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Anthony Minghella's Triumph Over Hollywood

By Kathleen O'Steen
Special to The Washington Post
November 22, 1996

Even the Rain Man probably couldn't have figured the odds. Who, after all, had an inkling two years ago, or even six months ago, that Anthony Minghella, a soft-spoken, introspective, scholarly man, would become Hollywood's newest sweetheart?

Certainly not he.

Raised the son of an ice cream maker on England's tiny Isle of Wight, the 42-year-old writer-director has been leery of Hollywood for several years. After his 1991 directorial debut -- the small, independently financed "Truly, Madly, Deeply" -- a number of studio executives came calling. And like the proverbial moth to the flame, Minghella would answer their call, accepting a deal to direct the less-than-"Mr. Wonderful" and subsequently flee back to Europe, convinced he was better off as a Hollywood outsider. "I think there are people who have great skills to navigate the waters of Hollywood, but I'm not one of them," Minghella admits. "And I learned very quickly that it was very unlikely that I was going to flourish in a mainstream market."

Yet here he is, back at the flame. His new film, "The English Patient," is being heralded as one of the best pictures of the year. And so his love-hate relationship with Tinseltown continues.

It's not surprising that Minghella chose to do "The English Patient." Based on a 1992 book of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, the story is a project that the major studios all deemed too costly and difficult to pull off, which made it a crusade from the start.

The film follows two love affairs set against the final days of World War II. Ralph Fiennes stars as an aristocratic desert explorer who becomes involved with the wife of a colleague as the war despoils life as they know it in North Africa. Written and directed by Minghella, the movie also stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe and Naveen Andrews.

"The reason I was so attracted to the book was that it gives you an opportunity as a filmmaker to tell a story that is completely personal. It's about the way people are with each other on an extremely intimate level," Minghella says. "And at the same time, none of it makes any sense without this huge canvas of war behind it."

The story differs from other war epics in that much of the action is concentrated in Cairo and the Sahara. The cast and crew spent 21 weeks filming, nine of them in the achingly cold temperatures of the North African winter.

When Minghella was making the rounds of studios for financing, he ran up against a number of obstacles -- not the least of which being that Fiennes's character suffers horrible burns. "The notion of bringing the book to the screen was always greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm and a great deal of caution at the same time," he says. "The studios felt it was too expensive. They felt it was not obviously commercial, and we weren't proposing to make it with huge film stars. We wanted to cast it with as much integrity as we could. We wanted to make it with as much integrity as we could. Those are words that don't sit well in meetings when you're asking people for millions of dollars."

Luckily for Minghella the other half of the "we" was Saul Zaentz, the maverick film producer who has made a career out of bucking Hollywood. His films -- "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus," "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" -- have almost always been deemed unmarketable, though some have done surprisingly well.

"After Anthony told me about `The English Patient,' I sat down and read it," Zaentz recalls. "I thought it was a very good book, but I had no idea how to make it into a film."

A series of long-distance calls between Zaentz, who lives in Northern California, and Minghella, who lives in London, convinced the producer that it should be his next project.

But it would take nearly four years to bring to the screen. Part of the reason was Minghella, who labored over the screenplay. "It is extremely lyrical and anti-narrative and really more a series of striking images. I knew from the beginning there was no linear or conventional way to tell the story."

Help came from the novel's author, Ondaatje, who read every draft. "I had to find some sturdy thread to attach all these beautiful images together," Minghella says, "and Michael was with me all the way. I think there are a thousand ways to tell all of these stories, but I had to find the one that made the best sense to me."

The next hurdle was to raise $30 million. Zaentz put up some commercial property as collateral, and several stars and important crew members agreed to salary deferments amounting to about $10 million. "We were signing personal guarantees, but pictures have gotten so expensive that it's not enough anymore," Zaentz says. "We lost no one over money. They knew we weren't lying."

The point was driven home when the film's start date was pushed back a month after trouble arose in the financing. "I was desperate to go forward, but we just had to wait," Minghella says. "But in the interim, I had a lot of time to work things out and that's paid off enormously. Now that it's done, I'm very anxious because this is an unmediated piece of work. It is exactly the film I wanted to make with the people I wanted to make it with. There really have been no compromises and it's absolutely terrifying." If the film flopped, there would be no one else to blame.

Minghella was raised on England's Isle of Wight by Italian immigrant parents. "I don't consider myself to be remotely English. And yet when I come to the States, I become the token Englishman. It's all very strange."

The Minghella house stood next to the town cinema, and as a boy Minghella befriended the theater's projectionist. Much like the boy in "Cinema Paradiso," he spent hours watching films free. "One day I saw a Fellini film about some young Italian guys growing up in a seaside resort. The tone and everything about the film was so familiar to me that it was then I truly realized I wasn't English."

As a young man he taught literature at the University of Hull in England. But his lifelong passion for music eventually led him to the theater. "I wrote an evening of songs with loosely connected scenes," he says. "That led to a job offer to write a play for a local theater." Three years later he was named the most promising playwright of 1984 by London theater critics. Soon he was writing for the BBC.

Throughout this period, Minghella explored the issue of nationality and the sense of feeling outside of the mainstream. "I wrote plays about Italians coming to England, I wrote a play about foreigners going to Bangkok. [His "Made in Bangkok" was honored by London theater critics as the best play of 1986.] I didn't try to paint pictures of people living some sort of existential or alienated life, but rather about the unique perspective it affords them."

As "The English Patient" demonstrates, it's a theme he is still exploring.

It was during his time in the theater that Minghella began working with Juliet Stevenson, who would go on to star in his breakthrough film, "Truly, Madly, Deeply." "Juliet, at that time, was perceived as a rather formidable Shakespearean actress. She was always playing the roles of stern, intelligent women," Minghella says. "And she's all of that, but she also has a fun, very silly side. I wanted to write something that would give her a broader alphabet."

The film was shot in just 28 days, and Minghella had little expectation of its ever being seen outside England. "I'd never directed a film before that, and I didn't really know what I was up to," he says. "And one day a friend in the industry came into the cutting room and sat with me, watching that cathartic moment when Juliet breaks down and begins to cry. After we watched it, he said, `That's wonderful, but there she is with her nose running all over the place. Do you have another take?' "

Minghella had shot only one. "I didn't want to shoot another because that moment of catharsis was so real, and so bracing, and so unadorned. I felt it was wonderful and raw."

The film became an international hit. It caught the attention of Hollywood. "Suddenly I had to deal with the fact that people perceived me as a director long before I ever did. That was my first effort and I certainly wouldn't have called myself a director at that point."

Still it got him his next job, directing "Mr. Wonderful."

"I don't consider it to be a bad experience -- that wouldn't be fair to the many people I worked with. I think what I learned is that to come here and make a big-budget studio film is not the free ride they make it out to be."

He's much more confident these days. In part, he has Saul Zaentz to thank. "He's the great enabler -- that's really his wonderful skill as a producer," Minghella says. "He makes you imagine you can do anything. He's absolutely fearless, and if he decides he's going to do something, then not very much will stop him. He's really a shark, but in the best sense of the word."

Now, with "The English Patient" rolling out across the country to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Minghella could again be facing mainstream Hollywood politics as he contemplates his next project.

"I've really learned in all of this that I desperately want to make films," he says. "And this film, above all, most clearly articulates how I want to be able to voice my work. There's no dilutedness here, which makes me doubly vulnerable and thinner-skinned than normal. I just hope I'm allowed to do it all over again."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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