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James Ivory is known for adaptations of such stodgy British novels as A Room With a View and Howards End, and he enters a suite at the West End’s Fairmont Hotel looking the part: yellow sweater, tweed jacket, and discreetly multicolored scarf. Mention this reputation in passing, however, and the 77-year-old director insists on taking a few moments to refute it.
“May I say, that’s in the minds of people of a certain age,” he asserts. The many films Ivory and longtime producer Ismail Merchant made in Britain or with Britons are “the ones that most people know about, because they were the ones that made the money, and got Oscar nominations and all those things.
“There were ever so many films we made in India and America, which had nothing to do with Britain,” he continues. “But I suppose it was going to happen, if I spent so much time in India, amongst Indians and a few leftover English people who were there at that time, sooner or later I would drift to the mother country and start making films there.”
Ivory’s latest feature, The White Countess, is in many ways uncharacteristic of the other films he made with Merchant, who died last year. The movie was scripted by a British novelist, but one who was born in Japan. And this is a rare example of a Merchant Ivory film not derived from a book—at least not directly.
The project began when Ivory read Diary of a Mad Old Man, by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. But the filmmaker cautions against suggesting that The White Countess is based on that book. “If you say that,” he says, “then the Tanizaki estate will say, ‘We’d better have a very close look at this movie.’”
Still, Ivory recalls thinking that Diary of a Mad Old Man “could be adapted into a film that would take place partly in Japan and partly in the United States.” With that in mind, he gave a copy of the book to novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who became friends with both Merchant and Ivory when they filmed a version of his The Remains of the Day. Instead of producing an adaptation of the Tanizaki book, however, Ishiguro wrote a script set in ’30s Shanghai. Its principal characters are impoverished Russian countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who fled the Bolsheviks; eccentric American former diplomat Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), who wants to open the ideal bar; and ingratiating Japanese spy Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who’s casing the city for his country’s imminent invasion.
The setting echoes Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, a novel that, Ivory notes, “came out of a kind of family history, because his grandfather and father were both in Shanghai, the father as a little boy, the grandfather as a businessman, exactly at that period. And they had photographs and family records, letters and all kinds of things, which were really the basis of his book. Or at least gave the book its start.”
The White Countess was filmed in China, where neither Merchant nor Ivory had ever worked before. But they made several films in India in the ’60s and ’70s, and the director supposes “that it would have been similar trying to work in China then.” “Both countries have modernized enormously since,” he says. “Shooting in Shanghai was like being in New York or somewhere. You could get anything you wanted. If something broke down, you could quickly get it replaced by sending it to Hong Kong. Whereas in India 20 years ago, if something broke down, you were in real trouble.”
The Chinese authorities, like their Indian counterparts, insisted on script approval. But they demanded only two changes. “In the scene where the mob is burning down Jackson’s house, originally the crowd was shouting things in Chinese like ‘Death to foreigners,’” Ivory explains. “The Chinese authorities thought that was not a good thing to be saying. And there was one other very, very strange request: They don’t call the Russian Revolution ‘the Russian Revolution.’ They have a euphemism for it, ‘the events of October.’ We referred to the Russian Revolution several times in connection with the white countess herself. We had to rewrite those bits.”
One critical ally in Shanghai was cinematographer Christopher Doyle, an Australian who’s shot several Wong Kar-wai films and works mostly in East Asia. “Thank God he did it,” Ivory exclaims, “because he has this big crew, Chinese crew, that he’s worked with on many films. Many of them come from Hong Kong; some are from mainland China. We would have been helpless, I think, with a European cameraman. Not helpless, but it would have taken much longer to sort everything out. And he spoke perfect Chinese—Mandarin and Shanghainese and Cantonese.”
Doyle’s style of shooting gives The White Countess a more fluid, less upholstered feel than most Merchant Ivory films, but it was also helpful logistically. “It was a long script, and he always shoots with two cameras,” Ivory says. “One camera is on a boom, moving around all the time, and the other is either handheld or on a tripod, up close. Between the two, we were able to cover an awful lot of territory, which we could not have done if he hadn’t shot in that way.”
Ivory prefers to work on location, and technically that’s what he did. But, he says, “Shanghai—that Shanghai—doesn’t exist anymore. There are little pockets of it here and there, and we were sometimes able to get access to them. But the whole thing had to be put together somehow, like a puzzle. Bits and pieces of sets and real places. I knew that we needed a very loose style for that….It’s not like those fantastic sets that we sometimes have where everything is absolutely perfect. And has been perfect for centuries. And will go on being perfect. We didn’t have anything like that. Ever.”
In addition to a new style and a new city, The White Countess introduces a different sort of protagonist. The director describes Jackson as “one of the very rare male characters in a Merchant Ivory movie who you could call a man of sensibility. Usually the heroes of our films are not so self-aware.”
He’s “an old-fashioned American,” Ivory says. “He’s the kind of diplomat we used to have. I don’t think we have many anymore, of that type. His counterpart is in The Remains of the Day; he’s the man who was played by Christopher Reeve. The moral man. The man who can see clearly. But in this case, I don’t think he can see all that clearly, because what is his objective? To open a bar.”
In a sense, Ivory allows, this goal leads back to Diary of a Mad Old Man. “In the Tanizaki book, the mad old man was a collector of marvelous works of Japanese art. And there was a kind of aesthetic side to him that was very important in the story and led him from place to place. Jackson has an aesthete’s approach to looking at all the bars and setting up one, which is the perfect bar. That’s the one tie to the earlier story.”
The fact that the protagonist is American rather than British comes from Ishiguro, whom Ivory describes as “a great film buff. He has astounding numbers of DVDs of old films he plays all the time. And I think he was having fun. It’s a bit like…When We Were Orphans. That’s a sort of boy’s own story, a kind of adventure thing. It’s much more than that, but that’s the surface of it, anyway.”
With the help of Fiennes, who seems to have based his Jackson on Jimmy Stewart, The White Countess has an old-Hollywood vibe that Ivory says “was very much in Ishiguro’s mind. That was definitely something that he wanted. We talked about that. I don’t know how many people will pick up on that.”
Ivory, it turns out, also has an affection for such fare. “I can remember movies like that,” he says. “I can’t tell you what the story was, but I can remember as a child going to see movies that were set in China or a vague sort of China, and terrible things would happen—catastrophes and wars and all sorts of things—and there was an exotic quality to it. And some sort of love affair, which shouldn’t have happened.”
He smiles and pauses a beat. “I remember all that kind of thing,” he says, and for a moment it seems conceivable that this tweedy man was raised not in London or in Delhi but, as his bio reveals, in Klamath Falls, Oregon.—Mark Jenkins