Founded 60 years ago, Merchant Ivory Productions is essentially what Google is to the search engine, but for film adaptations of novels. When somebody says that they looked something up online, we just assume they “Googled it”; when you see a period drama set in the English countryside during the Edwardian era, you automatically assume it was produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory.
The duo’s output in the 1980s is especially looked to as the benchmark for period-novel adaptations, highlighted by their 1984 take on The Bostonians by Henry James, followed by A Room With a View the following year featuring a young Daniel Day-Lewis and a 16-year-old Helena Bonham Carter. That success has continued into this century, most notably with the award-winning 2017 film Call Me by Your Name, which netted Ivory an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for a film that debuted after his 90th birthday.
But Ivory is more than just one-half of a successful duo (Merchant died in 2005). He has lived a fascinating life that started in Berkeley, California, and has taken him all around the world, meeting and working with some of the most famous writers and actors of the last century. With his new memoir, Solid Ivory, he shows he’s also a great teller of his own story, and one who holds nothing back. The book is hugely entertaining, with Ivory willing to dish the gossip and recall stories of famous figures for multiple pages at a time. The witty memoir is what you want out of a director’s life story, and — as this excerpt from the book shows — peels back the curtain to allow a glimpse into the life and work of one of the most fascinating figures in cinema over the last 60 years.
I’m considered to be a perfectionist, but I also don’t believe in doing too many takes because the actors hate it, and chances are they’ve given their best already and from then on, they get worse and worse.
Because of the kind of money we have, it’s very rare to be able to bring the actors together for rehearsal before a shoot begins. Emma Thompson literally arrived on The Remains of the Day the day before we began shooting because she had another film going. There are only two films where we’ve had proper rehearsals—Autobiography of a Princess, which was very short, but we were able to plan rehearsals with James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey that really paid off; and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, where we were able to have a proper two-week rehearsal period because we were all in New York. Also, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward wanted very much to get to know the actors playing their kids. We even blocked some of the scenes, although I remember that when we got to Kansas City to shoot, I threw them all out of the window because they didn’t apply to where we were shooting. I’m sure the rehearsals helped the wonderful performances in that film. Usually we do read-throughs beforehand, and when we’re going to shoot, we rehearse thoroughly on the day.
For example, when we shot the scene where Maggie tells the Prince about her dream in The Golden Bowl, it was Kate Beckinsale’s second day of work. But she felt confident and so we went into the room and rehearsed it several ways. She ended up sitting on that couch at the foot of the bed with him down on his knees in front of her. I think there’s a logic to any scene that is set in an existing room with furniture in it and doors and windows. You have to manage something within that—it’s not like a set where you can take a whole wall out or shoot from above. It’s therefore slightly inflexible, but the actors always manage it. You just rehearse it over and over until they’re happy that they’ve moved about in a way that seems logical. It’s an actor’s logic. I have very good cameramen who, if the actors want to do their lines under a bed, will find a way to shoot it. Anyway, after we’ve organized a scene and the actors are satisfied, they then go into makeup and costume, the lighting is arranged, and we shoot it when they reappear.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and I continue working on the script right through shooting. She rarely comes on set because she doesn’t like to: she always feels she’s going to get in the way. But we keep in close touch over the phone and fax or by letters sometimes, and she watches the rushes all the time. She often picks up on things that feel repetitive and rewrites scenes we haven’t shot accordingly, or if I tell her that someone is not working out as well as we thought, she will simplify speeches—or vice versa; if someone turns out to be brilliant, she will pump up their part. Sometimes she’ll think we don’t need a scene and will tell me to look at it again carefully because it could be a waste of film. That happened in The Golden Bowl with the Prince, Maggie, and the little boy asleep in the bed at the end—that was originally two scenes.
When I’m making films based on very well-known novels, I am not keen on actors improvising all over the place, nor am I keen on their taking the novel and suggesting we reinsert scenes from it. When we were making The Europeans, everybody had a paperback copy of the book and was wandering around reading it all the time. Ruth knows exactly what she’s doing; she’s thought it out five hundred times, and on the whole there is no need not to speak lines as written. Most actors tend to respect that, although any director’s a fool if someone comes along with a better idea for a line and he doesn’t accept it. Ruth also gets involved in the editing room. I change the film enormously in the editing. The first full screening is usually a vast, shapeless monster, and we do a lot between then and the final cut. There’s stuff in the movie that isn’t first-class, but sometimes you are forced to keep such scenes in because they help the story. You must find a cut to present them in the best possible way. We don’t reshoot. It’s never as good as what we did the first time, even when it was done badly. We do add scenes sometimes, like the scene in The Golden Bowl where Maggie is reading the letter in the courtyard, which strengthens a particular strand of the story, and which was shot months later.
Critics of course only respond depending on whether we are in a fashionable or unfashionable phase in our career and reputations. We have been in and out of favor numerous times the whole forty years we’ve been working. It all just washes away finally. We just carry on making films, and what we do is often the only thing like it out there. I do feel that we’re a little bit like aliens in a way—from outer space.
What a film director does—and does not, or cannot, do as he shoots his film—was wonderfully described by Jean Renoir in his memoir My Life and My Films, written in 1974. This is how he puts it:
To me a script is simply a vehicle to be modified as one draws near to the real intention, which must not change. The intention is something that the film- maker has at the back of his mind, often without knowing it, but if it is not there the end result is superficial. The film- maker establishes his characters by making them speak, and creates the general ambiance by building sets and choosing locations. His own inward conviction only gradually appears, and generally in collaboration with the artisans of the film— actors, technicians, natural settings or artificial sets. We are subject to the immutable law whereby the essence is only revealed when the object begins to exist.
The film director is not a creator but a midwife. His business is to deliver the actor of a child that he did not know he had inside him.
I met Renoir in 1963, when he was teaching a class in direction at UCLA. A friend of mine, Mindaugis Bagon, who shot my documentary The Sword and the Flute in 1956, was taking Renoir’s class and invited me one day to attend it with him. I knew of Jean Renoir’s legendary stature; I knew he was among the greatest living directors, and that for the French he was like a god. When the French New Wave films began being made about this time, it was not Renoir whom directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol wished to wash away in their Waves.
And I had another reason to admire and look up to him: he was my introduction to India. His film The River, which came out in the early fifties just as I was beginning my courses at the USC film school, had thrilled me and awakened me to India, and I saw Renoir’s movie again and again at an art house on Wilshire Boulevard.
I learned later that Ray had hung around Renoir’s set of The River when he was a young man working in an advertising agency in Calcutta, as had the sixteen-year-old Subrata Mitra, who later was Ray’s cameraman on The Apu Trilogy, and was the cameraman for the first four of Merchant Ivory’s Indian features.
In the big classroom at UCLA that I visited with my friend Mindy Bagdon, Renoir had set his students a problem. He described a dialogue scene with a certain amount of necessary action and necessary moving around. What would be the best and most interesting way to do that? he asked. There was a kind of low stage, and his students then got up on it and walked through the imaginary actions of Renoir’s scene. Some of the students didn’t bother to go up on the stage where Renoir was standing, but indicated from their seats with a wave of their hands how this or that character might move about. Some sat silent, eating yogurt. I sat there thinking, My god! Do these guys know who this is? But then I remembered my own classes at the USC’s film school years before and how unimpressed we had been by the eminent, mostly retired, once stellar figures who had been induced to come and talk to us. One day it had been the great art director William Cameron Menzies. I should have been trembling with awe and curiosity but was not, as these louts at UCLA should be now.
Afterward, outside, I went up to Renoir. I wanted to bring news of his old friends Satyajit Ray and Subrata Mitra, with whom I had just been working on The Householder. I spoke of my admiration for The River, and of how much it had meant to me when I had become interested in India—or rather, besotted by that country and its people.
In 1963, in Southern California, one still went out often in the daytime in a jacket and tie. I was wearing a necktie that had a traditional design of tiny mangos. Renoir (also in coat and tie) looked at it, and I think even touched it. He said then that when one eats a mango, all the delicious sweetness of India you may have been seeking is concentrated in a ripe mango’s taste, like no other fruit. Just as when one eats an apple from Normandy, all the sweetness and flavor of France is concentrated in its crisp flesh. I am sure he had said this before, especially while in India, in the most beautiful French, which my translation above must not be compared to. His use of the word “sweetness” was not literal. He was talking about other spheres of sweetness that were as much about emotion and thought, and a hoped-for, remembered goodness—the special sweetness of a place, and now perhaps for an elderly Frenchman living in Southern California, of home.
This was my only meeting with Jean Renoir. He was still at work, making a string of color films after The River through the 1950s (of which my favorite was The Golden Coach, starring Anna Magnani), and had just made The Elusive Corporal in France. In 1969 he made his last film, The Little Theater of Jean Renoir.
Excerpted from SOLID IVORY: Memoirs by James Ivory, Edited by Peter Cameron. Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux November 2nd 2021. Copyright © 2021 by James Ivory. All rights reserved.
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