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Although producer Ismail Merchant died before the film was finished, his presence was always felt on the shoot – sometimes for the wrong reasons, James Ivory tells Andrew L. Urban.

It would never have happened if his partner of many years, Ismail Merchant hadn’t died; director James Ivory had barely finished location shooting in South America on his latest film, The City of Your Final Destination, when the money ran out. “One of our major financiers backed out and we had a US$5 million hole,” he says sounding quite calm about it now on the phone from Paris, where he is taking a break.

The production still owed some money to actors, and given that the cast includes Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (playing a homosexual character for the first time) and Oscar nominee Laura Linney, this was not a good look. “It took us a while but we did manage to finally find the money and complete the film, but Ismail would have seen it coming and fixed it,” says Ivory without casting aspersions on his new producers. The missing US$5 million represented over half the entire budget of about US$9 million.

"one of the classiest brands in filmmaking"

Merchant Ivory is one of the classiest brands in filmmaking, and when Ismail Merchant died in 2005, the future of the partnership that has given the world films such as their biggest successes, A Room With A View and Howard’s End, was in doubt. But Merchant’s presence was felt throughout the making of Ivory’s latest film, partly because he had been deeply involved with its pre-production, including the selection of locations in rural Argentina (standing in for Uruguay).

Based on Peter Cameron’s novel, the film is about 28-year-old Kansas University doctoral student Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) who has been awarded a literary grant to write the biography of the late Latin American writer Jules Gund. When Gund’s estate unexpectedly denies Omar authorisation, Omar is urged by his girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) to travel to Uruguay and petition the executors to change their minds.

The Gund ‘family’ living together on the author’s isolated and decaying estate, includes Gund’s widow Caroline (Laura Linney), his mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her young daughter Portia (Ambar Mallman), Gund’s brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and his life partner Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada). Omar’s unannounced arrival upsets their fragile co-existence.

The first thing Ivory always does before starting the shoot is to take his cinematographer on a tour of the chosen locations and discuss how they would use them. He would then return for a second pre-shoot visit with many of the other crew, so everyone would know what was planned. “These visits would have a major impact on the final film,” he says.

"cinematic language"

The expression "Merchant-Ivory film" is now part of cinematic language, describing a particular genre of film rather than just the production company. A typical "Merchant-Ivory film" would be a period piece set in the early 20th century, usually in Edwardian England, featuring lavish sets and top British actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements.

Some Hollywood actors associated with the tight-knit Merchant Ivory film family include Uma Thurman, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Glenn Close, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter – and of course Anthony Hopkins.

Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is the third member of the Merchant Ivory triumvirate, who has written 24 of the screenplays for their films, two of them adaptations of her own novels.

"Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"

Merchant was once quoted saying: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory ... I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!" That’s especially amusing since Merchant was born on Christmas Day.

(This story was first published in the Sun Herald.)

Published October 14, 2010

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James Ivory on set with Anthony Hopkins


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