Given the choice, Anthony
Minghella would have been in his own London bed with the covers
over his head when the Oscar nominations were announced. Instead,
he and a group of others from the production, were partying at
the comfortable three story home of cinematographer John Seale,
with a view to Sydney’s gorgeous Middle Harbour. "But
the roar that went up when the call came through [about the 12
Oscar nominations that his film had received] could have been
heard in London," he says with a grin the next morning, as
we talk at his hotel.
The reason he was in Sydney, and
not London, was that he was here doing promotional interviews
before the film’s opening. But why would he rather be
hiding? The answer is very English - even though his parents are
Italian, he was born on the Isle of Wight (in 1954).
"Well, in moments of
fragility or moments when you feel most exposed, you want to be
least exposed and least fragile, and don’t want to display
your disappointment in public and you don’t want to display
your hubris in public. I’m not particularly good at public
displays, and one of the reasons why I want to be behind the
camera is I’m not so comfortable in front of it. "
Given that his schedule did
deliver him to Sydney on that day of the Oscar nominations, he
says "there was no better place than John and Louise
Seale’s home - not only because they’re great
hosts….but because John was such a significant ….
warrior, I think, in the making of this film." Also at the
Seale home were first assistant director Steve Andrews, his
assistant Emma Schofield, producers Saul and Paul Zaentz, and
script supervisor Dan Dryer. The whole world, it seemed, wanted
to talk to them: they fielded calls till 5.30 am.
Minghella had seen and loved John
Seale’s cinematography and first wanted to work with him on
his 1993 movie, Mr Wonderful, but schedules didn’t fit;
still, that led him to another Australian cinematographer,
"the great Geoff Simpson, who shot Shine and who is a
particularly talented and great human being."
When it came to The English
Patient, Saul had worked with John on Mosquito Coast and wanted
John to do this film…it wasn’t hard for me to agree to
that. What does happen though is you find yourself with a series
of divided loyalties, because as you make work and you get to
know the team you work with, it’s very hard to let go of
those loyalties. I had all kinds of mixed feelings about John
working on it, actually…you’re entering an arranged
marriage in a way, you meet somebody for a couple of hours and
then you’re going to live with them in an intimate way for a
long period of time and you’re going to rely on them."
The marriage worked. "I had
every expectation that John would deliver a film that was as
beautiful and ravishing as I needed it to be. What I didn’t
realise is the extent to which his mettle, his stamina would be
so significant. This was an extremely difficult film and
he’s so tough. He’s the toughest man I’ve worked
with. He’s very hard on himself and he doesn’t suffer
fools. He’s experienced and very fast. There’s a
Samurai element to him, which was invaluable - in terms of not
only giving me the film I needed, but giving me the film.
The two men had something in
common that propelled their working relationship: they were both
raised on "poor cinema"; making films with glue and
bits of string, making them both inventive. "He always
talked about poor man’s process…" That’s a
legacy of Australian film making, and one that has been a
strength of many Australian crews.
Minghella cites as an example of
this poor man’s process, the film’s first flying
sequence, the majority of which was done on the ground, with the
plane on a trolley. "It’s all done with camera angles
and the camera on a bungy cord, people rocking the plane…it
looked absurd, the actors felt absurd and I felt absurd shooting
it…but John was convinced we’d get everything we wanted
this way, and he was absolutely right."
"poor cinema" apart, was writing, primarily for theatre
and television. In 1991, he made a highly noticed and much
awarded film debut with Truly, Madly, Deeply, starring Juliet
Stevenson and Alan Rickman. His second film, Mr Reliable, starred
Matt Dillon and Mary Louise Parker, and his third film - The
English Patient - has taken him into the very big league.
Truly, Madly, Deeply is also
partly responsible for The English Patient being made at all.
When it was released in America, Saul Zaentz saw it and fell
madly, deeply in love with the film, becoming almost evangelical
about it, spruiking to have people see it. He even made bootleg
videos of it and circulated it to friends; he felt it should have
reached a much wider audience than it did. And he rang Minghella
in London, introduced himself and invited him to dinner during a
trip to London. "We had a fantastic evening. I can say
without hesitation that he’s one of the most remarkable
people I’ve ever met. He’s in his mid-70s, full of
vigour and inspirational. We also have a sense of fraternity, one
that I also feel with [the author] Michael Ondaatje - we see the
world in a similar way. Plus we share a love for jazz."
That evening in a London
restaurant was the start of a friendship that grew over the next
twelve months. Then, when Minghella read The English Patient, he
called Saul Zaentz. "He was the one person that I could
think of that I knew whose history was so connected with
ambitious literary ventures."
Saul was as enthusiastic as
Minghella about the book, but what Minghella didn’t know at
the time, was how rarely Saul Zaentz gets enthusiastic about
turning a book into a film. "He’s very hard to
please…he’s made very few films because he doesn’t
get excited very often."
Saul Zaentz was excited enough to
put some $5 million of his own money into the project. "And
I think he taught me artistic ruthlessness. It’s
occasionally a quality more often it’s a failure, my anxiety
to be well behaved. Saul is distinguished by his lack of good
behaviour as far as artistic pursuits are concerned. He’s
fearless and ruthless in trying to achieve what he wants. All his
hammering away at me has been to refine and temper my vision for
the film - it’s never been to try and appropriate the film,
and it’s never been to modify the film, or subvert it.
It’s only ever been how to achieve the best version of the
film I had in my head. It doesn’t mean we didn’t fight
- we fought nearly every day - but I never had any sense that we
were fighting about anything other than how to make the film
better, my script better, my directing better, my editing
And these fights were never about
differences of creative opinion: it was Zaentz insisting that
Minghella voice his reasons for all his decisions. "I
don’t think at any point he ever said ‘I think
you’re wrong, you should be doing this…’ He wanted
to know what I was after."
It was a reward, says Minghella,
that "the film has everything I was capable of doing, in
Published March 1997