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Missing the Merchant touch

Last updated on: April 26, 2010 15:49 IST

Image: A scene from City of Your Final Destination with an inset of James Ivory
Aseem Chhabra in New York

On Christmas Day 2006, director James Ivory was in Argentina with the cast and crew of the new film he was working on -- City Of Your Final Destination.

It was a mix of international actors -- Laura Linney (American), Anthony Hopkins (British), Charlotte Gainsbourg (British-French), Hiroyuki Sanada (Japanese), Omar Metwally (Iranian-American) and Alexandra Maria Lara (Romanian-German).

Missing from the group was Ivory's long-term business partner -- the late Indian-American producer Ismail Merchant. He had died unexpectedly after a brief illness in May 2005.

Over the Christmas meal, Ivory raised a toast to Merchant and told the group that he would have loved to be with them. Before he died, Merchant was involved in the early decisions to shoot Destination and had travelled to Argentina on location scouting with Ivory.

'When we got into rough patches, he was not there to calm things down'

Image: A scene from City of Your Final Destination

"I think Ismail was intrigued about going to South America," Ivory, 81, said recently as he sat down in New York City to promote the film that opens after a long delay. "It was another continent to... conquer perhaps."

Right after the film's shoot ended in early 2007, the film ran into major financial troubles -- including losing a bank loan for post-production. There were law suits from banks and even Hopkins, who claimed that he had not been paid his salary of $750,000. In all of this, the production company missed the legendary talents of Merchant.

"Mistakes of judgment were made during the making of the film that he (Merchant) would never have made," Ivory said. "And when we got into rough patches, he was not there to calm things down and... find an easy solution. Some things dragged on in a terrible way. We are actually getting all of that behind us."

Award-winning team

Image: A scene from City of Your Final Destination

Merchant Ivory Productions -- the two filmmakers were first introduced to each other in the 1960s by New York-based actor Madhur Jaffrey -- have been making films for the past 47 years.

Their first film -- The Householder (1963) based on a novel by the Polish-German author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was set in India.

Since then, the team has made over 50 films (not all directed by Ivory) -- classics such as Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkies, Heat And Dust, A Room With A View, Mr & Mrs Bridge, Howards End, Remains Of The Day, Maurice, setting them in India, Europe, the US and even the Caribbean. Together the group has won a number of awards, including a few Oscars.

City Of Your Final Destination is their first film set in South America. Based on a novel by Peter Cameron, the story takes an Iranian American PhD student on a journey to Montevideo where he wants to write the biography of a novelist who recently committed suicide.

But first he must get the blessing of three odd characters -- the writer's wife, mistress and brother. Ivory was drawn to the characters.

'When I travel, I have a reason'

Image: A scene from City of Your Final Destination

"It was the characters, their inter-relations and their one-on-one type of confrontations," he said. "There are always his [the Iranian- American student Omar Razaghi, played by Metwally] attempts to get permissions and their attempts to stop it. It is a very well written and a witty book and it just appealed to me."

As with many of Ivory's works, Destination's script was written by Jhabvala, 83, who discovered India through her marriage to an Indian architect.

Ivory was also drawn to the opportunity to shoot a film in South America. "I rarely go to a place just as a tourist," he said.  "When I travel, I have a reason."

"Although it was kind of made up South America," he added. "Peter Cameron never went to Uruguay; the Uruguay he talks about is a made-up thing. We didn't shoot in Uruguay either."

Ivory did visit Uruguay before the shoot, but found that to be complicated. "We shot it in Argentina because it has a very thriving film industry," he said.

'Mumbai and Delhi have changed'

Image: A scene from City of Your Final Destination

A major part of the film plays in two neighbouring houses and Ivory recalls making a location scouting trip to Argentina with Merchant. "Ismail and I found the two houses in the spring of 2004 when he and I went to Argentina on the scout," he said.

"We found them on the very first day of our search. In 2006, I went back to Argentina and went around looking at many houses like that, but never liked any as much as the two we had found on the first day."

With Merchant's death, the company trimmed down its operations, Ivory said. It closed its office in India. "In India, there is no real work going on now," Ivory said. "We have branches in London, Paris and here in New York."

In 2006, Ivory made a trip to India -- visiting Merchant's grave in Mumbai and travelling to Delhi and Ajmer. "But I do not have any immediate plan to go back," he said. "Mumbai and Delhi have changed. But the rest is pretty much as I remembered, at least visually."

Ivory has directed over 30 films and is showing no signs of slowing down. He is currently working on two new projects -- one set in the US and the other based on Shakespeare's Richard II, which will star Jude Law. "It's Richard II not III, a very interesting character," he said. "I have wanted to do Shakespeare for a while."