Producer Phil Fehrle's interview

One look at Phil Fehrle's extensive contributions to movie and television production reveals that he came to Thomas and the Magic Railroad as an experienced Producer in family-friendly entertainment. We're therefore very chuffed and honoured to be able to share some of Phil's recollections of working on TATMR with you.
- Correspondence with J. Gratton, 4th May, 2009

Phil, could you tell us how and when you first heard of and became involved with this movie?
I had been a business colleague of Charles Falzon’s for many years. He was part owner of Gullane when it was decided to make the film. I had produced or executive produced several successful international productions over the years. I guess Charles thought Britt Allcroft and I would make a successful team, so he introduced me to her and recommended that I produce the picture with her. Over a year passed before I actually became involved.

What attracted you to the project?
What attracted me was Charles’ integrity, the reputation of the Thomas franchise and the opportunity to make a movie about an iconic character in children’s literature and television.

Thomas & Friends would later play a large part in your career, were you familiar with the television series and/or Shining Time Station at the time of the movie?
I was familiar with Shining Time Station because it was on PBS in the States and because of my relationship with Charles and his prior company. I was not familiar with Thomas as a stand-alone program because my children grew up before Thomas became a household name in America. However, I soon learned I had hitched my wagon to an international phenomenon.

The filming of TATMR became quite a globetrotting adventure for you, Britt and the cast and crew. Can you tell us about what it was like from your perspective to set up for the Isle of Man, Pennsylvania and Toronto?
Setting up in the Isle of Man was a double-edged sword. It was a foregone conclusion that we would shoot there because a co-production deal had been put in place between Gullane and The Isle of Man.
 
The double-edged sword aspect was that the Isle of Man looks nothing like the Dakotas or Montana or Wyoming, the kinds of locales where we imagined a Shining Time would exist. However, because it was so wildly off the mark, it forced us to open up our imaginations, freeing us to take a much more whimsical and spontaneous approach to making the film. Ultimately the film benefitted in ways we never could have predicted. It is what I would call a happy accident.
 
In terms of Pennsylvania, the problems were basically tying what we shot there with what we shot on the Isle of Man that had to match. The wonderful steam train was in Pennsylvania and the exterior of Shining Time Station was on the Isle of Man. Our art director and visual effects supervisor performed some magic to make it all work.
 
Toronto was less of a problem because it’s where we did all the studio work and the city exteriors . Toronto also gave a pool of first rate production people and technicians.

Was the Isle of Man as beautiful to experience in person as it is to see on film, and were you able to explore the area between scene shoots?
Yes, the Isle of Man is beautiful and idiosyncratically unique. It has gorgeous sunsets – every one different. It rains a little every day, but never enough to slow you down. It has magnificent hills covered with heather and gorse (Scotch broom). And the people are most hospitable.

Was there a filming locale on the island that stands out for you?
Yes. The exterior of the cave where Grandpa kept Lady was an old abandoned quarry site, high up on the side of a mountain. It was forbidding, inaccessible, stunning and worth all the trouble (and there was plenty) it took to shoot there.

tatmr_workshopentrance.jpg
Entrance to Burnett Stone's workshop on Muffle Mountain - Dalby Mountain, Isle of Man

Could you say a few words about working with each of the actors?

Alec Baldwin:
Professional to a fault, accommodating and never a problem.
Michael E. Rodgers:
A joy to work with – willing to take all kinds of artistic chances.
Peter Fonda:
A thorough professional who worked doubly hard to give the director everything she wanted, and a real pleasure to work with.
Doug Lennox:
Hard working, dedicated, willing.
Didi Conn:
A doll, what more can I say?
Russell Means:
A man who carries his heritage with him wherever he goes.
Cody McMains:
was he an experienced horse rider?  A pleasure and I don’t recall if he had ever had prior experience on horseback.
Mara Wilson:
Again, a pleasure.

A lot of Doug Lennox’s best scripted scenes as PT Boomer were filmed on the IOM. A few of the crew mentioned that Doug’s acting was stellar. Was it difficult to see all of his scenes removed from the film?
Difficult, but necessary. As producer, you have to be the advocate for the film and the story, not for any performance or single aspect of the production. Doug’s performance was fine. It’s just that in the version of the film we ended up with his story line and character didn’t fit.

As an aside, do you know or were ever told what Boomer’s initials ‘PT’ stood for?
I have no idea.

Alec Baldwin and Michael E. Rodgers apparently had a lot of fun on the set, keeping the crew in stitches at times. Could you tell us more about those moments?
They had a wonderful time together and the film benefitted from that. Nothing more to say.

I have to ask, is there a blooper reel in existence somewhere?
Not that I know of.

Photo: David Axford - Winter, 1999
tatmr_phil.jpg
Producer Phil Fehrle stokes Lady's fire - filmed behind the offices of GVFX, Toronto

Re: Photo of you stoking coal fire for Lady’s firebox scene - Phil, can you tell us how you became Lady’s fireman?
Everyone talks about how Alfred Hitchcock always inserted himself in each of his movies in an extremely insignificant way (as an extra), so I figured this was my big chance. I became the anonymous fire stoker.

On the Toronto models set, Steve Asquith, Terry and Nigel Permane, David Eves and the late David Mitton were of course ‘old’ veterans of the show. Was it a treat to meet, work with and watch them ply their skills on this movie?
Of course. And I went on to work with all of them for two more years in the UK. Collectively they taught me an enormous amount about the joys, trials and tribulations of working with models. And they were all consummate professionals and talented artists. We could not have done either the movie or the Thomas and Friends television work without them.

You’re undoubtedly familiar with ‘Edward’ from your time with Thomas & Friends. Would you be privy as to why this main popular character was notably absent in the movie?
There just wasn’t enough screen time and opportunity to utilize Edward in a way that added value to the whole. Nothing more complicated than that.

George the Steamroller was integrated into the storyline in early versions of the script. Were there practical reasons for removing his character from the storyline? (e.g. George’s model not being that maneuverable?)
George the steamroller never got past the storyboard stage. He was not part of the final script or the movie.

Is there any one scene from the film that is your favorite?
There are two: the first is the Magic Railroad sequences (because of the magnificent way that our wonderful scenic artist and visual effects artists created an absolutely mysterious and glorious experience for Lady’s triumphant run) and the second is the chase and demise of Diesel Ten, a sequence that still entertains me.

Are there any memorable anecdotes that you would be able to share with us of working on the movie?
You already know about it: asking the fairies for permission to shoot in the farmer’s field on the last day of production on the Isle of Man.

You, Britt and film editor Ron Wiseman have to be commended for reworking and reassembling the storyline after the March 2000 test screening cuts in time to meet the July theatrical release. Looking back, is there anything that you would have liked to have done differently with the film’s revised storyline had there been ample time and more funding?
No. I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently. I believe we made the absolute best movie from the footage we had. And I think that’s the objective and obligation of every filmmaker. More time and funding were not issues.

One last mystery about the movie. There is a rumor in fandom that at one point, there was a proposal to change the movie’s working title to Thomas and the Rainbow Railway. I could not find anything to substantiate this claim.Would you recall any discussions early on about a title change?
I have no knowledge of this.

Finally, it goes without saying that Production had a dedicated crew assembled for this movie and the hard work they put into it. Would you be able to share your thoughts about working with them?
Every project is different and every crew is different. None of them is perfect. Nor is any producer. But, for my money, this team delivered in spades under very difficult circumstances. I had to spend very little time on petty issues or personality problems, because most everyone had the welfare of the movie at heart. As a producer, that’s all you can ask.
 
It’s then my job to manage the process in a way that allows everyone from the director to the crafts service person to do his or her best work. Inherent in this is the constant tension between the artistic and the fiscal. I hope that I was able to provide everyone with the creative space and freedom they needed. It was a pleasure working with all of them.


We'd like to once again express our thanks and gratitude to Mr. Fehrle for setting some personal time aside to answer our questions  :)
 
PART II: Phil Fehrle answers our questions and shares his recollections about his time as Producer with Thomas and Friends (Series 6, 7)