The English Patient Interview

07 January 2009

Director Anthony Minghella on adapting the novel to film

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 bothertrying to ruin a favorite book. But some, like English screenwriter anddirector Anthony Minghella, might be driven to find a way to do the bookjustice as he was with his film "The English Patient," adaptedfrom the Booker Prize-winning novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.

Minghella, who previously wrote and directed the heart-wrenching "TrulyMadly Deeply," says he saw incredible potential for a moving filmin Ondaatje's book. An epic tome of love and betrayal set during the SecondWorld War, it tells the story of a nurse and her patient -- a man dyingof severe burns after a plane crash, whose returning memories reveal hislife as an explorer, his affair with a colleague's wife and how their lovetested his loyalties during the war.

"One of the delights of this book is it has a moral complexity toit," Minghella said while promoting the film in San Francisco. "It'ssaying 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 SaulZaentz, who is no stranger to the Academy Awards having been the drivingforce 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 inhis novel.

"I read it and a week or so later (Minghella) called and said 'I cansee 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 imageswere so great in the book. Not only great images, but they touch you, theyreach 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 itat first seems to be a woman's back.

"The first line of every draft of the two zillion drafts of the screenplaysays 'The desert seen from above is like sleeping bodies'," Minghellasaid, describing how he interpreted the rich renderings of the novel.

"The film in constantly redefining and saying 'This is not what youthink.' So it begins with what looks like some sand, then you realize itsa bit of canvas. Then you see a paintbrush appear and that paintbrush startsto make a hieroglyph -- but no it's not a hieroglyph, its a body. Thenthat body starts to move and its seems to be with other bodies. Then yourealize it's not a body, it's the desert....It's constantly re-definingthe image."

These images are one of the defining factors of the film, and the breathtakingcinematography 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 Thomasas his lover, "The English Patient" has plenty of candidatesfor acting nominations too, but it is certain to garner a nod for Minghella'sscreenplay, about which he is very modest.

"A screenplay is like an architectural document to me, and that'show I've tried to view it. It's not a beautiful object. It's not beautifulin the way a book is beautiful. The prose in a book, it has to be in itselfit'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 theyhave to be reinforced.' It's much more sort of a plan. So I tried not toeven think of the screenplay as a defining document, as a piece of workin itself, but only as a route."

Ondaatje's book has almost a religious following and adapting it to filmwas 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 persistentlynarrative and so beautiful that I think a lot of people thought I was bombingto even try to do it. But I just had such a dream of what the film couldbe like."

His dream has been met with a very positive response from critics and fromthe 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 conversationturns to the Oscar buzz surrounding "The English Patient," hespeaks hesitantly.

"I think there are huge expectations surrounding this film, and Ithink 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 goingto 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 haveyou done before this film to make you think you could make this one?' Nobodysaid 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) andso he empowered me. Had I been making this film at a regular studio theywould have been looking over my shoulder every day and saying 'that's toodark, that's too light, that's too slow, that's too fast.' like bugs swarmingaround 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 youwant. I believe in you. Do it.'"

On the photography:

"I drew every shot. I had five notebooks of the (storyboards of) thefilm . Partly because I was frightened of making the film because it wasso 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 carryinga woman towards a cave is so iconic, so bardinarian -- so I wanted to finda landscape where that would work. I also wanted to make a film there wasa great ambition of time and place and memory, but I also wanted it tobe very easy -- without having signposts all the time saying 'Italy, 10miles' -- to know where you were. So we used different palettes of colorsin 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 andgolds and coppers and browns. In costumes and everything so that ratherthan having to say 'Italy,' 'Africa', you would just know where you were."


Q&A with Kristin Scott Thomas: This film packs such an emotional whammy. How did you feel whenyou saw the finished film?

Kristin Scott Thomas: "I'm a great crier when I go to films. I'm veryeasily triggered. You can go to a weepy, and everyone is sitting theresnuffling and nobody is really quite sure why they're doing it and youfeel cheated at the end. You feel, 'Damn. I was made to cry. I did notwant to cry. Miss so-and-so Hollywood film star is not somebody who doesthis 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 thatyou feel. And every time I see ("The English Patient") -- I'veseen it four times now -- different things (hit me). Suddenly, I find (onething) incredibly moving and it's a genuine reaction. It's not just tearscoming."

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

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

S: The first love scene, when Katherine slaps Almasy then he tears herdress, 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 ofthis stuff. It's very boring. And I think the sewing at the end just doesit so beautifully. It's such a more interesting way of describing what'shappened."

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 fartoo...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. Ijust...oooh! I couldn't bear it. I don't know why. I tried very hard tomake my Katherine as much as the Katherine in the book. I used to alwayshave the book with me -- sort of shuffling through the pages looking forclues."


Q&A with Juliette Binoche 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 aboutthis book, he sent it to me two years before I received the script, soI was involved in it. You have to be patient when your an actor...I hadto 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 wasso complete in it's own way. It's very different, so for me I didn't havethe need to go back. Which is strange for me because doing films relatedto 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 theroots 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 hewrote the script, my root was him."

S: So how did you see Hana?

JB: "Hana for me was an independent woman, an independent soul, youknow? She makes her decisions and there's a human process between the Englishpatient and her. They need each other in the same way. She's taking careof 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 touchedby 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/Katherinerelationship, that makes the strength of it in a way because you see anownership. With Kip and Hana it's a love relationship, but it's not aboutowning or power and it's true, it's painful to separate. They might seeone another again but they don't know, yet it's not as tragic. There'ssome kind of acceptance that life is difficult, but yet can have some sortof compassion. Hana has compassion for Kip when he loses his friend Hardyin the village before she probably wouldn't deal with that but sufferingwith that, the loss, I think she can help him in that sense. But at thattime there were a lot of things very weird happening and people were togetherfor very short periods of time and suddenly when (World War II is) overeverything went another direction. It's like (making) films in a way, youknow. You're all together for a certain amount of time and then suddenlyyou 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 goingaround (him). She is his body in a way. He's a prisoner and he has to findhis own way to heal. That's why the end when she's giving him the lastshot, he's been through a lot, you know, and she's been helping him. Takinghim to the monastery first, to have silence and space to be able to dealwith 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 betweenone another, and they need one another. And she can forget about herselfin a way, taking care of him. And allow space for him to go through whathe 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'tstop myself and he said (mumbling her speech) 'Don't make me laugh. Don'tmake me laugh' because everything was going to crack. Afterwards I getover it, because I think of the nurses during the time were dealing withthe souls. They were dealing with the pain, with the hopes, with the questions,with despair and everything -- with the person inside. The outside, ofcourse they were taking care of it, but they would sometimes they wouldlie. They would be asked 'How do I look?' and they would say 'Oh, you lookbeautiful' and it could be you couldn't recognize them. But it's the waythey had to deal with that moment because that had to keep some hopes goingthrough the pain and all that."


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