Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Editor's Note: James Ivory is the director of "Howards End," a classic version of E.M. Forster's novel that opens again nationally today in a 4K restoration. I spoke to him about that classic film, about hits and flops, and about his long collaboration with his two main filmmaking partners, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant.--MZS
Matt Zoller Seitz: Did you have an inkling when you were directing "Howards End" that it was going to work out as well as it did, much less that people would be interviewing you about it almost 25 years later?
James Ivory: Well ... we hoped for that, you know! We had certainly been successful with the other two Forster films we'd done, "Maurice" and "A Room with a View." We thought people would like this one and respond to it. It's a long film, two hours and twenty minutes. A length like that doesn't always bode well. But yes, we had hopes for it.
How many years had you been thinking about doing a film version of the novel?
It wasn't something that I had wanted to do for a long, long time. It was a wonderful book and all, but it wasn't something I'd thought about for years and years before we made it.
But our writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—it was very much in her mind. After we had done "A Room With a View" and "Maurice," she urged us to think about "Howards End" as another candidate for adaptation.
Did the book pose any particular problems as a subject for film adaptation?
[Laughs] Well, fortunately, because I wasn't the screenwriter, I didn't have to face that kind of struggle, and that kind of winnowing out of the best storytelling material. I just didn't have to face that! Because I knew Ruth knew what to do, you see? We'd done so many films together already with Ruth, Ismail [Merchant] and I, some based on very complicated novels, like "The Bostonians" for example, so we could just leave her at it and be confident.
Of course when I saw her script for the first time, I probably did the usual yelling: "Where's this? Where's that?" You know. But that always happens with adaptations. We'd do that, and then we'd have a bit of a re-think. Ruth or Ismail would tell me, "That's a good bit, but there's just not room," and I'd accept it. That's how we worked.
The great thing about Ruth was she was a very good fiction writer, a novelist, herself. She had a very strong storytelling sense. Sometimes when you have a really good writer on a film, their storytelling sense can be better than that of the director. There were some things about the book that she felt she could improve in the screenplay, some aspects that were fine for the novel but that would have to be fleshed out for the movie.
For example, she felt that the characters of a certain social class, in particular Leonard and Jackie Bast, were people Forster didn't know very well, so they didn't come across that strongly in the novel itself. She felt they had to be deepened a bit, because of the way the story pivots around Leonard and his rise and fall. Ruth knew we had to know them better, that we had to see them alone more, and sense the physical hold Jackie had on Leonard. So she built them up and made them into working class people who were sort of living on the edge.
She didn't approve of Forster's handling of the Basts?
Not so much approve; it was more a matter of recognizing that Forster just didn't have a sense of who they were, because he just lacked a great deal of knowledge about people like that. I haven't reread the novel since we did the film, so at the moment I couldn't tell you whether I think her sense of that was accurate or not, but at the time I thought she was probably right.
That was really a remarkable run that you and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ismail Merchant had there, from 1986 when "A Room With a View" came out all the way through "The Remains of the Day" in 1993. The quality of most of those films is pretty high, in particular the period pieces. During that period you were making—well, not quite one movie a year, but—
No, not by that point—but we were productive, you're right. You know, if you look at the output going back much further than 1986, you see that sometimes we made more than one in a year, right through the seventies and pretty much all through the eighties. We slowed down a bit in the nineties, but there were still instances where did did more than one movie in the the same year.
What are the factors that go into a run like that, for a filmmaker? Is it luck? Timing? Box office?
All of that, but honestly I'm not entirely sure exactly what goes into that kind of a run! It's quite something. I've seen it happen with other directors. Sometimes there's a period where, if they're lucky, they get the financing where they can make two films in a year. Jean-Luc Godard was like that for a while. And Nicholas Ray.
Some of it probably has to do with satisfaction. You know, if the filmmakers were satisfied with the film they just made, they could jump right in and make another one, instead of lingering on the last one. We did that a few times. And you know, sometimes the theatrical films were interspersed with films we made for television.
"A Room With a View" seemed as if it kicked things up to a new level for you and your collaborators. I've never seen anything like that happen in my lifetime, where a little period piece strikes a nerve and just keeps making more money and more money, staying in theaters forever. Not even "Howards End" had the sort of staying power that "A Room With a View" did.
That's true! We had films before that the public liked very much, films that had a wonderful critical reception or that did very well at the box office. "Heat and Dust" was one of those, and "The Europeans" was another. And earlier, you could probably say that, in a way, "Shakespeare Wallah" was that kind of success. But you're right, "A Room with a View" really set us up with the people who give you money to make movies.
Why is that? Was it just a matter of the money people looking at the box office returns and going, "Wow, these people know how to make hits"?
There's that, but there's also the matter of how much you spend on a movie. See, nobody understood how we were able to make a film like "A Room With a View" so cheaply, for about $3.2 million, and have it look as good as it did.
What was your secret?
For one thing, actors didn't ask for that much money, because they liked us. They wanted to play interesting roles in films derived from intelligent material. So they didn't charge the kinds of money they'd charge other kinds of producers.
Also, we shot a lot in Florence, which was not that expensive. And we took the money we saved on casting and locations and spent it on the production, instead of being cheap about the crew. We believed all along in getting the best crew available. The best camerapersons, the best production designer. We never stinted on the crew. The actors complained a bit about being underpaid sometimes, but we really wanted to make sure we could afford the best technicians to make them all look as good as possible, and keep everybody happy.
That's why relatively inexpensive films like "A Room with a View" and "Howards End" look the way they do, because the people on the crew were experts and we were paying them appropriately.
I grew up in Dallas, and there's a theater there, the Inwood, where "A Room With a View" played for thirteen months, and "Howards End" for seven. Those were really long runs for the eighties and nineties, a period when films could still have long runs in theaters, and they would be unthinkable today, when even hit films rarely stick around for more than a couple of months. Clearly, something about these films struck a nerve. And it wasn't just in Dallas. I heard about that kind of thing happening in other theaters across North America—where your movies hit, and for whatever reason just kept on playing and playing.
Yes, and it really was something! "A Room With a View" played in the Paris Theater in New York for more than a year. That was amazing, and we were amazed. The success of that film really encouraged the studios to finance our projects. Occasionally they would offer something to us, something that we didn't develop ourselves. "The Remains of the Day" was that kind of movie, one that was offered. "Surviving Picasso" was another.
Why did they start offering you their own projects?
Because they thought we had the magic formula! They thought we had some kind of secret for making a good film for very little money that would become very profitable.
And so we moved on to do a string of studio features in the nineties. We had two unsuccessful studio films which slowed down our run a bit. One was "Jefferson in Paris," which didn't cost that much money. The next was "Surviving Picasso," which did. They didn't do well at the box office, didn't do well with critics. That slowed us down. Somehow we managed to raise the money for a few more features. But we didn't get to do more studio features until we made "A Divorce" for Fox.
"Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" was part of that great run, a very good film with two great lead performances, by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, but that just did OK and never became a hit.
I don't know if it means anything, but it's interesting to me that some of your best known and most financially successful films were funded independently.
Yes, although that can be a difficult process in its own way, as you know. And you might be surprised how things came together on some of our movies. "A Room With a View," for instance—on that one we had Japanese investors, even though it was an English story!
What do you think of the film, honestly, now that a lot of time has elapsed? Are there things that make you cringe, that you would do differently? Things that you're particularly happy with, where you think, "Yes, that's about as good as it could have been"?
I'd have to think about that.
Recently I've been thinking more about the process of adaptation. You know, since ["Howards End"] was restored, I saw it at Cannes, and then I saw it again the other night in New York, and it did make me want to go back and read the novel again, though as I told you, unfortunately I haven't done that as yet. I'm curious to see exactly where we diverge from the novel and where we're faithful to it. I like the film a lot, but I can't remember all the things we changed!
Well, I mean—I remember some of them. For instance, there's a scene where Leonard and Helena's character, Helen Schlegel, go out on the boat, and they talk a bit and then they make love. Well, obviously that's not in the novel. That's not the sort of scene Forster would do! So I'm curious to see if I can pinpoint exactly where during the process Ruth decided that we should go out on our own during that scene.
Also, the dialogue—it was tricky. That whole book is full of the most wonderful dialogue, but we couldn't use much of it. Ruth had a sort of a dictum about dialogue. She felt if you had ten lines of very good dialogue in a novel you would be doing well if you could keep three four of them, just to bring a book down to size.
I can say, also, that I look at it differently now because it now calls up all these associations with time. When I saw it last week again, as watching it I was pleased with it. But I was also thinking to myself, I don't know if I could put something like that together in such a way now.
Of course it goes without saying that so many people I know who were involved with that movie are gone, so of course a film version of "Howards End" would be different in that way if we tried to do it today. But I also wondered if I would have the strength to carry out such a complicated film. There are so many different characters and plot lines and stuff!
So I felt all that watching it again. But mainly I felt pleasure, really, realizing that so much of it seemed to be ... well, I won't say that nobody else could have done it. There are moments, just like in any film, where you say to yourself, "Oh, I shouldn't have done that," or where you can't even really evaluate what's on the screen because you're too busy thinking back on the time when you shot it, and remembering, "Oh—that was not a good day." But I will say that I look on it with approval.
Did you have any inkling that Emma Thompson, who plays Margaret Schlegel, would go on to become a kind of cultural institution, much less that she'd win awards for her screenwriting as well as her acting? She was named Best Actress for this performance.
I didn't really think like that. I never had a thought like that when we were making our films. I don't think about Oscars or anything like that, really, when we're making films.
But yes, there was a point during shooting where I said to myself, "Wow, she's so good that there are people who are sure to notice this."
And they did notice her. They noticed the movie, too. The viewers, the critics.
Yes, they did. We had eight Oscar nominations for "A Room with a View," so I thought, "Maybe we'll get some for this one, too." And we did very well: nine.
I wonder if your thoughts about the film's characters change after the film is done and you have a few years to sit with them and think about them.
How do you mean?
Well, the character of Helen, for instance: when I saw it back in 1992 I had such a huge crush on Helena Bonham Carter that I think that clouded my sense of that character. I didn't see her as particularly destructive. But watching it again, I did. Helen is practically a nice femme fatale. She brings so much misery into the lives of the Basts, and she does it in the name of helping people and doing the right thing.
Sometimes I have that kind of reaction. Sometimes, also, I think about what would happen to the characters after the end of our story. I do have schemes worked out for various characters.
You know, the interesting thing about Helena is, early on she was cast as this wholesome, beautiful girl, and that's definitely how she was in "A Room with a View." But it turned out that she had an incredible facility for playing dangerous or even violent characters, eccentrics, psychopathic killers and these sorts of fairy tale villains.
In "The Lone Ranger" she plays a brothel madam with a Gatling gun for a leg, and you buy it. That's not a role I would have imagined her in when I was watching "A Room with a View" back in 1986.
Exactly, yeah! You know, we worked with her three times. She's so good! She's also in "Maurice." She has one scene in there where she's watching a cricket match, talking about which of the boys should get a haircut.
Anthony Hopkins was so terrific early on as volatile, menacing or just really dynamic characters, but starting in the nineties he entered this phase where he was playing depressed or repressed or distant men, and he was so great at it that he started to get typecast a little. I wonder if his performance in "Howard's End" contributed to that? And maybe also "The Remains of the Day" right after that?
And I wonder why you cast Hopkins as this character in the first place? It seems like an obvious choice now, but it didn't then. The last thing he'd done right before you cast him in "Howards End" was "The Silence of the Lambs," where his character eats human flesh and wears another man's face as a mask.
That's a funny story: I had never paid very close attention to him in the earlier part of his career. I was talking to one of the actors from "Maurice," James Wilby, who is English. I said, "We need to find somebody to play the character," and I described what sort of character he was. And James said, "Oh, get Anthony Hopkins, he'd be perfect." And I had never thought of him at all until James mentioned him!
So then we contrived to get a screenplay to him directly, through one of the sound editors on "The Silence of the Lambs," and he read it, and he said yes. He was keen on it from he beginning, no hesitation.
Then we did "Remains" with him. That was a film that was originally going to be made by other people. Tony had heard about the book and the screenplay and approached Sony and said he was interested in doing that part.
And the film didn't get made.
But then after "Howards End" we inherited "Remains" from Sony, and they immediately said to us, "What would you think about Anthony Hopkins doing this part?"
That's funny! I guess they'd seen "Howards End" by that point? Or maybe it was just that he was the Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins and it was a whole different ball game?
I don't know, but whatever the explanation, they were very deferential!
And then a few years later, we were doing "Surviving Picasso," and Tony was the right age and physical type, and we thought in many ways that he was the best possible person for the role. And he said yes very quickly. The last feature we made together, "The City of Your Final Destination," was also one where he said yes immediately, as soon as we sent him the script.
It must be nice to have relationships like that with other artists, where you trust each other to such a degree that one of you can ask and the other will say yes, and not even feel as if there has to be a discussion.
Yeah, it's a great feeling! Sometimes you get lucky with people like that—where you not only know they're wonderful artists who will give you what you need, but also that you get along with them, that you like them and respect them. Tony could be a little difficult at times, and there were moments on the set where he'd kind of flare up. But every actor does that in various ways, it's not unusual at all. And you knew that no matter what, there would be a special quality that an actor like him would bring to a part, just by virtue of who he is as a person.
What were your favorite scenes to do in "Howards End," and what scenes do you think turned out the best?
I tended to enjoy shooting the close, personal scenes that were done either in the Wilcoxes' house across the street from the Schlegels, or in the Schlegel house where they could look out the window and see the Wilcoxes. I liked those a lot, and they weren't hard to do, particularly.
And I like watching those scenes the most, too, of all the scenes in the film, because of the interaction between the two sisters and the brother, and the interaction between Leonard Bast and his wife, and the interaction between Margaret and the elder Mrs. Wilcox, played by Vanessa Redgrave. Anything going on in either of those houses, I'd name as my favorite scene to watch as well as to shoot.
Do you do postmortems on films that don't connect with critics or audiences, and if so, what questions do you ask, and what do you learn about the films, and about your own choices?
I think about that in regards to the films we made later in the nineties. We had two films about heroes, "Jefferson in Paris" and "Surviving Picasso," where we didn't show the heroes as being particular heroic. They both were heavily involved with women, and we showed them both as being mired in sex, you might say. That's not the vision of those men that a lot of people who are interested in them would prefer to have, and I think that hurt us.
And then on "Surviving Picasso," we had a lot of trouble with Picasso's estate. We got involved, embroiled, in a legal dispute with them, which you might have read about in the papers?
Right. Picasso's estate objected to the film's depicting him as a womanizer, so they wouldn't give you permission to show actual Picassos in the movie, and you had to use work by Matisse and Braque to give a sense of the period.
Yes. Things like that affect the health of a film.
And on "Jefferson in Paris," we had all this stuff about his slave mistress and slave children. That was a story that had been widely known, going back quite a long ways, to when Jefferson ran for president the second time. It was not an unfamiliar story, really. But throughout the [American] South there were comments to the effect of, "Jefferson was much too fine a man to have had a relationship like that." Well, to me that was a racist remark. But it says a lot that people would need to feel that he wasn't capable of something like that.
Both that film and "Surviving Picasso" were were expensive compared to some of our other films. They did not do well at the box office, especially "Jefferson in Paris."
I still wonder if we could have done something different to get around our problems on "Surviving Picasso." Maybe we could have put it together in a different way, I don't know. Maybe it wasn't interesting enough. Maybe we should have made it more explosive, like Picasso's art was. These are the things you think about!
Are you working on something new?
Right now I'm involved in a film in Italy, based on a novel called "Call Me By Your Name." I wrote the screenplay to that. And I am also involved in a film version of Shakespeare's "Richard II." That's what we're hoping to do next, a film of "Richard II" with Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis as Richard and Bollingbrook.
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