Merchant Ivory Seeking New 'Heights' of Success
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - "We've gotten known in
Britain for making the smaller films," British comic and
self-described "executive transvestite" Eddie Izzard has joked,
riffing on the difference between U.K. and Hollywood films in
his live act. "They're kind of, you know, 'Room With a View
With a Staircase and a Pond'-type movies."
Izzard is, of course, referring to the films of Merchant
Ivory Prods. As the creators of "Room With a View," "Howards
End" and "The Remains of the Day," the producing-directing team
of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, though New York-based, has
become a virtual cinematic brand name for tasteful, literate,
Anglo-centric, Oscar-worthy costume dramas in which butlers
brood and romantic interludes in Tuscany change one's marriage
But with this year's "Le Divorce" -- and their latest
project, "Heights," which is in production -- the company seems
to be taking a step away from the rarified to the mainstream
with eyes toward a crossover hit.
Still in release through Fox Searchlight, "Divorce" is
admittedly a modern-day variant of the traditional Merchant
Ivory period piece, a comedy of manners pitting American
against French sensibilities. But the cast is anchored by two
of Hollywood's hottest blondes, Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson. At
its widest point of release, the film played about 700
locations, though it's take to date is just approaching the $10
"Heights," directed by the twentysomething Chris Terrio,
centers on a photojournalist -- played by "Seabiscuit's"
Elizabeth Banks, who also is appearing in the upcoming
"Spider-Man 2" -- forced to come to terms with a complicated
relationship in her life. James Marsden (of the "X-Men" films),
Jesse Bradford ("Swimfan") and Matt Davis ("Blue Crush") also
star along with Glenn Close.
"We are supporting the young people," Merchant says as he
surveys the "Heights" crew setting up shop for the day at the
Bryant Park hotel, one of a long list of quintessential
Manhattan locations the producers have wrangled. "We want to
open the doors for people. We've gotten to move in the
direction of people who have hopes."
Although Merchant calls "Heights" an example of the
"younger" Merchant Ivory, he also is quick to point out that
his company has always worked with young talent. For example,
Merchant Ivory produced the big-screen adaptation of the 1980s
postmodern boho tome "Slaves of New York," by Tama Janowitz.
"If it's a good story and good characters, the film can be set
now or in 1800," he said. "If the story is there, you jump into
The Merchant Ivory brand name has put the unit in the
company of Woody Allen, John Sayles and a handful of other
respected filmmakers who can attract talent seeking legitimacy.
Merchant adds that the company's reputation also has helped
with budgets as locations and vendors are more than eager to
lend their name to such a class act. The next location for the
"Heights" crew was the Vanity Fair offices, where Merchant had
arranged for Mia Farrow to take on a cameo as an editor.
Merchant and Ivory aren't abandoning their traditional
niche, though. After "Heights," they head back to more typical
terrain with "The White Countess," Kazuo Ishiguro's screenplay
set in 1930s China, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of
Peter Cameron's "City of Your Final Destination," about an
intellectual in Uruguay.
But even though Merchant Ivory's most recent efforts may
aim to cross over to a new generation, the company should be
careful about going too far: In Izzard's act, "Room With a View
With a Staircase and a Pond" is remade by Hollywood -- where it
gives birth to three youth-pandering features: "Room With a
View of Hell!" "Staircase of Satan!" and "Pond of Death."
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