|NEW YORK — For over four decades, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant of Merchant Ivory Productions endured as one of the most respected and fruitful collaborations in cinema. In fact, their acclaimed adaptations of such novels as “A Room With a View,” “Maurice,’ “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” “Howard’s End” and ‘The Remains of the Day” virtually established a whole genre of filmmaking — “the Merchant Ivory film.”
Now, following the untimely passing of Merchant, the team of Ivory and two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose early novel “The Householder” was the basis for the first Merchant Ivory production of the same name, has released its 24th collaboration, The City of Your Final Destination.
Based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Peter Cameron, it reunites the director with Anthony Hopkins in a story about a young American academic, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), who attempts to persuade the reluctant heirs of a celebrated Uruguayan novelist, Jules Gund, including his gay brother (Hopkins), widow (Laura Linney) and young mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to allow him to write an authorized biography of the writer. Here, Ivory talks about making the film, his love of post and his long, prolific partnership with Merchant.
POST: How do you go about deciding what your next project will be and what made you choose this?
JAMES IVORY: “It was one of those rare things that happens when someone comes up to you and says, ‘When you read this book you’re going to want to make it into a film.’ And that only ever happened once before, when someone gave me ‘Remains of the Day.’ So I read this and I was immediately attracted to it.
“I loved the whole story and that it was set in South America where I’d never been, and all the relationships, and the long conversational dialogue. It all really appealed to me. But it wasn’t actually our next film at the time, around 2003, when I read the book. We went off to Shanghai to make The White Countess first, and then came back to this.”
POST: You shot on location in Argentina’s pampas. What were the biggest challenges?
IVORY: “Over the years we’ve shot all over the place — it’s what we do, so we’re used to ending up in locations where we’ve never been before. We didn’t shoot in Uruguay, where the novel is set, because it doesn’t have much in the way of film infrastructure and experienced crews, whereas Argentina has a long history of filmmaking and it has wonderful crews who’re very experienced. It’s interesting because the two countries used to be one, until they were separated by the British, so you find it’s really the same people on both sides of the border, and they’re fairly similar in geography and landscape, except that Uruguay’s a bit more hilly. So it just made sense to shoot in Argentina. And it’s relatively cheap to shoot there.”
POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
IVORY: “We did all the post right here in New York. We had our cutting room at DuArt, and then we did all our visual effects and all that kind of thing at Molecule, who are right down the hall. Then we did the mix at Sound One. Because we weren’t pressured by any of the usual deadlines, we were able to take about nine or 10 months to work on it all.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
IVORY: “I do, very much. I think my favorite part of making any film is the actual shoot, but I love post as it’s when you finally get to see what you have to work with and you can begin to see the film emerge. And you’re not feeling rushed in the same way you do on the shoot — and this was particularly unrushed. There was no one pushing us to get this ready for a festival or whatever. So we were just able to take as long as we wanted, and often the post process does feel a bit rushed. That leisurely pace really helped the final film, as we shifted a lot of things around in post and had the time to experiment more with structure and so on.”
POST: This was edited by John David Allen, who also edited such films as The White Countess, Le Divorce and The Golden Bowl for you. How does that relationship work?
IVORY: “It’s a great advantage collaborating with someone you know well from other projects, so we have a sort of shorthand. He didn’t come on the set at all. The cutting didn’t start until we all got back to New York, and then I’m usually around while he does the assembly. I like doing the assembly, and then I’m there for the whole process.”
POST: How involved is Ruth Jhabvala in the editing process?
IVORY: “Quite a bit. She comes in once we’ve got our first successful cut and then we all go over everything together and discuss how a scene or whatever can be improved, and she often has excellent ideas about structure and so on. People are completely surprised that the writer comes in the editing room with us. The whole idea is unheard of, but we have always done it this way.”
POST: How many visual effects shots are in the film?
IVORY: “I’m not actually sure. We had to do a certain amount, such as digitally creating the stars at night for some of the scenes, and then there were a certain amount of digital clean-up shots, but not a lot. Molecule did them all and did a great job. I actually like doing visual effects. When we did Le Divorce, we used a lot to creating the flying bag over the roofs of Paris. Of course, it’s nothing like Avatar which I just saw and loved. The visual effects are just amazing.”
POST: How did you create all the German archival footage?
IVORY: “Some of it’s actually footage I shot for my very first film, Venice: Theme and Variations, back in 1957. So I recycled that and then we also used footage from all sorts of archives and cut it all together.”
POST: How important are sound and music to you?
IVORY: “Extremely — it’s always been a crucial part of all our films. We ran into a little problem this time as our usual composer, Dick Robbins, had started work on the film but he became ill and had to leave the project. Then I remembered Jorge Drexler, this Uruguayan composer who won the Academy Award for his song from The Motorcycle Diaries. So I felt he’d have a lot of the right ideas and feeling for this film, so we approached him. He lives in Madrid now, and he read the script and said he couldn’t put it down and that it was such a coincidence, as the story of the Gund family is exactly what happened to his own family.
“They were German Jews, living in Berlin, who got out just in time before World War 11 and ended up in Uruguay. So he turned out to be the perfect fit for the project, and we recorded the music in Argentina and Madrid over the course of about eight months.”
POST: Did you do a DI?
IVORY: “Yes, and it’s the first one we’d ever done, but I still prefer the old way. I think the results you get with color are just subtly better.”
POST: Is film dead?
IVORY: “It probably is. I see films that are shot digitally and I think they look great. I can’t even tell the difference now, but I still love film.”
POST: Will you shoot a digital film?
IVORY: “Sure, why not?”
POST: What’s the current state of indie film?”
IVORY: People say it’s getting harder and harder to raise money, but it’s always been hard for us. I can’t ever remember a time when it wasn’t hard. Yes, once we’d made A Room with a View all the studios thought we had some magical formula that they could just tap into, but of course there’s no secret, no magical formula.”
POST: What’s your take on the current state of Hollywood?
IVORY: “I think it’s fairly healthy. They’re always complaining about the state of the business but a lot of movies are making a lot of money, and now 3D films are huge. I think it’d be nice if Hollywood deflated things a bit and went back to making films of a normal size, but that’s probably wishful thinking as people probably don’t want that. They want the huge spectacles.”
POST: How’s filmmaking changed since you began directing in the ‘50s?
IVORY: “There’ve been enormous technical changes, especially in editing and sound thanks to the digital revolution. Our first four films were made in India, and much of what was taken for granted in terms of equipment and technology in the West hadn’t even really reached India back then. I began working on a Moviola with optical soundtracks. It was a very, very different world.”
POST: But you were quick to embrace all the technical innovations, such as Avid?
IVORY: “Yes, of course, but Ismail wasn’t, however. He’d always say, ‘It’s the story that’s important, there’s nothing wrong with the old way of doing things.’ But I think it was more about saving money, and when he came to direct, I noticed he was very quick to embrace digital editing and so on (laughs).”
POST: How do you look back on Ismail and your long partnership?
IVORY: “I have so many fond memories, and he’s irreplaceable and it’s a great loss. He always had your back on a project, and he was so enthusiastic that he’d fire up everyone — the crew, the cast, the studio executives. His infectious optimism really carried us through a lot of terrible situations, and he was so much fun to be around. A lot of directors don’t want the producer on the set, but I really liked it. He was a very hands-on producer. Once in Florence, when we were shooting in one of the squares, it turned out that the square we’d rented was also hosting a Communist Party rally right where we needed to shoot. It wasn’t happening for a while, but they’d already set up the bleachers, and Ismail got the entire crew –— plus a few strangers — to physically move the entire bleachers. That’s exactly how he was. He’d jump right in and lead everyone and get done whatever needed doing. I miss him a lot.”
POST: You have a background in fine arts and architecture. How has that affected your style?
IVORY: “I had very good history of architecture courses at university, and that’s been valuable in choosing locations and sets and the right buildings.”
POST: You also went to USC film school. How was that experience?
IVORY: “The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do or what my part in all this would be, and how I’d approach it. I wasn’t even sure exactly what a director was, and at that time USC wasn’t set up to help you find those things out. It was very dull. At that time they had no interest in theatrical films whatsoever. It was all about making training films or documentary films, stuff that’d be useful in a commercial way. But there were two or three faculty members who were very sharp and who were interested in feature films, but it just wasn’t the focus of the school at that time.”
POST: What’s next?
IVORY: “I’m working on a film version of Shakespeare’s Richard 11. We’re just about to start the script, but I’ve been working on it for six years. We plan to shoot in England, and we may do some of it in France.”