The English Patient: About The Locations

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Principal photography began on September 4, 1995 at Cinecitta Studios where sets had been constructed on two of the legendary Roman studio's main sound stages. After three weeks of filming at Cinecitta, the company moved to the town of Pienza in Tuscany, 52 kilometers south of Siena, to film scenes which take place in and around the monastery.

Minghella, Zaentz and production designer Stuart Craig spent several weeks in Tuscany in search of the monastery that was needed to recreate the world of Hana, Kip, Caravaggio and the English patient. When they explored Monastero di Sant'Anna near Pienza, Minghella knew he had found the location he wanted.

The unit spent three weeks at the monastery, filming also in one of the main town squares in nearby Pienza. They then moved on to Viareggio, a coastal resort town near Pisa, to create the emergency field hospital triage tent.

Cast and crew traveled from Viareggio to the well-known Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido for the scenes that take place in Cairo's famed Shepheard's Hotel. Shepheard's, an elegant and long-time watering hole for the international upper crust of desert explorers, spies, military officers, and diplomatic attaches was destroyed in the 1950's. The hotel that rose in its place and took its name in the 1960's is a modern structure that could never have worked for the film's pre-WWII setting.

Instead, Stuart Craig remembered the luxurious Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido from a vacation the summer before. Minghella and Zaentz agreed that it would serve perfectly and filming began there in early November 1995. That the incomparable city of Venice was standing in for Cairo took on a special significance for many involved in the production.

"In Italo Calvino's book "invisible Cities," he describes one city which is a town that can only be approached by sea and when you get there it's a desert," says Michael Ondaatje. "And that's how Venice was for us.

On November 13, 1995 the company flew from Venice to Tunisia in North Africa where, for 9 weeks, the remaining scenes that take place in Cairo and in the Sahara were to be filmed. During pre-production Minghella, Zaentz and Craig scouted locations across much of North Africa, including Egypt and Morocco, briefly entertaining the idea of Cairo playing itself. in 1938 fewer than two million people lived in Cairo; in 1995 the population numbered many millions more. Physically, the city had also changed and much of its architecture no longer represented the period necessary for the film. Therefore, for the purpose of filming, the Tunisian cities of Tunis, El Mahdia and Sfax more perfectly represented the Cairo of the 1930's.

in Tunis two important sequences that take place in the British Ambassador's residence in Cairo were photographed in a spacious, unoccupied former foreign minister's private residence built nearly 150 years ago. One scene was the exclusive formal dinner party hosted by the Ambassador and his wife; the other was the larger, somewhat incongruous Christmas celebration thrown for what seems like the city's entire British Colony.

"We looked at several large houses in Tunis," recalls Craig, "but we chose this one for the authentic Islamic elements in its architecture and design, its elegant arches and beautiful ceramic work. We also liked the central open courtyard around which the house was constructed. It projected the proper interior/exterior ambience, a sense that the very streets of Cairo permeate the Ambassador's residence. Filming the Christmas party during grueling heat in this exotic residence made it seem all the more incongruous, adding in a way to the sense that the characters are at odds with their environment and somehow adrift."

The sequences of Katharine and Almásy strolling through the narrow, winding alleyways of Cairo's Medina were filmed in a souk in Sfax. (The Medina, a feature of every Arab town or city, is the old
walled Arab village around which the modern city has grown; the souks are the roofed-in market streets inside the Medina.)

After filming in Sfax, the unit traveled to the Mediterranean town of El Mahdia, which doubled for Tobruk.

Once city sequences were completed the unit moved southwest to the town of Tozeur in the Sahara, a six-hour drive from El Mahdia. Near the country's southwestern border and only a few kilometers from Algeria, for centuries Tozeur has been a staging point for Bedouin caravans en route from the desert to the Mediterranean coast in the north. It was in the environs of Tozeur that the production found oases and a variety of desert landscapes crucial for the film's narrative.
"The color and quality of the sand, the light beige granules of the Sahara there that are so distinctive and recognizable, that kind of Lawrence of Arabia desert, is what we needed," says Stuart Craig. "The sand in the Moroccan desert is a darker red rock color resembling the deserts in the United States. The Sahara in Tunisia was just right."

One important location, 45 km from Tozeur, was the vast, dry salt lake called the Chott el Jerid which served as the Almásy-Madox expedition's base camp. Another was the undulating Sahara sand dunes close to the Chott. Littered with furrows made by the desert winds, the dunes look as if they have existed undisturbed forever.

"The most astounding thing about the desert was simply the silence," Kristin Scott Thomas says. "It had a special quality. It felt thick. Every breath and sigh you made, every rustle, every piece of clothing that brushed against you was amplified a hundred times."

in general, access to the locations was difficult and precarious as the filmmakers discovered during locations scouts. The production was filmed in the mountain oasis of Tamerza (3 km from the visible Algerian border and guarded outpost), part of the Djebel en Negueb range, an off-shoot of the Atlas Mountains. The narrow, winding road to Tamerza climbs beside a thousand meter high gorge which veers off into several hairpin turns sometimes slickly layered with mud especially after a rainfall.

Nearly as remote was the site of the entrance to the Cave of Swimmers. Located deep inside a rocky crevice at the summit of a hill outside the desert town of Degache, and inaccessible by ground vehicles, camera and sound equipment was carried from the base camp to the location in the gorge by donkey train. Some twenty animals were used while cast and crew climbed to the site on foot, a 25 minute hike.

Reaching the Chott el Jerid for the base camp scenes was not much easier. The road from Tozeur came to an abrupt end miles before the location site. So that the production's army of transport vehicles and equipment trucks could negotiate their way across the desert to the base camp location, line producer Alessandro von Normann supervised the extension of the road while also widening the sandy camel/donkey path. The road extension was named the Saul Zaentz Imperial Highway in honor of the producer.

"In the end we all felt that Tunisia was the perfect place for us to shoot Cairo and the desert," Stuart Craig says. "The dazzling desert vistas in the Chott that seem like nothing more than an endless, limitless horizon gave a feeling of eternal space and timelessness. Shooting on that location we were able to get the stunning visuals without any special effects and being in the Chott was a way of opening up the desert even more than we imagined."

"This was very important," Minghella explains. "There are three distinct time frames and locations in the film - Italy, Cairo, and the desert - and the more separate and distinct these three images are visually, the more everyone has a better sense of where the action is without thinking about it. The greens and blacks they used in Italy contrast sharply with the palette of golden hues they created for the desert."

Ann Roth, who selected and supervised the creation of all the costumes, also made a significant contribution to the recreation of the period. She allowed her imagination free range while she worked, but always aimed for authenticity.

"in 1938, the Duke of Windsor was the trend-setter for the upper crust English, so we had the dinner clothes the men wear made on Saville Row by the Duke's tailor, a man named Mr. Halsey. He had dressed the Duke when he was King. Mr. Halsey also made clothes for many movie stars in the 1930's."

The military clothing used in the film is also authentic. "British and Canadian uniforms were made by a company called Nathans. After the war they were purchased by the costume house of Angels Berman who provided us with them for the film. The marvelous thing is that the uniforms the soldiers and nurses are wearing are real."

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