Design in Mind


On Location with James Ivory

James Ivory, award-winning director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of Merchant Ivory Productions, leads viewers on an exclusive tour of his historic Hudson Valley home. He sits down to discuss his early love of architecture and the importance of place in his films.

AIRED: August 09, 2019 | 0:27:50

(relaxing classical music)

I'm James Ivory, the film director.

This is my house.

This is the newer part of my house,

and we'll talk about the older part, see it.

I moved in here as a weekend place with Ruth Jhabvala

and Ismail Merchant in the spring of '76.

And it gradually, slowly over the years,

became the real sorta center of Merchant Ivory Productions.

You could say its spiritual heart.

Ruth and I certainly wrote here a lot,

and Ismail would entertain here.

Sometimes it raised the money for our budgets.

And somewhere along the way, we began to edit our films

down in one of the lower buildings on the property,

right on down until almost our final film was done here.

Every room is haunted, I suppose, in a way.

Or filled.

(relaxing music)

(energetic orchestral music)

- There's an absurder kind of a view which I will spare you.

- Oh no do read it.

JAMES: We have always worked on location.

We've almost never wanted to

or had to build a set in a studio.

MALE: If a producer was to go and create that,

we would not be able to make the scene so rich.

When you are writing and then you visualize, of course,

you're seeing palaces and all,

but then finding something, it's like, I dunno,

it's like destiny.

Somehow you're led to it.

JAMES: We started out, because we didn't have that much money,

we would work on real locations.

And finally, shooting on location did become our process.

It became a style, and we did it again and again and again.

- Oh Walter, that's lovely.

I think about my house a great deal.

You've never seen Howards End.

I want to show it to you.

(airy orchestral music)

JAMES: I think when the sets are houses,

they've always been important in our films.

Those houses always look like a place

you'd probably be comfortable in, would want to be in.

And when we did Howards End , what has the presence,

and you couldn't really say it's architectural,

is Howards End itself.

Howards End was a very old house, probably a farmhouse.

I know there is kind of a late medieval core to it

'cause I've been all through it.

And then it just gradually grew over the centuries

until it became this

not especially refined kind of building, it isn't that,

but it had tremendous charm and atmosphere.

It seemed to me to be what Forster was describing.

For a fairly successful adaptation,

it really has to change from within somehow.

It has to have something

completely different from the novel.

JAMES: Ruth was an extraordinary writer.

She was a very distinguished fiction writer.

She had such good taste and such knowledge of people.

But when Ruth would write a screenplay,

I would write the descriptions of the sets.

That was not something she knew a great deal about.

If I had imagined or wanted a certain kind of interior

or a certain kind of building or landscape, whatever it was,

I would always write that.

My partner, Ismail Merchant,

was the person that made it all happen.

He was very ingratiating kind of guy.

People always liked him very much,

and they wanted to help him,

they wanted to do things for him.

It wasn't just getting access to buildings to shoot,

I mean, it was all kinds of things.

In a kind of funny way,

it was always presented that I, the artist,

needed to be in these places.

Otherwise, this one little thing that I was making

would not be as good.

But if you let us come in, it will be fantastic.

I think our greatest success was when we got to shoot

on the roof of Versailles.

(martial drumbeat)

(speaks in foreign language)

JAMES: Nobody said you can't shoot in Versailles

for Jefferson in Paris .

That was fine, other people were shooting in Versailles.

But they didn't want us to go up on the roof to shoot

because they had just put a new roof on.

So it seemed that we couldn't go up there,

but we wanted to because it was a sequence

with the Mongolfier balloon.

(cheering and applause)

Palace is in the background,

balloon is in the foreground going up,

but we wanted to go on the roof

to see the balloon come towards the palace.

The curator, who was a very strong-minded French woman,

she just refused.

But Ismail invited her to lunch on the set,

and he organized it so that he would sit next to her.

Somehow, he learned that she was very interested

in Indian spirituality.

I mean, Indian spirituality,

Ismail has no interest in whatsoever.

And he's a Muslim in any case.

But he banged on to her about, you know,

5000 years of Indian spirituality

and all sorts of things, and it worked.

And then he said, by the way,

couldn't you rethink our going up on the roof?

Something like that. And we got up on the roof.

(rousing orchestral music)

That's my favorite shot in the whole movie.

You've got the royal family

sort of running along the parapets,

but in the background you had this enormous blue thing

that looks like it's gonna take over everything

and eat the palace even.

And it's all because of this devout Muslim's discussion

of Hindu philosophy and so forth that we got in.

I had known about Versailles since I was a kid.

I knew all about Versailles.

All of that fascinated me.

I think I've always been interested in architecture.

I mean, even as a small child.

(pensive piano music)

I remember it to this day.

When we moved from California when I was four years old

to this town in Oregon, Klamath Falls,

seeing this wonderful classical building,

which was the Elks Temple.

I can show you a picture of that, it's on my phone.

I was out there last summer,

and I thought, I'm gonna take pictures of the Elks Temple.

A red brick with wonderful pediment

and columns in white stone.

I was quite taken with the form,

which is one of the reasons

that we went to Natchez in Mississippi,

which is, of course, the place of classical houses.

Or was.

I think I was 13 when we went to visit the South.

My mother was from the South.

And I saw many of those,

and they were just imprinted on my brain.

The Greek Revival is really what I was seeing.

And I just like it.

It's satisfying, some kind of way.

And I suppose because of its historical associations,

I've always been interested in ancient Rome.

Not so much in ancient Greece, but in ancient Rome.

It's always been one of my main historical interests.

I went to the movies a lot.

I mean, I saw everything.

Adventure films, pirate films, and many, many westerns.

And we lived in a western town

that was exactly like the films in the western.

But I wasn't ever very interested

in the way those western towns looked.

They were such scrappy-looking places.

I was more interested in Hollywood movies,

which were set in glamorous places.

Marie Antoinette , for instance, you saw Versailles.

I never planned to be an architect,

but I was told that if I wanted to be a set designer

for the movies, which I wanted to be

from the time I was about 12 years old,

go to architectural school.

Which I did, at the University of Oregon.

My History of Architecture teacher

was a man named Marion Ross.

If I know anything about architecture,

it really first started out from him.

There's some architectural models in that cupboard there,

and you'll see there are A's on them.

And that Venetian palace on the left,

it's called Desdemona's House.

I got an A for that, but he said that it is not that color.

It should not be so pink.

And I see it every time I'm in Venice,

and I look at it very carefully.

Of course, it's not pink at all.

It's a sort of weathered Venetian brick.

Then I went to USC film school when I made my first film,

a 30-minute film about Venice,

which I called Venice: Theme and Variations .

I'd just made my first trip to Venice,

and I was just absolutely blown away.

And I thought, I wanna go back there.

And then I thought,

I can make a film about Venice of some kind

that would show the history of Venice through painting.

FILM NARRATOR: It is to this strange land

that the awakening painter comes

to this strange square which is both regal and intimate.

JAMES: And that was my first film which I shot,

to some extent edited, and wrote the narration for it.

(off-key string music)

I first went to India in 1959.

I was making a documentary about Delhi.

It was a sort of a portrait of the city.

And while I was editing that in New York,

another film of mine that I had made about India,

though not in India,

which was called The Sword and the Flute ,

a short film about Indian miniature painting.

There was a screening of it

at the Indian consulate in New York.

And I met Ismail.

He came to see it,

and then he just came up to me and began talking to me.

That was the beginning of Merchant Ivory Productions.

That encounter on East 64th Street.

(trumpet fanfare)

Merchant Ivory's first feature films were made in India.

There were four of them, all English-language pictures.

The Householder , Shakespeare Wallah ,

The Guru , and Bombay Talkie .

Let's talk about India a bit.

And in fact, classical India.

That has nothing to do with Indian architecture, as such.

Traditional Indian architecture

was a very different kind of thing.

When the British went to India, they began to build houses

and public buildings in Georgian style.

Long after the British have left,

with time and with the weather, which is very wet,

you have these blackened hulks of classical buildings

all over a place like Calcutta.

So I saw all that, and I kept going back to it,

and we actually brought that

into our film Shakespeare Wallah .

An extraordinary grand house

that was built at the end of the 18th century

called La Martiniere.

Claude Martin was a French soldier of fortune

who must've made an awful lot of money.

And he built this gigantic palace for himself

in the area of Lucknow.

I was just taking sightseeing there,

and then I was so taken with it,

I had thought, let's just shoot here

for the beginning of Shakespeare Wallah .

We had a sort of humdrum beginning.

It was like a railway station or something.

And so what we decided to do

was the actors who had the Shakespeare Company

did 18th century English plays also, like Sheridan.

So it was decided they would do a Sheridan play

at this 18th century palace

on the edge of this wonderful landscape,

with a great sort of reflecting pond

and a column in the middle of it.

I liked it so much that we had to use it.

(wordless singing)

I have thought of architecture as being a character.

And that was very true in Bombay Talkie .

We would never have made the film

had it not been for the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay.

We very much wanted to make a film in that hotel.

And I had stayed there many, many times,

and the longer I stayed there,

the more I wanted to make a film there.

I loved its extraordinary staircase

that went down, down, down, down five stories.

Long corridors. An amazing building.

It was the best hotel in Bombay, and I knew it so well.

And I think if I had not stayed in that hotel,

I wouldn't have had such strong feelings

about working in there.

It's just an incredible place, and it had a power for me.

(plucking string music)

Right now, we're in a room

that was added onto the main house in the 1920s.

Some local artists came up with a wall covering.

Franklin Tartaglione is the name of the painter,

and Dave King is his partner, who's also a painter.

What he's done is kind of

an imaginary Hudson River, Hudson Valley views

of houses, of forests, and so forth.

It's really appropriate for these Hudson Valley houses.

The house itself was built in 1805

on the site of another house of the Van Rensselaer family,

which was the aristocratic family in Albany,

by a French designer named Faruc.

He'd come over here during the Terror in France

in the early 1790s.

He designed three houses, federal houses.

But quite French in style.

Two of the houses are stacked, octagonal rooms.

It's sort of Jeffersonian I think in many ways,

this house.

Everything is symmetrical.

We've got the false reflecting windows,

that's a very French thing,

and the sort of tall glass door there.

But with all these side rooms

and the areas that you get in an octagon,

you get these funny little spaces.

All the woodwork is from the period.

It was never destroyed or modernized or Victorianized

or anything like that.

It was never my intention when we were furnishing this house

to create some kind of period room.

I just wanted to have very nice furniture,

mixed up with other things.

I've been collecting these prints all my life,

ever since college in some cases.

Many of them are by Piranesi, but not all of them.

There's the old view of the Pantheon,

when it had these two towers

which they've since removed, luckily.

Some of the things that are in the house

have come from our films.

This was in Surviving Picasso , this chair.

And it was on the set, and then I just kept it.

This couch we bought for The Bostonians .

It was a big scene with Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Tandy

watching the wonderful lecture.

- There's a brutal element in the world

which tramples down the feeble and treads down the weak.

JAMES: The house is full of these kinds of things.

This is a picture from The Divorce .

In that film, there was a painting thought to be by La Tour,

then later on said definitely to be.

Georges La Tour never painted a picture of St. Ursula.

I actually had to concoct the whole scheme of it.

And the actual painting was done

by a restorer at the Louvre.

This little painting was painted by me

when I was about 10.

We used to take painting and drawing lessons from the nuns

every Friday afternoon.

So that was the beginning of my work as a fine artist,

I guess you'd say.

And that one too.

The birds are probably from some picture,

or something out of a book.

But this is an actual landscape that I painted.

Painting has always been a part of what I do as a director.

I mean, I've always been conscious of the art

that's in my films

and then also conscious of art that I might be making myself

by drawing and painting throughout the years.

(graceful orchestral music)

The famous view of Room with a View

was a completely concocted thing.

The real view that Forster wrote about

where you looked at towards the Arno

and the Church of San Miniato on a hill opposite,

they had built a kind of a speedway

for cars coming into Florence there.

- This is not at all what we were led to expect.

- We wanted to look back

towards the Duomo and the bell tower,

which looms up over the rooftops of Florence.

In order to do that,

we had to build a room on the terrace of a big apartment

facing that direction.

Walls and windows and wallpaper

and every kind of thing, it was all built there.

But the view was exactly what we wanted.

(mischievous orchestral music)

I didn't know Florence when we went there to make the film.

And in a way that was good.

In not knowing it, I was discovering it all the time.

So all that was new, and I think that was a good thing.

That film became a worldwide success.

Eight Academy Award nominations, and won three,

and played in the Paris theater in New York

for more than a year.

You have a success like that,

it makes it easier to make another film.

By the time we needed all kinds of wonderful buildings,

Ismail had honed his method of getting them.

He knew how to do it, somehow.

You never knew who he'd thought was the,

the most useful person to get you, to get doors to open.

It could be anybody, really.

The novel of Maurice , it's set at Cambridge.

Now, there are two

sort of really main colleges of Cambridge.

One is King's College,

where Forster, the author of the novel, went himself,

and where we show Maurice going.

And the young man at Cambridge that he falls in love with,

Clive Durham, was a member of Trinity College.

So we wanted to shoot there.

And at first, it seemed we couldn't.

They didn't wanna let us in.

But Ismail got very friendly with a fellow there,

who was an Indian girl that he liked very much.

She somehow broke down the resistance to our coming there.

- Nobody had been allowed to film there in Trinity College.

Ramala Naju, who's head of the student union,

I met her in a pub there.

And we talked about it and said that we've been refused

and we are so sorry

that we can't go to Trinity College to shoot this.

She said, nevermind, we have a meeting coming up

between the students and the faculty.

She went around two nights before

getting the votes from everybody

and the next confrontation

with the faculty and the students,

the students won.

JAMES: As I remember, Trinity is mostly Gothic,

though there is a great classical section.

It has this great library, the Wren Library.

There is a scene underneath the library.

The library is sort of up on columns,

and Maurice is getting ready to go meet Clive,

practicing what he'll say,

and some students see him doing that and laugh.

Well, that is underneath the Wren library,

though I hardly ever even went in there.

On the whole, I don't like to come into libraries.

But a classical building in Maurice is, of course, the house

that's supposed to have been the first Palladian house

even built in England.

Maria St. Just, who owned Wilbury, it's she who said that.

But she said all kinds of things.

With Remains of the Day ,

there were many, many wonderful houses in England

that we could've used.

I wanted a classical house

rather than a medieval or Gothic house.

And we contrived one out of five other houses

to make the house called Darlington Hall.

When we were searching for locations,

I saw wonderful interiors

that I wanted to use in other houses.

Superb, say, a Robert Allen's room

that is suddenly in the middle of a 14th century castle,

and that famous blue staircase which thrilled me.

All the fantastic plaster.

A great, great, great dining room.

And we were able to shoot in that

because of this huge banquet scene.

Then we needed a house with a library.

Strangely, these other houses didn't have good libraries.

So we found yet another one, and so on.

There were a lot of scenes

which required those kinds of service areas

that you don't normally have any more.

So it was almost impossible

to find the kitchen that we needed.

The old kitchens that they used to have,

these enormous kitchens where a huge crew of people

preparing food would've been whirling around

and doing all kinds of things, those don't exist any more.

They've all been turned into gift shops

and restaurants for tourists.

So we had to find a great kitchen,

which we were able to find at Badminton,

which is the house of the Duke of Beaufort.

It became our main house, though not the facade.

The house that you see at the beginning of the film

where the fox hunt's going on,

that's far away from Badminton.

Altogether, I think the house that's called Darlington,

I think it's made up of five different houses

and then we put it all together.

But the exterior was always a grand, classical house.

It always had to be that.

When we shot The Golden Bowl , though,

I wanted just the opposite, an earlier, picturesque house.

A Gothic house, something of that sort, or Tudor.

Adam Verver was a robber baron, basically.

Supposed to have been the first American billionaire,

all this kind of thing.

He was an out-and-out robber baron.

I just thought it would be interesting

to put Verver in a castle.

It was a kind of a taste

that Americans did have for the medieval, at that time.

I mean, we built so many medieval buildings,

Gothic buildings right up until 1900 and even past.

Congressman Lewis, played by Christopher Reeve

in Remains of the Day ,

was a younger man than Adam Verver.

Tastes generally had changed.

The Golden Bowl had a lot to do with art

and the buying of art.

And so we had to find houses in England

that had art collections

that would allow us to photograph the collections,

which we found at Belvoir Castle.

One of the main props in the film was the drawings

Verver was collecting by Rafael.

And they are wonderful.

I mean you'd really think they're real.

The Tans are fantastically good

at making things for movies.

(gentle piano music)

This film that I've recently worked on,

Call Me by Your Name ,

they had to make a Hellenistic bronze statue

that's been submerged for hundreds of years.

It's a beautiful thing that they made.

I just marveled at it.

They're just geniuses at that.

I had to find something for the father to do.

I felt we're gonna see him a lot.

He can't just sit around smoking.

I decided to make him into an archeologist and art historian

and classicist.

That would give him something to do.

Then I came up with the idea of finding a statue,

which came right here at this table.

I've always loved those Hellenistic bronzes

that they keep pulling up out of the ocean.

It's like, almost my favorite kind of sculpture.

I'm awfully glad that Luca did what he did,

because I like what he did.

I mean, there are things that I wrote in the screenplay

which I think ought to be there,

but I'm never thinking, if I shot it, it would be this.

I liked the house.

I liked it very much.

And it's not a very old house,

it's probably 1890s or something.

Mock Renaissance country house.

And they had a very, very good set decorator,

and she just had great flair, I thought.

It's so shabby and so real.

I mean, it doesn't look fancy.

It doesn't look like a set ever.

And that famous scene at the end

where the father and the son are sitting on the sofa,

the sofa's got spots on it

and it's all kinda rough-looking, and I thought

it was just so - that's just a perfect choice.

- And the Oscar goes to James Ivory.

(applause) Call Me By Your Name .

(fanfare music)

JAMES: It just seems so odd that in my advanced age

that I would get up there and get an Academy Award.

I mean, surreal almost, it seems.

And I wouldn't be standing up here

without the inspired help I received

from my life's partners, who are gone.

Our writer, Ruth Jhabvala, who received this award twice.


And our fearless producer, Ismail Merchant.

Working with him for close to 50 years of Merchant Ivory

led me to this award.

Thank you very much everyone.


I think very often that if I hadn't known him,

I don't think I would've made all the films that I've made.

(soaring orchestral music)

He was an amazing combination of energy and taste,

and he was a terrific impresario.

That's really what he was.

Buildings do inspire you.

I mean, and I suppose in my case,

you have a hunger for fine buildings.

If you, after a while, see some or learn about them

and you have a hunger to go to them, be in them.

Maybe use them, live in them.

Whatever it is, it never goes away.

Classical buildings kept drawing me to them.

That's why I'm here in this house, I suppose.

It's now my house of life, you could say.

I like the fact that, at least from the road,

it's completely as it was at the end of the 18th century.

It has never changed.

The view from this house to all those hills, which I own,

has never changed, at least since 1799.

I mean, you're really out in ancient New York.

And the house is ancient New York also.

I mean, built in 1805.

It's still, here we are.

It's okay, it's not falling down.

(soaring orchestral music)

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