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The house was completely abandoned. Furniture, kitchenware, family portraits, croquet sets, closets full of elegant vintage clothing - all from before 1940, all of it left behind when the Vanderlip family and their domestic staff left their Beechwood estate to fight World War II. Filmmaker James Ivory stumbled upon this mystifying doll house/time capsule while visiting upstate New York and got the idea of creating "a Hudson River Last Year at Marienbad," a movie where Western civilization would sprout, flourish and decay in miniature, as experienced by a tribe of stone age nomads transformed by castaway goods into upper crust idle rich.
In the early 1970s, Ivory and his collaborator (and longtime companion) Ismail Merchant had not yet established themselves as masters of restrained, profound parlor dramas like A Room with a View (1985). Their previous four features were English language films about India (Merchant was born in Bombay, and their German-born screenwriting partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had lived in India with her husband for decades). But Ivory was stalled on a stillborn project, and had departed feature films temporarily to shoot the television documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972). It was during his sojourn in New York editing Brown Man that he stumbled upon Beechwood mansion, and the idea that became Savages (1972).
Their producer Joseph Saleh was on board, but the modest returns from their previous feature Bombay Talkie (1970) made him cautious. Merchant and Ivory swore that Savages' budget would be a bare-bones $10,000, since, they reasoned, the set and props were already provided by the abandoned mansion. (That absurdly low figure was quickly exceeded by, among other things, the rental of a 1930 Pierce Arrow for one significant scene.)
Merchant and Ivory stepped away from their usual screenwriting partner Prawer Jhabvala and instead recruited two Americans with a touch for satire: George W.S. Trow, a writer at The New Yorker, and Trow's National Lampoon crony Michael O'Donoghue. (O'Donoghue later achieved notoriety as the sickest, darkest comedy writer on staff at the original Saturday Night Live). Neither had written a screenplay before, but both helped shape the filmmakers' vision, with O'Donoghue contributing the idea of an invading croquet ball - a mystical perfect sphere unknown in the natural world - as the herald that invites the forest dwellers to evolve. They also tapped songwriter Joe Raposo (most famous for composing songs for Sesame Street) to create the novelty tune "Stepping on a Spaniel" for the party scene.
To avoid extra costs to their non-union crew, the filmmakers cast a hodgepodge mix of performers: Broadway and Off-Broadway actors like Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, model Susan Blakely, and first time actors like Paulita Sedgwick, with each actor playing a dual role as a "mud person" in the prologue and a party-goer in later acts. Cinematographer Walter Lassally suggested dividing the story into three visual themes - black and white for the forest (so that North American foliage would look more jungle-like), sepia for the first discovery of the house, and a rich, glittery color for the mansion scenes. He rounded up some reels of the discontinued film stock Kodak Panatomic X for its "beautiful highlight details" to give the forest scenes a bright, sun dappled look.
The film's total cost ended up being $300,000, even despite cost-cutting measures like Merchant cooking large communal meals of Indian food for the cast and crew (he claimed the strong spices of Indian cuisine woke up ghosts lodged in the mansion kitchen). Still, Merchant and Ivory had high hopes for what, unbeknownst to them, would be the first of many cinematic explorations of the fallible nature of upper class life. Unfortunately, Savages was not picked up by the prestigious distributor Cinema 5, who'd found an audience for unconventional fare like WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). The film played for 6 weeks in New York, then spottily in Boston and California, and then disappeared. Its seven prints got lost, and the negative was almost lost in one of Saleh's apartment house basements. The film was well-received at Cannes, but never joined the ranks of midnight movie classics. Merchant and Ivory moved on to The Wild Party (1975), another exploration of upper class decadence. And screenwriter George Trow went on to pen his crowning manifesto "Within the Context of No Context", describing how media culture had destroyed tribalism, and then left The New Yorker to live a chaotic, nomadic existence until his death in 2006. Friends found him living on scotch and sardines in rural Nova Scotia, in the same crazed and naked state as the "mud people" he created for Savages.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: George Swift Trow, Michael O'Donoghue; James Ivory (based on an idea by)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Music: Joe Raposo
Film Editing: Kent McKinney
Cast: Lewis Stadlen (Julian Branch, a Song Writer), Anne Francine (Carlotta, a Hostess), Thayer David (Otto Nurder, a Capitalist), Susan Blakely (Cecily, a Debutante), Russ Thacker (Andrew, an Eligible Young Man), Salome Jens (Emily Penning, a Woman in Disgrace), Margaret Brewster (Lady Cora), Neil Fitzgerald (Sir Harry), Eva Saleh (Zia, the Child), Ultra Violet (Iliona, a Decadent).
by Violet LeVoit
Making of Savages
interview with Lassally "civilization told in one day"
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: 24 Years of Merchant Ivory Films. 1984. Museum of Modern Art
Interview with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Savages DVD. Criterion.