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An Evening with James Ivory

By Pamela Cole

October 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 here).

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," said Ivory.

Kristen McGary and James Ivory (Photos by Pam Cole)

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.

"I 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 it.

"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 Allen, Okefenokee.

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…whatever…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…a more active kind of thing."

On 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 done!"

"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."