Anthony Minghella: Passionately, Intimately, Patiently.
The English Patient is a film that has only came to the attention of most Australians when it received the most number of Oscar nominations for the 1996 Academy Awards with a total of 12. Geoff Bartlett reports.
The English Patient’s writer and director, Anthony Minghella, in Australia to promote the film, would be best remembered here as the creative source behind the highly successful Truly Madly Deeply.
Minghella said he was overwhelmed by the response to Truly Madly Deeply in Australia but chalked up the film’s success largely to beginners luck. “Truly Madly Deeply was the first film I ever directed and I was in the dark about it all. People said to me ‘It was great the way you did this. But I can’t claim the credit because at the time, I didn’t know how to do anything else and I only had 28 days to make it. It was a group of mates and a camera really.”
In many ways, Minghella says he feels the English Patient to be similar in its concentrated focus on the characters rather than story. “There are some writers who seem to understand the world and write about it. I admire them but I can’t unfortunately number myself in their team. I’ve always struggled to make sense of the world and how to live and I’m terribly alert to the demons which haunt all of us and the pain that people carry around.”
Whilst trying to come to terms with their own demons, the English Patient’s characters have as their surroundings the second World War, which Minghella states is the perfect catalyst for this type of personal exploration. “The interesting thing to me is that war, which is a calamitous and the least appetising instant of humanity, also precipitates all kinds of rather extraordinary events. It often makes people better and more human. Despite the enormous capacity people have to do terrible things to each other, war also shows this enormous indomitable spirit they have too.”
The film covers locations that span from Africa to Italy. Minghella said the transition to this style of film from the humble two room setting of Truly Madly Deeply left him with feelings bordering on agoraphobia. “As it was, I spent four months just looking at locations.” Without the production manager we had, I could have been out there now, still scouting.
The English Patient also boasts a highly impressive cast including Ralph Fiennes, Juliet Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth. Minghella claimed he was never under any illusions as to the grandeur and scope of the project he was undertaking. “It’s a very ambitious film in its subject matter and construction. One thing I was able to do was call in a lot of favours when it came to casting because we were asking people to do smaller roles than they normally would be offered. We managed to persuade everyone to appear because they were passionate about the material.”
Despite his own passion for the project, Minghella confessed he faced a real challenge in basing a film upon a book without a linear story. “When I was writing the screenplay I thought ‘My God what am I doing!’ My friends told me the book was unadaptable. Fortunately, Michael Ondaatje (the author) has been our greatest ally. He presided over the complete dismantling of his novel. I didn’t do this to subvert what he’d done, but to me there was no obvious way I could make a conventional adaptation of his work. I found myself having to start again with the same material and characters and reinvent a structure that they could inhabit. A lessor writer would’ve been much more defensive about what I did. Instead, he encouraged me to go down my own road.”
Minghella admitted that where as the writing was problematic, the real difficulties only presented themselves later. “I got to the stage where I thought ‘Well I’ve got something here, lets make this film’. Then as a director, I hated myself as a writer. I thought ‘how do I shoot these intimate erotic scenes and make them as charged as they ought to be. Every day there was a hurdle that I felt ill equipped to deal with.”
In the end, Minghella said he found the best way to juggle the conflict of being both writer and director was to “let go of everything and let the film assert itself. Someone asked me if there ever would be a directors cut of the English patient and I said ‘this is it.’ What I don’t think there’ll be is a writer’s cut. When I shot the film, there were scenes that I wrote that I thought were absolutely essential to the story. But when I came to edit it, they seemed irrelevant to me. In fact I didn’t look at the screenplay at all once we started shooting because I wasn’t interested in a document, I wanted to focus on the living process that was going on in front of me.”
This piece first appeared in The Canberra times in 1997.