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Ralph Finnes and Kristin Scott Thomas in "The English Patient"

Director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella with producer Saul Zaentz

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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."

Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine Clifton

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Q&A with Kristin Scott Thomas:

SPLICED: This film packs such an emotional whammy. How did you feel when you saw the finished film?

Kristin Scott Thomas: "I'm a great crier when I go to films. I'm very easily triggered. You can go to a weepy, and everyone is sitting there snuffling and nobody is really quite sure why they're doing it and you feel cheated at the end. You feel, 'Damn. I was made to cry. I did not want to cry. Miss so-and-so Hollywood film star is not somebody who does this to me, yet here I am sitting with tears streaming down my cheeks. You feel tricked, and I hate that. I prefer the emotion you get from here (fist at her gut), which is a sort of a punch in the belly type thing that you feel. And every time I see ("The English Patient") -- I've seen it four times now -- different things (hit me). Suddenly, I find (one thing) incredibly moving and it's a genuine reaction. It's not just tears coming."

S: And did you apply this aversion to tear jerking to your portrayal of Katherine?

KST: "You want to feel that she's a hero, that she can soldier through everything. You don't want her to get soppy. And I think she's also a character that every time she catches herself being what she would consider as weepy, she pulls herself together. I think the scene where she breaks off with Almasy at the cinema, when she says 'I just cannot do this anymore and we must say goodbye' and everything. She has this moment of super dignity and she conjures up everything can when he says 'I want you to know I'm not missing you yet.' When she turns and he says 'Oh, but you will, you will,' and she has this fantastic exit -- and then turns and hits her head on the bar. I think those are the things in the film that make the character so human and us so attached to them."

S: The first love scene, when Katherine slaps Almasy then he tears her dress, looked for a moment like the film was going to turn, um, steamy...

KST: "We know what's going to happen. We don't need to see any of this stuff. It's very boring. And I think the sewing at the end just does it so beautifully. It's such a more interesting way of describing what's happened."

S: Did you talk to Micahel Ondaatje about the character of Katherine?

KST: "No. I never spoke to him once. I couldn't bear to. I was far too...far too embarrassed."

S: Why?

KST: "Well, because he wrote her, and there I am trying to be her. I was too shy. I just couldn't. I was afraid of even mentioning her. I just...oooh! I couldn't bear it. I don't know why. I tried very hard to make my Katherine as much as the Katherine in the book. I used to always have the book with me -- sort of shuffling through the pages looking for clues."

Juliette Binoche as Hana
Courtesy Photos

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Q&A with Juliette Binoche

SPLICED: So, working with Saul Zaentz again (she had worked with him on "The Unbearable Lightness of Being")....

Juliette Binoche: "He's my father in movies, for me. He told me about this book, he sent it to me two years before I received the script, so I was involved in it. You have to be patient when your an actor...I had to wait for the transformation of the script."

S: How true were you trying to be to the Hana in Ondaatje's novel?

JB: "When I read the script I didn't go back to the book, actually. I'd read it twice in English and once in French and then I felt it was so complete in it's own way. It's very different, so for me I didn't have the need to go back. Which is strange for me because doing films related to books, like 'The Horseman on the Roof' or 'Damage' or 'Wuthering Heights' or 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being,' I always went back to the book, you know because it's where the story belongs in a way, it's where the roots are, the characters, you know, but there my book in a way was (director/screenwriter) Anthony (Minghella), because for me he was the guide for me. Because he wrote the script, my root was him."

S: So how did you see Hana?

JB: "Hana for me was an independent woman, an independent soul, you know? She makes her decisions and there's a human process between the English patient and her. They need each other in the same way. She's taking care of him as he takes care of her in a different way. For me it was very special. There were many things I'd never played in a movie and I was very touched by that character."

S: Hana's relationship with Kip is the secondary love story in the film, yet it plays an important role in balancing the tragedy of the main story.

JB: "This relationship is interesting as opposed to the Almasy/Katherine relationship, that makes the strength of it in a way because you see an ownership. With Kip and Hana it's a love relationship, but it's not about owning or power and it's true, it's painful to separate. They might see one another again but they don't know, yet it's not as tragic. There's some kind of acceptance that life is difficult, but yet can have some sort of compassion. Hana has compassion for Kip when he loses his friend Hardy in the village before she probably wouldn't deal with that but suffering with that, the loss, I think she can help him in that sense. But at that time there were a lot of things very weird happening and people were together for very short periods of time and suddenly when (World War II is) over everything went another direction. It's like (making) films in a way, you know. You're all together for a certain amount of time and then suddenly you don't see each other anymore."

S: And her relationship with the patient?

JB: "In 'The English Patient,' he is the center and Hana is going around (him). She is his body in a way. He's a prisoner and he has to find his own way to heal. That's why the end when she's giving him the last shot, he's been through a lot, you know, and she's been helping him. Taking him to the monastery first, to have silence and space to be able to deal with his feelings of life, desperation -- and hopes at the same time."

S: Was Hana falling in love with the patient?

JB: "I think she feels love for him. There's a heeling process between one another, and they need one another. And she can forget about herself in a way, taking care of him. And allow space for him to go through what he needs to go through."

S: How was it working with an actor in all that makeup? All you had, essentially, was his eyes to work with.

JB: "The first time I saw him (in full makeup), I laughed. I couldn't stop myself and he said (mumbling her speech) 'Don't make me laugh. Don't make me laugh' because everything was going to crack. Afterwards I get over it, because I think of the nurses during the time were dealing with the souls. They were dealing with the pain, with the hopes, with the questions, with despair and everything -- with the person inside. The outside, of course they were taking care of it, but they would sometimes they would lie. They would be asked 'How do I look?' and they would say 'Oh, you look beautiful' and it could be you couldn't recognize them. But it's the way they had to deal with that moment because that had to keep some hopes going through the pain and all that."

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