We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Anthony Minghella laughs when I suggest that his big new romantic drama, The English Patient, has something in common with his small 1990 romantic comedy, Truly, Madly, Deeply: They both feature an ardent lover, lingering between life and death. “Yes, it’s true,” he admits.
Beyond that, however, we disagree. In particular, we differ about the virtues of the Michael Ondaatje novel that is the film’s source. “It’s beautifully written and it’s transporting,” says Minghella, who both scripted and directed the film.
I, however, consider the book stripped-down romantic piffle, Barbara Cartland as ghost-written by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
The Italo-English Minghella, who started his career as a playwright, is an articulate romantic. When he discusses the appeal of Ondaatje’s “poetic and imagistic and fractured and mosaiclike” book, he sounds as expansive as his nearly three-hour film, which interweaves the stories of a badly burned explorer (Ralph Fiennes), a French-Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche), an English adventuress (Kristin Scott Thomas), an Indian bomb-removal expert (Naveen Andrews), and a Canadian thief-turned-spy (Willem Dafoe) who meet before or during World War II in Egypt and Italy.
“As a filmmaker,” enthuses Minghella, “it offered me the opportunity to tell a story that can be as detailed and preoccupied with a tiny nuance of human behavior. Perhaps a tiny place on a woman’s neck can generate a whole story, a whole compulsion. At the same time, it’s a film that is preoccupied with history, which says don’t imagine that this conversation you and I are having has nothing to do with the world, because it does. That everything we do, all the ways we deal with our moral dilemmas, the way we behave toward each other, our loyalties, our betrayals, our prejudices, all those things act on history as history is acting on us.”
This scenario suggests Ondaatje’s heavy debt to the French new novelists and New Wave filmmakers. In fact, the novel’s schema—fragmented memories of a disastrous wartime romance interwoven with a tentative post-conflict one—mirrors that of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the 1959 film written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais.
Minghella shrugs off this possible influence on his direction, arguing that he drew primarily on Italian neorealist films and the Taviani brothers’ The Night of Shooting Stars—”a masterpiece,” he avers—as well as the work of Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director who is the current master of arid wide-screen landscapes.
As for the novel, he says, “it’s deceptively cinematic. It looks like cinema, but of course it isn’t. The primary purpose of a movie is to tell a story, however lyrically and however poetically. This particular novel is so deconstructed it tells 10 different stories from 10 different points of view, all of them internally voiced.”
He compares the book to the title character’s volume of Herodotus, which is stuffed with clippings and notes. “I felt that everything was in the book, but I had to find a map that made sense of those ideas.
“To me,” he adds, “the only thing that is similar in a way between this book and a movie is that you cut in film. I suppose the first verb of filmmaking is cutting. What I tried to do was in some ways reflect the poetic quality of the book in finding interesting and resonant transitions. Walter Murch, the editor, and I spent a huge amount of time working out how to move from one scene to another in a seamless and interesting and elegant way.”
If not “cinematic,” Ondaatje’s novel is nonetheless so cryptic that it actually needed some elaboration to become a film. “The first draft I made of this screenplay was longer than the novel,” recalls Minghella. “I produced this elephant of a screenplay, and from that point onwards it’s been about distillation. Then we shot, and I came back with another elephant, which was the result of someone being absolutely taken with the desert and the Tuscan landscape and, much more significantly, with all the things that an actor can do to amplify the hieroglyphs of a screenplay.
“Our first cut was four-and-a-half hours long. And then there was a lot of wrestling, and beating on the side of the film everyday with a hammer to see what can fall off without causing any damage.” In cutting almost two hours, “the interesting thing is I don’t think we lost anything. I think the film is a slimmer version of the original idea. It isn’t a film with a different physiology; it’s still got two legs and two arms.”
Nonetheless, Minghella admits that he did amputate much of the tale of Kip, the Indian bomb-removal expert. “In my first-draft screenplay, I wrote a huge amount about Kip in England. There was a whole arm of the story that was set in England and was about Kip’s sentimental education, and I was very, very intrigued by that. It’s a great part of the book.
“It constantly felt like an annex, that story,” he finally decided. “It felt like I was trying to pay too much homage to the novel. It didn’t seem organic to the principal story.”
These changes were made, Minghella notes, in consultation with Ondaatje. “He’s been with us from the first day. A lot of people said, ‘Isn’t it traditional to banish the novelist once you’ve got his book?’ I suppose because I’m the writer and the director of this film, I was thrilled to have someone along whose judgment I trusted and who knew the material as well as anybody. It’s a testament to his humility and generosity that it was possible to do that.”
A veteran of intimate BBC domestic dramas, Minghella was not entirely prepared for the complications of shooting in the Tunisian desert. “Everyday I felt like it was a new exercise,” he remembers. “Today’s question is: How do you fly a plane at a man and make it crash into a hill of rocks? Today’s exercise is: How do you construct a sandstorm in the Sahara?
“I felt in some ways tormented by the screenwriter in me,” he smiles. “Writing the screenplay, I felt very confident in my skills as a writer. And it’s easy to write, ‘The Germans invade Tobruk.’ It only takes about a minute. It’s very, very hard to put that on film.”
Still, he notes, “In retrospect, I think the most difficult parts of the film were perhaps the simplest on paper. I think it’s much harder to make a scene where one man is prone on a bed and being tended by a nurse, and all you’ve got really are the skills of the actors to pull you into their inner being. What I discovered was that big filmmaking is a great deal easier than small filmmaking. An image rich with action, rich with dynamic—the desert or a souk or a crowded street—in a way it’s easier to organize that, and the camera enjoys it more.”
The camera may have enjoyed Tunisia, but Minghella and his crew found it daunting. “The desert is entirely resistant to filmmaking,” says the director, who shot much of the film while on crutches after breaking his ankle. “I kept thinking it was like being a calligrapher. When you load up your brush with ink and there’s a white piece of paper, there’s no rehearsal. The minute that your paint touches the paper, you’re committed. You can’t say, I’ll get rid of that, because the desert says, ‘No, no it’ll take me a week to get rid of that footprint, so you can’t shoot here anymore.’”
The experience gave Minghella a new understanding of some famed forerunners. “I remember watching a documentary about David Lean making Lawrence of Arabia, and [the producer] said, ‘Then David was ill for awhile, and we had to close down.’ And I realized he’d gone bonkers. And understandably so.”
The problems weren’t entirely logistical. The film’s original backer, 20th Century Fox, tore up its check as the cast and crew were initially arriving on the set; the studio was apparently concerned that the film would be unmarketable, in part because it features so few American actors. Miramax picked up the project, and—to Minghella’s astonishment—didn’t ask for any changes.
“I can’t quite credit that I got away with it,” the director marvels. “That leaves me in a strange place. Normally, directors enjoy hiding behind the vicissitudes of filmmaking and declaring themselves innocent of all the things that are not good in the film. I find myself with a film which is exactly what I wanted. I find myself with no apologies, and therefore incredibly vulnerable. Any shortcomings that you see are mine.”
Minghella can understand why backers were dubious about his film. “If you look at the screenplay in relation to the novel, it’s a rather conventional document,” he says. “If you look at my screenplay in relation to other screenplays being made today, it’s totally anarchic. It doesn’t have any of the constituents that now make up the formula of screenwriting in America.”
But the film, I note, has one essential of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking: explosions.
“It has sex and explosions,” the director chuckles. “I suppose it is very ordinary.”—Mark Jenkins