THE ENGLISH DIRECTOR
Byline: Merle Ginsberg
NEW YORK — “I feel so exposed!” Anthony Minghella’s saying on the phone from the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “It’s a mix of pride and humiliation.”
You wouldn’t think the director of “The English Patient” would be fretting much. The movie seems to be a sure Oscar nominee, as are the actors in it, and critics have used words like “masterpiece.”
“You see, most people who make a film like this are littered with compromises,” explains Minghella, who made his feature directing debut with 1991’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” “Once we got our backing [from Miramax], I made exactly the film I wanted to, with the cast I wanted. Now I feel like I’m standing up there with no clothes!”
When Minghella read Michael Ondaatje’s novel about a paraplegic reminiscing at the end of World War II about the war and his doomed love affair, he was mesmerized — and determined to turn it into something cinematic.
First he rang up producer Saul Zaentz (“Amadeus,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), who was up for a big challenge. And then Minghella realized his own limitations involving the project: It’s set in the Egyptian desert, which he knew nothing about; he knew little about World War II, and he wanted actors the studios wouldn’t put up money for.
“But Ondaatje was with me all the way,” he notes. “He knew I wanted what he wanted — a film that was personal, intimate, but also ravishing — and big!”
The screenplay caught the attention of Ralph Fiennes, who came to Minghella and actually asked for the lead role.
“The only other actors who were on my list for that part were Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson,” says Minghella. “The character has to be able to fly, kill with his bare hands, be sexy and charismatic enough for a married woman to give up everything — and he has to lie in bed decrepit for half the film. Ralph is all those things.”
The film also stars Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas, who Minghella acknowledges is the “surprise of the movie.”
“I was so surprised Kristin was the person I wanted,” Minghella laughs. “When I met her, she was so aristocratic and arresting, but all the studios wanted a bigger star. The first time I saw Ralph and Kristin in a room together — it was like two exotic creatures circling around each other.”
When asked if he’d ever like to make a simpler film, Minghella just laughs.
“I’d like to. I’d like to tomorrow,” he says. “But the camera loves crowds, loves locations: romance and tragedy, pain and pleasure. Relationships aren’t simple at all. This movie was a pilgrimage for all of us, almost a spiritual one. Every day, we all felt like anvils were falling on our heads. And if it was up to Ralph, we’d still be in the desert, filming!”