I can't help but think of this iconic image of James Ivory at the Oscars this year, wearing the Andrew Mania designed shirt featuring the likeness of 'Call Me By Your Name' co-star Timothée Chalamet. It's everything it should be and more and it's the recognition this giant of the indie film world deserves. What Luchino Visconti was to cinema in the 1960s and 70s, James Ivory -- and his partner, the late Ismael Merchant -- have been to it since then. All the way to 2018! A film featuring either of their names means quality, beauty, poetry and most of all, cinematic dreams galore.
So I wanted to revisit this interview with the Grand Maestro himself, from 2016, which I managed to secure on the occasion of the re-release of 'Howards End', a touching beautiful film about human connections. And love, so much love. In between the serious questions, Ivory and I also exchanged some recommendations on current films to watch -- I suggested 'Elvis & Nixon' which has the feel of a Merchant Ivory production, starring Michael Shannon as, yes, Elvis Presley! -- and I shared my love for 'A Room with a View' the first film I bought on VHS tape, to own and cherish until video went away.
So here we go with the original piece.
Everything we watch, read and listen to changes us. It is our choice then to decide whether we want to be changed for the better, or worse. Or is it?
I recently read an article posted by a Facebook friend about how the sitcom 'Friends' triggered the downfall of Western civilization, one subliminal message at a time. While at first I dismissed the piece, I then reread it, thought it over and can now see a definite, lucid point hidden among its outrageous message.
Since reading that piece, I’ve had the pleasure to revisit the remastered version of the multiple Oscar-winning 'Howards End', one of the many Merchant and Ivory masterpieces that inspired, enlightened me and colored my dreams during my twenties, and beyond. Most of my young adult life was spent in the company of one Merchant Ivory production or another. From 'A Room with a View' to 'Maurice', from 'Slaves of New York' to 'Mr. & Mrs. Bridge', and then inspired by those, I discovered the earlier works of producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory, cinematic jewels such as Autobiography of a 'Princess' and 'Bombay Talkie'.
I believe deeply that who I am, how I navigate life and how I view the world today is in great part due to those films, that inspiration. I didn’t gravitate towards superheroes dressed in capes or cowboys killing with a grin and a gun; I watched instead films that although were set in different times and across distant lands, felt like the one place where I actually belonged.
So the upcoming re-release of 'Howards End' — starring Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Schlegel), Helena Bonham-Carter, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave — couldn’t come at a better time. My reasons?
Apart from the clearly humanistic voice of Howards End writer E. M. Forster, which still rings perfectly true more than a century after his novel was first published, and the actual, magnificent beauty of this Merchant and Ivory oeuvre now highlighted by its masterful 4K restoration, the film possesses a message that needs to be perceived today. This idea of an honest life, true to our own selves, and lived without prejudice appears to be the perfect antidote to the madness of modern times.
I’ll admit that while many women probably covet speaking with George Clooney, I’ve been dreaming all of my adult life of interviewing filmmaker James Ivory. To me, he holds the key to a life lived gracefully, one of the most splendid ideals to achieve.
Speaking with Ivory by phone, from Italy to the California coast where he is currently staying, was a dream come true. And honestly, more than an interview with a revered icon of our times, our conversation felt like an easy chat with a long lost friend.
Although I was born in Florence, when I watched 'A Room with a View', you made me discover Florence, my city.
James Ivory: (He chuckles) You know making that film was my discovery of Florence. Though I’d been to Italy many, many, many times, I’d spent most of my time in Rome or Venice and I really didn’t know Florence until we made that film.
The reworked 'Howards End' looks and sounds wonderful! What was the restoration of the film like, were there trouble spots?
Ivory: It was a film that was shot on film, about twenty years ago, and now in order to do a digital remastering of the film so it could be projected in all kinds of places and of course to make the DVD and all that, they had to remaster it, working from the original film negative. There was a certain amount of dirt on it, and those kinds of issues that come along but I really wasn’t very much involved in the restoration of it. Only at the end when they told me Tony Pierce-Roberts and Steve Boardman were grading it for color, in London, at that point I was with them, really working together. It was really just a necessity of making the film available on so many different kinds of media and that’s why they had to do the restoration.
I’m glad that more people will get to watch this masterpiece. Is there a reason why now?
Ivory: Cohen Media has acquired the film and they wanted to bring it up to modern modes of seeing films, they had to. They would do that with any film that they acquired. They are doing it with other films of ours, the next one they are going to bring out is 'Maurice', and they’re restoring that right now.
In this time of social media promoting coarse, crass behavior, your film takes us to a world where class, personal diplomacy and a good upbringing seem to help solve all of life’s problems. What do you think of the world today and how does 'Howards End' fit into that world?
Ivory: I think the kind of problems that Forster dealt with in his fiction nearly a hundred years ago, those problems are still current, they don’t go away. And one of the basic problems is honesty and living an honest life. Living a life that is not corrupted by all sorts of influences like social class and all of that. But a life where you really follow your emotions, follow your truest beliefs and you try to live an honest life. That’s really what 'A Room with a View' and 'Maurice' are about and equally so 'Howards End'. I don’t think that ever changes, I think what people get out of 'Howards End' is a pretty modern message, coming from an author who wrote it almost a hundred years ago. These are not new problems, they are enduring problems of life today everywhere, I feel.
Do you believe in the power of cinema to change the world, to make it somehow better?
Ivory: It can, if the intention in making a film is a positive one. You know, to truly show real human emotions and people in real situations everywhere, no matter where it is in the world. Cinema is a great instructive way of telling stories and it has changed the world. The same way that the printing press changed the world.
And film, more perhaps with documentaries, even makes a headline a human reality, so we connect with that story.
Ivory: Absolutely! Again and again and again that’s so true. And when you see those films, you’re really grateful that they have been made and you have gotten something from it that has a meaning to you.
You put your finger right on it, when you said earlier, it’s the “intention” of a film that’s important. There is a lot of filmmaking these days not made with the intention of making us any better!
Ivory: So much of filmmaking, particularly in the United States, not only in the US but especially in Hollywood, these are not films very often about anything. Most American films that you see aren’t really about anything, when it gets right down to it. They are not about any kind of reality and real true life situations. So when those kinds of films [about something] are made we are very grateful, at least I am, in this country when they come along. And they do come along, there’s a few every year and you think, “Thank God, this is a film about something!”
What are the challenging aspects of making a period film, and the advantages?
Ivory: The advantages are simply that you’re telling a good story with interesting characters, and for a director with very interesting scenes. That’s the advantage of any good story, whether it’s a period film or set in modern days. There are situations and stories that are set in the past that you just want to do, because they are inherently interesting to make, as a director, and that’s always been my reason for making period films. I would say half the movies that are made today are some form of period film. It’s just that there are so many situations there that are exciting for directors to do. And exciting characters that you don’t read in any other plays.
And what do you wish people would walk away having learned from the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, if you could choose audiences to walk away with the perfect message from your film?
Ivory: Learn how to live an honest life, a life that is true to you and true to your inner-most feelings and emotions and live it honestly. That’s the great thing, that was what Forster was always about. And the other thing was to always try to make all kinds of connections, no matter how difficult, between people, and in such a class-ridden society as England was in those days and still is, that to him was the great feat — to get people together. It is in every one of his books.
All images courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, used with permission.