Mehta Creates New Republic

Adapting Carol Shields's novel was a labour of love for director

TORONTO--Deepa Mehta originally passed on the job of directing The Republic of Love. She loved Carol Shields's novel but wasn't excited by the screenplay. Then Mehta--who has instigated, written, and directed most of her other feature films (including Fire [1996], Earth [1998], and 2002's Bollywood/Hollywood)--was offered the chance to do her own adaptation and couldn't resist. She eventually hooked up with Vancouver poet-screenwriter Esta Spalding to recraft the script for the movie, which opens Friday (February 13).

Mehta is not afraid of critics but admits she was "terrified" of showing the screenplay to the Pulitzer Prizeí‚ ­winning Canadian author, who was fighting cancer at the time. "I said, 'My God, what happens if she doesn't like it?' Luckily, she did." Mehta was also relieved to discover that Shields was a fan of her musical comedy Bollywood/Hollywood (currently being developed as a TV series).

Sitting in a hotel room on the afternoon of The Republic of Love's gala premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, wearing a yellow sari and adorned with an "auspicious" henna design for a friend's wedding, Mehta explains her goal for the film. "The most important thing was to capture the spirit of the book, the magical nature of the book, because it's not only just about love, it's also about isolation. So to be true to that, to the spirit of the book, was most important to me."

The Republic of Love maps the geography of the relationship between Faye (Emilia Fox), a museum curator in her 30s who specializes in mermaid lore and has given up on love, and Tom (Bruce Greenwood), a talk-show host on his third divorce who seems addicted to romance. Although its premise reads like that of an adult romantic comedy, Mehta describes the film as a "romantic drama". But she'd prefer not to categorize it at all. "Labels at the best of times confound me. I have no idea how you can call something an 'action adventure' or a 'romantic comedy' or a 'drama'. I mean, it's a film. About love."

Mehta says Greenwood (Exotica, Ararat, Thirteen Days) found the role of Tom to be a real challenge. "He was so nervous all the time because this was the first time he's played a romantic lead. And he was great," she recalls. "Here he was playing this lovely, boyish character who's in love with love, and he was wonderful to work with."

The role of Faye was harder to cast until Mehta and the producers decided on Fox, a busy British actor who played Dorota in The Pianist. "I thought she was the right person for the role and there was great chemistry between her and Bruce. That's very important for the film."

For Shields fans, the biggest shock will likely be the story's relocation from Winnipeg to Toronto. Mehta explains that this started as a financial choice, not a creative one. "The book is set in Winnipeg and is very particular to Winnipeg, and the producers couldn't afford to shoot it in Winnipeg," she says. "To take all the actors from here and shoot it there would have been very expensive. So to make that choice of shooting it in Toronto was a very big change."

However, Mehta says Shields didn't have a problem with the new setting. "Luckily, Carol knew about it and understood that it was important to get the film made. And really it's not about a place, it's about love, so it [the location] became irrelevant."

Mehta, who splits her time between two places--Toronto and Delhi--tried to replace Shields's affection for Winnipeg with her own love of Toronto. And to capture the book's sense of isolation, Mehta decided to use the underground-walkway system of Canada's largest city as a recurring motif. "Once I found out we couldn't do it in Winnipeg, I really wanted to contain the film," she says. "The downtown core of Toronto is amazing--you can go from one end of the city to the other underground....The film's also about isolation, and that really captured the feeling of the postmodern world."

The movie uses a lot of dialogue from Shields's book. "She's a master of irony," Mehta says, "and what I love about Carol's work is she doesn't shy away from emotions. It's usually a very Canadian thing to do, not to be emotive because that's, I don't know, frowned upon." She laughs, adding: "I really like the fact that there's no fear of emotions."

Mehta gets emotional for a moment as she talks about Shields, who died of complications from surgery just a few months before the film's premiere. "I wish she could have seen it."

Describing Shields--to whom the film is dedicated--Mehta says, "She's lovely. She is very..." The director stops and tries again. "She's... I keep on thinking of is. She always will remain in the present, because books, of course, are always alive."