James Ivory on His Film Legacy and Adapting 'Call Me by Your Name'

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James Ivory

The 89-year-old filmmaker and directing half of the Merchant Ivory cannon is enjoying a late-career renaissance with his screenplay to Luca Guadagnino's awards season favorite.

At 89, James Ivory isn't done yet.

The American filmmaker, whose collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant (and their longtime screenwriter, the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) made Merchant Ivory a byword for classy cinema in the mid-1980s and early '90s, has staged a dramatic late-career comeback with Call Me by Your Name, which Ivory wrote and co-produced for director Luca Guadagnino.

The touching gay love story, based on Andre Aciman's acclaimed 2007 novel, earned Ivory his first-ever BAFTA nomination for best adapted screenplay, and it's a near certainty he'll pick up his first Oscar nomination in the same category, adding to his three best directing noms (for Room With a View, Howard's End and The Remains of the Day) when the Academy unveils this year's contenders Tuesday.

Ivory's script is a master class in subtlety and restraint. With sparse, superficially light dialogue giving the story the time and space to explore the slowly simmering tale of shared desire between Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a dreamy, bookish 17-year-old, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a suave, handsome doctoral candidate who’s staying with Elio's family in Northern Italy on a six-week research fellowship. Despite its focus on secret love, Call Me by Your Name also stands out in the cannon of queer cinema in having no overt political message or element of moral judgment or reckoning. There are no villains in the film and shame never rears its ugly head.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough, Ivory draws links between the new film and his earlier work, reflects on the cinematic legacy of Merchant Ivory and explains why he still has at least one more film left in him.

Congratulations on the BAFTA nomination. This is the first time you've been nominated for your writing, isn't it?

Thank you. Yes. I've never had a writing nomination before. I've been involved in several of our screenplays. I mean, I was a co-writer on six or seven of them, I guess. But this is the first to get this sort of recognition.

How did you originally get involved with Call Me by Your Name? Weren't you originally attached to direct the film?

Yeah. Well, actually it came about before that. The people who have the film rights are neighbors of mine in upstate New York and I've known them for several years. And then one day, I don't exactly remember the sequence anymore — whether I had already read the novel and knew it or whether they introduced me to the novel — but anyway they got in touch with me and wondered whether I would become an executive producer for the film. So I said sure. Then they were attempting to raise money and get it going. And then time passed, but they could never seem to attract a director, you know, an experienced director whom financiers would be willing to back. Finally, they got in touch with Luca Guadagnino. I believe the way it worked was that he thought that we should co-direct, which I've never done, but I didn't see why I couldn't. And as the film would have had a good many scenes in Italian, I thought that was a good idea because I don't speak Italian. But I said if I'm going to be a co-director, I want my own screenplay. 

That was sometime back in 2014. And I worked on and off on that screenplay for a good six months. Eventually, in early spring or late winter of 2015, I was done and I turned it in and everyone seemed to like it very much. Nobody would ask me to change anything, everyone was happy, and then they again attempted to raise money for it. Finally, when the French financiers Memento came into it, they didn't really want to have two directors. They thought it would be a very awkward situation. That it would slow us down. And that's true, it could have. I mean, if you got into long discussions with your fellow director on the set, the hours of the day could really pass quickly. And it wasn't that kind of a film where there was a lot of spare money. So I just sold them the rights to the screenplay. But it still took them a while to raise the money. They were really strapped for the budget and many of the things that I had put into the screenplay weren't possible to include in the film. Because it would have meant big-unit movies all around Italy. Which they couldn't afford.

How different was the final version from the film you originally envisioned when you were writing the screenplay?

Not very much. Originally the idea was to make the film in Sicily by the sea, like in the novel. My script had a lot of scenes at the beach, but they didn't have the money to do that. So they just concentrated it and made it in and around Milan and Crema, Cremona, Italy, where Luca lives. One big change that came about because it would have been too expensive, was when the two boys go off on a little trip together toward the end of the story in the film. Originally, as in the novel, they were going to make a trip to Rome. It was an entire chapter of the novel and I just dropped that, I thought we couldn't do it, and I devised another kind of a little trip they'd make. The idea was they would have some time together away from the house. But that, too, was too expensive, so they had to think up another solution, which was to have everyone else leave and they are alone in the house, which is what's in the film.

Was it a different challenge adapting this book than some of the other works you've done as a director, adapting some of the great works of English and American literature by the likes of Henry James and E.M. Forster?

Well, you know those heavy books like Henry James and Forster. I was not the co-writer on those films. I can tell you that when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, our writer, when she would work on some of these grander novels like, say, a book like The Golden Bowl, that would take her months and I wouldn't know what she was doing, really. We would have had some discussions about it, but she would be working on her own and then she'd finally come up with a script and then Ismail would discuss with her if we wanted some changes.

But on this, I just sat with the novel and I would just write out the script in longhand. I would just go through it bit by bit, scene by scene. Sometimes I would invent things. I mean the whole business of the statue that they find at the bottom of the lake, that's all an invented thing. You have to drop great chunks of things from the book and come up with other things. But it's a slow process.

I would basically just write in longhand, and after I got something that I liked, I would type that up on a typewriter. I never work on a computer. I can't write on a computer. It's just not possible for me to do that. And so gradually, bit by bit by bit, over many, many months, it all came together.

Did you work closely with Luca during that time?

No, I didn't. I scarcely saw him during all that. He was making A Bigger Splash. At one point, I went to Italy and went to that island off Sicily where he was working because I made some huge cuts in the novel and I just wanted to talk a little before I went any further. But I couldn't. He was shooting a film and it was impossible.

What was the most challenging thing about adapting the book? Everyone talks about, from the book and the film, the sex scene with the peach. On its surface, it seems an almost impossible scene to shoot.

Everybody said that when they knew I was involved and they'd read the book. They'd say: "What are you going to do about that scene? You can't have a scene like that!" Or they say the opposite: "You must not drop that scene; it's a wonderful scene. You must be sure to have that in the script." And then: "Is it in the script, Jim? Did you do it?" And all this sort of thing. I just figured it out as best I could. And luckily the actors did such a wonderful job with it. So they really have to be praised for the way they did it.

The other scene that everyone talks about is close to the end, the long talk between the son and the father. Is that taken directly from the novel?

A lot of it is. I mean, the scene itself is in the book. It's longer. But because it's so near the end of the film, it's really dangerous to have such a long dialogue scene. By that time, your audience is just about ready to get up out of their seats. But what the father had to say had such meaning, it was so powerful, that we had to conclude with it, or pretty much conclude. A lot of it is in the novel. I didn't have to write anything more for that scene, maybe just make some cuts. But it was there in the book.

The scene stands out also because there is so little dialogue in the rest of the film. And what dialogue that you've written seems very casual and very light.

Well finally the father really has something to say! If you know the novel, the story is carried by the thoughts and memories of Elio. So basically all the exposition comes from Elio, and he recalls what was said and so forth. There are no long patches of dialogue in the book. So there really wasn't much need for a lot of dialogue earlier on. Neither in the film or in the novel, because it's a first-person narrative.

Do you see a connection between this film and your body of work? Some people have drawn links between the themes of Call Me by Your Name and Maurice (1987), another gay love story, starring James Wilby and Hugh Grant, adapted from the E.M. Forster novel.

Maurice and this film are quite different in that Maurice has a happy ending, an absolute happy ending: The two young men get together and apparently, they're going to live happily ever after. It's an idea that was laughed at when when E.M. Forster's book came out (posthumously in 1971). And the story in Maurice is really a tortured kind of thing. Maurice goes through all kinds of awful things and real problems. They have to hide the affair because in those days, in Edwardian times, it was criminal. By the time you get to the 1980s (when Call Me by Your Name is set), it's a very different world. And so there was not that threat hanging over the two boys. The worst thing that could happen to them probably would be some sort of parental disapproval, and even the parental disapproval wasn't there. One is a story of stress and the other is a story of desire. Really two different things.

When I finally saw Call Me by Your Name, strangely it seemed to me that it had more to do with the final film I made in Argentina: The City of Your Final Destination (2009). And I didn't write that screenplay, that was written by Ruth, but the tone of the two films is similar. Again, it's a group of people, foreigners, living in a big house and speaking in one language to the servants, in another language among themselves and nursing their secret loves. It seems to me that those two films resemble each other. I saw more resemblance to that film than to anything else that I have done.

Have you been surprised by the reception of this film?

It's been wonderful. It was there right from the very first show at Sundance last year. Right on down to now, people are just crazy about it and it's very interesting. And I think audiences are probably really quite hungry for stories like that, which are just unavowed romances and done lightly. Something that's light in tone and not some huge melodrama or something. Strangely, it's similar to Maurice. Maurice was not a film that just appealed to gay men. There are always many, many women, and particularly young girls, who loved Maurice. I have to feel that it sort of transcends actual sex. And I've seen that in the audiences for Call Me by Your Name — and people reported this to me from seeing the film in London — that it's not just gay audiences sitting there: It's older couples who apparently love it, and so many older women have told me how much they love it.

I think it's that people love romances told in this kind of way, romances which have a kind of glamour to them. The glamour is partly supplied by Italy and partly supplied by Luca, the world he chooses to depict in his movies: Upper-middle-class, well-off worlds of people living privileged lives, usually in some wonderful house. That appeals to people. I'm not saying it's anything bad or good, it's just simply something that we like and I, too, like it. My films are like that. Most of my films are set in an upper-middle-class world of well-off people who may have all kinds of emotional problems, but they live well. Part of the appeal of Call Me by Your Name is it's a world people would like to be in. It's summertime in Italy. That's something we all crave.

Another thing that's interesting about the film is there isn't any real villain. You seem to have great sympathy and emotion for every character you've written.

Yes, I do. It's basically a light, happy film. I think people want that. Maybe they didn't know that they want it. Maybe in this sort of troubled political world that we're in today, it's a kind of escapist thing.

Do you see the film as political in any way?

No, not really. I don't really know. I don't think of it that way. I wasn't out to make any sort of political statement. Of course, that's one of the things about about Luca in Italy. He's criticized by his fellow Italians for not taking more of a stance and having more of a political thrust to what he does. Which is what you are supposed to do in Italy — if you're in the arts you have to be a bit more serious. I think they hold that against him. And I've encountered stuff like that in my films. In the past, people said: You just make films about well-off people and you really should make films about the struggles of poor people. That's not quite true, because we started out that way. Our first films are not about rich, well-off people, but about the poor and struggling. And my partner, Ismail Merchant, he always, in all his films, his features and his documentaries, looked at the struggles of people who didn't have anything.

Looking back now, many years later, how do you view the Merchant Ivory canon and the brand that it came to represent?

Well, now that they're restoring the films, and every three or four months a new one comes out, and I'm involved in that, so I see them again. I watched them several times because I get involved in the color grading and things like that. It's not as if I'm rediscovering them or re-evaluating them or anything, but I'm seeing them again. And generally I'm pretty satisfied with what I've done. With some of them, I wished I had done this or that differently, or I'd cast somebody else. But it's all it's done now and finished. And on the whole I'm pretty pleased with what we did.

Do you have a personal favorite of your films?

There's several of them that I like. I like the films that are sort of semi-autobiographical like Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), and the French film we made, the very first French film, which was Quartet (1981). I mean, all of these have autobiographical aspects to them, which are appealing to me. But I like some of the big ones very much, too. Particularly A Room With a View (1985), of course, and Remains of the Day (1993).

Call Me by Your Name is getting an incredible reception. Does this spur you to go further? You've been working on another directorial project, right? An adaptation of Richard II?

Yes, and I'm hoping the enthusiasm for this film will help me. I've been working on Richard II now for five years and haven't been able to pin down anybody willing to finance it. When you tell a film financier that you want to do a Shakespeare film, their face drops. Shakespeare films don't have a very wonderful history at the box office. But we have a very, very good screenplay written by Chris Terrio, who wrote Argo and is now busy writing the new Justice League and the new Star Wars. Anyway, he wrote a very good script for Richard II and Tom Hiddleston has agreed to play Richard and Damian Lewis will play Bolingbrook, the other king. And I've done a lot of looking at locations and that kind of thing. So we'll see.

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