The mere mention of the words “Merchant Ivory Productions” conjures up images of Edwardian England (“A Room With a View”) and sweeping, highly stylized period films (“Jefferson in Paris,” “The Golden Bowl”) filled with exquisite costumes.
Renowned as much for spectacle as they are for working miracles with minuscule budgets, director James Ivory and partner-producer Ismail Merchant’s sartorial achievements rely on a small circle of costume designers that intuitively understands their vision.
“Costumes should always be striking but that doesn’t mean they should overshadow other things,” says Ivory, who is being honored along with Merchant with the Costume Designers Guild’s distinguished producer-director kudo. “They can’t be drab. I see so many period films and I can’t understand why the designers don’t perk them up a bit. They don’t have to make their Victorian ladies so drab. I don’t think they were all like that. Visually you want to add spice to every frame whether it’s through the clothes or the landscape.”
In past years, Ivory has worked exclusively with two costume designers: John Bright of Cos Prop in London for his English and period films, and Carol Ramsay for contemporary projects filmed Stateside. “It’s either one or the other,” says the helmer. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t work with another designer, but I do have a very special friendship with both of them. We’re all sort of on the same wavelength.”
Instinctively understanding the Merchant Ivory aesthetic is key to working with them, says Ramsay, who has been costume designer on five of their films including “Surviving Picasso” and, most recently, “Le Divorce.”
“I think of them as parents everyone wants to please,” she says on being part of their production family. “There’s not a lot of talking about things. Jim is very much the kind of guy that if he trusts you, you’re theirs for life.”
Ramsay praises Merchant and Ivory for giving her complete artistic control, saying, “There’s a huge difference between working in the world of Hollywood and working in the Merchant Ivory world. When you’re working for Jim and Ismail, you’re making a piece of art and in Hollywood that’s not always the case. Too often it’s about studio control and second-guessing. That all disappears. You always know who is driving the bus, and it’s Jim.”
“He’s got a built in sense of style,” concurs Bright. “He just knows things.” The longtime Merchant Ivory regular first met the team through costumer Judy Moorcroft and collaborated with her on “The Europeans” in 1977. He’s worked on every one of their period films since.
Bright says Ivory’s fluency in the language of costume design has sharpened dramatically over the years. “He wasn’t very clued up in the beginning to what was involved. He’s become much more involved because he’s got a tremendous sense of quality and that extends to everything that he sees.”
Ivory admits it wasn’t until helming his fourth feature, 1970’s “Bombay Talkie,” that he really began to focus in on costumes. “Up until that time we’d made all our films in India and they were all contemporary so the actors just sort of wore what they could find and what they wanted to wear,” says the director. “This was a flamboyant film that needed flamboyant costumes. I began to understand that designers could create very interesting things for scenes — it dawned on me you could do a lot of things with costumes if you had great people to make them for you.”