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The White Countess - James Ivory interview

The White Countess

Compiled by Jack Foley

JAMES Ivory talks about directing his latest film, The White Countess, which marks his final collaboration with producing partner, the late Ishmail Merchant. He talks about the challenge of filming in China and the changes the film went through to get made.

Q. The White Countess seems different from your previous work; a more epic film maybe?
A. Yes it’s true. I didn’t really take all that in until we started doing it and then I realised it was very much a different kind of world for me. It was the characters and the strangeness of the story that initially appealed to me. I didn’t think much about the war side of it until we actually had to figure out how we’d do all that. This isn’t a huge budget film, so it isn’t a war film that can have tremendous effects and huge battle scenes. We just had to suggest the war, which I think we’ve done very well.

Q. Is it true you were expecting a completely different script from Kazuo Ishiguro?
A. Yes. We had optioned a Japanese novel called The Diary Of A Mad Old Man that was set in Tokyo and is about a rich old man with a quarrelling family. I was thinking of doing something that was partly Japanese and partly American, so I gave the novel to Ishiguro but he found it unwieldy to adapt and ended up writing a completely new and different story.

Q. So that’s why you’re now in Shanghai and not in Japan or America?
A. Yes. I probably wouldn’t have become involved in this if it weren’t for Ishiguro and his family background. His grandfather had lived in Shanghai in the 1930’s, when his father was a little boy. They left Shanghai before the Japanese invasion in 1937 and there were lots of family stories and memories about those times. Ishiguro got very interested in all that. He had used that background for his novel When We Were Orphans, but I think he hadn’t digested all this Shanghai family lore and what he knew about Shanghai and that’s where the script came from.

Q. Was it always your intention to cast Natasha Richardson, her mother and her aunt?
A. I thought Vanessa would be very good for the gentle Aunt Vera and we wanted to work with Lynn before, on The Europeans, but it didn’t happen. To me, Natasha was someone who could convincingly play a Russian. She has something about her that I thought would make the character of Sofia believable – a kind of suppressed passion and sense of longing. Ralph Fiennes was in from the beginning. He was our first choice for Jackson and right away he wanted to do it. It’s a big challenge to make you believe he’s blind and he’s done a very good job.

Q. The White Countess is the first western film to be entirely shot in China, how hard has it been to make the movie?
A. Well we came here without knowing anybody. When we go to work in India, Ismail obviously has lots of connections; this time we’ve had to find everybody ourselves. A real difficulty is that everybody speaks in different kinds of Chinese and so it takes much longer to explain something, or to give direction. Everything has to be translated and then re-translated.

Q. You’re an American but most of your films have been set in Europe or Asia, do you like looking at the world through other people’s cultures?
A. Well I look at the world through my own eyes, it’s just that I happen to be in other cultures all the time. That’s just been a preference of mine. All my life, I’ve liked to travel and make movies and I’ve been able to combine the two. But I can’t look at the other cultures through their eyes, I can only look at them through mine, which are the eyes of an American of my generation.

Q. Aren’t you a fairly atypical American?
A. No, there have been a lot of people like me. There have been so many Americans who’ve left the United States to live and work in other countries and cultures and who’ve spent their whole lives doing that and maybe became far more famous outside of America than in America. I think I belong to that sub-group of American artists. There are lots of musicians and authors and painters who’ve done exactly that.

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