Minus Merchant

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Minus Merchant

On the sets : (From left) Laura Linney, James Ivory and Hiroyuki Sanada shooting‘The City of Your Final Destination’.

Few hansom cabs have ever stopped at its door, or countesses swept through its lobby, but the luxury co-op on Manhattan’s East Side used to be the unofficial headquarters of Merchant Ivory Productions. “We all lived in the building on different floors,” said James Ivory. “Ruth and her husband lived on the seventh floor. I lived on the 12th, and Ismail lived on the 14th. All on the G line.”

Ivory still lives there, as does the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, when she isn’t in India. But the 14th floor lost its most famous tenant in 2005, when Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s longtime filmmaking partner, died during surgery for abdominal ulcers. And that’s meant a raft of new challenges for Merchant Ivory, a brand long synonymous with intelligent and sophisticated movies like A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day.

“He had a million friends and a million contacts and was very much liked, and that always helped,” Ivory said, over a recent breakfast near his apartment. “So we always got through our films okay. He had a way of — how do you say it? — pulling the fat out of the fire.”

Dressed for early spring in tweed jacket, scarf and jeans, Ivory spoke like someone who has had five years to grieve, and to pull things together. Which he has: The City of Your Final Destination,” his latest, opened recently, after years of financial uncertainty kept the movie from being completed. Set among the baroque survivors of a suicidal novelist and the naïve academic who wants to write his biography, it stars Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Omar Metwally.

The screenplay (based on Peter Cameron’s novel) is by Jhabvala, who has written 21 scripts directed by either Merchant or Ivory, and hasn’t written for anyone else since 1988. The film’s costume designer (Carol Ramsey), editor (John David Allen) and production designer (Andrew Sanders) are all longtime Merchant Ivory collaborators. And Hopkins has starred in Ivory’s Howards End, Surviving Picasso and The Remains of the Day. But even if City of Your Final Destination is officially a Merchant Ivory Production, Merchant’s absence was keenly felt.

“It’s a painful business,” Jhabvala said from India. “This is the first film Jim made without Ismail, and while having all those others around is fine, having Ismail gone is very difficult.” When asked, Ivory focused on the professional side of the loss. “Even after working with him for 40 years, I only really had a feeling for what he did after he wasn’t there anymore, and I had to do it,” Ivory said, and laughed. “Things I didn’t even know were going on.”

What Merchant did was allow Ivory to concentrate on actual filmmaking. “There were times when I would dither over the casting and, fed up, he would go out on his own and cast certain parts,” said Ivory. “In this way I ended up with James Mason, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Should I complain?”

The upshot was a body of work that, despite a sumptuous public image (“elegantly dressed people getting in and out of carriages and stuff like that”), is unified by nuanced human relationships. “And that’s the fun of doing it,” Ivory said. “If that wasn’t there, who’d want to do it? We get so many scripts — used to, anyway — that are set in the past, and they’re rarely very interesting. They don’t get into the personalities and characters of the people.”

When Ivory met Merchant
Born in 1928 in Berkeley, Calif., Ivory grew up in Oregon, attended the University of Southern California film school, and was well on his way to becoming a documentary filmmaker. But then Ivory, who had never directed a narrative feature, met Merchant, who had never produced one, and they enlisted another first-timer, Jhabvala, to adapt her novel The Householder. When Merchant sold the film to Columbia Pictures, Ivory said, he became the first U.S.C. grad to get a studio release. And Merchant Ivory suddenly had money.

“What The Householder made we put into Shakespeare Wallah, which was a critical success,” Ivory said. “Then Fox gave us a film to do, The Guru, and I was launched. I didn’t have to scratch my way up.”

It was Jhabvala who suggested that they tackle Henry James, three of whose novels (The Europeans, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl) have gotten the Merchant Ivory treatment. “I thought Jim had quite a lot in common with Henry James,” she said. “The elegance, for one thing; nobility, for another; extreme attention to people and relationships and the slow and patient way that Jim has, and that Henry James has.”
And which Ivory also applies on the set. “He really places a lot of trust in the people he’s working with,” said Metwally, who was approached by Merchant and Ivory after they saw his the Tony-nominated Broadway performance in 16 Wounded. “He’ll gather the suggestions of the artists he’s brought together and shape a scene from there.”
Two longtime Merchant Ivory associates, Paul Bradley and Richard Hawley, had assumed Merchant’s producer duties, but the film got hung up between promised bank loans and a budget that the banks and the completion-bond company could agree on. It took more than a year to obtain new financing, so Ivory could edit and otherwise finish the $8.3 million film, which explains why a film that began four years ago is only arriving in theaters now.

Despite the convoluted history, Ivory said, City of Your Final Destination is, in its essentials, of a piece with the pair’s earlier work. “Ismail helped me to find the two main locations,” he said. “And when we were shooting in them, as we mostly were, I kept remembering his presence there 18 months before. He had stood where I was standing; he had given this film his blessing, as it were; and despite all that happened afterwards it has very much turned out to be one of our films, quite complete and quite ‘Merchant Ivory.’ Even if it’s the first of our films in which some of the cast mostly wear T-shirts.”

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