ROME AND TUSCANY
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."
SFAX AND EL MAHDIA
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
"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."