Saul Zaentz on The English Patient

Sep 23, 1997

The English Patient was the ?rst book of Michael Ondaatje’s I had read, and I thought it was remarkable.Two weeks after ?nishing the novel, Anthony Minghella telephoned from London and asked, “How could we do this as a movie?” Being a cagey, wily, veteran producer, I pirouetted around him with, “How could you do this as a movie?” I don’t think he had a single idea.

The ?rst draft that Anthony sent me a year later had many practical problems: It had too many countries, too many characters, and was 185 pages long. But it demonstrated that there was a way to transform an incredibly complex novel into ?lm. Over the course of the next year, working between London and my home in northern California and ploughing between several drafts, the screenplay continued to shed pages, characters, and scenes that we loved. And it kept improving. All good screenwriters begin with what they think is necessary and end up with what are necessities. The process continues into the editing room, where an actor’s performance can be so sublime and communicative that whole scenes become redundant. Michael Ondaatje came to California after each draft to collaborate with us. And when, in September 1995, after the many, many difficulties we encountered getting The English Patient ?nanced, we were ?nally making the movie, he came to our locations in Italy and the Sahara. He had ideas that Anthony acknowledged he would never have thought of, and they were received with open arms. Michael has been a friend throughout the writing, ?lming, and editing.