As you read this, a 38-year-old Merchant Ivory production called Shakespeare Wallah, about a troupe of English actors traveling through India, is playing to capacity houses at a Left Bank movie theater in Paris. This is not because some film scholar or rep house booker is hosting a festival of obscure international cinema. Rather, someone who might be considered the movie's biggest fan picked up the phone and did a little long-distance campaigning. It was Ismail Merchant, producer of Shakespeare Wallah.
"I called the exhibitor and said, 'This film is a classic; you must show it,'" recalls the jocular Merchant in his clipped Indian accent. "I said, 'There's a new generation who's never heard of this film, and they need to see it.' My job as a producer isn't just supervising script, locations, casting, budget, fund raising, distribution and publicity. It's also seeing to it that the film plays for the next 40 years."
Few people will argue that Merchant's direct involvement in every level of a movie he's producing is a bit archaic in an era when many corporate Hollywood producers do all their work via office phone--certainly not his professional and private partner of 40 years and 46 Merchant Ivory Productions projects, James Ivory. The California-born director is quite clear about who deserves the most credit between himself and his Bombay native producer for a slew of visually sumptuous literary adaptations that span classic authors from three countries--America, England and India.
"When you see 'Merchant Ivory' above the title, that film wouldn't be there without Ismail," Ivory says. "I couldn't direct the movies I want without Ismail moving heaven and earth for me. I don't have that energy. I could never produce a movie Ismail has directed [Merchant has completed four]. If someone says, 'We don't have the money to make that shot,' I'd say, 'Oh, let's do it anyway.' Ismail would be very irritated with that."
A partnership that critic Judith Crist and the Guinness Book of World Records has called "the oldest established, permanent floating moviemaking team in the world"--and one that includes screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala--has become a genre unto itself with films such as The Bostonians, Room With a View, Maurice, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and their latest Henry James adaptation, The Golden Bowl. Ismail himself calls the name Merchant Ivory a "marketing code" and believes that Martin Scorcese (The Age of Innocence), Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) and Agnieszka Holland (Washington Square) have piggybacked on their success with an art-house audience they've almost singlehandedly nurtured for the past two decades.
An American taste for foreign films exploded in the '60s simultaneously with the early work of Merchant Ivory, but their young careers didn't benefit much from that era. Unlike the Eurocentric visions of Fellini or Bunuel or Truffaut, their movies have always been more "international"--financed by distributors in the United States, Europe, India and Japan and shot in almost as many places by an Indian Muslim producer, a German Jewish screenwriter and a Protestant American director. Their brand name wasn't really solidified until 1986's Room With a View, a monster stateside hit that opened a 15-year floodgate of costume epics about the European-American clash of manners and morals. Still, no one has been able to create such cinematic splendor from couch-change budgets the way Merchant Ivory has. Ivory plainly calls his producer "tightfisted with actors," and he notes that offers to performers have been declined numerous times because of it. Persistence and charm, not paychecks, are what lure performers into the well-appointed lair of their reputation. As Hugh Grant once put it, "If you want my two cents--and that's exactly what they paid me--I'm proud to have been in one of their films."
"We knew from the beginning we wanted Uma Thurman [for their latest, The Golden Bowl]," says Merchant. "There was no other actress. At first, she wasn't interested. She'd just had a baby and was about to do a Woody Allen film. We met three or four times. We waited seven months. Finally, she came around. Enthusiasm is infectious."
Merchant makes it clear to his actors that celebrity amenities will not be indulged--no first-class airline tickets, no mini-mansion star trailers stockpiled with whims. All the money is spent "where it will be seen"--on the movie screen. In the preproduction phase, Merchant sets about "begging and borrowing"--letters and phone calls and personal appointments to secure real locations and authentic artworks rather than paying to have the worlds of authors such as James and E.M Forster reconstructed from scratch. For a masquerade ball sequence in The Golden Bowl, Merchant was the first filmmaker to get permission to shoot inside Lancaster House, a gigantic dwelling near Buckingham Palace, where Britain's prime minister holds receptions. The Raphael drawings featured as part of the vast art collection of American billionaire Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) are "99 percent real," on loan from museums and private collections.
With detailed production and art design successfully "begged and borrowed," Ivory begins working with contemporary actors to help fine-tune their emotional expressions to the time period that they're resurrecting.
"Henry James' whole world is based on what is acceptable good behavior," Ivory says. "It's a kind of civilized way of living with other people in which the most violent emotions are not supposed to come out. Because of this, there's an awful lot going on beneath the surface that must be suggested rather than expressed. Then tremendous upheavals will suddenly occur with little provocation. Sharks leap up out of placid waters."
The worlds re-created by Merchant Ivory are, in other words, heavily ironic (a quality popular to the point of national mania in 2001 America); ostensibly ordered and well-mannered (properties that classical fetishists starve for in today's raucous popular culture and cynics prefer to call "repressed," thus pleasing two very different audiences with a Victorian romance and a social critique in one movie); curious about the interplay of different cultures (free trade and the Internet are collapsing borders as never before); and involved with histories and customs considerably older than our adolescent republic can boast. The best of their movies are timely, because of and despite their dedication to the past. Merchant is a bit of a braggart himself--albeit a very charismatic one--but he's also a tireless worker who believes his efforts are answering a call in this, his adopted country.
"People think American audiences are dumb," he says. "Merchant Ivory and Woody Allen and Robert Altman, filmmakers interested in story and character, have proven them wrong. It's not about being dumb; it's about living in an instant gratification world. It used to be movies would be allowed to start small and earn more money the longer they played. Now the goal is to make as much money on opening weekend as possible, and to do that, you have to spend ridiculous sums on publicity, as much as it costs to make the movie. There are intelligent movies being made, and they succeed sometimes--look at Traffic and Erin Brockovich. But for the most part, nobody wants to do the creative marketing it requires to find the intelligent audiences."