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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 plans forever.

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 million mark.

"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 it."

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."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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