HOW WE MET; JEANNE MOREAU AND ISMAIL MERCHANT

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The Independent Culture
Jeanne Moreau, 68, made her stage debut in 1947, then joined the Comedie Francaise the following year, its youngest ever performer. She has worked with many of the world's greatest film directors including Truffaut, Bunuel, Antonioni and, more recently, Fassbinder and Wenders. She lives in Paris.

Ismail Merchant, 59, was born in Bombay and studied at New York University. With director James Ivory he has produced more than 30 Merchant Ivory films, including A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. The Proprietor, which he directed, opens next year

JEANNE MOREAU: About three years ago I was invited to a party at the Indian Embassy in Paris. Social life is not something I enjoy very much, yet I wanted to go to this. The first person I met there was Ismail, and it was as though I had known him all my life, or in a previous life. I felt a gush of warmth and tenderness towards him.

Ismail's film, In Custody, had just opened in Paris, and he said he would take me to see it. And I had no doubt - I knew - I was going to experience something that would feed an unknown part of me. Such a sweet energy came out of that film. It moved me completely, and what was so wonderful was that I could communicate everything I felt to Ismail, because he genuinely understood that these were not compliments. We were talking about fundamental things in life.

There was never any question, after that, that we were meant to do something together, and Ismail came up with the idea for The Proprietor. He is like a spring - once he has started on an idea, it just grows, and he allows everything to enrich it.

The first day we began shooting in Cannes I arrived on the set, ready to start work, and people were still half asleep, having breakfast, nothing was ready, and I thought, "God, what kind of an adventure have I got into?" Ismail likes to work in an informal way, but sometimes it can go too far, and I think he knew he could rely on me to be a little strict with him when it did.

With Ismail, there's no fatigue - ever. You can work 14 or 15 hour days, because he infects you with his energy. Before we started shooting, I thought I would never be able to stand the pace of the schedule, but I was thrilled to wake up at five each morning and be on the set. He was so amazing, such fun to watch. He could scream like mad, he could frighten you - and then suddenly that incredible smile. He's like a constant storm - rage followed by sunshine.

Even after a long day, he has the energy to cook for everyone. You think, "Oh, no. I'm tired, I'm going home," but he gathers the cast and crew and feeds you with this lovely food and you're not tired any more. There's a magic about Ismail's relationship with food, his way of making it and distributing it.

When Ismail wants something, he gets it by any means. He wanted to shoot a scene for The Proprietor at the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, but they refused permission, so Ismail booked himself into the hotel as the Maharajah of Jodhpur and explained the presence of the cameras by saying I was interviewing him for French television. And he got away with it. It's as though there is an assembly of gods dealing with Ismail's personal affairs. That's true of the way we met - I believe we were not supposed to meet until then.

What's so special about Ismail is that he has a knowledge of people, and he has no fear. He's wise, crazy, generous, smart, warm - yet he can be violent. We all have our assets and our weaknesses, and they are usually separated. In Ismail they're all mixed up; the assets transform the weaknesses, the weaknesses humanise the powerful assets - that's an incredible mixture.

In film-making, the intensity of the relationships you have with your collaborators is extraordinary: an intimacy that under normal circumstances would take years to achieve is built at frantic speed. But when the film is done, it's over. With Ismail, it's very different. Once you're drawn into his web, you're trapped for life. Usually, I resent that. But I enjoy so much being part of Ismail's world.

It's rare to feel real joy, but when I hear Ismail's voice on the telephone, I immediately feel like laughing. When I see him, I get a surge of joy. I feel we are related, and yet we're so different in so many ways. Sometimes we don't even have to exchange words - it's beyond that kind of communication.

ISMAIL MERCHANT: Jeanne believes that people do not meet until they are meant to, and she may be right, because there were two occasions when we might have met but didn't. The first was in Florence in 1985 when we were shooting A Room With A View - very visibly, in all the public places. Jeanne was there at the same time, giving master classes at Vittorio Gassman's theatre school. Even though we were staying at the same hotel, neither of us was aware of the other's presence in the city. A few years later, Jeanne came to New York and a friend of hers, who is also a friend of mine, took her on a drive around the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where I share a house with my partners, James Ivory and Ruth Jhabvala. They called in and stayed for dinner with Jim and Ruth. I was working in Manhattan that weekend, and when I heard that I had missed meeting Jeanne Moreau, I was very disappointed, because I have been a great admirer of hers since I first saw her in Jules et Jim in 1962.

We eventually met in Paris in August 1993. I had directed my first feature film, In Custody, which was about to open in Paris, and the Indian Ambassador kindly hosted a reception for Shashi Kapoor, the star of the film. I included Jeanne on the guest list, although I had no reason to suppose she would come, as we didn't know each other. Later, she told me that she dislikes social occasions and usually avoids them, but something had impelled her to accept this invitation. From the moment she arrived at the embassy, I felt I had known her all my life, as though a bond already existed between us. It was like finally meeting a lost member of your family that you had only ever heard about.

That night, we both sensed the inevitability of working together. There was nothing in Merchant Ivory's future projects that would have been suitable for Jeanne, so I devised a story and commissioned a screenplay as a vehicle for her, which I intended to direct. Jeanne knew nothing of my plans, until I presented her with the screenplay for The Proprietor on 23 January, her birthday.

Between our first meeting and the start of shooting the following May, Jeanne and I spent a lot of time together. Our views on life are very similar, and a close relationship developed between us. For all that, and despite her enormous enthusiasm and support for the project, I knew that filming with Jeanne would not be easy. Jeanne brings tremendous depth and rare emotional truth to her roles, something she achieves by having firm ideas and strong opinions about the work - which sometimes conflicted with mine. But I understood that her motives were not those of an ego- crazed star being gratuitously "difficult". Rather, she saw it almost as her duty to serve the film in the best possible way.

Like me, Jeanne is very dedicated to friends and friendships. We speak on the phone every day. We meet whenever we can, especially when we're both in Paris, where I now have a home. At the beginning of the year she was appointed President of the Delhi Film Festival. Coincidentally, I was also going to India at that time, so we met up there. Jeanne had been to India many times but she had never been to Rajasthan and had always wanted to visit the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri. I learnt that Jeanne would have liked to celebrate her birthday in India but had decided not to stay on after the Festival because I would have left by then. So I changed my plans and surprised her by taking her to Fatehpur Sikri on her birthday.

When I told Jeanne I was writing a book about how The Proprietor had come about, she said I should call the book Once Upon A Time, because it was so much like a fairy story. And, as a tribute to Jeanne, I have. !

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