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An articulate and quietly spoken Englishman, Anthony Minghella talks to Andrew L. Urban about two key relationships that helped make The English Patient what it is.

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. Period."

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."

Minghella’s background, "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 better…"

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 it."

Published March 1997

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"He’s the toughest man I’ve worked with."

Minghella on Seale

"…it looked absurd, the actors felt absurd and I felt absurd shooting it…"

John Seale on the mock up of the plane

"I think he taught me artistic ruthlessness."

Minghella on Saul Zaentz

"It doesn’t mean we didn’t fight - we fought nearly every day -"

Minghella on working with Zeantz

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