James Ivory: A death in the family

As his new film opens, the director James Ivory looks back on his partnership with Ismail Merchant - and tells Louise Jury why the 'heritage film' label angers him
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At this week's post-premiere party for his latest movie, The White Countess, James Ivory is an elegant, reserved figure in a pinstripe suit, with the appearance - as one guest observes - of an accountant more than a film director. Yet it seems unlikely that many accountants elicit the same affection as the thoughtful man behind such classics as A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day.

He's seated as if the still centre of the storm in the splendour of the Dorchester Hotel's Chinese restaurant, a London venue in keeping with the new film's setting in Shanghai. A succession of Britain's finest - and most glamorous - actors come to pay homage. Many, such as Greta Scacchi and Natascha McElhone, have appeared in his works, and their warmth for the 77-year-old director is genuine.

But all the guests, from the film's star Ralph Fiennes to the Duchess of York, understand that there is a spectre at the feast. Last year, with filming in China complete and the movie in post-production, Ismail Merchant, the producer who was Ivory's movie-making partner for more than 40 years, died at the age of 68.

Friends and colleagues who had worked on Merchant Ivory films over the decades were devastated. Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the original screenplay for The White Countess, recalls the shock. With most films, the Booker-winning novelist says, other staff would have been brought in to finish production. But that isn't the way Merchant Ivory works; they regard the production team as a family, and they dealt with the bereavement as a family. Ivory insisted he would wait until everyone was ready to continue.

The process was not easy, and the sense of loss remains palpable. Ivory says: "He was absolutely my closest friend and my creative partner for all my productive life, apart from my very first films, which were documentaries before I knew him."

The film was only at a rough-cut stage when Merchant was struck down with bleeding stomach ulcers during work on post-production in London. He had suffered similar problems twice before, but each time he had been treated and was fine within weeks. "That is what I assumed would happen this time," Ivory says. "But there were a lot of complications people weren't prepared for. They don't know quite what went wrong. He'd been told that if he remained stable he could go home. Fifteen minutes after that, he had the enormous haemorrhage."

Ivory could scarcely understand the implications of the loss at first. "It was the thing I had to get used to accepting when he died; that that partner wasn't going to be there any more, and that I was really on my own. That didn't dawn on me at first. It took a month or so to sink in. It wasn't just that he did everything for me - it wasn't on that level. It was that I didn't have anyone to talk to."

He still had Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, of course, the writer who had been their friend since the newly-formed Merchant Ivory partnership persuaded her to adapt her own novel, The Householder, for their first film in 1963. "But I didn't have anyone to talk to about all the practical things that come up in film-making. I felt bereft and a little unsure of myself. I'm not really accustomed to it yet, and I think it will take a little longer," he says.

When the pair met in 1961, headed for the Cannes Film Festival, it could never have occurred to either that they would work together for the next 44 years. Ivory was a California-born film graduate; Merchant, born in Mumbai, * * whose real name was Noormohamed Abdul Rehman, had been sent by his family to America to become a businessman.

Their close personal and professional partnership began when they realised that American film distributors' revenue for films shown in India was frozen in Indian bank accounts because of foreign-exchange controls. By using it to make English-language films in India for an international market, the distributors could generate a return on their cash.

The Householder was Ivory's first feature. "I didn't really know what was involved. It was a vague idea that in the future I would make one. But the whole thing sort of rolled out as we went along."

Their way of working quickly became clear. Ivory, Merchant and Prawer Jhabvala all had a strong belief in what they were doing and how they wanted to do it. At the core was a real faith in the people they worked with, many of whom returned time and time again to the fold. Vanessa Redgrave, for instance, was in Howards End 14 years ago and, with sister Lynn and daughter Natasha Richardson, is in The White Countess. Other regular faces include Madhur Jaffrey and James Wilby.

Ishiguro says he originally made the mistake of thinking they were like other film-makers. "What became clear to me after a while was that it was more like they gathered together a group of people - technicians, costumes people, people on the production side and, of course, writers - who they wanted to work with. Having watched Merchant Ivory over the years now, I can see that's how they work at every level. They're almost like family relationships. It was almost like the film projects weren't necessary; the film was what enabled all these relationships to be reactivated for the family to function."

Everyone had their own part to play. Ivory would never interfere in one of Prawer Jhabvala's scripts, for instance, and Merchant would not interfere when Ivory was directing. Merchant did direct some films, but his main role was as producer, the man who secured the money (a Merchant Ivory budget was invariably and notoriously tight) and the publicity.

"Ismail was there to get everything going, keep an eye on things and make sure we had everything we needed. He made sure the film was released properly and publicised properly," Ivory says. "He was a genius at publicity and knew exactly what he had to do. In every way, he was the most supportive of producers."

Another of his talents was finding good people to work with. "He trusted so many people to do a good job when they seemed inexperienced and didn't have much in the way of credits. But he was convinced they would be good. It applied to actors and often to editors or art directors or whoever, and they all finally turned out great and had good careers."

Although Ivory was grateful that Merchant did not interfere, he acknowledges that his producer did make rare, but crucial, artistic interventions. It was Merchant who thought Maggie Smith would be ideal for a part in Quartet, the film adapted from the autobiographical novel by Jean Rhys, which they were having trouble casting as no one wanted to do it. He sent her the script and she agreed.

On another occasion, they could not find the male lead for Autobiography of a Princess. "We tried Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and he [Merchant] said, 'The person you should have is James Mason,' and I said, 'He's too glamorous to play this broken-down man,' but Mason immediately wanted to do it. Ismail cast him without even telling me. And from the beginning of the shoot, from the moment Mason stepped from his car and crept up the stairs, he was it. I can't think of anyone other than Anthony Hopkins who's done a greater job [in a role]. Those were creative decisions of the greatest value."

Ivory candidly admits that there have been misses alongside the hits. "We were careful in our own terms in making something we liked and believed in, but that didn't necessarily mean the public would like it." But some of the "flops" remain personal favourites, including Quartet and Jefferson in Paris, the story of Thomas Jefferson, the American President, and his affair with a slave girl.

Other favourites include Mr and Mrs Bridge, which starred Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward; The Remains of the Day, adapted from Ishiguro's novel, and the early films they made in India, such as Shakespeare-Wallah with a young Felicity Kendal.

Looking back, Ivory thinks the early days in India were when he enjoyed himself most: "The newness of everything and the feeling that we could do whatever we wanted, and it didn't cost very much in those days. We didn't have a dime, actually, and it's no joke making a film in India, but it was our heroic age."

Yet he hopes there are more good times to come. His next project is an adaptation of the novel The City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron, about a would-be biographer of an obscure writer. It will be filmed in Argentina later this year. The company also has the rights to a Thomas Kenneally book, The Playmaker, about the first convicts in Australia and the source of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Our Country's Good. And Ivory wants to film Shakespeare's Richard II in England. "I don't know how easy it will be to pull off, but that's one of the things I want to do. I love the play. I think it would make a wonderful movie."

It was always everyone's plan that the company would continue, regardless of what happened to individual members, Ivory says. Maybe that is easy while Merchant's presence remains strong. In the cramped and quirky London offices run by Paul Bradley, who joined the company a quarter-century ago, Merchant's desk has not been moved, 10 months on.

But Ivory is adamant that the company should carry on beyond him, too. "I hope there will be people who will take over when the time comes and I'm too decrepit to make any more movies - which I'm sure is soon approaching. Not necessarily films like mine, but at least films that seek the same kinds of qualities Merchant Ivory are usually thought to have."

Asked what those qualities are, he says it's the story that matters. "It has to be a good story. Whether you're adapting a book or an original screenplay, it has to be worth doing, worth telling. That's the main thing. After that, you want to have it shot so it looks very good, and you want it to be extremely well acted."

Perhaps this dedication to old-fashioned storytelling is what lies behind the Merchant Ivory reputation as purveyors of "heritage movies" - or what the director Alan Parker condemned as the "Laura Ashley school of film-making". It is a reputation likely to be confirmed by its first foray into China with The White Countess, a beautifully shot evocation of 1930s Shanghai on the brink of the Japanese invasion.

Set in 1936, The White Countess tells the story of a beautiful Russian countess (Natasha Richardson), reduced by circumstances to supporting her family as a bar-girl and dancer, and a blind ex-diplomat (Ralph Fiennes), who has lost his family in the political violence of the times - a period when the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, had challenged the nationalists in a series of regional civil wars.

But this decorative reputation makes Ivory - the American Protestant, working with an Indian Muslim and a German Jew - bristle. "This notion of heritage - whose heritage? Mine? Ruth's? Ismail's? This is an English preconception. It's not my heritage. It's irritating, after all these years, to be thought of as English. No Englishman hearing me speak would ever think I was English."

He adds tetchily: "As far as I'm concerned, my films are American films. I have always thought of myself as an American director and therefore my films are American."

Yet it is easy to see how the error occurs. Despite films such as Slaves of New York, about artists falling in and out of love in that city, it is the string of EM Forster adaptations - and those of the works of the Anglophile American writer Henry James - with which Merchant Ivory will forever be associated. From the uptight butler played by Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, to Helena Bonham Carter's free-thinking Edwardian lady in Howards End, the quintessential Merchant Ivory production has always seemed terribly English.

There was a period when audiences loved these films, and they won every award going. Howards End was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three. The Remains of the Day secured eight Oscar nominations. But the mood changed in the Nineties; before the first screening of Pulp Fiction, that film's director Quentin Tarantino asked those who had liked The Remains of the Day to "get the fuck out of here".

Ivory is resigned to this change in fashion. "I think people, after a while, got tired of us. I don't blame them in a way, given that we always seemed to be doing what to them seemed to be the heritage thing. It didn't matter what the actual content was; we fell into a category that was to be deplored. I often felt that they hadn't actually watched the film and that people came in with their minds made up."

He complains that when he made Jefferson in Paris it was dismissed as a heritage film, even though it was "really about the biggest issue in the US - race. Nobody talked about that. They talked about the dresses and the chandeliers."

He is particularly cross that while scholars slated the movie at the time, no one has apologised since DNA tests proved that Jefferson really did have the affair and fathered a child. "Not a single person who ever wrote and damned the film and said it was a scandalous attempt to pull down the founding father's reputation has ever recanted after the whole DNA thing was resolved," he says.

Despite these niggles, Ivory appears largely content. "I'm 77. That makes me, with Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood, one of the three oldest working American directors. I'm panting along. I've spent hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money like I'm a playboy or something and had a good time doing it, with people I wanted to be with and enjoy being with and loved," he says. "And in terms of success, I do think of myself as successful. We made certain films that became very famous."

James Ivory is still adjusting to life without the producer who was the other half of one of Britain's most celebrated film-making teams, but he is confident he will manage. He just fears that film-making will be less enjoyable. "There are all kinds of ways he'll be missed. I suppose there are things he did so well that won't be done so well. But mostly he'll be missed just for what he was and the big friend he was and how much fun he was. He's very much in our thoughts all the time."

'The White Countess' opens next Friday