In Conversation with James Ivory

The acclaimed director on lifelong collaboration, respect and, on the eve of its return to theaters, the making of Howards End

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In Conversation with James Ivory

James Ivory’s 1992 classic Howards End, starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and an Academy Award-winning Emma Thompson, returns to theaters this weekend in a beautifully restored print. It’s tempting to call the film, which was nominated for nine Oscars and won three, the pinnacle of the Merchant-Ivory films catalog, but the more you dig, the harder it is to choose from the 50 years of excellent work. How do you ignore The Remains of the Day, possibly Hopkins’ best role of all? Or the lush romanticism of A Room with a View? Or a brilliant young Daniel Day-Lewis in Maurice? Paste had a long conversation recently with one of the most accomplished directors alive, talking about his boyhood, development as an artist, the making of the monumental Howards End, and which performances from his films are often overlooked.

Paste Magazine: I really appreciate you giving us some time. This is a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for about 25 years, since I discovered your films in college, so it’s quite a thrill to be talking to you.
James Ivory: [laughs] Well, why am I hearing this so much now? That’s what everybody says. I mean, those films were probably playing in your college movie house, I’m sure.

Paste: No, exactly.
Ivory: You might not have—you might not have wanted to go to them or something, [both laugh] or couldn’t get there in time or whatever. Anyway, it’s good to hear, in any case.

Paste: Yeah, if going to your movies can win out over going to a frat party then you’ve really done your job, right?
Ivory: Right, yeah I think so.

Paste: So I think that sometimes people are kind of amazed—they sometimes think you’re British, given the settings of many of your movies, and then when they find out you grew up in Oregon they’re probably pretty surprised. Is that correct?
Ivory: That is where I am now. I’m sitting on the porch of this cabin I’ve been going to since I was 14 years old. But yeah, it was just assumed after a certain time that I was English. And actually it kind of happened when our films first came out in France and Italy. In some ways, you know, they just assumed I was British, and they couldn’t tell from my accent that I wasn’t. But, no, I’m completely American—I mean, I’ve always lived in the United States. Even when I was making my films overseas, I still continued to live in New York.

Paste: And speaking of you growing up in Oregon, you started out as a kid in visual arts, right? In drawing and painting, and that kind of thing? Is that correct?
Ivory: Well I did a lot of that, yes, I did a great deal of that. But my plan, when I went to college, on the advice of an architect that we knew, I asked him what would be the best way to become a set designer for the movies and he said, “Go to architectural school.” And so, since we lived in Oregon, and the University of Oregon had, and still has, a terrific architectural school, I went there and I started in architecture. But after about the third year I switched to a kind of a general fine arts program and continued in that until I went to the USC Film School.

Paste: What was the source of your fascination with set design?
Ivory: I don’t know. It just appealed to me. It always did. I went through a lot of … I was into a lot of MGM movies and they had fabulous sets, no matter what the story was about. It just fascinated me. I just felt like I could do that and sometimes I felt as though I could do it better. Even when I was practically a child. So that was what I wanted to do. I mean, I didn’t even know what a film director was in those days, or a film producer. I could say I had my favorite actors and so on, but I knew nothing about that side of it. And I had no interest in that side of moviemaking when I really began. That gradually developed. I saw after a while [that] if I really wanted to be totally immersed in movies then I’d have to direct my own movies, and then I discovered what being a director was.

Paste: Yeah.
Ivory: Which I’m still finding out.

Paste: It’s a never-ending process, right?
Ivory: Right.

Paste: Do you remember what some of those films were that especially inspired you? Whether with their set design or just in general?
Ivory: Sure. An early film was Drums Along the Mohawk.

Paste: Yes.
Ivory: And then, obviously, Gone with the Wind.

Paste: Sure.
Ivory: And then there was a terrific MGM film called Marie Antoinette, which, you know, was 18th-century France, and films like that. Or even The Wizard of Oz. They had fantastic sets throughout The Wizard of Oz. And I mean, I see all these films again and, in most cases, I can see why I was impressed.

Paste: Yeah.
Ivory: They were very, very good. Specifically Gone with the Wind, my goodness.

Paste: It’s funny. I’m in Georgia, grew up in Georgia, still live in Georgia, and so of course that movie is very, ever present in everyone’s lives in Georgia. All of us grew up watching it and now it’s, you know, some of the politics of the film have become—it’s an unfashionable film. But I do think it’s an outstanding film.
Ivory: Well, Birth of a Nation is unfashionable, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less good as a film.

Paste: Sure. I just taught Birth of a Nation in a graduate class this summer and, yeah, you’re right, it can still inflame those opinions on both sides, no doubt.
Ivory: Right, right!

Paste: Okay, so then you ended up going to USC Film School, and of course this is—you went to USC Film School in the late ’50s, right?
Ivory: Early ’50s. I lived there in 1951 and I had just come back from making a trip to Europe. And on that trip—I was all by myself for part of the trip—I discovered Venice.

Paste: Mmm.
Ivory: And I was just amazed by Venice. I loved it. I thought it was the most extraordinary of places. I still do. So I joined the USC Film School to get a master’s degree in cinema. And I was expected to write a dissertation of some kind or a, you know, you have to do those kinds of things when you get an advanced degree.

Paste: Sure.
Ivory: And I asked if instead I could go to Venice because I wanted to do a film about Venice, and my teachers said, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do.” Obviously they weren’t going to pay for it, but my father came to my rescue and he sent me off to Venice. So I made a film about Venice and it was my first film. It was a documentary about Venice. That’s really how I got into directing films, was by making my own films. So I made three documentaries in those days, in the ’50s and early ’60s.

Paste: And probably no accident that you were drawn to making a documentary about that city with such gorgeous architecture, given that you came to it through architecture.
Ivory: Well, yeah, and I knew quite a lot about it when I went also because I had a tremendously good professor at the University of Oregon who taught the history of architecture. He was an amazing teacher. I knew a lot—well, I thought I knew. I mean, you know, I kind of knew a lot.

Paste: [laughs] And I want to point out that, you know, if you’re interviewing someone who was in film school anytime from the ’70s on, it just seems like a very natural thing—“and then I went to film school.” It seems like that’s what everybody was doing.

Paste: But film school in the ’50s was not a given—it was a very specific choice that you made.
Ivory: Right. That’s right, there were very few universities that even taught film. I think Ohio State did and I think UCLA had begun at that time, and then there was USC and that was about it.

Paste: Yeah.
Ivory: Even film aesthetics and film history was not taught.

Paste: Yeah.
Ivory: That came a long way.

Paste: So many filmmakers of your generation did not go to film school. How do you think that experience shaped you as a filmmaker?
Ivory: I don’t think that it really did very much. I saw the films I would not have seen otherwise. By that time they were certainly teaching film history and so I saw a lot of films and by a lot of mostly foreign directors that I might not have seen otherwise. And I had two or three teachers who were very good and very bright and who were themselves filmmakers, one of which was George Stoney. You may not know who that is, but he was an extraordinary documentary maker back in the ’50s and ’60s and he taught there and so in that way I certainly absorbed more than I would if I hadn’t gone, I’m sure. But the actual nuts and bolts of it I really kind of learned just in doing. When I started making features in India, that’s really when I learned, I think, the most important things about filmmaking. When I began to make films with Ruth Jhabvala as my writer and Ismail Merchant as my producer at one side and looking over everything and such, we did great. I did very well at that time. I’d gone to India to make a documentary there and that was the time I think I really most learned. I had to learn. It was like being thrown in the water. Sink or swim!

Paste: How did you meet Ruth and Ismail? It was in India, correct?
Ivory: It was in India. Ismail had a fairly brief time in Hollywood before I ever met him and he’d made a dance film and he’d got that nominated for an Academy Award as a, you know, short fiction film. And while he was there he met a lot of people in those studios. And there was a woman writer named Isabelle Leonard who gave him Ruth’s novel, The Householder, which was her fourth novel. And she said he should read that and that he’d probably want to make that into a movie. And so he did! She didn’t know him, and he didn’t know her at that time and it was the first fiction of hers that he’d read. And he decided he would make that into a movie. And a little bit later, six months later, and by that time I had met him, and he approached her to see whether she’d, you know, if we could acquire the movie rights to it, and she said yes. And he said, “Well, you’ll have to write the screenplay.” And she said, “Well, I’ve never written a screenplay.” And then he said, “Well, Jim’s never directed a feature and I’ve never produced one.” [Both laugh.] So that encouraged her and she did write one, which was her first screenplay.

Paste: So you were all on the same boat. All learning together.
Ivory: We were all on the same boat. We were.

Paste: That’s wonderful. Of course you had no idea at that moment that it would lead to what has been called the longest partnership in cinema history, is that right?
Ivory: Well, I guess that’s true. I don’t know of any others. We were there for more than 40 years, the three of us.

Paste: Amazing.
Ivory: We worked from The Householder all the way through—not all the way through, sometimes it would be another writer—but we went through The Householder all the way down to The City of Your Final Destination, which was my last film, and the last film that Ismail was involved in.

Paste: For the filmmakers out there that would like to form lifelong work collaborative relationships, tell me about what you think made the three of you work together so well. And I’m not asking about your and Ismail’s personal relationship. I mean, professionally, what was it that was the secret to that longevity?
Ivory: Well, each of us respected what the other one did.

Paste: Hmm.
Ivory: You know, we’d all make mistakes and then the other two would shout, “Why did you do that?” or “Why would you think that?” It wasn’t always that we were on the same page about everything. But it was just the respect that was there. I mean, Ruth has never ever tried to assert herself into my actual moviemaking or casting or anything like that. And I soon learned never to involve myself in Ismail’s affairs, which, you know, had to do with finances. And I was never ever allowed to go to many meetings with financiers, because he was afraid I’d say something wrong and put them off. We just, we respected what each of us did. I’ve always said it was a bit like the way the United States government operates. Ismail was the Congress, Ruth was Supreme Court, and I was the President.

Paste: The body of work that you three created together is not only extraordinary for its depth, but also there’s a certain cohesiveness to your body of work. It feels like an oeuvre. It doesn’t feel like a random collection of films.
Ivory: I think that’s because the three of us really were so closely associated. And it might’ve been a very different collection of films if, say, our writer would’ve been a man and not a woman. But the fact that Ruth was a fiercely liberated woman and her fiction was so full of interesting heroines, for instance—they had all sorts of lives, both good or bad—that, you know, that gave a kind of shape to it, in addition to whatever we ourselves were bringing, I think.

Paste: Sure.
Ivory: And the fact that we were all kind of foreigners to wherever we were. I mean, Ruth was born in Germany, then moved to England when she was 12, then married an Indian husband and lived many years in India. Ismail was born in India and then came to the United States for some of his education and then stayed on there. I was from the West Coast, even though I was living in New York, and had a completely different attitude. All different religions. And all of those, all that mix created, you know, what Merchant and I were using, I suppose. Ismail was Muslim, Ruth was Jewish, and I was Catholic.

Paste: It really is a remarkable combination. And for years now when you say “a Merchant-Ivory film,” people know what you’re talking about. Or they think they know what you’re talking about. I mean, some people have a shallower understanding and they think, “Oh, you mean like the ones with the set pieces and the unique costumes and all that.” But there’s a lot more that ties them together. I’m going to read you a little quote and I’d love to get your thoughts on this. This is a Jeffrey Gantz quote from the Boston Phoenix: “For the past 35 years Merchant-Ivory have been making movies at the slight angle in which we all stand toward one another. The trio express the difficulty of connecting through a number of metaphors. Past and present, Hindu/Muslim, England/India (or Italy), America/Europe, homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman.” I like all of those dualities, but I especially love that phrase “the slight angle in which we all stand toward one another.” Does that resonate with you at all?
Ivory: That is very good! I’ve never heard that before or saw it, but I like that very much, yeah. And it does resonate. It is an angle! It is at a slight angle. It’s not the usual angle.

Paste: Mmm hmm.
Ivory: Because of all those—because of all those differences.

Paste: Well, we should get to Howards End given that this is supposed to be the purpose of the interview and I’ve had you on the phone for 25 minutes now and haven’t brought it up. Tell me about how that project began. The three of you were already well established at that point.
Ivory: Well, Ismail and I had already made two [E.M.] Forster films. Ruth wasn’t involved in Maurice though she certainly looked at the script and had some good ideas. She was—she didn’t write that screenplay. So we already had two Forster films and then we also had the opportunity, if we wanted it, to make A Passage to India. But we didn’t want to make it because, at that point Satyajit Ray wanted to make it. And somewhere along in there Ruth said, “You know, what I think we really should do—what you should think about doing is Howards End because it really has a marvelous story and has great characters, and is such a great novel.”

I had read Howards End twice, just as a part of my general reading, and I couldn’t remember anything about it, except a scene where the horrible elder son of the Wilcox’s and Margaret are riding in the car and they run over a child’s pet. They’re going so fast they run over a child’s pet. And he won’t turn around and go back; she tries to get him to slow down, and stop, and he won’t. So she jumps out of the car. That’s all I could remember about Howards End, after two readings, is that scene. And then the third time I read it was already with the idea to make it into a movie and, you know, I was thrilled by the idea of that scene, and all the possibilities were so great, but I hadn’t really thought it out carefully. Because how do you do a scene where you run over a dog or a cat? You couldn’t. How do you do that? In those days you couldn’t anyway. You could now.

So we decided to make it and we rather quickly got the money from the Japanese and we’d done quite a few successful films already and we got the—well certainly, A Room with a View was a huge success, and a Japanese bank put in a lot of money and we were able to make it. Strangely, when it came to doing that scene we tried to make it, but we threw it away. It wasn’t good enough to be in the film. And there is no way, except through all kinds of expensive CG, which didn’t exist then, there is no way to show throwing a car over a small animal. You can’t get a film crew to go out there and run over a small animal, that’s just not possible. So we dropped it. But we did make the film and it was the longest film we ever made. We had no idea it’d be so successful or that people would sit through 2 hours and 20 minutes, but they did. And it did become very successful.

Paste: Even at 2 hours and 20 minutes, there’s so—that book has so much plot in it, and in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, or lesser screenwriter, whatever, that might end up feeling like all plot, but no character. But of course in Howards End every one of those characters lives and breathes so much. How did you accomplish having so many things happen, but also having us feel like we know each of these characters so intimately?
Ivory: Some of it has to do with the very good actors that we had, obviously, specifically Emma Thompson, and Anthony Hopkins as well, and Helena. But it was also the fact that Ruth is a fiction writer herself.

Paste: Yeah.
Ivory: And having published many novels by that time, she was a very good judge of what were the book’s strengths and failures, because there were failures, here and there. How could she, how could we improve what was not so good for a movie? For example, she felt that Forster, coming from the class that he did, educated, upper middle class, that he really didn’t know people like Leonard Bast and Jacky, his wife…

Paste: Mmm.
Ivory: He met very few people like that and would not have known them intimately and had not evolved in his sexual life yet to have met some young working-class guy that he would’ve observed his life. She tells him that Leonard Bast is weak, but Leonard Bast’s position in the story was so great and so important and she felt that that couple had to really be brought out more, and better. And she set herself to doing that, and that’s one of the ways in which I think the novel was not as strong as the film. But you know, we had great actors, I mean tremendous actors, all of them.

Paste: Yes.
Ivory: There wasn’t a single person who didn’t pull their weight, and Ruth did a wonderful script. And it was interesting. I remember when the film came out The New Yorker wrote about it and they said, “There’s too much plot” in the film and we shouldn’t have stuck so much with the plot. I can’t remember exactly what they said—I think it was Terrence Rafferty. Of course Forster, he had another idea about his plots. He said they were “little feeble things, like matchsticks and toothpicks stuck together,” he wrote that.

Paste: Hmm.
Ivory: That was his opinion of his own thoughts. He wrote that. So, what can I say? [laughs]

Paste: Far be it for me to disagree with Rafferty, but I think Rafferty was wrong. [Both laugh.] To me, as a filmmaker myself, it’s inspiring to see how you can have so much plot in that movie and yet—like I said, we know the characters and it has emotional resonance, you know?
Ivory: Yes.

Paste: I have one last question for you. This is one of my favorite questions to ask of directors who’ve had a long career. I want you to brag on some of your actors for a minute. Tell me some great performances that you think, in your films, are maybe not as noticed. Like, obviously Emma is amazing in Howards End, obviously Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. You know, outside of the obvious ones. When you look back at your career.
Ivory: I’ll give you three.

Paste: Three!
Ivory: Paul Newman in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

Paste: Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, wonderful!
Ivory: I thought he was absolutely superb. Just great.

Paste: Yes.
Ivory: Another one was Kris Kristofferson in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. I thought his betrayal of the father and everything was just a wonderful, wonderful thing. I thought Christopher Reeve in The Bostonians was wonderful.

Paste: Yes.
Ivory: He was like Captain Rhett Butler, really. I mean he was, he is just tremendously good. And people from the South have said that, or from Mississippi, have said that his accent was absolutely perfect. Those would be three right off. Another one would be James Fox in The Remains of the Day playing Lord Darlington. I thought he was tremendous! So very good.

Paste: Agreed.
Ivory: And none of those actors, well, they were singled out by critics, and they said they were really good. But, you know, nobody said very much about Christopher Reeve in The Bostonians because they were so used to thinking of him as Superman they just couldn’t see him doing a serious role.

Paste: Mmm hmm.
Ivory: And I think that, in a way, with Paul Newman in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge it was something like that also. That was not the Paul Newman that people are used to and that they would particularly like. They wanted another kind of Paul Newman and they didn’t get it, certainly—and that type of, you know, in that old-fashioned lawyer that he played. Those would be the ones that I feel as though were really undervalued by the critics and even the awards.

Paste: Well, Jim, it’s been such an honor to talk to you. Such a thrill, and I really appreciate your time.
Ivory: Well, thank you very much.

Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the Sarasota Film Festival; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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