mary Louise Parker the first time I met her what she did for a living. I had no idea who it was. But I also think it’s a bit disarming for them, like “Oh wait, you’re not talking to me because….”. I knew who Susan Sarandon was but I’ve never felt that nervousness around people. I don’t know why.
The other thing I think is key for anybody who approaches or has an interaction with a celebrity – and this is just a side note – but as soon as you start taking a picture, then you’ve separated yourself from them. There’s a weirdness. “Don’t do that.” As soon as you take that selfie, you’ll never get a call back.
Susan was drawn to the stories that I wanted to tell. She knows I’m trying to do something that produces something good. It’s not just the film, it’s the bigger picture. We want to build a couple of emergency shelters. We want to build an orphanage in Nepal to an international standard, which has never been done before. We want to build a children’s center in the middle of a refugee camp, which has never been done before. Then these things start happening, on the back of a film.
You speak of several moments as “happening by chance” or being “cosmic”. When you look back at your life, where does destiny come in and where does choice come in? Do you feel that your life a result of destiny or choice?
That’s such a head question because…there is part of me that feels if there is this thing called destiny…this is what I was intended to do. There was something inside of me that always kind of…maybe not strong at all times, but pulled me back to this thing that I’m supposed to be doing. I feel very fortunate to have found it because most people, not only never find it… but never search for it either.
They never want to know what it is, ’cause it might be something that’s difficult or that requires they give up something…I don’t know. I think there are a lot of pivotal moments in a lot of people’s lives and mostly they don’t say yes. Mostly they say no, or they kick it down the road and say well, maybe another day.
I think about that moment a lot. If I had not said “yes” and had I not asked my wife and then called back the very next day to tell Susan Sarandon and Morgan Spurlock that I was making that film… If I had waited six months, would they even remembered who I was? Would they have still been supportive or engaged or involved or cared? Probably not.
They have a lot of parties, a lot of people, a lot of people saying they’re gonna do things and not doing it. I feel like those choices at those pivotal moments, those key choices, get so much easier as you go. Once you say yes to something and you’re willing to drink it in – whatever it is – good or bad and just go for it, life has a way of changing the path for you.
And it’s not always what you expected, but mostly it’s better. My commitment to stories and the people have never been stronger. I know this is what I’m supposed to do. The economics just keep figuring out a way to work it all out…
Some would call that destiny.
Part III of our interview will delve into Thomas’s experiences after he started working in film and living his true passion. Come back next week…