Back when Sony released Rob Marshall’s overwrought and glossy $85-million flop “Memoirs of a Geisha,” I remember saying, “Merchant Ivory could have made a better version of this for $12 million.”
The production company founded by the late, great New York producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, his directing partner for 40 years, produced a remarkable collection of low-budget indie dramas from 1963 through 2005, the year Merchant died. Their films were so instantly recognizable that “Merchant Ivory” became not only a brand but also a description of an art film genre often identified in ads with ivy trellises.
Cohen Media recently acquired (with some difficulty) the rights to most of their library (21 films, 10 shorts and several documentaries). New York cinephile and real estate mogul Charles Cohen said he acquired the Merchant Ivory brand “to raise the profile in the minds of a new audience and remind older audiences of the high quality films Merchant Ivory embodied.”
A Merchant Ivory film is a period drama adapted from literature (often E.M. Forster or Henry James) and graced with top actors and gorgeously detailed sets and costumes. Among their best-known films are the E.M. Forster adaptation “A Room with a View” (1985, 3 Oscar wins) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993, 8 Oscar nominations), neither of which are in the Cohen collection.
Opening this week is the first of many Merchant Ivory Cohen restorations, 1992’s “Howards End,” written by the third leg of the Merchant Ivory troika, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who died in 2013). Cohen has spent almost $100,000 to restore the film to all its glory. While it was an Oscar-winning hit at the time for Sony Pictures Classics, the digital 4K restoration—from the Kodak negative—is simply stunning. It’s a must-see, immersive, big-screen experience, complete with Dolby Stereo sound. “It looks like a brand-new film,” said the film’s cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts.
Here’s what moviemakers can learn from what Merchant Ivory did right on “Howards End.”
Hire a superb screenwriter to adapt an accessibly cinematic literary property, crammed with rich roles for women.
At Jhabvala’s suggestion, on the third reading of Forster’s “Howards End,” Ivory finally decided to turn the story about two intertwined wealthy families into a movie. “‘Howards End’ was a great step forward for Forster,” said Ivory in a phone interview. “It was a much more powerful, deeper book.”
Unless he was co-writing a script, Ivory left Jhabvala alone on the first adaptation of a novel. On her own, Jhabvala expanded Forster’s treatment of the poor clerk Leonard Bast and his wife, adding the love scene on the boat. “I let her take it off on her own,” he said. “It might be in this country or in India. We might be thousands of miles away when that’s going on. I’ve given her my copy with notes in it, underlined—’I must have this scene,’ that sort of thing. She has her own approach. When she finishes the first draft, she and I get together, we go through it all. I scream and shout, ‘Where’s that scene? You cut my favorite scene!’ She would hear that through, might put it back in, or usually did not. I would defer to her sense of it, the form she came up with.”
Shoot in Super 35. If there was ever an advertisement for working from a larger negative, “Howards End” is it.
That was cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts’ idea—he wanted the bigger image from punchy, brighter, contrast-y Super 35 mm Kodak stock, which could be printed in 35 mm anamorphic as well as blown up to 70 mm. Cohen’s restoration team brought the original negative down from the George Eastman film archive in Rochester NY, did a 4K scan that was sent to Portugal to clean up all the dirt, spots and scratches, then did color corrections at DeLuxe in London with Ivory and Pierce-Roberts on hand. The reason the restored “Howards End” is so stunning is that even the release prints weren’t drawn from the original negative, but from a dupe negative, thus losing color, sharpness, and texture. “Now in the restoration, we’re seeing it for the first time coming from the original negative,” said Ivory. “It’s more subtle, finer, more beautiful, more what was intended.”
Forget celebrity. Cast the right actor for the part.
As independents, Merchant and Ivory could cast whoever they wanted. Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Vanessa Redgrave each had juicy parts to play, jammed with personality. “We were working independently, no one is telling us what to do,” said Ivory. “I had a number of English actresses, including Tilda Swinton, who was really unknown, read for me. I learned about Emma Thompson through Simon Callow. I looked her up, she came, and instead of reading a script she read directly from the novel and I cast her on the spot. She was with me for an hour and a half and had the part when she went away. I have a couple letters from her about how much she liked the script. She was thrilled to do it. That’s a rare part you don’t get often.”
“Yes,” recalled Thompson, who won her first Oscar as strong-minded Margaret Schlegel. “That was the only time I’d written to someone and said, ‘I know how to do this, I know this woman so well.’ I felt unusually convinced I would be able to do it. That I was the right person. Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox are so different, they represent very different things. While Margaret is in some ways at odds with the pre-feminists, at the end Margaret chooses to go into that area, to try and just quietly stretch the envelope a little bit. Forster saw the horrifying condition that women found themselves in, trapped, with very few choices.”
Thompson thinks she benefitted by not being beautiful, and was spared the limitations of an ingenue: “A lot of people are trapped by their beauty—I didn’t have that problem. Having a regular face that lends itself to character acting is a help.”
She learned from observing Redgrave and Hopkins. “They’re very instinctive actors, you can let go and play with them, whatever you need to do,” she said. “It was very releasing, you trust them so completely, they placed their trust in me as well, it was a very special film for me. Vanessa was such an extraordinary woman. The very unique, emotional quality she brings to that role is incredible, so quiet and so profound.”
Ivory was determined from day one to have Redgrave play the matriarch Mrs. Wilcox, who forms a spiritual bond with her city neighbor (Thompson). “Vanessa was playing the great English soul,” he said, “which she is herself. She was perfect for it. You don’t know why she is the way she is, she just has something you can’t put your finger on, her magic. It’s in all kinds of different parts. She has played very different roles all her life. I wasn’t telling her do this, do that or hold your head, I left it to her. She’s so deeply talented, you know. She’s such a spiritual person, as Mrs. Wilcox had to be.”
Dare to be cheap. The movie will be better for it.
At $12 million, “Howards End” was then the most expensive movie Merchant Ivory had made. “A Room with a View” was $3.5 million. “We wouldn’t have gotten that kind of money without ‘A Room with a View’’s success,” said Ivory. “The financiers, who were mainly Japanese, took it on faith that we had a chance to be equally successful with this one. And we were a success everywhere all over the world, even though it was our longest film at two hours and 20 minutes. Pressure was brought on us by distributors in foreign countries to cut it but we never would.”
“Merchant and Ivory pay you a pittance— and everyone else,” said Thompson. “And it was hilarious. They struggled from week to week to get everyone paid, it was tough for them, and pretty tough on the crew as well. Making a Merchant Ivory movie, you knew you were making something of weight, and of course for me, it was only my fifth movie, a completely different experience from the ones I’d done before. It was a great joy. I’m glad I was young. Ismail occasionally would nip into the catering section and knock up a wonderful curry at the end of the week.”
Pierce Roberts remembers having to fight for things like the ultimate stunning crane shot moving up over Howards End and the fields at the movie’s end. And if you got a crane it was for one day, he said. “You knew you had to get it done, because you weren’t ever coming back. That was pressure for me.”
But everyone took the time required to make the sets detailed and beautiful. The craftspeople on a Merchant Ivory movie “were deliberate, they spent time dressing the set and lighting beautifully,” said Pierce-Roberts. “So you can see it. A lot of films cut quick, you blink and you miss it. Production designers love working with Jim and Ismail, because they’re going to look great. It’s nice to look at something and let your eye explore the frame.”
Stay open to the moment.
The country house that plays Howards End in the movie was a special find. “When I started the location scout,” said Pierce-Roberts, “they took me to the location with this amazing house. I said, ‘We’ve got to do this wide-screen.’”
“That house was blessed,” said Ivory. “It had this chestnut at one side all in flower, an amazing thing, and was facing on a field, behind it was more open space, trailing vines and wildflowers.” The opening long hand-held shot of “Howards End,” which follows Mrs. Wilcox (Redgrave) through the garden along the outside of the house at twilight, was “a spur-of-the-moment thing,” said Ivory. “We were setting up the scene; she was always going to walk around the house and look in the window. She had her costume on. We rehearsed as she walked around the house and I noticed her train on that dress passing through the grass and the wildflowers. It was an extraordinary sight, it was beautiful, there was something out of this world about it. ‘Why don’t we focus on that train and follow it?’ We do not even know who it is, then we pan up and there she is!”
Pierce-Roberts remembers the light fading and having to shoot it in a rush. “We waited for the light to be exactly right,” he said, “and shot quickly, about four shots in under half an hour.”
I asked Thompson if a movie like “Howards End” could be made today. “Would a movie as discursive, erudite and long be tolerable in this day and age?” she mused. “In certain countries, sure, there are places some extraordinary films are being made. It would have to be a European film. Ismail and James always considered themselves European filmmakers, not British filmmakers or American. Like all great filmmakers, they know how to take their time. They were influenced by people like Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray, great filmmakers. A fast pace is for others, for 17-year-old boys. James and Ismail were serious, you know? Serious artists? They weren’t interested in anything but creating good art.”