James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies

James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies

by Robert Emmet Long

ISBN: 9780520234154

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Calendars/Movies

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


Robert Emmet Long: Merchant Ivory is known to be the independent film production team of the last few decades, achieving its success on its own, outside the Hollywood studio system-or maybe in defiance of it. But, in fact, what has your experience with Hollywood been like? What sort of dealings have you had with the studios?

James Ivory: There has been this idea-people have often spoken or written in this way-that Merchant Ivory shuns Hollywood or feels that it is too good for it. Something of that kind. But people would be surprised at the number of our films that had a big studio connection, and also when that connection first took place-at the very beginning of our career. Our first feature was The Householder, which we made in India and then sold to Columbia (now Sony). You might say that it had even been partially financed with Hollywood money. One of our Indian investors on that film was a theater owner in Bombay who made a fortune off The Guns of Navarone, a Columbia hit. He put some of that in The Householder, so we might claim in a way that Columbia Pictures itself invested in it.

Long: So Columbia was your first backer?

Ivory: Yes, but only in the sense that they bought the film, as I say, and gave us what's called a "minimum guarantee." The way Columbia paid us for The Householder (they bought the world rights) was with four hundred thousand of their blocked, or "frozen," rupees-earnings from their films in India that they could not, by law, repatriate. All the American studios had fortunes in rupees sitting in Indian banks. Right away Ismail saw the advantages for us in such a situation. The studios-MGM, Fox, Warner Brothers, and so on-were free to spend that "frozen" money on productions in India. It was all quite regulated, you can be sure, and prying it loose was a bureaucratic nightmare; but all of our Indian features were shot, more or less, in this manner. Fox spent a million dollars on our third film, The Guru-the rupee equivalent, that is-which was a lot of money to us but nothing to them.

Long: What about films you have made in the West?

Ivory: When we began making films outside India, there was again some studio involvement. Quartet was made that way; Fox put money into it. The Wild Party was financed by the Hollywood-based American International Pictures, a sort of Miramax-like "little studio" setup, with a Harvey Weinstein-like boss named Samuel Arkoff, who, like Weinstein, loved dismembering his pictures.

Long: Later, with the great success of A Room with a View, the studios came knocking at your door.

Ivory: After A Room with a View, Hollywood welcomed us. They thought we had some secret; we could parlay three and a half million dollars into seventy million, and get terrific reviews and Academy Awards. There were several three-picture deals made with the studios then, which sounds exciting, but these usually fizzled out after the first picture (as in the case of TriStar and Slaves of New York). But there were films like The Remains of the Day and Surviving Picasso, which were studio films from the beginning, films that were made from properties they 'd acquired. We were hired to make these for the studios.

Long: How much creative freedom did you have once you were in a contractual arrangement with the studios?

Ivory: Some studios were absolutely princely, like Disney. Others were the opposite, penny-pinching and suspicious. But not one-no, wait, there was, or is one-gave us any real trouble over so-called creative matters. I always have had the final cut. I won't do a film if I don't get that, and up to now-with the exception of The Wild Party-I've always been given it. No film but that one has ever been recut (at least in the United States; outside the United States you don't know what's going to happen to your movie).

Long: How do these studios treat you as independent filmmakers? And do you feel that you have anything in common with Hollywood?

Ivory: The studio people are genuinely respectful; if there was a disagreement over some point, it was usually expressed in a diffident tone, almost murmured, apologetic. Well, you have to take that seriously; it would be very bad manners to go stomping about saying, "I'm the director!" We've made many friends in Hollywood. I'd hate to think of what our careers would have been like without them. And then both Ismail and I cut our teeth on Hollywood movies; in our tastes we precede the great days of international filmmaking, the French New Wave and all the other national "waves," except, I suppose, the Italian. Hollywood set the standard for us when we were most receptive and the studios most creative. Strange, when you think how unlike a big studio picture any Merchant Ivory film is!

Long: A number of independent filmmaking companies exist today. How is your company different from these others, the indies, as they are called?

Ivory: Our company is different in that the three of us-Ismail, Ruth, and Myself-are permanent. She writes, I direct, and Ismail produces what we write and direct. We're all lucky in that way. Most producers who have a project they want to do have to search for a writer and then a director; or a director has to look for a writer and producer when he finds something he's keen on doing. It's worst of all for the writer in that respect. There's a constant delay and changing of minds in most producing partnerships, but not in ours.

Long: What special problems do you have as an independent filmmaking company?

Ivory: The problem, of course, is in finding the money to make our films. And then, once they're made, making sure the distributor brings them out in the right way.

Long: I saw you and Ismail one night on 60 Minutes, and got the impression that the two of you often speak heatedly and may have many differences of opinion. How do you work together so well when you are both so independently minded? What happens when you have a disagreement and there is no one else to referee or arbitrate?

Ivory: I've always said that Merchant Ivory is a bit like the U.S. government; I'm the president, Ismail is the Congress, and Ruth is the Supreme Court. Though Ismail and I disagree sometimes, Ruth acts as a referee, or she and I may gang up on him, or vice versa. The main thing is, no one ever truly interferes in the area of work of the other. At a certain point respect compels us to back off.

Long: What is there about Ismail that sets him apart from anyone else you know?

Ivory: He's never uninteresting, never dull. He's remained vital and youthful and enthusiastic about what he does and we do together and of course is prodigiously energetic. He has a lot of ideas-certainly far more than Ruth and I, who are pretty much going along in our grooves. Some of his ideas seem crazy when we first hear about them, but they tend to turn out successfully.

Long: Does Ismail still haunt auction houses? What sort of things does he bid on?

Ivory: Portable things, suiting his nomadic lifestyle: Kashmir shawls, rugs, silver, now and then a miniature. He buys china sometimes. But not big heavy things on the whole. However, it can't be said that Ismail "haunts" auction houses. Because of all our moving around, it takes some arranging to actually bid.

Long: On a train bound for New York I fell into conversation with an Indian youth from Calcutta. We talked about India and eventually about Merchant Ivory, and it seemed as if one of the most important questions he could ask was about Ismail's cooking. Had I ever eaten one of Ismail's meals? How do you feel about Ismail's, in this case, almost overshadowing celebrity as a chef ?

Ivory: Overshadowing what? His legendary prowess as a producer and filmmaker? I think he'd be very sorry to feel that his cooking has eclipsed his life's work in any way.

Long: When he began to direct films as well as produce them, did he call on you for advice and assistance?

Ivory: He never asked me directly to assist him in any way beyond reading his scripts. But of course I feel I would be letting him down, letting the company down, letting everybody down if I didn't speak up when I think he's about to make some mistake. During shooting I go for a while to wherever Ismail is making his film-Trinidad most recently, South India before that-and hang around in case I'm needed. Sometimes I am; once in a while I rewrite a scene or make up a new one entirely for him if I think it's useful. Once, in Bhopal, during In Custody, Ismail said one morning, "Oh, I'm tired today, you shoot it," and I was happy to let him lie down for a bit.

Long: As you know, Ismail has a sense of humor. One day at the Merchant Ivory office, I asked him if he felt overshadowed by you as a director, and he replied with some aplomb that he had given you a head start.

Ivory: I really think he's happiest of all directing; he loves the process and wades right into anything, as a director must. But he won't relinquish his producer's role, so instead of worrying about getting a tricky scene exactly right sometimes, he's berating the production manager over some air tickets. He's happy doing that too. That's actually a moment, if I see it happening, when I can be useful, and I yell at him and drag him away to his set.

Long: Rightly or wrongly, I have the feeling that you were influential on his New York/Paris-based film, The Proprietor, a very cosmopolitan picture (with Jeanne Moreau, no less). When I see a film directed by Ismail, however different it may be from one of yours, I have the feeling that it has come out of the same school of filmmaking as your own. Both your films and his have a rich look, shared production values, even the use of some of the same actors, and of course there is Dick Robbins's music.

Ivory: Well, it would be surprising if there weren't similarities of style, tone, look. We have used the same actors and cameramen and editor, and on The Proprietor even the same scriptwriter, George Trow. Sometimes the music Dick Robbins writes for Ismail's films makes me a bit jealous, I have to say. It's the content of our films, however, that's mainly different. Except for The Proprietor, which was about rich, worldly people in Paris and New York, Ismail's films are almost always about poor, struggling people, often living on the edge. This has been true since he directed his first film, Mahatma and the Mad Boy, which was about a beggar. His films might right a balance at Merchant Ivory and offset mine, which are almost all exclusively about well-off people from the upper middle class. When lazy critics try to lump Ismail's films with mine, as they sometimes do, calling them "genteel," their favorite pejorative word, I wonder whether they have ever seen them. Ismail has made films about mad people, prostitutes and pimps, drunken poets who fall down in their own vomit. Perhaps the high surface gloss of his films is what makes these careless reviewers think there's a real similarity.

Long: Now that Ismail is directing as well as producing, he is working at a prodigious rate. What is it that drives him?

Ivory: He does get run-down, it's true, and that's very worrying to us. But he has a rare ability to put all his worries aside, drop straight oa to sleep, and above all enjoy himself outside the office. He is fueled by an extraordinary optimism and by a young Indian's desire to "make name and fame" that he has never lost, and about which we tease him.

Long: Ismail must have one of the biggest address books of anyone in New York. Is there anyone he doesn't know?

Ivory: Or remember? That's the point.

Long: Is there a colony of Indians who are prominent in the arts in New York that Ismail is in close touch with?

Ivory: Not really. There are a few people we see constantly. Madhur Jaffrey is one. We know Ved Mehta very well, and Ismail and I are both friendly with Zubin Mehta. When the dancer Indrani was alive we saw her, and now we see her children, who are also in the arts. Anita Desai, of course, but she's not a New Yorker.

Long: Because you and Ismail have been such close partners for such a record number of years, do you ever feel as if you were half of a person?

Ivory: Not at all. I feel sometimes that we are the same person.

Long: Simon Callow told a reporter that Ismail was so many different people that he couldn't imagine what he would be like when he was alone. How many different people does he contain?

Ivory: He may seem very complicated to people who know nothing of India and the Indian character. To those who do, Ismail's behavior is more understandable, easier to place. As I stayed on in India year after year, Ismail himself came into sharper focus for me. And now, when we're mostly in Europe and America, and seldom in India together, he sometimes appears in even sharper focus-as in relief, against backgrounds that play up the difference between him and the "natives," you might say: Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians ...

Long: People tend to think of the two of you as being total opposites: he's flamboyant, and you're discreet. But I wonder if there isn't some kind of symbiosis here, the notion of two opposites who are often together and share qualities. Do you have any of Ismail's qualities?

Ivory: Well, his optimism perhaps, but untinged by his fatalism, which is perhaps a Muslim or even a general Indian quality. I think I share in his energy; I may possess my own or be energized by his. At any rate I watch people half my age drop with exhaustion (particularly during shooting ), and I'm always the last person in the house to go to bed.

Long: In his recent book, My Passage from India, Ismail describes himself as a film director in the following way: "I cut scenes if I felt they weren't working, or suddenly adapted scenes to take advantage of an unusual location, a striking face, a new idea. Although I have been observing Jim at work for thirty years and have learned a lot from him, I have my own way of working that is different from his. Instead of being thrown by the unexpected elements that can occur during the filming, I actively welcome them. I like the sense of spontaneity and surprise." Would you care to comment on the differences between Ismail and yourself as film directors?

Ivory: Well, Ismail certainly has far less patience than I have on the set; as in everything in life, he hates delays. I saw him once, an expression of exasperation on his face, during the filming of In Custody, as he listened to a long-winded scene being read aloud by the Urdu co-scriptwriter. Ismail took the pages away from him, went inside where he couldn't be seen, crumpled them up, and rewrote the scene himself on the spot with Shashi Kapoor. On the other hand, I don't think I'm that much "thrown" by the unexpected during my own shooting. But I might want a little more time to decide how best to deal with it-which might also mean how best to exploit it for the good of the film.

Long: I wasn't aware that Ismail spoke Urdu.

Ivory: He would have to be fluent in Urdu in order to make a film like In Custody, which is all about an Urdu poet. Ismail's Urdu, in which he delights, is very fluent; he speaks it beautifully, in a slightly old-fashioned way. It's always full of jokes and puns that make people laugh.

Long: I tend to think of Satyajit Ray as a figure you met and admired tremendously at the beginning of your career rather than someone with whom you have had an ongoing relationship; but Ismail speaks of Ray's seeing A Room with a View and of their meeting at Ray's hotel suite at that time. How close were you and Ismail with Ray during those intervening years between The Householder and A Room with a View?


Excerpted from "James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies" by Robert Emmet Long. Copyright © 2005 by Robert Emmet Long. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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