James Ivory on his storied career and Oscar-winning screenplay

The American director and screenwriter spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto about his work on the 2017 film Call Me by Your Name.
James Ivory is an American film director and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. (Katy Swailes )
Listen to the full episode52:18

In March 2018, James Ivory made history when he became the oldest Oscar winner ever. At the age of 89, he won an Academy Award for adapted screenplay for the movie Call Me by Your Name, a gay romance based on the novel by André Aciman. Ivory's screenplay also won prizes at the British Film Awards, the Writers Guild of America and the Critics' Choice Awards.  

Ivory has been writing and directing award-winning cinema for more than 50 years, famous for such acclaimed films as A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Maurice. In partnership — both personal and professional — with producer Ismail Merchant, they created Merchant-Ivory Productions. Together, with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the name was synonymous with intelligent, artful, moving and beautiful cinema. 

Ivory spoke to Eleanor Wachtel when he was in Toronto in March 2018 for TIFF's Books on Film series. 

On adapting Call Me by Your Name for the screen

"The story is related by [the character] Elio, from the vantage point of being about 40 years old. He's lived a whole life from the time that he knew Oliver. He's had another kind of life and is no longer living in Italy. He has become a successful artist and he's looking back with the acquired wisdom of someone of 40 looking back at himself at 17. He has powers of analysis that a 17 year old doesn't have and is able to analyze his own feelings and the feelings of the other people in the story. All of that is very interesting to read in the novel, but it's not something that you can have in the film unless you're going to have a lot of voiceover. Right away, we decided not to have voiceover. We didn't want it. I found in making and directing films that the less you have voiceover, the better it is.

"To try to weave together all these things that Elio at 40 was remembering, physical ways that would suggest his thoughts at various times, his infatuation with Oliver and his inner innermost feelings about him, I had to find a lot of little ways of doing that."

Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, stares out the window of his family's home in a scene from Call Me By Your Name. (Sony Pictures Classics/Associated Press)

On beauty in art

"I need it. I have to have it. I love a well composed shot. It doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful, but it must be well composed. I'm a great looker at pictures and paintings, and so forth. That's what I look for — a kind of formal beauty. I want that in my photography. It isn't always what we conventionally think of as beauty. It could be charged in some kind of other way depending on the weather or whatever needs to be in the frame. I have to have that and I can't describe it. But I know it when I see it. That's partly because I started taking art lessons when I was six years old and private painting lessons until I was 13 or something. I learned to paint in a historical method. First through watercolours and then through oil. Then, when I went to college and to the school of architecture, I took up modern painting. It was of great interest to me to paint. I saw painting when I began to make films."

Actors Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet play Oliver and Elio respectively in Call Me By Your Name. (TIFF)

On the universal appeal of love stories

"It could be the times we live in. I don't want to make too much of that, but we like such a positive story. Call Me By Your Name is basically positive even though the two are separated at the end. We're hungry for that. It's a story of love and tenderness. Love triumphing over what appeared at first to be hostility and indifference. It becomes a very close emotional and physical kind of relationship. I think that's very, very appealing to us. People come up to me in tears — they've experienced that. They're remembering what it meant to them and it affects them."

James Ivory's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the interview: The Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens.