James Ivory on Screenwriting
As he celebrates the 30th anniversary of his landmark film Maurice, James Ivory discusses adaptations, collaboration, seeing with a documentarian’s eye, and his plans for filming Shakespeare in 3D.
Merchant Ivory Productions call to mind a specific type of well-crafted period drama, with crisp dialogue and stunning visuals. Though not all of the films released by Merchant Ivory fall into this category, the ones that received the greatest acclaim – including A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993) – are fondly remembered as the finest work of director James Ivory and his longtime collaborators, producer Ismail Merchant (1936-2005) and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013).
The Merchant Ivory partnership was the longest-running production partnership in the history of independent film production. Two of the trio’s collaborations – A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1992) – resulted in Jhabvala winning Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1987, Merchant Ivory released Maurice, an adaptation of English novelist E. M. Forster’s posthumous novel. Maurice stars James Wilby as the title character, a gay student attending Cambridge in the early twentieth century, who falls in love with another student, the wealthy Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). The film chronicles the difficulties faced by characters in an era when homosexuality was a crime in England.
Jhabvala was the screenwriter of most of the Merchant Ivory productions, and Ivory worked as her co-writer on many of the screenplays. However, Maurice was one of the few that was not co-written by Jhabvala – instead, Ivory co-wrote the film with Kit Hesketh-Harve.
Maurice premiered at the 1987 Venice Film Festival in 1987, and Ivory was awarded the festival’s prestigious Silver Lion Award (which he shared with Italian director /screenwriter Ermanno Olmi). And when released to theaters, Maurice received wide critical acclaim.
Cohen Media Group has completed a 4K restoration of Maurice to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the landmark film. The world premiere of the restoration was presented at Berlinale 2017, followed by a special screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 14. It will then begin screening at the Quad Cinema in New York on May 19.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Ivory about adapting E.M. Forster’s works, working with both Jhabvala and Hesketh-Harvey on screenplays, his work on the screenplay for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival release Call Me by Your Name, and his plans for a 3D version of Shakespeare’s Richard II.
Maurice is one of three adaptations you’ve made of E.M. Forster’s novels. What do you think it is about Forster’s novels that make them so cinematic?
It has to do with the characters and the various scenes. Are they dramatic? Are they interesting? Are they something you would want to do? Would it be fun to do them? That’s certainly the case with of all his fiction.
He wrote very good scenes that you want to direct. I very much like the way he writes, the way he thinks, and his tone, humor, and humanity. As a director, you think about “Well, will this have interest? Will it be visually interesting? Are the characters believable?” and so on.
Famously, Maurice wasn’t published in Forster’s lifetime. Do you have any insight on that?
He couldn’t publish it because of the obscenity laws in England. Homosexuality was a crime at that time, just as it is in the film. He couldn’t publish a novel about it with a happy ending, and that’s why he never published it. Those laws went on until about 1961, and he was a very old man by that time.
Also, he fiddled around with it a bit. He wasn’t sure if it was a very good novel, and there were times when he was about to destroy it. Eventually, after he died, his executors at King’s College in Cambridge decided to publish it.
You typically work with co-writers, but what is your approach to adapting a novel?
I’ve really only done that on four occasions. Many of the screenplays that we wrote weren’t adaptations, but original stories that I wrote with Ruth Jhabvala when we were working in India. For adaptations, I would get interested in the novel and would try to interest Ruth into working on it with me as a co-screenwriter.
She was not the co-writer on Maurice – an English writer, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who was actually not known as writer but as a singer, songwriter, and entertainer – was my co-writer on that. Ruth couldn’t write it because she was writing a novel at the time.
If you’re going to adapt any novel, you want to stick to it. There’s no reason to completely break its back and turn the story on its head. Otherwise don’t do that novel!
I believe you have to be true to what the author attempted to say. If you like the author’s tone of voice, it’s a good thing if that tone of voice comes through. Of course, there are different authors with different tones of voice, and you want to preserve that in some way if you can.
I worked on two adaptations with Ruth, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998) and Le Divorce (2003). The way we worked together is that I would write my complete version of the screenplay first without ever showing it to her. Then I would give her that screenplay. She would then base her screenplay on my screenplay and would bring stuff in or get rid of stuff that she didn’t like or felt was holding up the story.
Eventually, she would come up with her own script, which was based largely on my script. That would be what we then shot.
If she was adapting a book on her own and I was not the co-writer, when she was done she would show it to me. Usually I would have something to say about it, like “Where is that scene from the book? I love that scene. Why isn’t it there?” It might get put back in, or it might not. Those were the two ways in which we worked together.
With Kit Hesketh-Harvey on Maurice, he lives in England, and I wrote a lot of it in America. I then went over to England and we worked on it together. Then he came back with me to America to work on it with me, and eventually we came up with a screenplay we liked. It was very long, but we had something we liked.
Then I showed it to Ruth, and she had some interesting comments about it. She had suggestions that were very useful.
What Kit brought to the script was his social background. He went to Cambridge and a fancy prep school. His knowledge of the British upper middle class that was incredibly useful – the dialect, the speech, the slang, and so many other things. As an American, I could not have possibly written the script without him.
You began your career by making documentaries. Did that teach you anything about storytelling that you used later in your career?
It didn’t tell me a lot about storytelling, I’m afraid. But what it did do was make me a little bit pedantic. For instance, if I’m doing a period film I want to really get it right with almost a documentarian’s eye for detail and all sorts of things that would come up in the story.
In that way being a documentarian informed my storytelling, but more in detail than in the storytelling itself, or how it developed in terms of character or action. It was more the background of the film, and I can see it in every one of my films that are stories that take place in another time.
You recently had a new film that you co-wrote and produced, Call Me by Your Name, premiere at Sundance. What is the background behind that project?
The rights to the novel, by André Aciman, were optioned by some friends of mine who live in upstate New York. One of them was an agent in Hollywood and the other was then a would-be producer. They asked me whether I would be interested in being an executive producer on a film adaptation of the book if they were able to get it going, and I said “Sure.”
Time passed, and they weren’t able to get it going because I suppose they couldn’t find anyone to direct it that had a track record. Then they found Luca Guadagnino, and I think he made the suggestion that he co-direct the movie with me.
They asked me if I would be willing to co-direct it with Luca, and though I didn’t really know him I said, “Sure, but if I do that I want to have my own screenplay.” I didn’t want anybody else writing the screenplay if I were co-directing.
I spent about nine months off-and-on doing that screenplay, and everybody liked it very much when I was finished. Because of the screenplay, they were finally able to raise the money to make it.
However, the French financier thought that it would be awkward – and they were probably right – to have two directors working together. It might take longer, it would look terrible if we got in fights on the set, and so on. So I sold the rights to the screenplay to Luca’s company and they made it.
Interestingly, both Maurice and Call Me by Your Name are coming of age stories.
Well, we all come of age, don’t we? [Laughs] We all have our memories of coming of age – not only the audience, but also the people who make those movies. It’s just inherently interesting.
Over the past several years you’ve spoken about filming an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II. What’s the status of that project?
The work is pretty much done. The screenplay was written by Chris Terrio, who wrote Argo. But we’ve never been able to get the financing for it. Maybe Shakespeare terrifies people.
[Laughs] Why do you say that?
I don’t know. They think it’s going to be long and boring, and people won’t be able to understand what anyone’s saying, I suppose. But that’s over here. [Laughs] Not true in England.
Richard II has been done on stage, but it’s never been done in a film. I want to do it as a High Medieval period piece, and I’ve never made a medieval movie. We’ve worked with Shakespeare before in our films, but I’ve never attempted to do a Shakespeare play.
The other thing is that I want to do it in 3D. I think it would be a challenge, but it’s probably less of a challenge now than it used to be. I’ve met all kinds of people who have worked in 3D, and the way of doing it now is much less complicated and less costly than it used to be.
I think a medieval 3D version of a Shakespeare play would just blow you away.
You’ve been working in independent film for sixty years. Obviously aspects like technology and distribution have changed. But what are some aspects that have not changed?
Basically, you have to have a good, coherent, solid screenplay. That has to be there if you want a success. You have to have really, really good actors to transmit all that. You have to have a good cameraman. And above all you have to have a good producer who believes in the project. Those things have never changed.
Featured image: James Ivory on set of Maurice. Credit: Merchant Ivory Productions