Filming in Venice took place in August last year, which presented the threat of being surrounded by 20th century tourists. "But at midnight Venice goes quiet and returns to the past," Softley observed. "So we shot night shots between midnight and 5 a.m. We would then change for daytime shooting, and had between the sun coming up at 6 until people arrived for work at 7:30 for our wide shots."
Softley and Amini had decided to adapt Henry James boldly. For one thing, their adaptation of the 1902 novel is set in 1910. Why did they do it?
"I wanted to give people the view that this was the beginning of the world we know," Softley noted. "What underlies the dilemma faced by the characters is brought into sharp relief by what was happening in history. It was the point where the Old World met the New World. There were big forces at work in 1902 which influenced how people were thinking. The idea of votes for women was just starting to break through. People were starting to think about abstract art. There was a challenge to the old political order.
"But the visual representation of that world hadn't broken through. Look at a snapshot of London in 1902, and it isn't so different from how the city looked 10 or 20 years earlier, in terms of the clothes people wore, the number of horses and carriages on the streets [as opposed to cars].
"By 1910, fewer women were wearing corsets--and in fact the designs for women's clothes mirrored some of Issey Miyake's pleated dresses from two or three years ago. There were more telephones, more cars, women traveled on the Underground [Bonham Carter is seen doing precisely that in the film's opening scene]. So it was a question of trying to show the explicit manifestation of what was implicit in 1902."
Another notable departure from Henry James' text is the inclusion of a sex scene late in the film, with Kate and Merton naked on a bed. "We went into that with our eyes open," Softley said. "We had no qualms. We felt it was essential in indicating the sort of scene it was, and making it relevant and familiar in the most stark way possible.
"There is true sexuality [in the equivalent scene in James' novel] in a way that's psychologically explicit. The scene has a rather antediluvian feel--it's like Adam and Eve seeing themselves naked for the first time. Throughout the film Kate has been seen through grids and veils, little coverings and deceptions. By the end they're all removed."
"I first met Iain just before 'BackBeat' came out," recalled producer Stephen Evans. "I liked him. He struck me as a thoroughly professional, genuine guy. And that was borne out in the making of this film. As a producer I tend to look at potential directors as people rather than what they'd done--though I thought 'BackBeat' was well made, and I actually liked 'Hackers' too."
The Miramax people were less convinced about Softley, according to Evans: "But we stuck with him until they relented. Yes, I feel vindicated. On the back of this film, he's going to do really well."
Evans also approved of Softley's take on James' story: "He's brought a modernist point of view to it, and Hossein is a modernist adapter. Ismail Merchant and Jim Ivory had already asked me to make the film for them--but I wanted to shake out of the Merchant Ivory way of filming stories like this."
Finally, Evans applauds Softley's financial responsibility; he delivered "The Wings of the Dove" fractionally under budget.
Henry James is currently the classic novelist of choice among movie makers. Jane Campion's adaptation of his "Portrait of a Lady" won wide praise on its release last year. And director Agnieszka Holland's film of James' "Washington Square" opened in Los Angeles last month.
Softley, having noted that neither he nor the two female directors is American, thinks he knows why James is the flavor of the month: "He writes strong complex women, who are rare in mainstream cinema today," he said. "Here are characters with doubts, who aren't necessarily sympathetic in a facile way, but are more human in their contradictions. So the emotional hold they have on you by the end of the story is more intense."
It might seem "The Wings of the Dove" would feel like a big leap for Softley after "BackBeat" and "Hackers." But he insisted it wasn't so: "The budget was about the same as 'Hackers,' which cost $15 million and was a demanding film. It was supposed to be an entertainment, but it was conceptually quite complex and logistically tough.
"In New York, we closed down 10 blocks of Park Avenue for a 66-car stunt, and shot at the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. Shooting computers, screens and projections was incredibly demanding.
"In a sense I felt on firmer ground with 'The Wings of the Dove.' I felt I knew these characters, I'd been in some of these situations--the central dilemma of the degree to which you need material security, whether to follow your head or heart.