THE JAMES IVORY IN­TER­VIEW

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - By Fa­had Sa­mar

AF­TER DECADES OF LIV­ING ON LOVE, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE CEL­E­BRATED? THE OLD­EST RE­CIP­I­ENT OF AN ACADEMY AWARD EVER GETS INTO AN IN­TI­MATE CHAT ABOUT LIFE AF­TER THE WIN, THE STRUG­GLES BE­FORE THE AP­PRE­CI­A­TION, AND ON THE ARTIS­TIC IN­TEGRITY OF HIS PART­NER OF 40 YEARS, IS­MAIL MER­CHANT!

ON THE DI­REC­TOR ELIM­I­NAT­ING MALE NU­DITY IN CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: “IT FELT PHONY TO HAVE THE CAM­ERA PAN OUT THE WIN­DOW RATHER THAN SHOW THE LOVERS IN A NAT­U­RAL WAY!”

CEL­E­BRATED AUTEUR AND OLD­EST OS­CAR WIN­NER JAMES IVORY REM­I­NISCES MOVIES, MEM­O­RIES AND LATE PART­NER IS­MAIL MER­CHANT OVER A NOS­TAL­GIC NEW YORK BRUNCH [ AN HTBRUNCH EXCLUSIVE! ]

O n the morn­ing of March 5 this year, I rose early to watch the live tele­cast of the 90th Academy Awards. I was par­tic­u­larly in­vested in one award cat­e­gory; that of Best Adapted Screen­play, and I wept and cheered un­abashedly when 89-year-old James Ivory made his way to the Dolby The­atre stage to ac­cept his much-de­served Os­car for Call

Me By Your Name.

It was an emo­tional mo­ment for me and for the mil­lion fans of this beloved auteur, who has pre­vi­ously been nom­i­nated three times in the Best Di­rec­tor cat­e­gory for ARoomWithA

View (1985), Howard­sEnd (1992) and The Re­mains Of The Day (1993). But the Os­car had eluded Ivory un­til this his­toric mo­ment when he clutched the golden stat­uette and gave a heart­felt speech pay­ing elo­quent trib­ute to his part­ner of over 40 years, the late Is­mail Mer­chant.

DREAM DUO

My fa­ther and Is­mail had been best friends through school and col­lege in Mum­bai and later part­nered in a film equip­ment busi­ness. Un­cle Is­mail and Jim (as James Ivory prefers be­ing

called) had been vis­i­tors at our home for as long as I can re­mem­ber. I was for­tu­nate to work on sev­eral Mer­chan­tIvory movies af­ter Is­mail an­nounced one day to my par­ents that he had de­cided that I was too in­tel­li­gent to squan­der my life as a lawyer. No­body could refuse the mer­cu­rial Is­mail and so I du­ti­fully (and hap­pily) dropped out of law col­lege and be­came an acolyte with the Mer­chant-Ivory dream team.

Hav­ing grad­u­ated with a de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture, it was a joy for me to work on films adapted from the works of E.M. Forster, Kazuo Ishig­uro and Anita De­sai. Is­mail was al­ways flam­boy­ant and gre­gar­i­ous, and Jim mild-man­nered and shy, but with a wry sense of hu­mour and an in­tel­lect, that I adored. His metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to de­tail and nu­anced di­rec­to­rial style greatly in­flu­enced me and I feel blessed that my for­ma­tive years were spent learn­ing at the feet of these mas­ter film­mak­ers be­fore I launched my own pro­duc­tion com­pany in 1995.

STORY OF STRENGTH

When Is­mail died un­ex­pect­edly in May 2005 af­ter a botched surgery in Lon­don, my thoughts went out to Jim, who had lost not only his pro­duc­ing part­ner but also his life com­pan­ion. Ev­ery­one won­dered if Jim could con­tinue mak­ing movies with­out the mav­er­ick Mer­chant by his side. But Jim sol­diered through and com­pleted

The White Count­ess (2005) with Ralph Fi­ennes and Vanessa Red­grave and then went on to make The City Of Your Fi­nal Des­ti­na­tion in 2009 with An­thony Hop­kins, his fourth film star­ring the tal­ented thes­pian.

On a re­cent visit to New York, I re­solved to re­con­nect with the man who has been such an im­por­tant in­flu­ence in my life. Jim said he was de­lighted to hear from me and we fixed to meet at his apart­ment build­ing on the Upper East Side.

Jim emerged from the el­e­va­tor sport­ing a walk­ing cane and a warm smile. He is now a sprightly 90 and I felt a surge of nos­tal­gia as we shook hands and then hugged. Stepping into a chilly Novem­ber morn­ing, we strolled down First Av­enue to Jim’s favourite café for a leisurely brunch.

It had been 15 years since we had last met and there was much to say. I was sur­prised at how seam­lessly we slipped into con­ver­sa­tion, pick­ing up from where we had left off, rem­i­nisc­ing movies, mem­o­ries, and, of course, Is­mail Mer­chant.

I asked Jim if he re­grets not hav­ing di­rected Call Me By Your Name, given that it was a com­ing-of-age film about gay ro­mance, a theme that he has adroitly han­dled be­fore in films such as Maurice (1987) and The Bos­to­ni­ans (1984)? Jim replied that while he was con­tent to write the screen­play and al­low Luca Guadagnino to helm the film there were as­pects he would have done dif­fer­ently. He was an­noyed that Luca had done away with male frontal nu­dity even though it was spec­i­fied in Jim’s screen­play. “It felt phony to have the cam­era pan out the win­dow rather than show the lovers in a nat­u­ral way.” Jim him­self has never shied from por­tray­ing male nu­dity in films like Maurice and A Room

With A View and crit­ics and au­di­ences have ap­pre­ci­ated his can­did ap­proach to this squea­mish sub­ject.

A LIFE OF IN­TEGRITY

And now that he’s won an Os­car, a BAFTA, The Writer’s Guild of Amer­ica Award and sev­eral other ac­co­lades for his out­stand­ing screen­play, was he flooded with of­fers to write films for other di­rec­tors, I asked? “Well, the day af­ter

on the strug­gles of the past: “we were con­stantly short of money... shashi kapoor had to bail us out when we ran out of funds... it’s been the story of our lives!”

the Os­cars my agent called say­ing that Alexan­der Payne had en­quired if I would deign to adapt a short story by Ruth. I said of course I would ‘deign’ to do it!” Jim laughed and re­vealed that he was in the midst of writ­ing The Judge’s Will for Payne, the cel­e­brated di­rec­tor of such films as

Side­ways (2004), About Sch­midt (2002) and Nebraska (2013). I found it poignant that Jim should now adapt Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala’s work given that their long-time friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor had writ­ten 22 screen­plays for Mer­chant-Ivory be­fore her death in 2013. In­ter­est­ingly, Ruth her­self won two Os­cars for her screen adap­ta­tions of Howards End (1992) and A Room With A View.

Re­cently the Co­hen Me­dia Group ac­quired 30 films pro­duced by Mer­chant-Ivory and Jim was re­lieved that early classics like The House­holder (1963) and Shake­speare Wal­lah (1965) would be pre­served for pos­ter­ity. The in­de­fati­ga­ble film­maker serves as cre­ative di­rec­tor on this project and con­sults on restora­tion, re-re­lease and pro­mo­tion of each of the 30 films. In fact, later that day Jim was sched­uled to at­tend a spe­cial re-re­lease of The

Bos­to­ni­ans at a Man­hat­tan cin­ema. I re­called a hi­lar­i­ous story that I had heard grow­ing up about how the pro­duc­tion had run out of money while film­ing in Bos­ton and how the film’s hero Christopher Reeve had flown his per­sonal jet to LA and re­turned with bags full of cash and T-shirts for the en­tire unit that read ‘I did it all for Curry!’ cheek­ily ref­er­enc­ing how Is­mail would cook In­dian meals for the crew but not pay them their wages.

Jim seemed be­mused. “I’m not quite sure that story is true but it’s quite likely as we were con­stantly short of money and even Shashi Kapoor had to bail us out when we ran out of funds while film­ing Heat And

Dust (1993) in Hyderabad… it’s been the story of our lives.”

Of course, it was Is­mail who fa­mously man­aged to charm, ca­jole or bully peo­ple into work­ing for Mer­chant-Ivory for a frac­tion of their usual fee. The leg­endary hus­tler took on the onus of rais­ing funds for films that no one was ready to back and let Jim get on with the busi­ness of craft­ing ex­quis­ite films with­out hav­ing to fret about pro­duc­tion is­sues. Jim re­counted the trou­bles they had faced while work­ing with Har­vey We­in­stein and how the no­to­ri­ous pro­ducer tried to in­ter­fere with the cre­ative process on The Golden Bowl (2000), star­ring Uma Thur­man. But the duo stood up to him and even­tu­ally bought back the rights to their movie. “Is­mail had to raise four mil­lion dol­lars overnight but he did it rather than al­low Har­vey to have his way,” said Jim, misty-eyed, re­call­ing his part­ner’s un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to artis­tic in­tegrity.

The void left by the death of Is­mail and then Ruth must have been im­mense, but the sur­viv­ing mem­ber of this iconic tri­fecta keeps re­mark­ably busy, hav­ing re­cently di­rected a short film set to an aria by Han­del that de­picts two me­dieval knights who be­come lovers. He re­vealed with an imp­ish smile that he shot the film in the back­yard of his Clav­er­ack es­tate in up­state New York where he had just spent the Thanks­giv­ing week­end af­ter hav­ing re­turned from a trip to Paris. The in­vet­er­ate trav­eller also loves va­ca­tion­ing in Italy, par­tic­u­larly Venice, where he has friends and where he made his much lauded short film

Venice: Theme and Vari­a­tions in 1957, two years be­fore he first met Is­mail at a screen­ing of an­other short film The

Sword And The Flute (1959). That en­counter would re­sult in a col­lab­o­ra­tion span­ning four decades, 44 films, 31 Os­car nom­i­na­tions and six Os­cars. Iron­i­cally nei­ther Is­mail nor Jim won a per­sonal Os­car dur­ing their 40-year part­ner­ship and the win for Call Me By Your Name there­fore be­comes all the more mov­ing as Ivory is now the old­est re­cip­i­ent of the Academy Award in any cat­e­gory.

Hav­ing fin­ished his skil­let eggs and cap­puc­cino, Jim posed for pho­tos and chided me for hav­ing picked up the tab. I mum­bled some­thing about how I owe him more than he will ever know. We hugged and said our good­byes, promis­ing to keep in touch. And then, as I watched him slowly walk away, I found my­self recit­ing lines from Ten­nyson’s Ulysses, that heroic war­rior who de­spite his ad­vanc­ing years and fallen com­rades still con­tin­ues to fight the good fight:

How­dul­li­tistopause,to make an end,

To rust un­bur­nish’d, not to shine in use!

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which­weare,weare;

One equal tem­per of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

THE WIN­NING DEAL Cal­lMeByYourName won James Ivory an Os­car for Best Adapted Screen­play

WHEN MER­CHANT MET IVORY TheCi­tyOfYour Fi­nalDesti­na­tion, TheWhiteCount­ess and Maurice are some of the films pro­duced by the Mer­chant-Ivory duo

IN­SPI­RA­TION WITH THE IN­SPIRED The au­thor with James Ivory in New York

AgE NO bAR Film­maker James Ivory, look­ing dap­per in a Ti­mothée Cha­la­met shirt, bagged the Os­car for Cal­lMeByYourName at age 89

cOm­INg Of AgE James Ivory sport­ing a walk­ing cane and a warm smile, is now a sprightly 90

TIll DEATH DID THEm PART When Is­mail died in May 2005, James Ivory not only lost his pro­duc­ing part­ner but also his life com­pan­ion

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