On Friday, November 8, 1996 in San Francisco, SPLICED interviewed screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella and actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche about their film "The English Patient."
The patience of making "The English Patient"
Director Anthony Minghella on adapting the novel to film
Any avid reader can think of at least one book that seems so intricate, so narrative that it could likely never be put to film.
Some would consider this a blessing -- that Hollywood might not even bother trying to ruin a favorite book. But some, like English screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella, might be driven to find a way to do the book justice as he was with his film "The English Patient," adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.
Minghella, who previously wrote and directed the heart-wrenching "Truly Madly Deeply," says he saw incredible potential for a moving film in Ondaatje's book. An epic tome of love and betrayal set during the Second World War, it tells the story of a nurse and her patient -- a man dying of severe burns after a plane crash, whose returning memories reveal his life as an explorer, his affair with a colleague's wife and how their love tested his loyalties during the war.
"One of the delights of this book is it has a moral complexity to it," Minghella said while promoting the film in San Francisco. "It's saying for every victor there's a loser, for thesis there's an antithesis."
But putting pen to paper for the screenplay was a struggle. Producer Saul Zaentz, who is no stranger to the Academy Awards having been the driving force behind such films as "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus," said he and Minghella were both inspired to make "The English Patient" by the vivid images Ondaatje painted in his novel.
"I read it and a week or so later (Minghella) called and said 'I can see a movie there.' I said, 'I can too but I don't know how to make it.' He said, 'I don't either.,'" Zaentz remembers. "But the images were so great in the book. Not only great images, but they touch you, they reach you."
So Minghella started with visual images. The film opens with a peaceful, fluid shot of the desert from the air that looks so soft and smooth it at first seems to be a woman's back.
"The first line of every draft of the two zillion drafts of the screenplay says 'The desert seen from above is like sleeping bodies'," Minghella said, describing how he interpreted the rich renderings of the novel.
"The film in constantly redefining and saying 'This is not what you think.' So it begins with what looks like some sand, then you realize its a bit of canvas. Then you see a paintbrush appear and that paintbrush starts to make a hieroglyph -- but no it's not a hieroglyph, its a body. Then that body starts to move and its seems to be with other bodies. Then you realize it's not a body, it's the desert....It's constantly re-defining the image."
These images are one of the defining factors of the film, and the breathtaking cinematography by John Seale ("Witness," "Rain Man"), is just one of the movie's many Oscar possibilities.
Starring Ralph Finnes as the patient, Juliette Binoche as his nurse and, in her most powerful and emotional performance to date, Kristin Scott Thomas as his lover, "The English Patient" has plenty of candidates for acting nominations too, but it is certain to garner a nod for Minghella's screenplay, about which he is very modest.
"A screenplay is like an architectural document to me, and that's how I've tried to view it. It's not a beautiful object. It's not beautiful in the way a book is beautiful. The prose in a book, it has to be in itself it's own evocation of ideas and people and places.
"A screenplay is much more like: 'The drains are going to go here. This is where the electricity is. The windows have to be this big and they have to be reinforced.' It's much more sort of a plan. So I tried not to even think of the screenplay as a defining document, as a piece of work in itself, but only as a route."
Ondaatje's book has almost a religious following and adapting it to film was an exacting process, Minghella said. Staying true to the book was important, yet the medium of film demands such a vastly different approach.
"It's a book that is so complicated, so fragmented, so persistently narrative and so beautiful that I think a lot of people thought I was bombing to even try to do it. But I just had such a dream of what the film could be like."
His dream has been met with a very positive response from critics and from the author, who was so taken with the film that he accompanied Minghella, Zaentz and some of the actors to the press junket in San Francisco.
As happy as the director is with the outcome of his project, when the conversation turns to the Oscar buzz surrounding "The English Patient," he speaks hesitantly.
"I think there are huge expectations surrounding this film, and I think that means there are huge disappointments possible."
But producer Zaentz was considerably less cautious.
"This one is going to get nominated," he said. "We're going to get quite a few. I believe it. Script, camera...The reason, I think -- I can't see five better pictures out there."
Further quotes from Anthony Minghella:
On the task of adapting "The English Patient" to film:
"You would absolutely be justified to say to me 'What the hell have you done before this film to make you think you could make this one?' Nobody said it to my face, but I'm sure a lot of people said it to each other. Saul (Zaentz) made me feel he had absolutely every confidence (in me) and so he empowered me. Had I been making this film at a regular studio they would have been looking over my shoulder every day and saying 'that's too dark, that's too light, that's too slow, that's too fast.' like bugs swarming around your head when your trying to work. Swarm, swarm, swarm all day. When Saul was about 'Focus on what you're doing. You can do anything you want. I believe in you. Do it.'"
On the photography:
"I drew every shot. I had five notebooks of the (storyboards of) the film . Partly because I was frightened of making the film because it was so big I thought I'd better know exactly what I was doing, so I drew everything. And I wanted to have sort of iconic images, you know -- that man carrying a woman towards a cave is so iconic, so bardinarian -- so I wanted to find a landscape where that would work. I also wanted to make a film there was a great ambition of time and place and memory, but I also wanted it to be very easy -- without having signposts all the time saying 'Italy, 10 miles' -- to know where you were. So we used different palettes of colors in the desert, palettes of colors in Italy. Italy is like a watercolor. We used grays and greens and blues. And in the desert we used reds and golds and coppers and browns. In costumes and everything so that rather than having to say 'Italy,' 'Africa', you would just know where you were."