Truly, madly successful

He didn't see a play until he was an adult. Now his film is up for 12 Oscars. profile; Anthony Minghella
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The Independent Online
Anthony Minghella's father says his son got his brains from ice cream. From Minghella ice cream to be exact, an especially creamy brand which sells well to cruise liners like the QE2; and it is some brain that is required for a British film-maker to win 12 Oscar nominations, as Minghella did on Tuesday for The English Patient, including one for himself, for best director.

This glistening accolade has opened every door in Hollywood to Minghella. The nominations give him the power to make any film he likes, for whatever budget he chooses. It is not quite the role in which you would cast a quiet ex-lecturer from the University of Hull, even if his brain got him one of the first Firsts his department ever gave.

The story seems even odder when you consider that Minghella, who is 43, comes from the Isle of Wight where he saw no professional theatre until he left to go to university, and, however you look at it, is not a place where you look for Hollywood heroes. His beloved grandmother moved there in the hope that its picture-postcard landscape would lure her husband back to her; it didn't, but Minghella spent a lot of his youth walking with her along the beach, hearing the story of her life.

Minghella belongs to a big, close, noisy family. He is one of five children; his three sisters are a teacher, lawyer and researcher into mental health, and his brother is a television scriptwriter

Gloria, his mother, and Eddie, his father, are both Italian by descent, although neither speaks Italian. Gloria's grandparents had settled in England, and she was brought up in Yorkshire and Scotland. Eddie, too, was born and brought up in Scotland of Italian immigrant stock.

So the Italian heritage was diluted by the time Minghella came along, but Minghella claims he always felt "different": not English. This has always baffled his mother, who has run the family business since 1953: "I don't know why he doesn't feel English. Whether he has nurtured this feeling in himself, that he maybe found it attractive, I don't know." But that feeling of otherness is a constant theme in his films: even in Mr Wonderful, the one he made in Hollywood, about a wife going to college and growing out of her blue-collar electrician husband.

But Minghella was set apart by other things. He had an extraordinary visual memory, for example, and a voracious appetite for films. Whenever he could, Minghella would slip away to visit his friend the cinema projectionist, and sit with him while he worked, just like Cinema Paradiso. He could recite dialogue from his favourites - The Magnificent Seven and The Ipcress File - as though he was replaying a tape recording of it. Years later, that ability would resurface when his family heard their own words being quoted in his films.

Aged 11, Minghella was sent to St John's College, a boarding school in Southsea, where he got bored and started truanting, provoking a flurry of concern at home. Minghella was rather annoyed to be brought home and sent to Sandown High, the local grammar school.

There he became a protege of his English teacher, a man named Gareth Pritchard, who remembers Minghella as "a down-to-earth, hard-working chap, whom everybody liked". A prankster too. Minghella was acting in a school play, Pritchard recalls, when Pritchard got a message saying he was too ill to perform. Pritchard panicked: "I said I'd have to call the doctor, at which point Anthony appeared right as a ninepin to point out that it was 1 April."

Mr Pritchard thought that Minghella "was not the world's greatest actor", and during lengthy discussions about his future after A-levels, his teacher did as teachers do and advised him firmly against going into theatre. Everyone was out of work in the theatre. A degree was the thing, and so in 1971 Minghella applied for, and won, a place in Hull University's drama department. His parents worried, conjuring visions of their darling son starving in a Yorkshire garret. No one spotted great showbusiness potential at that stage; Mr Pritchard roars with laughter at the thought: "Good Lord, no!"

Professor Michael Walton, who still teaches at Hull, remembers the first interview with Minghella: "What was curious was that, coming from the Isle of Wight, he had never seen a piece of professional theatre, but he had a very good visual memory and was very relaxed. He was very sharp about people."

Minghella was happy in Hull, spending three years writing and acting in the hothouse atmosphere of the drama department. When he graduated, he got one of the first two First Class degrees it awarded (it had been founded more than a decade earlier, in 1963). He liked Hull enough to start a PhD, and when a member of the teaching staff left, Minghella applied for the job. "The only reservation we had about him was his writing," says Prof Walton. "It was of such quality that we weren't sure we'd hold on to him for very long."

They did. Minghella stayed for several years, teaching the plays of Samuel Beckett and medieval theatre. He got to know his wife, the Chinese dancer and choreographer Carolyn Choa. A couple of years behind him on the course, she must have been drawn to what Prof Walton describes as "the warmth that shines through when you meet him: the impression he gives that you are the only person in the world he would like to be talking to at the time".

When Minghella eventually left Hull in 1981 it was indeed because of the quality of his writing. BBC-TV was commissioning him, and he was selling radio plays. He wrote the first Inspector Morse series and in 1986 he won the London Theatre Critics' Best New Play award for his first West End play, Made In Bangkok.

The play was about Western men exploiting Eastern women for sex, and Paul Shelley, who played the lead alongside Felicity Kendal, remembers Minghella attending every rehearsal: "He had a big smile on his face because he was so delighted it was being put on." He never interfered, says Mr Shelley: "He was very direct, but always gentle and softly spoken."

Minghella's first real hit happened four years later with Truly, Madly, Deeply, the film in which Juliet Stevenson is made so unhappy by her lover's death that he comes back from the grave to be with her. It was shot in 28 days on a tiny budget, and Minghella's ambitions for it were modest. He thought it would never be seen outside England.

"I'd never directed a film before that, and I didn't really know what I was up to," he says. "But a friend from the film industry came into the cutting room and sat with me one day while we watched the cathartic moment when Juliet breaks down and begins to cry. He said: 'That's wonderful, but her nose is running. Do you have another take?'" He did not. "And I didn't want to shoot another because that moment of catharsis was so real, and so unadorned."

Contrary to his expectations, Truly, Madly, Deeply was a huge hit in America. Studio executives started knocking at Minghella's door, with the result that he agreed to make the unmemorable Mr Wonderful. That was a mistake. "There are people who have great skills at navigating the waters of Hollywood, but I'm not one of them, and I learned quickly that it was very unlikely that I was going to flourish in a mainstream market," he told the Washington Post.

Famous last words.

Minghella took flight back to Europe, determined to make his next film his own way. He chose Michael Ondaatje's Booker prize-winning novel The English Patient. Partly because of its epic scale, in Africa in the dying days of the Second World War, and partly because of the squeamishness of the major studios. Because it retraced the love affair of a horribly burned pilot, they decided it was not only too costly, but too difficult to pull off.

At one stage a deal with Fox teetered on the verge of approval, but foundered when Minghella - who was determined to have Ralph Fiennes as the lead - refused to cast him opposite an American star, such as Demi Moore, to guarantee good box office.

He persevered. The script took three years to finish, and he raised pounds 20m with the help of Saul Zaentz, the producer who made his name by making hits out of "difficult" films such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. But they finally got funding only when Zaentz put up property as collateral, and the stars and crew agreed to salary deferments of pounds 5m. It was filmed with Fiennes as the pilot, Kristin Scott Thomas as his lover, and Juliette Binoche as the saintly nurse.

When The English Patient was finished Minghella was quoted saying: "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."

Terrifying because if it flopped only he could take the blame.

Now that his film is a good bet to win multiple Oscars, Minghella can take much of the credit. But he is not that kind of guy; he would rather escape to his wife and 10-year-old son, Max. "There's a wisdom in Hollywood," he said once, "that films should have a transparency and a moral clarity and certainty, which means they reach a wide audience. My sense is that audiences will be as intelligent, as analytical, and as emotional as the film asks them to be."

It is ironic, and rather depressing, that it is this refusal to compromise which has stopped Hollywood in its tracks.

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