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Merchant-Ivory: Interviews

Edited by Laurence Raw
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Merchant-Ivory: Interviews gathers together for the first time interviews made over the past five decades with director James Ivory (b. 1928), producer Ismail Merchant (1936-2005), and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (b. 1927). Beginning with their earliest work in India, and ending with James Ivory's last film, The City of Your Final Destination (2009), the book traces their career, while offering valuable insights into their creative filmmaking process. The volume serves as a corrective to the prevailing critical orthodoxy attached to Merchant-Ivory's work, which tends to regard them as being solely concerned with historically accurate costumes and settings. As independent filmmakers, they have developed an idiosyncratic approach that resists facile classification. Merchant-Ivory have insisted on maintaining their independence.

    More importantly, this book shows how Merchant-Ivory have always taken considerable care in casting their films, as well as treating actors with respect. This is a deliberate policy, designed to bring out one of the triumvirate's principal thematic concerns, running throughout their work--the impact of the "clash of cultures" on individuals. Partly this has been inspired by their collective experiences of living and working in different cultures. They do not offer any answers to this issue; rather they believe that their task is simply to raise awareness; to make filmgoers conscious of the importance of cultural sensitivities that assume paramount significance in any exchange, whether verbal or nonverbal.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-238-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    Mention the phrase “Merchant-Ivory” to most filmgoers of a certain generation and they automatically bring a specific aesthetic to mind: period dramas with languid camerawork, long takes, and deep staging, long and medium shots rather than close-ups or rapid cross-cutting. The camerawork seems dictated less by a desire to follow the characters, but to offer the aesthetic pleasure of admiring period settings and costumes. High-angle shots, slow pans, and tracking shots deliberately foreground the lovingly recreatedmise-en-scène(Higson 2005, 38). In 1997 theGuardiannewspaper published an article “Modern Recipes no. 21: Costume Drama” in which they parodied what they...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Filmography
    (pp. xxiii-2)
  6. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant: An Interview
    (pp. 3-20)
    Jag Mohan, Basu Chatterji and Arun Kaul

    At the time of the final editing of the filmGuru, both Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were in Bombay for a long stretch.Close-Uptook advantage of their presence and interviewed them. The team ofClose-Upinterviews was Jag Mohan, Basu Chatterji, and Arun Kaul, headed of course by Jag Mohan. The interview started at the temporary office of Ismail Merchant at about 4:00 pm, and ended at 10:00 pm. Yagya Sharma, a young documentary filmmaker, tape-recorded the interview.

    Q: How did Merchant and Ivory become Merchant and Ivory Productions—that is, joined together as a team?

    Ismail Merchant:...

  7. Interview with James Ivory
    (pp. 21-32)
    Stephan Varble and James Ivory

    Since 1962, James Ivory’s films have been produced by Ismail Merchant and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. At the outset of this interview Mr. Ivory stressed the importance of their longstanding collaboration.

    Stephan Varble: Well, I don’t have a first question . . .

    James Ivory: Then you’d better go on to the second.

    SV: I suppose I should ask when you were born. Or is that pertinent?

    JI: July 8, 1942.

    SV: And then I was going to ask when you speculate your date of death will be.

    JI: Oh, well, I won’t answer that.

    SV: But that would...

  8. Merchant-Ivory
    (pp. 33-39)
    John Gillett

    Savageshas been nicely described by Penelope Gilliatt as “a glittering sarcastic fable [. . .] full of withering social comedy and a peculiar, erratic stateliness of style.” Far too idiosyncratic ever to have emerged from a major studio, it was shot entirely at a big house in upstate New York, Edith Wharton country, among the furniture and books and portraits left behind by the owners when they finally closed their unmanageably large mansion.Savagesbuilds on the associations of its setting; the house itself seeming like a great, grounded ocean liner of the 1930s. But at the same time,...

  9. The Merchant-Ivory Synthesizers
    (pp. 40-49)
    Judith Trojan

    Director James Ivory studied for his Master’s degree in filmmaking at the University of Southern California; producer Ismail Merchant studied for his in Business Administration at New York University. But East/West conflicts don’t begin to end there. Ivory is an American from California; Merchant, an Indian from Bombay. Somehow, these two unlikely candidates for collaboration crossed paths at a screening of an early Ivory documentary,The Sword and the Flute, an art film on Indian miniatures, and the MIP logo was born.

    Merchant, a flamboyant, passionate fellow with a penchant for promotion, had one successful film to his production credit....

  10. Hollywood versus Hollywood
    (pp. 50-60)
    James Ivory

    The term “the final cut” in commercial filmmaking has an ominous sound to the layman, who cannot understand how it is possible for the director of a film to have his work re-edited by others against his wishes. The final cut and who has the right to make it is an issue that has been fought over by the creators of films and those who have the controlling financial interest in them since the beginning of the film industry. Unless his contract protects that right, so basic to any kind of personal expression in films, the director will usually lose...

  11. Where Could I Meet Other Screenwriters? A Conversation with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
    (pp. 61-70)
    John Pym

    Massachusetts, early October. The author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala occupies a bare, modern room in an anonymous modern hotel in Leominster. The room seems to contain only a typewriter, a few papers, and a well-preserved copy of the Penguin edition of Henry James’s novelThe Europeans. She likes the hotel: it takes care of the domestic arrangements, not her forte, and the atmosphere is conducive to hard work. A few miles away at the Barrett House, across the state line in New Ipswich, NH, her colleagues, the producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory, have just started filming her (and...

  12. Ismail Merchant: Snowballs to Eskimos
    (pp. 71-75)
    Charles Newman

    There is a thread which connects Bombay with Cologne, Berkeley in California, Leamington Spa, and Russia. Difficult to be too precise, but it’s the same line that links films likeThe Europeans, Heat and Dust, andSavages.

    Of course, the line is Merchant-Ivory Productions. The places all feature in the biographies of the three central personas in the company; they all help explain a little here, a little there. And the films are just some of the MIP catalogue. In twenty-one years the catalogue has grown fast—sometimes on shoestrings—to more than twenty features, shorts, and TV films.


  13. James Ivory: An Interview
    (pp. 76-79)
    Pat Anderson

    Tall, handsome, mellifluous voiced, James Ivory has traveled far from his native California, teaming up with Ismail Merchant from India and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (from Germany and England) who is married to an Indian. From this collaboration have come some marvelous and marvelously diverse films. The only thing they all have in common is a meticulous attention to detail, with every object (even the tiniest) perfect for its period and every setting completely fitting the subject.

    I talked with James Ivory while he was in the midst of editingThe Bostonians, for which he is finally getting the popular recognition...

  14. The Trouble with Olive: Divine Madness in Massachusetts
    (pp. 80-93)
    James Ivory

    Ask any director and he’ll tell you there’s actress A, B, or C (it could also be actor X, Y, or Z) he’s crazy to work with some day. Vanessa Redgrave was at the head of my list, and when Merchant-Ivory started to think seriously aboutThe Bostonians—or as soon as there was a script—we got in touch with her. She was our first choice for the part of Olive Chancellor, but she turned it down. This was the spring of 1981. Since we were in London we asked her to dinner in order to talk about it,...

  15. Interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
    (pp. 94-100)
    Michael McDonough and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born to Jewish parents in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927. Her father, Marcus Prawer, came to Germany to escape military conscription in Poland; he met and married Eleanor (Cohn) Prawer in Cologne. Ruth Prawer’s grandfather was the cantor of the largest synagogue in that city and prided himself on his friendship with Christian pastors; her grandmother studied at the Berlin Conservatory of Music and played the piano. Her family identified with Germany and celebrated all national, civic, and Jewish festivals and holidays. She was raised in this solid, well-integrated, civilized atmosphere, surrounded by life-loving aunts...

  16. Dialogue on Film: Merchant and Ivory
    (pp. 101-107)
    American Film Institute

    The films of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory have often revolved around a newcomer’s changing perceptions of an alien culture, whether it’sThe Europeans’New England,Heat and Dust’sIndia, orA Room with a View’sFlorence. Their twenty-five-year partnership has produced many works of social commentary, but the messages are conveyed through subtle performances, great artistic detail, and well-crafted dialogue. Ignoring Hollywood trends, the filmmakers have instead selected material of widely varying periods and styles, often turning to novelists such as Henry James and E. M. Forster.

    Merchant-Ivory Production films are usually shot on location with sizable...

  17. A Film of Two Halves
    (pp. 108-112)
    Graham Fuller

    Joanne Woodward as the Kansas City country-club matron India Bridge—the fussing, ineffectual spirit of unemancipated, middle-class femininity, her dawning hopelessness waylaid by an arch gaiety—is, in James Ivory’sMr. and Mrs. Bridge, a sight to make one want to write immediately home to one’s mother. Thirty years of anticipation (and perhaps, thirty years of parenthood) went into Woodward’s performance, the most wrenching she has given in a film that stars her husband, Paul Newman.

    She had first envisaged playing the part when Evan S. Connell’s novelMrs. Bridge—117 terse chapters calibrating the emotional abandonment of the gentle,...

  18. A Truly Flourishing Plant
    (pp. 113-115)
    Michael Simpson

    This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Merchant-Ivory Productions, a fact already celebrated by the publication of Robert Emmet Long’s glossy bookThe Films of Merchant-Ivory(Viking). No less a cause for rejoicing is the fact that this occasion coincides with the release of their highly successful adaptation of E. M. Forster’sHowards End. It opens in London this week, and the screening is by the writer who completes the triumvirate, the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

    When I met Ismail Merchant in London last year, he was already looking forward to the anniversary year, and not least because he would...

  19. Buttling Under
    (pp. 116-119)
    Brian Case

    One of our greatest exports to Hollywood has been the British butler, with wing-pole collar and tray. Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his Hobson inArthur: “I thought it was rather vulgar when I read it. I turned it down three times and each time they put the money up, so naturally I became reconciled. I was enchanted when it was so acclaimed.” But he wasn’t tempted back into the striped trousers forTrading Places, and Denholm Elliott, possibly acting on the old knight’s advice, turned that down twice until the money doubled and Concorde came into the...

  20. The Elegance of James Ivory: 1994 D. W. Griffith Award Winner
    (pp. 120-126)
    Carolyn Hill

    Director James Ivory joins an impressive group of directors as only the twenty-fifth filmmaker to receive the D. W. Griffith Award for distinguished achievement in motion picture direction. A Guild member for more than twenty years, Ivory accepted the award, the DGA’s highest honor, during the Beverly Hills ceremony on March 11, 1995, at the annual Directors Guild of America Awards.

    Most recently known for directing elegant period pieces, Ivory has been working within the Merchant-Ivory framework for thirty-five years. The result of his collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has been such acclaimed films as...

  21. Ismail Merchant: The Maker of Dreams
    (pp. 127-129)
    Shahrukh Husain

    Ismail Merchant was only seven years old when his passionate affair with cinema began. From his first film, the boy was gripped by the magic of Indian movies.

    “It wasMela, starring Nargis and Dilip Kumar,” he recalls. “The stars were so handsome, the story so painfully beautiful . . . and when they sang the song,” he muses, quoting extensively from its most famous lyric, “I cried.”

    Other films followed, classics of Indian cinema and its stars. There wasJugnu, starring the singer-star Nur Jehan and many others, including the great Raj Kapoor movies,Aag,Andaaz,Awaarawith their...

  22. James Ivory
    (pp. 130-134)
    Geoffrey Macnab

    James Ivory limps across the ballroom of the Des Bains Hotel in Venice, looking every inch the old colonial grandee. Seventy-one now, he has been making movies for more than forty years. No, Ivory says, having finally put down his walking stick, maneuvered himself onto a sofa and stretched his leg in front of him, the limp is nothing to do with gout or affectation. “I fell down in St. Mark’s Square yesterday and then the person I was with fell on top of me. The full weight of someone falling on your leg is not a good thing—especially...

  23. Conversation with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
    (pp. 135-145)
    Philip Horne

    Academic and author Philip Horne interviewed one of the world’s foremost screenwriters, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, at her London home earlier this week. Recipient of two Oscars for her previous work with Merchant-Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has most recently adapted Henry James’s most complex and ambiguous novel,The Golden Bowl, to great acclaim.

    Philip Horne: After escaping from Nazi Germany you came to London in 1939, and later studied English at London University. Does English literature, or Anglo-American literature, have a special meaning for you?

    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Well, I was very lucky to come here when I did. I was...

  24. James Ivory Interview
    (pp. 146-151)
    Mike Goodridge

    I had been commissioned by The Asia Society of New York to make a documentary about Delhi, and travelled to India. There I became friendly with Satyajit Ray, and on a trip to Calcutta he invited me to go to the set ofTwo Daughters, (orThree Daughtersas it was originally called; one of the stories was cut out by Ray’s American distributor because it was too long). I remember getting up at absolutely the crack of dawn to be out there on set in the country. It was the last day of work on one of the stories,...

  25. Ismail Merchant Transcript
    (pp. 152-157)
    Chris Neumer

    Chris Neumer: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

    Ismail Merchant: You’re welcome.

    CN: It’s much appreciated. I was curious, just to get things started, what caused you to choose this particular novel—to address inThe Mystic Masseur?

    IM: Actually, I read it when I just finished my college in Bombay and I enjoyed it so much I laughed. Then, years later, a friend of mine said, “Have you readThe Mystic Masseur?” I told him, “years ago.” He said, “Why don’t you reread it,” and so I reread it and I liked it so much that...

  26. Interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
    (pp. 158-163)
    Declan McGrath, Felim MacDermott and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

    This is the way I set about adapting a book: I read it once, twice, three times and then I put it away. After that I work without the book for a bit. I have to find a form that isnotthat of the novel, the form of the film isneverthat of the novel. This form is a sort of construct in my mind. It is very difficult to describe. It is easier to describe the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. When I write a novel, I don’t really have an idea in...

  27. James Ivory on His Final Destination and Working without Ismail Merchant
    (pp. 164-168)
    Eric Larnick

    James Ivory—the thrice Oscar-nominated director ofA Room with a View, Howards End, andRemains of the Day—has created some of the most stylish and elegant films of the last twenty-five years. With co-producer and partner Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ivory is the rare filmmaker whose productions—literary tales set in different pockets of the globe and known simply as Merchant-Ivory films—are practically their own subgenre.

    When Merchant passed away in 2005, the future of the prestigious production company was called into question. But Ivory returns to arthouses once again this week withThe City...

  28. Additional Resources
    (pp. 169-170)
  29. Index
    (pp. 171-174)