By Pamela Cole
20, 2007 (ATLANTA) Women in Film and Television Atlanta
(WIFTA) Co-President Kristen McGary interviewed famed director James
Ivory after a special screening of The Golden Bowl (2005),
a Merchant Ivory Production. Ivory was in Atlanta to receive a Lifetime
Achievement award from WIFTA (see story
After the screening at Cinevision Corporation (the print was the
original one premiered at Cannes in 2005, complete with French subtitles),
McGary and Ivory sat before an oddly less-than-capacity crowd for
an extended interview. Ivory has made few public appearances since
the death of his longtime business and personal companion, Ismail
Merchant in 2005. For 44 years, the two collaborated in life and
film, creating the genre known as Merchant Ivory Productions.
Ivory was born in Berkeley, California in 1928 to an Irish Catholic
father and a non-believer, Louisiana-born mother. When he was five,
his family moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon, a logging town.
"I went to Catholic parochial school there, and then we moved
from Klamath Falls Oregon to Palm Springs, California -- and that
was a whole different world. I didn't go to parochial school anymore,"
While he had no ambitions to be a filmmaker, he admitted that he
saw a great many films that influenced him. One of the most important
films, he said, was Gone with the Wind.
"I saw it at just the age when you become aware of a million
different things about yourself. I saw it again and again and again.
It had a great effect on me," he emphasized.
"When I was a child I had no idea what directors did. I had
a pretty good idea what art directors did," he said revealing
an early interest in art that has been manifest in his work as a
filmmaker. Ivory's work is clearly influenced by his love of classical
artwork. In The Golden Bowl, as in many of his films,
art is a main character.
Ivory went to school at USC and studied architecture, but he still
didn't know what he wanted to do. He went on to study film in USC's
graduate film school, where his graduate thesis film, a 28-minute
documentary called Venice: Theme and Variations, was
named by the The New York Times as one of the ten best non-theatrical
films of 1957.
"By some fluke, it did very well," said Ivory modestly.
"A lot of it was good, but why necessarily a 16mm documentary
about Venice and how artists had seen it over the centuries?"
He went on to say, "In those days, making films about art was
quite a respectable genre. They even had a special critic in the
New York times for non-theatrical films."
It was ultimately Ivory's love of art that lead him to his long-time
companion and business partner, Ismail Merchant.
"The second film I made, [The Sword and the Flute
(1961)], which was also a documentary, was a film about Indian miniature
paintings. It was rather a shorter documentary. Some mutual friends
had told Ismail about that film because the husband, Saeed Jaffrey,
had narrated it."
"It was being shown at the Indian consulate and they were
all at the screening. Ismail came up afterwards and said how much
he liked it. He was surprised that an American would make such a
film with that kind of sensibility, and that he liked it. So we
began to talk and became friends."
The two met again at Cannes later that year, where Merchant's first
film, The Creation of Woman (later nominated for an
Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects), was
showing. Both were promising filmmakers from the beginning.
Later, Merchant asked Ivory, who was in India shooting for a third
documentary ("it was a portrait of the city of Delhi"),
if he would direct a feature film Merchant wanted to produce.
had never directed a feature, but at that age, you just say, Sure!"
laughed Ivory, noting that Merchant, likewise, had never produced
a feature film.
"But he certainly was a producer!" said Ivory recounting
how Merchant had already raised the money and cast for another feature,
to be directed by Sidney Myers. But Myers had pulled out and the
project fell through, as often happens in this business.
"So suddenly, that cast and that money was moved over to this
new film, for which I was going to be the director, and of which
I knew nothing about directing."
That first film was The Householders, based on a
novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Merchant had read the book and liked
"Ismail called her up and she refused to take the call, and
then she said she was with her mother-in-law, but eventually she
did talk to him. A lot of people had gotten in touch with her about
filming her books but then it always fell through."
At the time, Jhabvala had never written a screenplay. So, Merchant
Ivory Productions was started with Ivory, who had never directed
a feature; Merchant, who had never produced a feature; and Jhabvla,
who had never written a screenplay. The trio would go on to produce
over 20 films and win six Academy Awards.
"On the very first day of directing, which kept being put
off and put off, this great cameraman Subrata Mitra, who had photographed
all these great films said 'Where's your shot division?'" I
didn't know what a shot division was."
When asked about his experience with actors, Ivory said that "Raquel
Welch was a very, very difficult actress to work with."
"She fired the cameraman, she fired Ismail, she would have
fired [co-star] Perry King
and it was our film!" Later,
Ivory added that "I did not enjoy making The Wild Party
(1975)," which Welch starred in.
But he did not hesitate to name his favorite actor: "My all-time
favorite actress working with -- in terms of who she was, what she
brought to the part -- was Emma Thompson. She was just gorgeous
and her depth. She was really the funniest, sanest, most brilliant
as an actress."
Ivory admitted that he only works with European cameramen, even
when he's shooting in America, because "the look of a film
is really all up to the cameraman." "I see so many movies
and I think, why bother, why even bother?" he said.
The 79-year-old Ivory has many plans for the future. "I would
like to go back to Venice and make a feature. I would love to go
back to Venice. I'm also very interested in doing Shakespeare. For
quite a while I've wanted to do Richard II. I also wouldn't mind
doing Twelfth Night with Hugh Grant. I think Hugh would be stupendous
in that role."
Ivory is also executive-producing a film by Atlantan John David
The charming and unassuming Ivory patiently entertained audience
questions for over an hour.
On keeping focus while directing, Ivory said: "As you go along
making a film you want to keep things out, to avoid things that
might spoil it. You may not even have an idea what the thing is,
but you have a very good feeling that something is wrong. It could
be any of a thousand details. The tone of voice of an actor's voice
some terrible looking hat
just that something
on the set is wrong. A lot of your time is spent in getting rid
of things that would draw the wrong kind of attention or would take
away from the central story that you're telling. I think half your
time is spent in ridding the film of elements that don't belong
in it. The other half of your time is spent in creating whatever
it is you're trying to do
the scene, the sequence
active kind of thing."
working with actors, he said: "I start from the position that
in most cases, they are professional actors, and if they're professionals,
they know what they're doing. First of all, they're sent to me by
agents or I've seen them in something else and I know they're talented
-- I take that for granted that they're talented. They're really
actors who've done a tremendous amount in life-they're artists and
if I cast them, then they have my complete trust because I feel
they are artists."
"Therefore, I leave it pretty much to them to develop the
character, which they do privately and in their own way. Oh, we
have some discussions but, on the whole, they come up with it and
I believe very much in letting them show me what they've prepared
and how they want to do it. In almost every case, they've gone far,
far deeper than I could have ever prepared them. I have to leave
them to do that and trust them. Very, very rarely does someone come
up with something that makes me go (gasp) oh my god, what have you
"There are some people who overdo a bit, and you have to find
a way to gently bring them down. And there are some actors that
you can't do that with. For instance, if it's Judi Dench, you can't
tell her. She just acts away as if you've turned her on, and you
have to let her go."
"Generally, I believe that actors are deep, whereas directors
are wide and shallow. Some directors are deep but on the whole,
because of all the things you have to do as a director -- there
are so many areas, that you cannot plunge down into all those areas.
You cannot really, really get down to every aspect. You need to
let the person who has that job do that. You can't really get into
the job of art directing, for instance. You have to believe in those
people the same way you believe in the actors."