Cutting to the quick

'The English Patient' has taken $55m, was four years in the making and is up for 12 Oscars. Writer-director Anthony Minghella talks to David Benedict about the heart of the matter
"I 've still got a lot of work to do." So said Anthony Minghella when we bumped into one another at a dance premiere last April. It was something of an understatement. He had just completed the first cut of The English Patient and it ran to four hours and 17 minutes.

Six months later, standing nervously before a packed cinema in Chelsea, he told the cast and crew that the film - now a rapid two hours 45 minutes - had taken over three years to make, it was theirs, and he hoped they liked it. They did. So did America. This $30m movie arrives here next week, having taken over $55m in the US so far, in a storm of expectation, not least because of 12 Oscar and 13 Bafta nominations. All this from a supposedly "difficult" Booker Prize winner everyone told him was unfilmable.

Privately, he admits to feeling "a little picked over" - his multi-continent pre-publicity schedule would give Jeffrey Archer pause - but this shortish, roundish, effusive man is painstakingly generous at the end of yet another round of interviews. Considering the missing hour-and-a-half lopped from the film, the length of a standard feature, I ask him what went? He parries. "Somebody asked me the other day if there will ever be a director's cut. No. This is the director's cut. There's a danger of characterising the process as one of bloodshed but actually it was one of distillation."

He rubs his cheek thoughtfully as he focuses down. "I tried to keep reminding myself that the film should be as short as I could manage it. You write film until the very last day. It's a sentence you begin working on with a pen, then with a camera and then on an editing machine. Editing was part of the writing, refining and taking away everything I didn't feel was essential. There's only so much you can offer to an audience in an evening without constipating them. However wonderful the next course is, if you're full, you don't want any more."

The New Yorker marvelled at the film, "awfully close to a masterpiece", particularly at Minghella's reimagining of Michael Ondaatje's multi-layered novel. Minghella had been introduced to Ondaatje's work by the poet Maura Dooley. He devoured The English Patient "in a single gulp" the morning after finishing his previous film, a modest Italian-American Nora Ephron- esque romantic comedy, Mr Wonderful, starring Matt Dillon. He immediately called Saul Zaentz, Oscar-winning producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, and a champion of Minghella's calling card, Truly Madly Deeply. Eighteen months and many drafts later, he produced a final screenplay and the finance game began. Twentieth Century Fox pulled out at the last minute having demanded a star of the magnitude of Demi Moore to play the coolly intelligent Englishwoman Katherine Clifton. Minghella and Zaentz refused to forfeit Kristin Scott Thomas and Miramax stepped in.

The film is unimaginable without Scott Thomas's luminous, thoughtful presence but you can see why a market research-obsessed studio would be nervous. Four damaged people end up sharing their lives in a ruined Tuscan villa in 1944: the mysterious "English patient", his face and body burnt beyond recognition; a nurse (Juliette Binoche) fearful that anyone who loves her will be destroyed; wounded thief or spy (Willem Dafoe); and Naveen Andrews as a Sikh who is a bomb disposal expert. A love story across continents and time, yes. Conventional Hollywood fare? No.

Not that anyone reads in Hollywood, but the non-linear novel wouldn't have helped matters. For Minghella, it was a challenge. "I was obsessed with the transparency of the storytelling. The book's defining characteristic is its fracturing, its dismantling of narrative. That was the one profound alteration I made: to construct some architecture to holds its beauty."

After the 123-day shoot in Rome, Tuscany, the Sahara and beyond, most of the editing time was spent on the transitions of time and place. "It was about braiding the various threads of the film into a seamless plait. I wanted the transitions to feel urgent and necessary and inexorable so that the audience didn't feel rocked round between two disparate stories and two locations. It had to be one story, one tense, that could somehow lasso several time periods."

He and editor Walter Murch spent hours staring at walls covered with a still from each scene plus index cards with the events of each scene attached to them. "I always knew that if the film worked, it would be because it was greater than the sum of its parts. I mean this literally, we would just stare at those cards. Interestingly, there were 46 transitions in the shooting script and there are 46 in the film but almost none of them are those we planned. I find myself with a film that corresponds almost exactly to the one I dreamed of when I was writing the screenplay but its articulation is almost completely different."

Most of the other films up for the Best Picture Oscar share its non-Hollywood single-mindedness of vision. The English Patient certainly doesn't subscribe to the current three-act screenplay tyranny which Minghella sees as more dogmatic than Aristotle. Even more worrying to the studio heads was its lack of clearly defined moral guidelines. That ambiguity, moral and dramatic, marks it out as being as much Minghella's as Ondaatje's territory.

"I'm slightly ashamed of the fact that I read Michael's book and recognised the sensibility. I felt a recognition, discovering a fellow traveller. Given that there was no conventional way of adapting the book, then inevitably it opened up a huge opportunity for me as a writer. I knew it would have to be my response to the material. By definition that means alteration and shifts in emphasis."

It's in those slight shifts, the cracks which appear between people, the tearing and healing, the emotional subsidence, as they fall in and out of love, that Minghella always shows his hand. Truly Madly Deeply famously plunged into the passions seeping out of the eyes, nose and mouth of Juliet Stevenson abandoning herself to the pleasure and pain of lost love. His television trilogy What If It's Raining? was a riveting account of the demands of love as a couple desperately tried to behave decently as their marriage collapsed. Cigarettes and Chocolate, his audacious, prize-wining radio play about a woman who gives up speaking, was like a reversed-out image of Beckett's Not I, as the central character's friends spill forth their feelings of love, embarrassment, guilt and responsibility.

His love of Beckett stems from his days as an undergraduate and lecturer in drama at Hull University. Sixteen years on, he's still quoting him. At its most raw and passionate, The English Patient is about the collision of people's needs as they search for love, often at the expense of those closest to them. "'The tears of the world are of a constant quantity. When one starts, somebody else stops.' That has always excited me as a dramatist." He even had Mary-Louise Parker say a version of it in Mr Wonderful. This time, nobody says it, but you can't miss it

'The English Patient' opens on 14 March

And the nominations are...

'The English Patient' has won Golden Globe Awards for: Best Film (Drama), Best Score

The Oscar and Bafta nominations are: Best Film; Best Director; Best Actor: Ralph Fiennes; Best Actress: Kristin Scott Thomas, Best Supporting Actress: Juliette Binoche, Best Screenplay (based on material previously published): Anthony Minghella; Best Score; Best Cinematography; Best Sound; Best Editing; Best Costume.

Design is also up for both gongs; plus a Bafta nod for Best Make-up/Hair

The Oscars will be broadcast live on BBC2, in the early hours of 25 March