At 88, James Ivory shows no signs of slowing down and thanks to a pact with the Cohen Media Group, he’s been unusually active of late. In the fall of 2015, the tony New York-based distributor drew up a plan to restore and re-release the extraordinary collection of films he made with Ismail Merchant over five decades, starting with “The Householder” in 1963, and last summer brought the glorious return of one of their most celebrated collaborations back to theaters with “Howards End.” As a follow-up, Ivory has spent the last few months on the road with “Maurice,” one of the most intriguing films from a catalog where that quality is hardly in short supply.
A rare film to be directed by Ivory that wasn’t written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (though she did give notes), “Maurice” was born in wake of Merchant Ivory’s biggest success to date with an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View,” allowing them to take a chance on the British author’s far more controversial novel, inspired by his college years in Cambridge, detailing the clandestine romance between two male students at a time when homosexuality was against the law in pre-World War I England. The film introduces an impossibly young Hugh Grant and James Wilby as the well-heeled pupils Clive and Maurice, respectively, whose track to the upper reaches of high society is complicated by their feelings for each other, ultimately leading Maurice to take comfort in the arms, if not necessarily the social standing, of one of Clive’s family servants (Rupert Holmes).
While “Maurice” bears Merchant Ivory’s light touch, eloquently expressing the repressed emotions their characters often struggle with in such simmering dramas as “Heat and Dust” and “The Remains of the Day,” it was uncommonly refreshing to see it put in the service of fashioning a sophisticated same-sex relationship onscreen at a time when gay characters rarely received such dignity. Remarkably, the film’s re-release coincides with Ivory’s triumphant return to the filmmaking after an eight-year absence, penning the script for Luca Guadanino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” a similarly groundbreaking chronicle of a summer affair between two young men which won raves earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and en route to pick up lifetime achievement honors from San Francisco Film Fest and the Ashland Independent Film Fest, the director suggested he’s not close to done yet when he snuck in a few minutes to talk about the restoration of “Maurice,” whether times really have changed in terms of portraying same-sex relationships on film and the ability to cast on instinct.
Very much, yeah. Particularly with “Howards End,” because it was great to see it again, the color looked so wonderful and it’s absolutely wonderful to watch it go on. [The remastering process] takes forever, but I’m certainly happy it’s happening. Only in this coming week am I going to be able to see [“Maurice”] with an audience on a big screen, so it’ll be interesting. I’ve seen it and it looks great, but I don’t know what it’ll be with an audience now. I think people will like it very much. It’s always been quite a popular film, but we’ll see.
With “Maurice,” did the complicated history of the novel actually inform the adaptation of it?
No, not at all. It was written before the First World War and then Forster put it away for his entire life and he couldn’t publish it because of the obscenity laws in England. A gay love story with a happy ending is not something you could publish in England until 1961, and [Forster] was only around not even a decade after that. He was never sure it was a very good novel and he piddled around with it and he was at the point of throwing it away a few times, but he didn’t. By the 1970s when they published the novel, the whole subject of homosexuality was not such a big deal there. It was not something that would land you in jail if you wrote about it.
I was fortunate enough to see “Call Me By Your Name” at Sundance and wondered whether it was any different tackling a gay-themed love story now than it was when you made “Maurice”?
Not really. The actors really enjoyed and believed in the story and were very open. I was not there during the shooting [of “Call Me By Your Name”], but from watching the film, I believe everybody really gave it their greatest, and that was true of “Maurice” also. Everybody really got into the thing and even though that was 30 years ago, there was no fear about the subject matter or worrying about what people would say. The only difference, and it may be a difference in the two nationalities, is that “Maurice” was made in England and they didn’t give a damn about taking their clothes off and being completely naked. And that has all changed. It’s very, very, very rare in any kind of mainline movie where anybody takes all his clothes off, unlike women — I see them naked all the time — but not men anymore. So that was different.
I was surprised to learn with “Maurice” that the casting of James Wilby and Hugh Grant came together at close to the last minute – I’ve also heard you don’t do rehearsals often. What made you confident about them together?
Originally, when we were attempting to cast [“Maurice”], we had a different Maurice, to be played by Julian Sands, who was the young lover in “A Room with a View.” But then he didn’t really want to do it. He changed his mind and then I felt that James Wilby would do a good job. I can’t tell you why. It’s just a feeling you get about actors. You don’t really know. And as for Hugh Grant, I knew he would be perfect and as soon as I met him for that role, I cast him, just as when I met Daniel Day Lewis for “Room with a View,” I was immediately convinced. So I can’t tell you how it comes about. It’s just a feeling.
When you say we don’t have rehearsals, we do, but not as they have them in [America], unfortunately. I wish we did. You have to have rehearsals, otherwise you couldn’t shoot, but we could never get all the actors together at the same time [in England]. People would be working on something or they’d be on the stage and they couldn’t come to these rehearsals, and those kind of rehearsals, in order to be effective, you’ve got to do it for a couple of weeks to really get to the bottom of anything. You know where you are and you know you tried out the dialogue in all kinds of ways and you may have changed the dialogue, but we never had that opportunity in England because of everybody being busy. When we made “Remains of the Day” with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, they had never even read the script together. [Thompson] had one day in between finishing shooting another movie and then starting with us and we never even had a reading with the actors. You just have to jump in there and do it and believe in people and trust them.
One of the interesting things about “Maurice” is that you wrote the script with Kit Hesketh-Harvey, which was a departure from the majority of your collaborations with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because he attended the same schools that Forster did (Tonbridge and Cambridge), but you sought out the French cinematographer Pierre Lhomme to shoot it. Were those actually complimentary impulses in your mind?
The social knowledge of [those schools] is absolutely crucial. If you’re an American, you do not know all those things about English upper middle class people unless you’ve lived in England for years. You don’t have an ear for the way people speak and all those kinds of things, so you have to have someone like [Kit] working with you and I don’t think I could’ve made the film without him, or certainly it wouldn’t have been as good. As for Pierre, all those places like the great universities of England and London and all of the country houses had been in the movies again and again and again, always shot by English cameramen. I thought let’s get a French cameraman in there [because] they can see it in a different way, they’re going to bring a different eye to it. And he did. I’m so glad that he did it. Thank God he did it.