by Abbie Bernstein January 9, 1997 Los Angeles California in Drama~Logue
AB: Because of the attention THE ENGLISH PATIENT has attracted, I would imagine you've been about half interviewed to death by now.
AM: I have been. Funnily enough, I've had a very good 24 hours here, because we did a reading last night at Borders, Michael Ondaatje and I, which was great fun. And then today I did a show with Jim Schrader, who I like very much. Do you know him?
AB: Yeah, he's an actor.
AM: No, he's not an actor, he's a music reviewer for -- it's a music station, and he writes books about music.
AB: I'm sorry, I thought you said Jim Spader.
AM: No, no, Jim Schrader his name is, and it's a --- he's a very nice man. And so it doesnt't feel like work, it was a pleasure talking to him. We're both music fans, and so we talked all about music.
AB: Well, perhaps I should start out by asking, is there something that you're dying to say about THE ENGLISH PATIENT that so far nobody's asked you?
AM: No. I think obviously -- one thing I'm really thrilled about is the fact that THE ENGLISH PATIENT novel is now number one on the New York Times best-seller list and has been for the last three weeks. And I think that is such a vindication for me of a book that I loved and wanted to in some way attach myself to and be part of, and have been part of for the last four years, and to see that the film is causing people to go to the bookstores and ge the benefit and pleasure that's in an exquisite novel to me is a source of huge satisfaction. Today that's what I was thinking of, because I spent yesterday with Michael and four years ago when we met, it would have been such a shock to have come from that first meeting to today and feel that so many more people are going to discover that book all over the world. And that feels terrific to me.
AB: Are people responding to the same things in it that you responded to in it, or are they getting something else out of it now?
AM: I think in a way the film becomes a sort of primer for the book now, and obviously what it betrays, the film, is my take on the book. Because it's a book that's so fragmentary and mosaic-like, and ful of -- it's much more a collection of beautiful visual images and interior meditations and thoughts about the desert and exploration-- it isn't a conventional novel in any sense. So obviously in the process of adapting it, I had to make my own map of the book. And I think that map is going to be the way that people now, who don't know the book, go to the book, and it will be fleshed out by Ralph Fiennes in that role, by Juliette Binoche -- they'll hear all those voices. And so I suppose in that way the film will be reimagined by its audience, and even by people who know the book before -- if they go back to the book, which I know a number of people are doing, then they'll have the odd sensation of having been steered through the book. And that's both an interesting thing and probably not such a good thing in some ways. And I think that probably some people who wouldn't have dared read a book like this or would have been thwarted by it might now be able to find their way through it and take great pleasure from it. People who know the book may feel that I've forced them in a particular direction through it. But I think that one of the reasons why we all do the things we do is because we're fans, first and foremost. And I'm a great fan of his writing, I'd read everything he'd written before THE ENGLISH PATIENT, and so if I can tell myself that at least I've made some other evangelists for him then I think that's only a good thing, and there's a lot of other work of his to discover as well after THE ENGLISH PATIENT.
AB: Obviously, you read a lot. Waht made you think that, as opposed to some other things that you read that you liked that you didn't try to make into a movie, that this was something that you could make into a film?
AM: It's funny, I've just come from being with my agent, going through books and things which have come in. Obviously, one of the ironies is that now I've made this film, lots of books written by people with long names, heavy books are coming my way, and that's marvelous. But the fact of the matter is that you can't determine in advance -- I hav two roles, I suppose. One is as a ready, and that will continue whether I make no more films or whether I make lots more films, and I try not to pick up a book and imagine that it could be a job. It's a horrible way to begin any reading activity, and I wa an academic, I love to read, and that's been a sustaining passion in life. So what determines whether a book lends itself to adaptation is totally mysterious to me, but I think one of the things that I've found in the course of this period of time, four years of working on the film, is that Michael's a real fellow traveler for me, and he's somebody whose sensibility I think is very close to my own. I like him enormously. I think we feel very similarly about things, and I suppose what I recognized in that book was a space for me to have my own say without damaging his voice, because that's what you're looking for, where your own personal indisyncracies don't conflict with the voice of the source material.
AB: Was this your first adaptation as opposed to --
AM: Original piece of work?
AB: Well, I know MR. WONDERFUL was actually written by other people altogether.
AM: I -- about five or six years ago started a series in England on TV which was very successful called INSPECTOR MORSE. And those initial-- eventually it became original pieces of work, but there were some novels we began with so I had some some adaptation before, but nothing of this order or magnitude, and I didn't think of myself as an adaptor at all, but I enjoyed doing this and I felt -- and subsequently I've done another adaptation. I've adapted Patricia Highsmith's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY for Sidney Pollack's company, Mirage, and I enjoyed doing that as well, so -- you know, I hope it's not the only thing I do in my life, is to adapt other people's novels, and I have a project that I've written that I might do which is an original piece of work. So I mean, I don't have any particula recipe for any of this, and again, it's about finding an idea or some material which is arresting in some way, which you feel that is going to sustain you for the amount of time it takes to make a fi;m, and I think that's the one lesson I've learned, is that films take such a long time to make, you'd better be intoxicated by the material just simply because you have to stick through a great deal with it. There's always going to be a battle of some description and there's always going to be a crusade of some description. You'd better feel some faith in the material to sustain you through those periods.
AB: Now you had started professionally as a teacher?
AM: When I graduated, I got a job lecturing at university and I did that for five years, but I was writing and thinking about being a playwright, and I was teaching theatre history and dramatic literature, and working in a building in the university which had a theatre and a radio station and a television studio attached to it, so it was a great opportunity as a young person to be writing and working with students and seeing what happened to the writing and having a theatre laboratory in a way. In fact, the theatre was called the Theatre Laboratory, and that's how it was treated, as a place to experiment and try things out. I was writing a lot of music and working with music in the theatre and I was very -- it was a great opportunity to continue learning. I didn't think I was teaching particularly sensationally, it was just like extending my study period, and during that time I got some work done and some commissions and when I was 20 I resigned and set off to try and be a playwright and spent the next six or seven years writing plays. In fac, through to 1986, I was writing plays to the exclusion of anything else, and then gradually fell into everything else that followed.
AB: Was WHAT IF IT'S RAINING your first -- ?
AM: I didn't direct WHAT IF IT'S RAINING.
AB: Oh, you didn't.
AM: I wrote it.
AM: No, no. People always now assume I directed all of those things, but I didn't. The first thing that I directed was TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY. It was from a standing start. I'd done a tiny bit of work in radio, I'd written some plays for Juliet Stevenson and I'd directed those, but the first serious piece of directing I did was TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY. I had just been working as a writer and I think what had happened was that I had buit up a relationship-- funnily enough, the day before yesterday -- my publisher in England is republishing a collection of plays and I'd wrote an introduction and I was reading the original introduction, which was talking about and it was just a snapshot of where I was when these plays were first published, and it was saying about the value of repeated relationships and of working with the same group of actors, and even though I had not been directing, a group of actors had attached themselves in soem loose way to the work I was doing, and principally, I suppose, three or four actor: Michael Maloney, Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman I'd worked with, and Colin Firth. And so I began to keep writing for the same collection of voices and then I wrote TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY for Juliet, because we'd worked together eight or nine times, and I was so clear that she was -- I felt sort of destined to work with her, because her qualities, and that was everything I really admire in acting and performing, and so I wanted to write a film which showed her off, really, and then when that came up, it seemed like a good idea to do it myself. And it was supposed to be very small and almost -- I thought it might not go noticed anywhere, and in fact, it had the reverse effect, and it turned me from being a writer in England to a director here. It was an odd -- it took me some time to catch up with what all of that meant.
AB: So when you started out as a writer, you were'nt really thinking, "Well, I want to go direct and make movies," or were you thinking that was --
AM: You know, I directed the first play that I wrote, and I was more interested at that point in directing than I was in writing, and the writing was in a way an opportunity to get to direct. And then because I had some success as a writer, I without much sense of a career, I just got a job as a writer and got another job as a write, and I found out that an interesting thing occurred, which was, never having been interested in writing particularly as a student, I discovered that the process of writing was the most defining one that I'd experienced, insofar as when I was writing, and still when I'm writing, I feel most like myself and I like being alone and I like working alone, and I like the discipline of writing, and it's just a very familiar environment, to work in a room with books and study. And the research of writing relly interests me. But on the other hand, like everybody else, there's more going on than that, and there are several types of people jostling inside, just as there are in everybody else, and I think that there's also the great --