“Call Me by Your Name” has received critical acclaim, healthy box office (roughly $25 million worldwide on a production budget of $3.5 million) and four Oscar noms — and screenwriter James Ivory is a huge part of all that. Ivory worked on adapting André Aciman’s novel and was supposed to co-direct the film with Luca Guadagnino. But the producers thought the production worked better with one director, so Ivory bowed out of that role. He first was mentioned in Variety March 21, 1962, for directing the film “The Householder” and since then has helmed dozens of features for Merchant Ivory Films. Recently, he has been working on getting his film “Richard II” off the ground. Ivory talked with Variety about his start in the biz and how a New Yorker born in Berkeley, raised in Oregon and graduated from USC film school became synonymous with period films set in the U.K. and India.
How did you get the India bug?
I made a documentary about Indian miniature paintings that I discovered in San Francisco. But I knew nothing about India and had to learn. Next, I got a grant to make a documentary about Delhi past and present, and when I finished that I met Ismail [Merchant, with whom he set up Merchant Ivory Films]. Merchant Ivory — we still exist but were not involved in making “Call Me by Your Name.”
Your first mention in Variety was for “The Householder,” written by the late German writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. What do you remember about it?
She grew up in England before she went to India. She had written several novels that were known in the West. A screenwriter in California gave Ismail the book “The Householder.” I’d never directed features before, only documentaries. We got in touch with Ruth; she was a reclusive lady and pretended to be her own mother-in-law because she didn’t want to talk to a stranger. But then we all became good friends from that time. Ruth and her husband, Cyrus; actors Madhur Jaffrey and her husband, Saeed Jaffrey; Shashi Kapoor [who appeared in “The Householder”] and Jennifer Kendal were our nuclear group. It was not easy raising money to film in two versions — English and Hindi. We got paid in rupees and couldn’t repatriate the money: 400,000 rupees was a lot of money, and we used it for our next film, [breakout hit] “Shakespeare Wallah.”
Who do you miss from the old days?
I miss Ismail [who died in 2005] and Ruth , and I will miss Shashi [who died in December]. I hadn’t seen him in five years. He was a wonderful person — magnificent star quality. Ismail was an excellent cook, wrote four Indian cookbooks and then cookbooks in France and Italy. I can feed myself, but he did so effortlessly and deliciously. During “Savages,” we’d watch rushes on Friday nights, and afterward, he would cook for the crew.
Is it any easier dealing with red tape in India now?
There was lots of red tape then; there’s a lot of red tape now. Red tape never goes away — it just gets replaced. Two people who were very good with red tape: Ismail and Ruth’s husband, Cyrus.
What are the differences in the business?
Technology [has made] moviemaking less expensive; you can make a film really cheaply.
What is your next film?
“Richard II.” “Richard III” has been done many times, but “Richard II” has never been done; we’re back at dealmaking. That’s where I miss Ismail; he was great at it.