Re-watching The White Countess (2005) has prompted me to savor other Merchant Ivory films . I love their sumptuous period set design, stunning cinematography and exceptional acting. Some of them have garnered Oscar accolades, and since become classics, creating a genre of their own.
Long before Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire, there was Ismail Merchant, born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, in 1936. He later went to New York to further his education, and started making movies in 1960. On his way to the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 representing the U.S. with his nominated short, he met American director James Ivory. The two formed a production company that same year, and the rest is history.
Before producer Ismail Merchant passed away in 2005, the Merchant Ivory Productions had created timeless masterpieces, most notably, adaptations from the work of E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Together with German/Polish screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they have turned literary satires and portrayal of class-conscious Edwardian and Victorian English society into accessible popular movies, interpreting the humor and wit with a mark of their own. Ironically, none of the three are English. Maybe it does take an outsider to see clearly. A short list of their impressive productions includes A Room With A View (1985), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), and The Golden Bowl (2000).
But here in this post, I must present to you The Merchant Ivory Dialogues. Oh that’s not how it’s titled. But Arti just named it so. In the 2005 Criterion Merchant Ivory Collection DVD of Howards End (1992, 9 Oscar nominations, 3 wins) I found in the Special Features this amusing interview with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. The conversation between the two are so whimsical that they could almost form a comedic duo.
Here are some excerpts:
On the idea of creating Howards End the movie:
M: Howards End started with Ruth (screenwriter) telling me and I think gave Jim the novel to read.
I: Well hold on. I’d read it.
M: Oh, You’ve read it. I see.
I: I’d read it in fact twice. Ruth always sort of not exactly dangled the book in front of us after A Room with a View and Maurice. But she saw it as a really ambitious, and to her would be most, most rewarding project for us and for her.
M: Anyway, it was slow going for me.
On Jim Ivory’s favorite scene
I: For me … from the first time, if I remember anything about it, except this scene where Margaret jumps out of the car when they run over a cat. Charles Wilcox doesn’t want to go back and a little girl runs into the road and starts crying and Margaret leaps out of the car…
M: We had to go to this incredible preparation, real cat and the artificial cat and the dead cat…
I: There’s no real cat.
M: And so I said no I don’t want to do it, you know. But he insisted because it was his favorite scene, and it is not in the film. So you should listen to the producer first.
I: That’s all I can really remember about the book the first time I read it was that scene, which I thought is incredibly dramatic…
M: That’s your favorite scene which is not in the film.
I: Which we shot and cut out of the film. Anyway…
On Forster the Social Critic:
M: Howards End is about the class system, and what Forster said about the inheritance of England. This beautiful house, a metaphor for England, will be inherited by the lower class. That is what happens here. This beautiful house is inherited by the clerk’s illegitimate son. Well anyway, this is an interpretation of mine.
I: I don’t think Forster had all that great love for the working classes …
M: Not love for the working class but…
I (voice covering M): He had an ideal, which was, people should be able to mingle from whatever their background, whatever their class, they all ought to be able to in a civilized and happy world. And in the good England everyone ought to be able to mix together if only the different kinds and types of people could make a connection. Then it would be for the betterment of all.
On American Funding (or the lack of)
M: Howards End was an ambitious film at that time, eight million dollars, the budget. We could not get eight million dollars from anybody, you know, it’s just not possible because Americans never saw the possibility of this film being successful as they never see anything of consequence or civilized film to be successful. They have blinkers on their eyes, they never see anything beyond, you know, the form …
I (moving about in his seat, almost rolling his eyes): All Americans?
M: All Americans
I (raises his eyebrows just enough to show his disagreement): All Americans.
M: All American film companies… with the exception… there are some sensible people like Sony Classics, they were at that time with Orion pictures….they were very excited but they only gave us a very small sum of money…of course, their enthusiasm and support were greatly appreciated but we had to raise 85% of the money outside…
On Getting Vanessa Redgrave on Board
I: And then there was the casting of Vanessa Redgrave, who all along, from the very beginning I had wanted in that part. I thought she was the actress to play the first Mrs. Wilcox. And we kept sending her scripts, and this is the way it’s always is with Vanessa… You’re not sure she’s got the script, you’re not quite sure she’s read it, whether she likes it, whether she’ll do it…
M: I’ll tell you the story. Jim’s heart was set on Vanessa, and so was mine. So we sent this script and then we went to tea at Waldorf Hotel. And so we were sitting there and she said she had four, five months all planned… and the money you offer is not enough. So I said what would you like. She said if you could double that amount, I would do it. So I said ok, that’s it, you said it, now it’s double your salary. She couldn’t believe it was instantly, spontaneously done, because knowing that we had a small budget and we had to struggle for every penny. This was like giving whatever you want.
I: A very bad precedent.
I: A very bad precedent.
M: No it’s not a bad precedent at all. And for her I would do anything, you know. If she said get me the moon, I would get the moon for her. And it’s not possible for people to get the moon, but I would do it.
Ah… the creative process, the self and the collaboration, the art and the business, the part and the whole… just fascinating.
Photos: James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Ismail Merchant received BAFTA Fellowship Award (2002) news.bbc.co.uk; Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End, toutlecine.com