James Ivory and Greta Scacchi on the Return of Classic Romance ‘Heat and Dust’

35 years after it originally swept theaters, the Merchant Ivory romantic epic “Heat and Dust” is returning to cinemas, having had a 4k restoration. In her breakout role, Greta Scacchi starred as Olivia Rivers, a young British woman who goes to India in the 1920s with her new husband. There, she finds herself trapped between two worlds, still confined by the restrictions of proper English society while finding herself drawn into a new culture and into the arms of another man. The film also includes the parallel story of Olivia’s great-niece (Julie Christie), who travels to India 60 years later in a quest to find answers about her relative. Scacchi and director James Ivory recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about their experiences making this landmark film, as well as their illustrious careers.

James Ivory first met producer Ismail Merchant in 1959 and formed Merchant Ivory Productions two years later, and their professional and romantic partnership lasted until Merchant’s death in 2005. By the time they had made “Heat and Dust” in India, the country where Merchant was born and lived for a good chunk of his childhood, the pair had already made four features in that part of the world. Ivory describes how the two of them and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were inspired to make this fifth film that explored India under British rule. “I never much thought much about that world of what they called Royal India,” he recalls. “Through a mutual friend who was a great buddy at Cambridge of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, we went to visit there, Ismail, Ruth and I, and that led us in separate ways to come up with two different stories, really. One, the story of ‘Autobiography of a Princess,’ and the other the story of “Heat and Dust,” working separately, but coming from a common source, you could say.”

Prawer Jhabvala first wrote “Heat and Dust” as a novel in 1975, and it won the Booker Prize in 1975. She herself adapted the book into the screenplay, one of over 20 she wrote in collaboration with Merchant Ivory. “When Ruth came out with the novel, I obviously read it and was pleased with it, but we didn’t immediately think to make the film. Some other people came and bought the rights to it almost immediately after the novel came out and was published in England… But time passed, and these other people fiddled around with it but could never get it going, and the rights reverted to Ruth, and then Ismail, the producer, my producer, said, ‘Why don’t we make it? It’ll be our 20th anniversary Merchant Ivory film.’ So, that’s what we did. Naturally, Ruth was pleased. But it was a very hard film to make…. It was a lavish film and complicated, and there were two completely different casts. It took place in two periods, on one location, but two periods, and all that was difficult and complicated.”

“It was sort of a Cinderella story for me,” reveals leading lady Scacchi of her experience in making ‘Heat and Dust.” “I had just come out of drama school and had done a couple of small things… I had a few months’ experience in front of cameras and I got to meet James Ivory and Ismail Merchant and, as they have often in the wonderful films they made [over] 40, they gave unknown actors central roles – Helena Bonham Carter, Hugh Grant, even Christopher Walken’s first lead role was in a James Ivory film …”

Even though Scacchi never shared the screen with Christie, working with the legendary actress was also a major draw for her. “She was an icon for me. She taught me everything I need to know about sex,” she says with a laugh, mentioning the actress’s steamy roles in films such as “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “The Go-Between.”

Scacchi explains in detail how she fell in love with her character. “I’ve never ever again had a better role come my way that was fitting to me,” she said. “Olivia is a wonderful character because of her free spirit and the journey that she makes through the story, which was based on a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel that won the Booker prize a few years before we filmed. I hadn’t met Ruth until after the film was made. I met her at BAFTA at the first screening of the film, but I felt that I knew her because I had her book under my arm the whole time, and it gave me such a rich guide and preparation for who Olivia was and how she thought and felt and responded to things. It was a role that just fit me like a glove, and when you have that early on in your career when people don’t know you and learn to attach any history to you, that’s an advantage as well, because it adds to the credibility of the character. I think that people thought that I was Olivia, and it helped with the magic of the part.”

“Heat and Dust” is just one of many great Merchant Ivory films that was adapted from a novel, with “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day” being other notable examples. Ivory’s process when it comes to choosing novels to adapt may be simpler than one would think. “You read a novel, you like it, you don’t like it, or you may like it and think, ‘Well, it wouldn’t make a very good film,’ or, ‘It would be an impossible film to make.’ …But, if you like it well enough, you think about making it into a film. That’s the way it was with me, anyway. You like the book. One has so many reasons for liking a book – You like the story, you like the characters, you like the setting, the atmosphere of it. You like all sorts of things.”

Not everyone felt the same way Scacchi did about the character of Olivia, with some critics even going as far as to describe her as being something of a femme fatale. “I got labeled with the femme fatale thing. I think it’s nonsense,” says Scacchi. “Femme fatale is a specific thing, and I think it was described of me in ‘White Mischief,’ ‘Shattered’ and ‘Presumed Innocent.’ Those were very prominent roles and I got labeled as that. I don’t see Olivia as a fatale. Fatale is a genre, really. It’s a film noir genre, and you can’t put ‘Heat and Dust’ in any category like that. It’s in a category of its own, and one that often is paralleled in the other James Ivory films where usually the central characters are female. He’s interested in women’s journeys.”

Ivory gives much credit to Prawer Jhabvala, who passed away in 2013, when it comes to his strong female protagonists. “The writer was a very strong and intelligent woman, and she wrote about other women like that, on the whole. All her novels have pretty intelligent and mostly deep women. So, it was natural for her to write about such women, and she was our main screenwriter… I would think that most directors would want to show intelligent, complex women, smart women. I would think that is something they, or we, speaking for all directors, would want to show.”

“The whole thing was a dream,” Scacchi says of filming in India. “Arriving in India, it all happened so quickly. I was reading the novel on the flight. I only realized by the time I landed in India that I wasn’t just the grandmother in a flashback. I was actually the central story… So I arrived to India in a dream, just finding that I couldn’t believe it was real, and the hot, humid air that wrapped around me like cotton wool all added to this surreal effect, and I think I just remained on that cloud for the two months that we were filming with all the fascinating different sounds and smells and tastes and light that that country offers. Along with some things that I found very challenging, there were things that we had to accept that had to deal with such a different way of thinking.”

A beautiful period film such as “Heat and Dust” cannot be discussed without mentioning the gorgeous costumes, which were original vintage pieces that were mostly made of silk. Not surprisingly, the Indian climate led to some uncomfortable moments for Scacchi. “[The material] was insulating the heat and often stuck to my body, and I wasn’t allowed to sit down because the silk would get crumpled [laughs].”

Another challenge for Scacchi was that Olivia played the piano, a skill that she did not have. Fortunately, she had some help from the music director, Richard Robbins, who taught her enough to fake being a confident pianist, a talent that she was able to use again in other roles. “He devised a technique to make me learn the pieces, learn the position and the timing of the fingers, loosely, so I could have an attitude and movement with my fingers that would allow Jim to reveal me playing when actually I wasn’t playing.”

Scacchi goes on to discuss another rewarding part of the experience, such as the lasting friendships she made, including with Nickolas Grace, who played Olivia’s best friend Henry, a fellow outsider who helps her out in a time of great need. “There was some sort of twinkle that we had between us, both in real life and through these characters, which is still there with us 35 years.”

She also revealed that she has since made friends and shares a special bond with other actors who became a part of the Merchant Ivory family, such as Helena Bonham Carter. “Jim and Ismail became like my uncles or something. They were my loving uncles.”

As for Merchant himself, Scacchi remembers the late producer with fondness. “Such a character. We’re all bonded by our experiences of having known him and having been loved by him. He was famous in the business, because no other producer would actually seduce people with his cooking and get them to do films and put up with terrible conditions sometimes on the set where he would be completely forgiven because he would set a dinner party in the most wonderful location, very often on silk cushions and intricate carpets laid on the floors and of rooms with ceiling fans and Indian musicians and exquisite food. We forgive him everything because he would just have this magic touch where we would have experiences that were so exquisite because we felt really special, and you knew this was beyond the usual working life. These were life experiences. And I was lucky enough to be a favorite to be brought back to work on ‘Jefferson in Paris,’ [for which] Ismail convinced the authorities to let us film inside of Versailles, which has never been done before… It was just a feat to be in those environments and in those costumes.”

Over 30 years later, Scacchi still finds herself transported to different time periods for various projects, such as last year’s mini-series “War & Peace,” in which she played Countess Rostov, the loving matriarch of an aristocratic Russian family in the Napoleon era. “That was fab, because, again, a wonderful book. Even in a series that’s done in six hours, they have to abbreviate it and abridge it, so the book gives you a wealth of other scenes and other moments that gives you the details and knowledge that you have of the character. That character, I really enjoyed, because she wasn’t like an Anglo-Saxon character. She loved the emotions, the drama, the tragedy, the histrionics. She had a bad temper, and she has a lot of emotional crises. She’s expressive with it. For once, I could tap into my more Italian side, and not have to play those British characters that I know so well. I also tend to be cast as an ice queen. I much prefer to be hot-blooded.”

Perhaps Scacchi’s most famous “Ice Queen” role is that of June Gudmundsdottir, an artist who takes up with a Hollywood big shot (Tim Robbins) shortly after he murders her boyfriend, in Robert Altman’s “The Player.” “Working with Altman was unlike any other experience,” she gushes. “Everything about the approach, everything about how he draws us into creativity that we really see, he is the one driving this machine. He is urging us, encouraging us to bring stuff to it, but he’s the one who then you can see perform with absolute flair. As a director, he is allowing things to happen and inviting things in the moment. It’s actually something that because of the way that the film set is structured, and there’s a time pressure, and so many people to organize, and they all have to do their jobs in an orthodox way. Very often with conventional filmmaking, creativity or moments of flair are obstructed by all these pressures, and somehow Robert Altman was able to make films completely avoiding all of that convention… You never knew what the day was going to produce.”

After years of focusing on raising her children, Scacchi is now enjoying a new phase in her career. Next up, she will be appearing in season 2 of “Versailles,” which is set to premiere in the U.S. Sept. 30. “It’s quite nice to be getting into more character parts now, which often happens when you’re not playing the lead. I feel that there’s a lot more space for invention when I don’t have to be carrying a story and I don’t have to be liked, necessarily. On ‘Versailles,’ I’m an unlikable character, and I’ve been playing a few of those lately, and they seem to suit me, unlikable characters [laughs]. It’s quite liberating.”

Those who love a good period series can also look forward to seeing her opposite Ciaran Hinds and Jared Harris in “The Terror,” an upcoming AMC anthology series about a 1847 Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage. “It’s a boys movie. 129 men went off on two ships and were never heard of again. It’s a swashbuckling kind of thing.  I get to play the wife back home railing at the admiral to send more search parties. I’m also doing a lot more films in Italy and France again.”

“It seems like a good time for it,” Scacchi, now 57, says of her decision to throw herself back into work at this point in her life. “For a lot of actresses, there’s a fallow period between that age where you’re still marrying age to what to do with you when you’re no longer that romantic lead. It’s quite a dire situation, and it seems that there’s this gap. They talk about women being invisible, but there are roles for women who are older, in that they are not there for any sexual interest. When you’re between the two, when you’re not quite over the hill enough, then it gets very difficult to inspire stories, it seems. It’s got to change. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of change in the last 35 years. In the 80s, when I was working a lot, it was quite frustrating because they often did want us to be the femme fatale. We were women only through the eyes of men. Only through how the producers and directors and writers, who were mostly men, wanted to see us. For that female autonomous, free speaking, it took a lot of carving out, and by the mid-90s, I felt there were a lot more clearer female voices coming through. I think the image of women has changed a lot, but it’s still the younger women who are working to be represented in a more realistic way. I think it’s taking longer for the older women image to shift.”

Does Scacchi believe that having more women having the opportunity to write and direct would make a difference?  “Definitely. An enormous help. Even women writers were not being published so much until the 80s… The fact that we still talk about women writers as a separate category, because we have to, because there’s a cause behind to push them, and maybe sometimes that cause even tips over the other way, so there’s maybe situations where it’s becoming an advantage to be a woman in order to get a position. It needs to [be that way] because it really needs to balance out. It still feels like a battle, but gone are the days in the 80s where there was a novel written by a woman and a male producer would buy the rights and get a male director and get a male screenwriter to adapt it. Now we’re seeing that there are differences in experiences and there are differences in sensibilities, and, most important, there is an audience out there. There is a demand out there…. There is a whole lot of potential audience who need to be drawn out of the woodwork by offering them something that is palatable. I think something that I personally feel very encouraged by is whenever I hear these figures of how our society is getting much older… Producers will see there are a lot of older women out there who will buy tickets if you give them something that they will be interested in. Something they can relate to. So I think things are changing.”

As for Ivory, he most recently co-wrote the film “Call Me by Your Name,” a coming-of-age-drama which is set to be released in theaters this November. Having made so many acclaimed films during his 50-plus year career, it’s not surprising that it isn’t easy for him to pick a favorite. “I like several of  them. I like them all, actually. I don’t have anything against any of them. It seems to change a bit as I go through life and watch one film one year and another one the next year somewhat depending on my mood, and I think, ‘Well, I like this the most,” and the next year I think, ‘No, I like this the most.’ I don’t always like the most popular films. Sometimes I like films that are not particularly popular, like the film ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’ with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. That’s a favorite of mine, and I think it’s a favorite because it’s very autobiographical and I lived that life myself… I was a teenager [during the time period of the film].”

Scacchi left us with this final thought on period films: “Even though we’re looking backwards when you inhabit a [period] character, she is on the brink of history. She might be a woman in 1840, but for her, she’s the most modern woman. And she is pioneering, of course. She will stride into the admiralty and push the doors open and tell the power to their faces what she thinks of them. For her, she is a brave, spirited woman who’s making history, so you get to see where women have been through all these different times.”

Heat and Dust” opens Sept. 1 in select theaters.