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James Ivory on The City of Your Final Destination and What It Means to Be a ‘Merchant Ivory Film’

James Ivory is synonymous with a particular kind of film; usually a period piece, often a romance starring Anthony Hopkins and/or Helena Bonham Carter, and pretty much always immaculately produced. His latest, The City of Your Final Destination, may not be a period piece, but it does have Anthony Hopkins, and it is, on some level, a romance. The film also marks a poignant crossroads for the Berkeley-born American filmmaker: It was the first made entirely without producer Ismail Merchant, Ivory's longtime partner, who died in 2005. Ivory recently sat down with Vulture to talk about the difficulties of adapting Peter Cameron’s novel, missing Merchant, and about what constitutes a “Merchant Ivory film.”

One senses that this film was a very personal project for you. There’s even footage in the film from one of your earliest films, Venice: Themes and Variations.
This film was something that Ismail and I wanted to do, very much. I felt that after he died and I had finished with The White Countess, I would just go on with our plans and do it. The footage in the film, it’s some of the footage I had in my thesis film at USC, and it’s sort of there accidentally. We had another plan, to use some marvelous footage taken in the thirties at the particular houses we had filmed in, but the family didn’t want to let us use it. So I finally gave up on the idea and decided that since the film has a lot to do with Venice and memories of Venice, that I’d just use the footage from my own film.

This was the first film you produced entirely without Ismail Merchant, your longtime partner. What was that like?
Well, I miss him, very much. But it was a well-run production down in South America. It was a pleasant place to be, though it was very hot. Many of us had worked with Ismail before, and it had always been a great joy when he came on the set, so obviously we remembered that. But apart from that, I just felt that I had to get on with this film.

Your films have always been notable for the presence of actors from very different traditions, with very different styles.
I think I was, in a way, brought up to do that, from our films we made in India. Those actors were from completely different traditions. Some actors came right out of the Bollywood film industry. Mixed with them were other actors, like the Kendals from Shakespeare Wallah. And we were always working with people from different nationalities, with different accents, in English. It was always something I had to do, whether I liked it or not. And sometimes it’s not easy, particularly because of the accent situation.

How do you do it? When other directors try that sort of thing, they usually wind up with actors who look like they’re in different movies.
That happens in our movies, too. I’ve seen things in our films years later and thought, “Well, that actor is really in another universe.” Some of the films we made in the seventies I think of sometimes like that. I hadn’t sorted it all out yet.

Are you hands-on with the actors?
It’s my responsibility to listen to them and to see what they’ve brought and not start tearing it to bits — to let them present it. I can never imagine sometimes what they’re going to come up with. When we were doing Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Paul Newman gave us a characterization that was so unlike anything I’d have expected from him. Paul Newman came out of another world, out of Hollywood, an utterly different milieu than a Kansas City law office in the forties. But he really surprised us there. And it totally came out of his father. His father was like my father, in the way they reacted to life, even in the way they dressed.

Do you feel like sometimes your work gets pigeonholed because of some of its surface elements — people will say something is “like a Merchant Ivory film,” just because it’s a period romance or whatever?
I do feel that. We are pigeonholed in exactly that way — “like a Merchant Ivory film.” I mean, I think of a Merchant Ivory film as very well written and very well acted and visually beautiful. [Laughs] I don’t think of it as a Merchant Ivory film just because it has old cars or carriages and long dresses in it.

Is there less interest in your films today from the industry?

It’s more that the industry was very interested in us for a while, after Room with a View. People saw that we could take $3.5 million and make $75 million from it, as if we had some kind of secret formula. That’s what they thought. They were willing to bet on us for quite a while. Even right up through The White Countess, which was financed by Sony. If you think about it, though, that was a very strange story, not your usual box-office thing. I do think they’re still interested in what I would want to do.

Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images