One of the greatest partnerships in cinema, James Ivory (director) and Ismail Merchant (producer) gave us 47 films that included gems such as A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day, among others, and garnered six Oscars. Ivory is American born, and Merchant was born in India. Their partnership was both professional and romantic, and it has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest alliance in independent-cinema history.
In 2005, Merchant died of a bleeding ulcer and Merchant Ivory Productions, which had become synonymous with stylish and elegant literary adaptation, seemed to have come to an end. Ivory has now directed his first film without his partner, The City of Your Final Destination, based on a novel by Peter Cameron that follows a graduate student to Uruguay to persuade a family to give him permission to pen the biography of a late writer. Before dying, Merchant had acquired the rights to the novel for one of their future projects and had gone with Ivory to Argentina to scout locations. The film stars Merchant/Ivory perennial Anthony Hopkins and Laura Linney. Recently, I had the chance to speak to 81-years-strong James Ivory about his latest endeavor.
Latin America is at first glance an unusual setting for a Merchant film. Was the location one of the things that attracted you to this material? Yes, very much. This novel needed to be made [there], and I had never been to South America. The attraction of going to South America was really one of the big things that attracted us to the project.
What was it like shooting there? I had a terrific crew and organization working with me. If a bit hot …
One of the things that touched me deeply about the film is the underlying notion of finding love, but ultimately of “finding a home.” Wasn’t it more a finding of one’s true self? The true home was part of that need, and followed from that. It was the same situation in A Room with a View and Maurice—the basic need to know oneself, then live honestly after that, hopefully with the person one is in love with.
Ismail Merchant started this project with you. Was he the inspiration to fulfill this project? After he was gone, it became necessary for me to finish what he had begun. He was our closest collaborator, and he was the person [we] needed and hoped to please with everything we did. We hadn’t done anything since the time he died, except for the reworking of the scenes that we shot in Montreal. In reworking [them], it was really the first time that [Merchant Ivory screenwriter] Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala] and I had worked together since Ismail died.
Most of your films are literary and biographical. Is that a coincidence? I would use the word “literate,” whether original or based on an existing work. Let’s say the literary and biographical sources are in themselves autobiographical. I don’t always know it at the time, but I don’t choose this material if it doesn’t resonate with me in some way.
Anthony Hopkins has become your cinematic alter ego—and one of the great film partnerships—up there with De Niro and Scorsese, Mastroianni and Fellini. What is it like working with him? He’s fun if happy, cranky when insecure. But always a wonderful ensemble player.
What is your next project? A film of Shakespeare’s Richard II. It’s a longtime project that I’ve been working on for years. Note that it’s Richard II, not Richard III!