The peril of passion gone awry can be an aching heart — and that’s assuming no heavy lifting is involved. On this February afternoon in Rome, Ralph Fiennes, who has spent several of the last 105 days hauling the limp body of his English Patient costar Kristin Scott Thomas around Tunisia’s desert, is feeling the ruin of romance in his back.
Looking especially slight and vulnerable in khaki shorts, a button-down shirt, and a back girdle, the pale Fiennes makes his way onto a Cinecittà studio soundstage with such gingerly steps that he might be balancing a phone book on his head. Producer Saul Zaentz, a smiling Orson Welles look-alike who needed no padding to fill out the Santa Claus costume he wore for the cast and crew during the holidays, dodges a snack table that’s laden with jugs of red wine and plates of pizza to offer his leading man a sympathetic smile and the name of a local masseuse. ”I always panic, but I’m an optimist by nature,” says Zaentz, 75, as Fiennes slinks off behind the four-story fiberglass construction that serves as the exterior of a desert cave.
If the producer is taking the situation in better stride than his leading man could dream of having right now, it’s because the four years it’s taken to bring Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel to the screen have been so fraught with troubles — including director Anthony Minghella breaking his ankle two months into production — that Zaentz has become immune to trauma.
The English Patient is a mosaic of love stories in Italy and North Africa during World War II — one an illicit affair between explorer Count Laszlo de Almásy (Fiennes) and the married Katharine Clifton (Thomas) told in flashbacks, the other between Almásy’s nurse (Juliette Binoche) and a British-trained bomb specialist (Naveen Andrews). It’s the kind of pitch that makes studios shudder: a period piece with expensive costumes and locations and a nonchronological narrative offset by angst rather than action. But where Hollywood fears to tread, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Zaentz — who has won 13 Oscars and, with such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a reputation as an artistic standard-bearer among independent producers — rushes in.
When Minghella called Zaentz in 1992 and said he was interested in directing the inherently uncinematic English Patient, he trusted that the producer’s literary tastes would override his concerns about the book’s unfilmability, and he was right. ”Cuckoo’s Nest was available for 13 years, but they wanted a big star. Even asking for no money, we still couldn’t get it made,” Zaentz says with the confidence of one who has been proved right. ”With Amadeus, one studio head said, ‘Costume pictures don’t do any business.’ Another said, ‘A picture about classical music?’ and threw up his arms.”
”Everyone is interested in pain, passion, and war,” insists Minghella. But not everyone was interested in the filmmakers: Minghella, who had directed the critically acclaimed ghostly love story Truly, Madly, Deeply in 1991, was coming off the less stellar Matt Dillon romance Mr. Wonderful; Zaentz, who had impressed audiences with 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had lost $20 million with the missionary drama At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a blow that left his eponymous company unable to finance a film without backing from a distributor.