James Ivory on his long career, gay cinema, and being merely the screenwriter.
At the age of 89, James Ivory is discovering a new experience. We’re on set of a new film he’s exec-producing – an adaptation of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers – in Venice, Italy. It’s Summer and the Palazzo is broiling. The poster for Luca Guadagnino’s new film Call Me by Your Name has just dropped online. Ivory asks if I can pull up the image on my phone. He peers for a moment and then expands the poster to show his screenwriting credit. He nods with satisfaction.
How does it feel being the screenwriter and not directing?
“It was a new experience for me. Any screenplay I’d written, I’d filmed. And that was the intention here. I wrote it thinking I was going to direct it, so I wrote what I wanted and invented scenes I wanted to add and so on. It was okay but then I found myself in that position of being merely a screenwriter. And you are merely the screenwriter, and there’s no way around it. You don’t have the same clout as the director. They raised the money on my screenplay but once they’d done that, then they were off and making the film and what I said no longer carried as much weight. Which is alright. I would never have dreamed of not having Ruth involved, especially in the editing.”
The ’us’ in that last sentence refers to Merchant Ivory, the independent production company Ivory formed with his longtime business and romantic partner Ismail Merchant. Novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made up the third part of a triumvirate which dominated and indeed defined period drama and literary adaptations for decades, winning six Academy Awards and numerous plaudits in the process.
Guadagnino’s new film falls squarely into Ivory’s wheelhouse. A period piece – set in 1983 and in the exotic location of northern Italy – the film is an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel.
How did you get involved with the project?
“I have a house in upstate New York in Columbia County. And one of my neighbors there was an agent in Hollywood called Brian Swardstrom and his partner Peter Spears. They had bought the movie rights for the book. But someone I know very well was restoring their house and so they came to me and asked if I would be interested in exec-producing it. And then Luca Guadagnino got involved and they came back to me and said would I be interested in co-directing with Luca because that seemed to be something he wanted to do and that seemed a good idea to me because there are a lot of scenes in Italian. I said, sure but I don’t want to do that unless I can write my own screenplay.”
“So, I wrote my own screenplay and it took about nine months and I was mostly in New York doing it and then they couldn’t raise any money and then they were able to, but the French company didn’t want to have dual directors, they thought that would not be a good way to work and in a sense, they were probably right. They were convinced that shooting would slow down with two directors because you would want to discuss everything. So, I said okay. It was alright with me. And I wasn’t even sure I could do it because of the Director’s Guild, to which I belong, have an absolute ironclad rule about co-directing so I wasn’t even sure they could do it. Though I could say I was in my 80s for heaven’s sake, there was no guarantee they would accept that. It was decided Luca would direct alone but it would be from my screenplay. They always had a star, the young man Tim Chalamet, who’s half-French, half-American and he’s a rising young actor in America and he was to play the young man Elio who falls in love with the older Oliver [Armie Hammer]; and so, he was there, and they were eventually able to put it together. They had a lot of trouble putting the money together, but they made it. And it’s going to festivals and people are going crazy about it and writing some really nice things.”
It took some acclimatizing to the new role of being ‘just’ the writer, especially as Ivory had an anomalously close creative relationship to his own writer during the Merchant Ivory days.
“The best example I can think of about how little importance the writer has [in the movies] is that they are never invited into the editing room. I wonder if anyone would come in like Ruth came into our editing room. She’d put aside about a week and she’d come in and view the first rough cut. And usually go away pokerfaced and not say anything, and we’d have a reconvene and she would say what her problems were and what ours would be and we would add scenes. And we would have to go back out and shoot them. Ismail always kept that a secret. He always knew that he would do more shooting later on, but he never ever told that to the financier; it was never to be discussed and then secretly he would go out and do it. We did that on all our movies. We’d get together the actors we needed; we never needed the entire cast. We usually needed two or three for a little thing, a close up but sometimes a whole scene. And if it was a studio film, they were thousands of miles away in Hollywood, so they didn’t know what you were doing anyway, and we certainly never told them. To fix something or to prop up something that was weak. We’d have to add scenes from time to time.”
How much would you change?
“We did some radical things at times. Sometimes we’d chop off the whole beginning of a film. All the opening scenes. Or we’d decide the story has been told and we’d lop off the end. And it was always good because it made the film shorter.”
For Call Me by Your Name, Ivory found himself in a much more typical position for a writer.
“I never went on the set of the film. I stayed in New York. I had planned to go but it seemed they would be happier if I didn’t come.”
Call Me by Your Name is a wonderful gay love story, but you also made Maurice which in 1987 must have been quite radical. Was it difficult to get made?
“Maurice was a groundbreaking film. People didn’t feel that then but looking back everyone says that. The interesting thing about that film is that when we made it and it came out, there was never any adverse reviews at least in English that I saw about the subject matter or a gay film with a happy ending coming out in the height of the AIDs plague. There was no controversy about it. And likewise, when we were making it, we got the money, there was no problem though I think at the time we made it we could have got anything we wanted financed because it immediately followed Room with a View. Again, it was Edwardian England and people couldn’t have enough.”
Why did you choose it?
“I re-read the other Foster novels after Room with a View, including Passage to India. I’d read Maurice when it came out in 1971 and I re-read it and liked it very much and it struck me as the other side of the coin. It was about muddled young people living a lie, or having to live a lie, and in the same way, Maurice was again about young men just starting out in life and one was willing to live a lie and the other was not. They were very much related.”
The Aspern Papers stars mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson along with Jonathan Rhys Meyers. During breaks in filming, they come over to chat with Ivory or to ask his advice as does the film’s director Julian Landais. Ivory has a tact and charm that the actors and director obviously appreciate. “Vanessa is only working for one week on the film and so she asked if I could come and be here because I’ve known her forever. Ever since The Bostonians.”
When we break for lunch, we talk of the many famous actors with whom Ivory collaborated. Of Daniel Day-Lewis’ recently announced retirement, he’s skeptical: “I wonder how long that will last. Something wonderful will come along and he’ll take it up.” Hugh Grant was “kind of bored with acting and then Four Weddings and a Funeral happened, and he was kind of bored with success because they kept giving him the same roles all the time.” Paul Newman played one of his darker roles in Ivory’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge: “He was naughty. That was in his car-racing days and he would go off on weekends and he wasn’t supposed to. It was in the insurance, forbidding him to race in case he got into a crash, but he’d go off on weekends and go to some race and he would come back with this terribly sunburned nose. He looked terrible Monday morning. It’s part of their personality. You can’t talk them out of it.”
The filming continues long into the evening. Ivory will be here until ten o’clock. He is an utterly charming and enormously generous man. During our day together, he asks about my life and we talk – inevitably – of Trump and American politics, as well as a whole host of other subjects. But it is when a scene works that his eyes brighten, and he smiles happily. “Do you see?” he says.