Q & A with Director James Ivory

Director James Ivory

Director James Ivory

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director James Ivory about his drama “The City of Your Final Destination,” which opened via Screen Media Films Apr. 16 in New York and Apr. 23 in Los Angeles and expand to other key cities through July 30.

“The City of Your Final Destination” is director James Ivory’s 24th collaboration with two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on the novel by Peter Cameron, the film stars Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins, three-time Academy Award nominee Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai,” Merchant Ivory’s “The White Countess”), Charlotte Gainsbourg (“The Science of Sleep,” “The Golden Door”), Alexandra Maria Lara (“Downfall”), Academy Award winner Norma Aleandro (“Gaby: A True Story”) and Omar Metwally (“Munich”).

The Story (spoiler alert): The film’s protagonist Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) is an Iranian-born graduate student at the University of Colorado whose financial aid for a fellowship is contingent on writing an authorized biography of the deceased Latin American author Jules Gund.

Shortly into the first semester of the fellowship, Gund’s estate unexpectedly denies Omar authorization. Omar’s aggressively supportive girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) urges him to travel to Uruguay and petition the executor to change their minds.

Omar follows this advice and is instantly received into a hornet’s nest of intrigues and idiosyncrasies. 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); Arden’s young daughter, Portia; Gund’s brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and Adam’s partner Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Omar’s unannounced arrival upsets their fragile co-existence and causes all to question their own circumstances, which in turn leads Omar himself to question to what degree, if any, he has been the author of his own existence up until now.

James Ivory was born in Berkeley, California. After attending the University of Oregon, where he majored in Architecture and Fine Arts, he received his Master’s degree in Film from the University of Southern California. His first film, which he wrote, photographed and produced, was “Venice: Theme and Variations,” a half-hour documentary made as his thesis for his Master’s degree. The New York Times named Ivory’s evocation of the city in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year.

An easy rapport with India was evidenced in Ivory’s second film “The Sword and the Flute,” based entirely on Indian miniature paintings in American collections. Its success led to a grant by the Asia Society of New York to make “The Delhi Way,” a film about the Indian capital city.

In 1961, Ivory teamed up with Ismail Merchant (who died in 2005) to form Merchant Ivory Productions. Their first theatrical feature “The Householder” was based on an early novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also wrote the screenplay. Since then, Ivory’s feature and television filmmaking career has taken him to Great Britain, France, Italy, back to India several times, to China, to South America and to the United States.

Ivory’s many theatrical films for Merchant Ivory Productions include the classic “Shakespeare Wallah;” three Henry James productions, “The Europeans,” “The Bostonians” and “The Golden Bowl;” “Heat and Dust,” from a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and “A Room With A View,” “Maurice” and “Howards End” from novels by E. M. Forster. “A Room With A View” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Jhabvala’s adaptation of Forster’s novel, Best Costume, and Best Production Design.

“A Room With A View” was also voted Best Film of 1986 by the Critic’s Circle Film Section of Great Britain, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the National Board of Review. It also received the Donatello Prize for Best Foreign Language Picture and Best Director in Italy. Ivory’s next film, “Maurice,” received a Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival as well as Best Film Score for Richard Robbins and Best Actor Awards for co-stars James Wilby and Hugh Grant.

After “Maurice,” Ivory returned to the United States to film “Slaves of New York,” based on the best-seller by Tama Janowitz, starring Bernadette Peters, and “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, which Jhabvala adapted from the novels “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Joanne Woodward) and the Best Screenplay award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Ivory’s next project was “Howards End,” based on the E.M. Forster novel. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Best Screenplay Adaptation (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), and Best Art Direction/Set Direction (Luciana Arrighi/Ian Whittaker). The film also won Best Picture at the BAFTA Awards, as well as awards for Best Picture, Best Actress (Emma Thompson) and Best Director (James Ivory) from the National Board of Review, and Best Actress from the New York film critics.

“The Remains of the Day” followed “Howards End” and reunited Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the starring roles of the butler Stevens and his housekeeper Miss Kenton. It also received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director and was chosen Film of the Year by the British Film Critics Society.

“Jefferson in Paris”, starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton, and Simon Callow, was Ivory’s next project and was released in 1995. That same year, the Directors Guild of America awarded the D.W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement award, its highest honor, to Ivory for his body of work. “Surviving Picasso,” starring Anthony Hopkins as Picasso, Natascha McElhone as Francoise Gilot and Julianne Moore as Dora Maar, followed “Jefferson in Paris” in 1996.

Ivory’s next film, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” starring Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey and Leelee Sobieski, was filmed in Paris and released in 1998. “The Golden Bowl,” starring Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston, was released in 2001. It reunited many of the artists and technicians of Ivory’s earlier films such as composer Richard Robbins, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and costume designer John Bright. Ivory’s long time collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, wrote its screenplay.

In 2001, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala received the Fellowship of the British Academy of Film and Television, one of the highest awards in film.

In 2003 Merchant Ivory Productions released “Le Divorce,” through Fox Searchlight from the best-selling novel by Diane Johnson. It was adapted for the screen by James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and starred Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Matthew Modine, Sam Waterston, Thierry Lhermitte, Stephen Fry, Bebe Neuwirth, and Leslie Caron. Ivory’s previous film (and his final collaboration with the late Ismail Merchant) was 2005’s “The White Countess”, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, and was shot in Shanghai, China. It starred Ralph Fiennes and the late Natasha Richardson as well as Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave.

James Ivory’s many awards honors include Oscar, Golden Globe and Directors Guild of America nominations in 1987 for directing “A Room With a View,” in 1993 for directing “Howards End” and in 1994 for directing “The Remains of the Day.”

Q: I understand it wasn’t easy to get this movie financed.
A: No, it wasn’t easy. We thought we were financed and in fact we had been promised financing from a bank in California. As Ismail’s always done, you don’t hesitate, you just get out there and get started and assume. He was always such an optimist and he could always pull it off. He always just assumed the money would come. Luckily, the company (Merchant Ivory Productions) had some money so what happened is we set up when the shooting would be and we made all our deals with the actors that they would come at such and such a time.

We still hadn’t secured the financing by the time the shooting started, but we started anyway. We had enough money and we did manage to raise some of it. We had enough anyway to finish the film, to do all the shooting in South America and do everything with all seven actors that make up the cast. Then we came back and the loan still hadn’t gone through because the loan was contingent on the film being bonded by Film Finances, but there was a disagreement between Film Finances and the company as to what the budget ought to be and what it had to be or could be and so forth. And that went on and on and on.

Meanwhile, we were there and the actors were there and we had to shoot because we couldn’t send them all home. And so we did. We did what you really never should do. I mean, Ismail would never have done it. If you don’t have all your financing arranged at least you have to have an American distributor somewhere in the background. If you don’t have that, it’s extremely risky to start out. You could have the distributor and no money or you could have the money and no distributor, but you can’t not have both. That’s a desperate act.

And that’s exactly what happened to us because we neither had an American distributor at that time nor people who were interested (in going ahead to finance the picture). I mean, Sony was interested at one point. When we came back from South America we were in a real mess. We couldn’t go on and complete the film. We couldn’t do the post-production and we owed a hell of a lot of money to people, including some of the actors, and all sorts of things. It was just a mess for about a year. But then, eventually, we were able to get the film bonded and another bank came forward with more or less the same amount of money and so we were able to do it.
Actress Laura Linney in “The City of Your Final Destination”

Actress Laura Linney in “The City of Your Final Destination”

Q: When was this?
A: We were shooting the film in 2006 and the early part of 2007. So our problem period was the rest of 2007 into the summer of 2008. That was the sort of period when we (were having problems). Actually, it was possible to at least cut the film, but we really couldn’t finish it. We couldn’t do all the things we had to do and pay everybody and all of that. But the money was there from the end of the summer of 2008 and the film was quite quickly finished. There was a tiny bit more shooting to be done in Montreal. The American scenes were supposed to be done in Boulder. But it was the wrong time of year to go to Boulder, so we went to Montreal.

The film was done by about Christmastime of 2008. Then the whole business of the rating of the film and the making of prints was the next step. And somewhere in 2009 we were all done and showing it to people. It opened at the Rome Film Festival in October of ’09. That was the world premiere. It’s since been at the Tokyo festival. It was in the festival quite recently in Uruguay at Punta del Este. That was like the South American premiere of it though not yet the release.
Q: What was the film’s budget?
A: It was $8 million-300-and-some-thousand.
Q: How did it come to Screen Media for distribution?
A: A new financier came on the film, Harris Maslansky, and his business partner is involved with Screen Media. Screen Media wanted to distribute the film. They liked it and they had begun to get interested in distributing features. You know, just before ours they did “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (starring Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves) and they’ve got some others coming out.
Q: There have been so many changes in the specialized distribution business in the last year or two. How has that impacted on you?
A: As you know, it’s certainly been much harder for independent films to just assume they’re going to be distributed and someone’s going to buy them. The financial crash scared everybody. I think distributors were holding on to whatever money they had and saying, “Sure, we’ll distribute it, but we’re not going to give you an advance.” People who made independent films (ran into this). Two Oscar winners, “Crazy Heart” and “Hurt Locker,” apparently had those kinds of problems that we also had. It was just very, very hard to get a distributor to commit and to make some kind of a substantial payment.
Q: And yet you’re certainly not a proven success as a filmmaker.
A: Well, it wasn’t easy. It really wasn’t. Everyone has been very, very nervous about funding films at all and buying films. They’re being really tight fisted about it, which is not a bad development. If this tends to bring down the price of making a film because no one’s going to put up the gigantic amounts that the stars up to now have always taken sort of as their right and it brings people down to a way of making films that just isn’t so grossly swollen, that would be good.
Q: How were you able to make your movie for only $8.3 million?
A: That was partly because we were making it in Argentina because it’s not that expensive compared to certain other South American countries. We had wonderful crews and everything you could ever want was there. But it’s a country that is not highly priced.
Q: And you had a great setting there for the film. How did you find it?
A: Well, I found that with Ismail. We went down there on a location scout and to meet certain people that we knew in Buenos Aires who were encouraging us to make this film. We went out on a location scout there in 2004 before we made “The White Countess.” We found those two houses, which are the main locations in the film, on the very first day that we went on this location scout. When I went back in 2006 on another location scout I saw many, many houses all over the place, but nothing that had the atmosphere of those two. It was way out in the woods. People were afraid that it would be hard to put people up and all that kind of thing, but it didn’t turn out to be that way. It was only 90 miles from Buenos Aires.
Q: This, of course, is the first movie that you made since the death of Ismail Merchant in 2005 and that must have added to challenges you faced.
A: His not being there and him not handling the everyday kinds of things that do come up, which he was always so good at (was challenging). Ordinarily, there would be all kinds of different problems that he would solve or difficulties that he would know exactly how to deal with. But on the whole, it was not a difficult film. One of the difficulties was that the actors kept flying off to do something else, but you get used to that. We had to schedule around people.
Q: Looking back at production, do any good stories come to mind?
A: I’ll tell you a story I haven’t told anybody. One night towards the end of the shoot a bunch of us were going back to where we all lived. It was early in the evening and there were several members of the British crew with us. And there was a meteor in the sky ahead of the car. It never seemed to move, but it was just there. We saw it actually three or four days running. Then someone said, “That must be Ismail. He’s looking after us.” But on the whole, it was not a difficult shoot. It was pleasant.
Q: You’d worked a number of times before with Anthony Hopkins. How do you work with him? Do you like to rehearse?
A: We rehearse on the set. It’s always been like that. It’s never that we’ve taken a couple of weeks in advance to work things out and really rehearse or rehearse on location or rehearse with all the other actors. I’ve never had that luxury when I’ve been working with him. And it wasn’t because he wasn’t available. Sometimes someone else was not available. When we made “Remains of the Day,” Emma (Thompson) came from one film, had a day off and came onto “Remains of the Day.” We never even had a read-through. They’re just so disciplined and talented.
Q: It must be very, very difficult to do that.
A: Well, it’s not ideal, but it seems to work out all right in the end. Since so much of what we do is really sort of improvised — I don’t mean the dialogue, but the way we film is improvised according to the location — if you don’t have that location and the actors on that location you’re not really having much of a rehearsal. So it’s sort of futile for me to plan something like that. A reading of the script happens more often. That really sort of whips things into shape before you do start shooting because there’s always lots of queries about certain lines and certain words and the meaning of this or that. So you certainly need a read-through, but as I say we’ve done film after film where we didn’t have all the actors together so we couldn’t really have a proper read-through. I think this is pretty common.
Actor Anthony Hopkins in “The City of Your Final Destination”

Actor Anthony Hopkins in “The City of Your Final Destination”

Q: Do you shoot a lot of takes?
A: No. I don’t like to do too much. Particularly, to work with a really great actor, they’re all ready and prepared to deliver their best stuff right at the beginning and they do. So it begins to be diminishing returns the more you go take after take after take. It can also be that you get into a situation where some actors do not deliver the best at the beginning. It comes on as they do it. So you’ve got one actor who already feels he’s given his best and you’ve got another one who knows that he or she hasn’t given his best and their paths sort of cross.

There comes a period when you just have to stop and that’s frustrating for the actors because one actor may not have gotten up to their optimum and one actor is past the optimum. So I pretty much just do three or four takes and not more than that unless there’s something really the matter with it, something technical. Within two or three takes you’ve got it, even with the most serious and dramatic kind of scenes.
Q: So in editing the film you then don’t face the problem of being overwhelmed with material. What was post-production like on this film?
A: It was relatively relaxed. Editing rooms now are just composed of two people (plus the director) on the whole. You’ve got the editor and an assistant. Since everything is done digitally and by computers you don’t really need more than that. It’s relatively relaxed and you just go through it. I like to start at the beginning and go right through to the end. Some people have other ways of doing it. It takes usually about three months to have a first cut and that was the case with this one. The money situation didn’t really affect the payment to the editors because we had money to pay them. So they were working. The mixing and the little bit of shooting we had to do in Canada, that’s where we needed the money and we didn’t have it. That was the delay.
Q: How long did that hold you up?
A: About a year. I couldn’t be sure what would happen. It was not a good time.
Q: Do you prefer digital editing to editing on film?
A: We haven’t worked like that (on film) since the ’90s. I think “Surviving Picasso” (1996) was the first time we didn’t work with film. That’s a long time ago.
Q: Would you go back to editing on film?
A: Not at all. I like (digital editing). It’s just faster for one thing. You save what you do. Everything is filed away. In the old days when you were working with film you’d have to take things apart to recombine them in another way. That’s hand work and that takes longer. This way, you do a cut and you store it away and then you do another one and then use the same material in a different way and that’s stored and then you have a third one and so forth until you decide on what you like or you combine two different ones. It’s just much faster.
Q: Are you working on anything new?
A: I’m working on two different projects. One is a project that will take place in the American Middle-West and is based on two novels by Marilynne Robinson. And then I’m also working on a film of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Second” (“The Tragedy of King Richard the Second”) — not “Third.” “Richard the Third’s” been done a lot. There’s been some script work on “Richard” already, but not on the Robinson material — “Gilead” and “Home,” the two novels. There’s no script yet for that. The Shakespeare script is far from finished.