This session saw producer Rosemary Blight talking to Paul Bradley, Executive Producer of Merchant Ivory Productions, the makers of A Room With a View (1986), Howard’s End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and countless other period films.
The most inspirational component of the talk was the film Paul screened that had been made as a homage to Ismail Ivory when he passed away. The documentary was a fascinating montage of images of Merchant as a young boy, as a young film producer and later in his career.
As Paul Bradley explained, Merchant Ivory was a combination of three disparate spirits – Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Merchant was an Indian scoundrel with an indominable spirit, Ruth was a German-born British writer, and Ivory was an American whose sensibilities were more British than the British.
One of the charms of the documentary that Paul screened were the interviews with Merchant and Ivory, who constantly contradicted each other despite the rolling camera. It seemed they could agree on very little, yet their business partnership, always precarious, lasted 45 years, and was only finally broken by death, not commerce.
Paul told us that the trio were very different people.” Ismail was an ambitious, charismatic Indian who moved to New York. Jim was Californian but his sensibilities were very much English. Ruth was a German, a quiet, retiring, shy individual who was a great writer – in English.”
So this strange melange of three completely different people someone shared a vision for something that was beyond words, and almost beyond tastes. It was certainly a shared vision for making ambitious projects. “They would argue, but in the end agree,” Bradley told us. “They had that commitment, heart and soul.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for her novels, and won two Academy Awards for her screenwriting, completing 23 films all told. She remains the only person to have won both the Booker and an Oscar. Plus she had three daughters and six grandchildren!
Ismail Merchant was famous for being a great chef who would always cook up a storm when energies and finances on a shoot were running low. Paul said they used to joke that Ismail was a better chef than a producer, and he published four books on cooking. A loveable rogue, Merchant would pay particular attention to feeding the cast and crew when he was unable to pay them their wages.
Paul started working for them to set up a London office, except they couldn’t afford an office, so the contents of the entire UK operation were contained in a briefcase he carried around. Paul got a sense of Ismail when he applied for the position and was asked what was the minimum pay he could exist on, whereupon his new employer tried to negotiate him down. As they didn’t have an office, they didn’t have a phone, so Bradley used to make business calls when in other people’s offices at meetings.
After numerous failures the Merchant Ivory team scored a huge success with A Room With A View. It made such a splash in America that Sam Goldwyn approached them wanting to do a sequel. “We said it would be difficult to dig up E.M. Forster and get him to write another novel.”
He told how after Howard’s End, they cast Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, and he wanted Emma Thompson to star in that one as well. But Hollywood thought she was too English, and they had to fight hard to keep her in the cast. “We had to fight too against Meryl Streep who devoted herself to land the part, turning her agents on full blast to make us hire her.” But they stuck to their guns and Emma got the part, and Meryl sacked her agent.
Asked by Rosemary Blight about the temptation to make films for bigger budgets after a string of box office successes, Paul explained that they made Remains of the Day for only $14 million, and he was personally very angry at Ismail for not accepting larger budget levels. “But he was adamant that more money wouldn’t equate to better films, it would just be splashing money around for its own sake, and then the next time they want to make a crazy low-budget film, it would be difficult to back pedal. And so it would have inhibited our choices, our freedoms.”
Bradley said that while the Merchant Ivory team relished their successes, the key experience was making the films. “There’s a huge passion for the end product, but the process is all important, working with people on ideas, making friends for twelve weeks or for life.”
“I learnt how to turn my hand to many different things during the productions,” he told us, “and when you end up with something on screen that moves an audience, that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Paul noted that despite Merchant Ivory’s success in the UK, they were never recognised by the establishment. “To be frank, they absolutely hated us,” he told us. “We didn’t go to the grand lords and ladies and ask for permission as we were supposed to. We paid people less than minimums, which was regarded as bad form. Our films won BAFTAs, Oscars, but Ismail in particular was seen very much as an outsider.” He said that he did apply to join the union in 1984, only to be told that he didn’t earn enough.
Bradley described Ismail Merchant as “not always incredibly trustworthy, not always loveable but he always came up with the goods at the end of the day, and that’s what producers need to do.”