James Ivory on the Newly Restored Maurice — and the Merchant-Ivory Film the World Missed

James Wilby and Hugh Grant.
James Wilby and Hugh Grant.
Cohen Media Group

Newly restored, James Ivory’s elegant and passionate 1987 film, Maurice, adapted from the posthumously published novel by E.M. Forster, is being rereleased. Last year, I had the chance to discuss this film and some of Ivory’s other works with the director. Here is some of our conversation.

I remember the reception to Maurice being fairly respectful, but it seems like it’s only recently been celebrated for how groundbreaking it was, and its importance in the development of gay cinema.

The thing that marks Maurice as a gay film is that its story has a happy ending. Forster always wanted that. He wrote about it and said that. Most gay stories, at least back then, ended with some very bad thing. In that way, it was maybe ahead of its time. And also, I was lucky with my actors, because they weren’t frightened of it. All three guys were straight, but they kissed lustily, and they weren’t afraid of intimacy. Even today, the physical closeness often puts many actors off. And remember that Maurice came out at a time of great tragedy and unhappiness, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. There was no cure yet, and people were losing their lives, and their family and friends.

There’s great chemistry between the actors.

I know there are times on films when the actors do get together and think, “How should we do this?” And they do talk. Actors are deeper than directors: I think actors are narrower than directors, whereas directors are rather shallow. We have to think about everything, and we have to know a little bit about everything. But actors, they go way down. What they do is so much coming out of their unknown souls and unknown lives, which a director cannot even begin to fathom.

A lot of your films have turned out to be ahead of their time. You made some period pieces and literary adaptations, but the films often speak to today in ways that more contemporary, “with it” films never quite managed.

Well, they were based very often on very good books by authors who were really timeless. Forster is a timeless artist. So was Evan Connell [who wrote the novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge]. So was Henry James. That helps the filmmaker a lot. And it helps the life of the filmmaker’s works. That is the basic material, and it is itself very everlasting.

If you think about Room With a View and Maurice, those are two related films. In both cases, it’s about someone who is prepared to live a lie. And at the last second, they decide that they don’t want to live a lie — they want to live really and truly and honestly. Those two movies are linked, in that sense. That’s an everlasting issue in life. Because there will always be people who choose to live a lie.

Maurice was one of three films Merchant-Ivory adapted from E.M. Forster novels, along with Room With a View and Howards End. Did you ever feel you needed to modify his vision to reach a contemporary audience?

I didn’t want to change his vision. Otherwise, why make a movie out of his novel? It’s his particular take on things, and his voice, that makes you want to make these films. You don’t want to move so far away from it that it no longer feels like Forster. That would be true of any author that you really admire and whose books you’ve enjoyed. You want to bring that particular tone of voice to the screen.

You started as a documentarian. How do you think that helped you develop your visual style? Your later films look quite different from your earlier films.

As a child, I was not someone who was taking pictures all the time or anything of that sort. But my first films, I shot myself. Remember, the first one was done in Venice, and what more picturesque location is there? And so, I developed my own form of composition, and the things I particularly liked — moods, weather, backdrops. I started out in architecture, so I always liked shooting beautiful, interesting buildings. Those are in all my movies. I was a 23-year-old let loose with a movie camera, and I shot what I liked.

After those three documentaries, I worked with Satyajit Ray’s cameraman, Subrata Mitra, who shot my next four feature films. He was sometimes a difficult man to get along with — he was a perfectionist beyond anything you could imagine — but an extraordinary cameraman. His eye began to affect my eye, in a sense, particularly when it came to shooting nature. And then, slowly after that, I got together with Walter Lassally, who did a lot of our films — up through The Bostonians. But I’ve never ever intruded on a cameraman’s sense of composition — unless he was failing to get something that I wanted to get in the shot.

You’ve had some big hits and some not-so-big movies over the course of your career. What is the one film of yours that you most wish you could get more people to see?

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. We all felt very strongly about it while we were making it, particularly Paul [Newman] and Joanne [Woodward]. It was almost kind of autobiographical. We were young in the period when the Bridge children were growing up. We remembered our fathers and mothers and all of that. The three of us, along with Evan Connell, the writer, were sort of the memory of the film. There were all kinds of details there we knew about, which no one — not even the art department and the costume department — knew about: “This is the way it was done. This is what you wore. You did this, or you didn’t do this.” We were the ones who supplied the information. It’s strange — it’s the only period film I ever made where I could do that. And it’s a film that was well liked and admired, and Joanne was nominated for Best Actress [Oscar].

But it didn’t really catch on with the public very much. Miramax was originally distributing it, but then they sold their rights to Disney, and after that … I’m not even sure now who even owns Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. That’s why you haven’t seen it around. It’s almost impossible to get the DVD. It exists, but you have to pay lots of money on Amazon to get a used one. I’m hoping that in time that will change.


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