Giles Gardner on co-directing with James Ivory, securing his dream soundtrack & painting a cinematic portrait

'A Cooler Climate' turned out to be one of the most magical films screening at this year's Cairo International Film Festival, which had quite an impressive line up. And catching up with Gardner afterward, to talk about "Jim", as he calls Ivory, and their work style, proved a personal highlight.
Giles Gardner on co-directing with James Ivory, securing his dream soundtrack & painting a cinematic portrait

A Cooler Climate, the documentary co-directed by James Ivory and Giles Gardner based on Ivory's own archival footage of Afghanistan in 1960, screens this weekend at IFFR in Rotterdam, as part of a duet that includes the Merchant Ivory 1975 gem Autobiography of a Princess, starring Madhur Jaffrey and James Mason.

I reviewed A Cooler Climate in Cairo, where the film felt like the perfect bookend to complement Steven Spielberg's autobiographical tale The Fabelmans -- the latter about the myth of the filmmaker vs. the human soul of the filmmaker in the former. Yet I also wanted to find out more about the process of a film I felt was absolute perfection -- both cinematically and from an emotional POV. Perhaps this need to sit down with Giles Gardner, a film editor and director and frequent James Ivory collaborator -- on The White Countess, Le Divorce and more -- stemmed from listening in on the Q&A that took place inside one of the theaters at the Opera House complex in Cairo.

A portly man sitting right behind me, raised his hand and grabbed on to my seat to raise himself up. "I don't understand why you are not showing the real Afghanistan in the 1960's in this film, but only one side. It was a different place back then, also for women," the question/comment went something like that. It was more of a personal need to discuss his own demons than an actual question posed to a filmmaker who had shown us, the audience, his and Ivory's side of the story in a perfectly vulnerable and watchable way. I wanted to sink deeper into my chair, but instead was surprised at how calm and understanding Gardner was in his answer to the gentleman. He explained the reasons, diffused the argument and calmed the atmosphere, disclosing in that one instance, through his actions why he is able to make the kind of films he makes.

In the last few years, Gardner in fact has been a part of some of the best documentaries around, as an editor. From the Afghan woman's story A Thousand Girls Like Me, to the 2017 WINNIE, highlighting the story of Nelson Mandela's wife, Winnie Mandela, who is still one of the most misunderstood and intriguingly powerful contemporary female political figures. But also the 2019 Inna de Yard by Peter Webber, which is the foremost comprehensive Reggae documentary to have ever been made -- and this coming from an adoptive yardie here!

It is no surprise that James Ivory trusted Gardner with a can of film from his past, showing an Afghanistan now long forgotten which serves as a backdrop for a personal story of a successful man --  in love, in cinema and in life.

And now Gardner's working on a few new cool projects, which he told me about in Cairo. Read on to find out.

How did you approach this because I imagine that James ivory has a very specific view and direction when making a film and yet you are co-directors. So tell me how that worked?

Giles Gardner: Yes, Jim, he has a very strong clear idea of what he wants to do. But in this case, it was a bit different because when he first presented this material to me, it really was over just a conversation at lunch, talking about another film that I was planning on editing. So when he gave me this box of film he said, “Well, if you can do something with it, be my guest.” You know, take it away and have a look at it and see what you think. And when I took it back to Paris and started playing with it, it was really almost with like an open brief to see what I could make of it. We didn't really begin with a clear idea of what we were going to do with it. He confessed to me and to himself that it was something that he didn't know what to do with. He thought it was interesting and he loved to have the material used.

The first thing that struck me was that it was film from 1960, and as you know, a lot has happened since then. So the film material today has a much different impact than back in 1960 when he was trying to make a film with it. I think already the film had a value that was different than when he shot it. And I thought that was immediately a very interesting reason to make something out of the footage. 

Next, was how to tease out of this something that would engage an audience today and would bring a story to that which was bigger than just the material. We talked a lot about Afghanistan and about the history of Afghanistan. I think both of us agreed that we weren't really the people to start to tell the history of Afghanistan with this material. So it was "well what's the story going to be?" And that's where I started digging more by asking Jim questions, looking for a direction, asking Jim about his early career and asking him about the documentaries he'd already made. How he approached that, how he got involved in making documentaries in the first place, and how he came up with his subjects. 

And by asking those questions, it just appeared to me that here was a man who was a young age when he was leaving film school in California. And at film school in California he was already choosing quite unusual things to make films about. And how this sort of one film led to another, was very, very extraordinary and there was lots of chance involved, and unusual connections. But it also meant to me that Jim was alert and interested, and interested in things that interested him. If he was engaged by something he went for it. 

He didn't over question whether that was the right thing to do, or whether that's the kind of film that someone would want to see. He followed his passions. And that led him on this sort of journey that brought him to the Middle East, which is extraordinary and an incredible journey.

And also brought him to love, and to becoming a world celebrated Oscar-winning filmmaker. 

Giles Gardner: And it started to become to me like the portrait of an artist as a young man.

It's a portrait of a filmmaker who is trying to navigate through his interests. His early film work, before he really has become the James Ivory that we know, with very much a clearer path of the kinds of feature films he wants to make.

So in his early days, he's following his passions, his interests, curiosities, and he's using film to explore those worlds. And they gradually, I think, are part of the ingredients that will find their way into his future work, but at this point, they're not completely clear. They're not completely formed. And he's still searching. And I think that's a fascinating part of a filmmaker’s career. And we can learn a lot by going back to the origin story of how someone became a filmmaker. It's there often that we find the ingredients that give us an insight into the filmmaker that is to come.

So there's three major themes for me watching the film, one is of course, you know, Ivory's work in Afghanistan, the film reels that create the sort of groundwork for this film, the footage; and then there is his path, his life path; and finally, there's the Baburnama, which is a wonderful bridge, but also a wonderful understanding way into a world that we don't often think of, from that sort of sexually ambiguous kind of point of view. I thought that was brilliant, all of those three elements together. So when did the Baburnama come into the film for you?

Gardner: As I was looking at the rushes and trying to identify what I was looking at, trying to put places together and create spaces out of the archive, I saw that there was this one clear image of a tomb. And I thought, well, Jim must know what that tomb was, he filmed it. So I gave him a call. And he told me it was Babur’s tomb. And I read up a little on Babur and Jim said "you should read the Baburnama it’s a fabulous book. So I got hold of a copy and started reading it. And it's a big, fat book. It has a lot of deep descriptions of battles and heads being chopped off and, you know, is really awful, bloodthirsty, but buried inside that is this wonderful story of coming of age of a young Emperor who set out at 14 years old on his own. He didn't have a kingdom because all of his brothers and uncles were all fighting over the lands that he had been born into.

So he had to go out to find his own place in the world. 

And this seemed to chime quite nicely with the idea of a young filmmaker going out to find his place in the world, leaving his town for other horizons. And it was extraordinary to discover reading the Baburnama that there were these intimate experiences being spoken about in very frank and poetic terms, very open terms — that an Emperor could be speaking about love and about sensibilities like this in such a clear, articulate and elegant way.

The Baburnama has been beautifully translated and it comes across to me as a text that, considering it's four or 500 years old is incredibly modern. I mean, it could have been written yesterday. And I thought, reading it, well we had already decided that we weren't going to speak for Afghanistan, but maybe Babur could be the voice that speaks to us from Afghanistan and speaks to Ivory, and so makes for that bridging material.

What else helped you form the story?

Gardner: When I saw Jim's typewriter, I thought this also has got to be in the film. How do we build this into the film? Because there's something I think about this way of writing, with a typewriter that slows things down and it becomes a longer, deeper sort of writing.

Gardner and Ivory at Film at Lincoln Center for the NYFF premiere of 'A Cooler Climate'

Watching Ivory on his typewriter sets the tone for the film, I feel.

Gardner: I think the film itself, A Cooler Climate takes this kind of form. It takes a little while to get into you. And you enter it through the images and some of Jim's sort of diaristic comments about his first impressions. But like traveling, you come to a place that you don't really know and it takes some time before the place starts to work on you and affect the way you feel. And I think that's mirrored a little bit in the film, that we all have to enter this space. And we have to kind of settle there. And then we can be ready to move on and get into some deeper thoughts. And as we travel with Jim, and with Babur, we learn more, we've invested more and so we get more payback. And I think the payback builds as the film moves forward.

You also have this wonderful score accompanying the film, which is apparent from the very beginning and I had no idea who had written it. And then of course, the credits roll and it is music by Alexandre Desplat. How did that come to be?

Gardner: This is thanks to Jim really. I always loved Alexandre Desplat, really.  I'm a huge fan of his, and I've been following his career and collecting his music, you know, for years. So when we were talking about music for the film, I proposed trying some things out and I put some Desplat music on the rough cut.

And I sent it to Jim and said, "What do you think?" And he liked it. He said "I think that this is a good idea." So then I was thinking, okay, now we have to find someone who can do this kind of thing. And who can we find? There's different names, composers in France, or maybe in Britain or maybe someone in America and I was trying to find someone and I just couldn't shake off this idea that you just can't replace Desplat, he is superb!

And then I thought, well hold it! We're making a James Ivory film here. Maybe, we can do this. It opens up possibilities and changes things that people do. They pick up the phone to James Ivory, so I thought, Desplat makes Wes Anderson's music. He does all the scores. And Jim and Wes Anderson are friends. Whenever Jim comes to Paris, he goes to see Wes, because Wes lives in Paris. So I suddenly made that connection, I thought, hey, maybe we can try and get in touch with Desplat this way, and called Jim up. And Jim said, "Yeah, of course, I'll give Wes a call." And so he put us in touch and literally two days later, three days later maybe I was sitting in a theater in Paris showing Alexandre Desplat our rough cut.

I couldn't believe it. There we were watching the film together. And he was very moved by the film and said he felt transported by the film and said he'd love to participate.

And what are you working on next?

Gardner: I am currently editing an amazing documentary from India about the farmers protests of 2020-21. It’s an epic immersive look at the farmers protest, directed by the celebrated India director Nishtha Jain. It’s going to be impressive. Following that I have an extraordinary project with Pascal Lamche (director of WINNIE), that examines politics and identity through the optic of her parents militant cinema group -- ‘cinema action’, a uk film collective they set up in 1968.

On the directing front, I’ve started shooting scenes for a documentary on the current French Jazz scene, focusing on behind the scenes jazz meets in and around Belleville, where musicians get to play together and dialogue through music in a more relaxed and intimate setting.

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