Filming without money pays off for James Ivory

'Destination' was first project since Ismail Merchant's death

For indie filmmakers, moving forward when financing falls through is tougher than anything else that goes into making a movie.

"We thought we were financed and, in fact, we had been promised financing from a bank in California," James Ivory explained about "The City of Your Final Destination," Merchant Ivory Prods' first film since Ismail Merchant's death in 2005.

"City," which opened via Screen Media Films in New York and L.A. in April, expands to other key cities through July 30. Its screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is her 24th collaboration with Ivory, a three-time best directing Oscar, Golden Globe and DGA nominee.

The film is based on Peter Cameron's novel about a Colorado graduate student with a fellowship to write an authorized biography of a deceased Latin American novelist. When the man's family unexpectedly withdraws their authorization, he travels to Uruguay to try to change their mind and discovers a hornet's nest of intrigue.

"As Ismail's always done, you don't hesitate. You just get out there and get started and assume," Ivory told me. "He was always such an optimist and he could always pull it off. He always just assumed the money would come."

But with "City" it didn't.

Merchant Ivory hadn't secured financing by the time filming was to begin in late 2006. But the company had enough money of its own to cover shooting most of the film in Argentina, where an ensemble cast led by Anthony Hopkins and Laura Linney was standing by.

"We did what you really never should do," Ivory acknowledged. "Ismail would never have done it. If you don't have all your financing arranged, at least you have to have an American distributor somewhere in the background. If you don't have that, it's extremely risky to start out."

Although "City" had neither money nor distribution, he noted, "We were there and the actors were there and we had to shoot because we couldn't send them all home."

When they returned from Argentina their loan still hadn't gone through because it was contingent on the film being bonded and Film Finances, the bonding company, and Merchant Ivory were disagreeing about the budget. It ultimately came in for a modest $8.3 million.

"We were in a real mess. We couldn't go on and complete the film. We couldn't do the post-production and we owed a hell of a lot of money to people, including some of the actors."

That mess continued for about a year, but by late summer '08 they were able to bond the film and finance it through another bank.

"The American scenes were supposed to be done in Boulder. But it was the wrong time of year to go to Boulder, so we went to Montreal."

By late '08 the film was completed and in '09 it started playing festivals, including those in Rome, Tokyo and Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Getting a domestic distribution deal was tough because so many indie distribs have disappeared or been forced to trim operations lately.

"A new financier came on the film, Harris Maslansky, and his business partner is involved with Screen Media," Ivory said. "They liked it and had begun to get interested in distributing features."

With the changing specialized distribution business, Ivory observed, "Distributors were holding on to whatever money they had and saying, 'Sure, we'll distribute it, but we're not going to give you an advance.' It was very, very hard to get a distributor to commit and make a substantial payment."
But in a way, he added, this new austerity might not be so terrible.

"If this tends to bring down the price of making a film because no one's going to put up the gigantic amounts that stars up to now have always taken as their right and it brings people down to a way of making films that just isn't so grossly swollen, that would be good."

Shooting "City" on a shoestring worked out, he said, "partly because we were making it in Argentina because it's not that expensive compared to certain other South American countries. We had wonderful crews and everything you could ever want was there."

Everything, that is, except Merchant. He'd been there with Ivory when they found the sprawling estate that's the film's principal setting on the first day of a location scout in 2004.

It was particularly hard for Ivory, after nearly 45 years of their working together, not to be able to turn to Merchant for help now.

"Ordinarily, there would be all kinds of different problems that he would solve or difficulties that he would know exactly how to deal with."

On the other hand, Ivory shares a story that suggests, perhaps, Merchant was there, after all.

"One night toward the end of the shoot a bunch of us were going back to where we all lived. It was early in the evening and there were several members of the British crew with us. There was a meteor in the sky ahead of the car. It never seemed to move. We saw it actually three or four days running. Then someone said, 'That must be Ismail. He's looking after us.' "

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