By John Stark
October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

Are we eating outside?” asks director James Ivory, entering the sundrenched kitchen of his country estate on 40 prime acres in New York’s Hudson River Valley. “Yes, our usual spot,” says producer Ismail Merchant, who’s prepared an Indian picnic. Bearing laden trays of food, the two head outside across rolling lawns to the gentle banks of a sleepy, moss-covered lake. Madras-print blankets are spread on the grass not far from an overturned rowboat. Bread is broken.

This, too, is a Merchant-Ivory production. Like their most celebrated movies—A Room With a View, The Bostonians, The Europeans, and now Maurice—something as simple as lunch is carried out with meticulous attention to detail. When Merchant, 50, and Ivory, 59, aren’t on location or at the apartments they share in London and Manhattan, they’re here, reading, entertaining or eating (Merchant recently put out a cookbook of his Indian recipes). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 60, screenwriter on most of their 15 feature films, often joins them; she lives in the apartment above them in Manhattan. Since buying the 1805 Federal house 12 years ago, Ivory has been trying to restore the home’s original, stately grandeur.

The team takes the same approach to their literary adaptations, restoring characterization, subtlety and period feeling to film in an age dominated by zap-happy, high-tech escapism. Their early movies were dismissed by the masses with a chorus of yawns. But last year, with A Room With a View, Ivory, Merchant and Jhabvala—who began collaborating in India 26 years ago—made the important crossover from the art house to the octoplex. Room, a comedy of manners from E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, has already grossed $45 million, won three Oscars and earned rapt audience anticipation for their latest effort, Maurice.

The spotlight on Maurice (pronounced Morris) makes both men a bit anxious. Though the new film is also an adaptation of a Forster novel, Maurice, quite unlike the lighthearted Room, is an impassioned gay love story. Forster, who was gay in a period when homosexuality was a crime in Great Britain, decreed that the book he wrote in 1914 be published only posthumously (he died in 1970).

The Merchant-Ivory decision to film Maurice was not a popular one. Forster’s literary executors tried to steer them toward another of the author’s works. Merchant found it harder than usual to find investors. Jhabvala declined to write the screenplay. “She felt it was a flawed book,” says Ivory. He disagreed and co-wrote the script with Kit Hesketh-Harvey, 30, an actor and writer who graduated from Cambridge, where much of Maurice takes place. Just before shooting began last year, Julian Sands, who had co-starred for the team in Room, withdrew from the title role claiming personal reasons. More distressingly, some warned that a salute to homosexual passion during the AIDS crisis was hardly exemplary timing.

Merchant and Ivory stood firm. Their R-rated, two-hour-plus film depicts men courting, kissing and making love. Ivory allows that such sights might be “hard for some people to take. But I don’t think audiences are going to hit the screen with their canes. I think we’re past that,” he says. “Although the book was written over 70 years ago, it’s completely relevant to today. The laws may have changed regarding homosexuality, but people’s feelings—the dismay, panic and compromises they endure—remain the same.”

They insist they are not proselytizing for gay lib. But, Merchant has said: “It would be wrong to turn our faces from the homosexual community.” Both men want audiences to root for a happy ending for the film’s male lovers. Ivory has added: “People should be saying, ‘I know what’s in their hearts, I can feel for them.’ ”

Getting to the heart of the offscreen Merchant-Ivory relationship is another matter, though the film’s subject certainly warrants a discreet attempt. Ivory, a fiercely private man, disagrees. “I feel there’s no more obligation on this film than on any other to answer questions about our relationship,” he says. “I don’t have to and I don’t see why I should.” Still, neither Merchant nor Ivory denies that Maurice, which has won near unanimous raves and a strong box office, has personal meaning for them. “Our films reflect our lives—where we’ve lived, what we’ve done, whom we know—and our interests,” Ivory once said. “Where else could they come from?”

A better question is how did these two men, as different as curry and applesauce, find their lives intertwined in the first place. Merchant, the son of a recreational gambler, was born into a family of businessmen in Bombay, India, and educated there at St. Xavier’s College. Though he came to America in 1958 to study for an M.A. in business administration at New York University, young Ismail was scheming to enter the more exciting world of show business; he wanted to make movies in India for the international market. Working part-time as a guide at the United Nations, he used that position to establish contacts.

Ivory, as reticent as his partner is gregarious, was born in Berkeley, Calif., and moved soon after with his family (Dad was in the lumber business) to Klamath Falls, Ore. Deciding to pursue a career as a film set designer, he studied architecture and fine arts at the University of Oregon. In 1957 he took a graduate degree in filmmaking at the University of Southern California, where he made a movie on Venice. Later, he made a short film about Indian art miniatures that was screened in New York in 1961.

At that screening he met Merchant, who was impressed by Ivory’s “affectionate and ardent interest in India.” The two became instant friends. They agreed to form an Indo-American production company to make English-language films in India. By year’s end the partners were both in Delhi trying to convince Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German author married to an Indian, that they were just the team to make a film of her novel The Householder. Taken with their enthusiasm, she agreed to do the screenplay. And a partnership was born.

For the next 24 years, until the runaway success of Room, Merchant and Ivory lived out of suitcases and rented offices in Bombay, London and New York, risking every dime on each new film, the most famous being 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, about English thespians performing in India.

Ivory calls his teaming with Merchant “a natural.” No argument. Merchant raises the money, squeezes the budget (no Merchant-Ivory film has ever cost more than $3.2 million) and cajoles top talent to work for a pittance. He also manages to shelter Ivory from the exigencies of the marketplace, leaving the director free to work with the actors, including such luminaries as Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, James Mason and Julie Christie. “We offer them quality,” says Ivory.

But not always quiet. According to Jenny Beavan, their longtime costume designer, “They have these terrible, legendary and totally public arguments, screaming ruptures.” She blames Merchant’s money worries and Ivory’s perfectionism. Maurice co-writer Hesketh-Harvey points out that despite Merchant’s bullying, “Jim has an iron will and in the end gets his own way. The famous huge showdowns are actually part of their ritual.”

Both men laugh at these assessments from their colleagues. “I never, never aim my wrath at the actors,” says Ivory. “Usually it is some wretch that’s got in the way, like an assistant director. I got furious on Maurice because everyone on the set was smoking, which I’m just not going to have. I’m not.” Merchant admits that “I keep shouting and hurrying people along. But there is a camaraderie. People on the set are not frozen with fear. And I cook everyone a huge Indian meal.”

No sooner is their good will professed than Ivory is grumbling about Merchant’s pinchpenny tactics. “I wouldn’t mind a few extra hundred thousand dollars to do some large crowd scenes,” says Ivory.

And they’re off. It disturbs the partners that even though Room paid its investors back 400 percent, Merchant and Ivory still have to struggle to get financial backing. “The irony is, we have backers standing around the block,” says Ivory, “but not for our stuff. For their stuff. They’ll give us $20 million to make a junky movie.”

No sale. But expect a change in Merchant-Ivory films in the future. “We’ve decided to forsake these novels set in the past,” says Ivory. Their next film, starting in February, will be based on Tama Janowitz’s best-selling short stories, Slaves of New York.

Right now, at their lakeside picnic, there is a more immediate plan. Eyeing a white hammock strung between two trees, Ivory says, “I’m going to spend the afternoon reading and napping.” Merchant, standing in the leaf-filtered light, merely smiles. Some business has been left unfinished, which won’t do on Merchant-Ivory turf. Without a word to each other, the two men gather the empty dishes from lunch. Watching them walk back to the house, one recalls Ismail’s earlier words about living with Jim: “Some people meet and part ways,” he said, “others bond together on a lifelong stream. I guess you could call our relationship destiny.”

—Written and reported by John Stark (with additional reporting from bureaus in L.A. and London)