Amy J Moore recently produced Anthony Minghella’s two-hour movie adaptation of the international best-selling series of books, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, in Botswana, in conjunction with The Weinstein Company and the BBC. The BBC and HBO have committed to a continuing 13 episode series to be filmed later this year. Here Moore recalls her time with Minghella filming in the Botswana bush and provides an insightful and sensitive assessment of the myriad of facets of the screenwriter, opera director and Oscar-winning filmmaker of “The English Patient,’ who died of a hemorrhage on Tuesday 18 March at age 54.
Anthony Minghella died on the morning of the night of what was our London Premiere of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency movie. This was a movie that Anthony and I had been working on for about eight years together, a long journey, full of faces, sangomas, elephants, people, and a gentle and beautiful continent, Africa.
It is a complete shock when someone dies so suddenly, at such a young age, a light that extinguishes before you have expressed all that you should have expressed. I’m deeply sorry for his family, his friends – what a giant man, and a giant life! It is especially a loss for us, because Anthony was one of the rare poets who could translate such an event’s meaning (or lack thereof) for the rest of us. We look to him, his canvas, the interplay of light and dark, to guide us.
As the many stories emerge about his love and generosity, I most enjoy those that depict the human man, his inner conflicts, the rich tapestry of his life, for those simple moments, to me, are what informed and shaped his poetic genius. Tiny moments, a single image, I can hear Anthony saying, are what makes up our humanity, and there were certainly times I probably tested his humanity, but never his spirit – for he had an endless spirit.
His were big and small virtues all wrapped together uncannily as one.
I remember his patience, a quality I don’t have, as I drove around in circles in a parking lot at the University of Botswana. We had come to Gaborone together so he could put the finishing touches on Richard Curtis’ and his screenplay for No. 1 Ladies. I was playing the expert and got us completely lost, driving around, what turned out to be a parking lot in the dusty capital. Anthony never said a word, never chided me. He always took the ordinary and made art from it.
He had a rare inquisitiveness matched by a visual immediacy. He had an eye. Boy did he have an eye. I remember once while scouting, a lilac breasted roller flew by. An explosion of colour. I’d been coming to Africa for 35 years and still couldn’t keep birds and species straight. In less than four hours in the bush, Anthony had already absorbed it all. He could have been intimidating – he saw so much – but his infectious good cheer made him otherwise.
He was casual in the best possible sense of the word. He and Carolyn came to the house for dinner once in London, the first time he was to meet Alexander McCall-Smith. After a pumpkin soup starter, worthy of Mma Ramotswe, Anthony cleared the empty soup bowls with me. In the kitchen he quipped, “I know how to do this. I did this as a kid in my parents’ cafe.’ And he shuffled off to get more empty bowls.
There have been suggestions that like Fellini, as a teenager, he hadn’t enjoyed the work in his parent’s cafe. What young Italian man would want to bus tables when the beach beckoned and the sounds of Lucio Dalla wafted over the sand on a summer’s night?
But one sensed his roots made him accessible. One morning, on the same trip to work on the No. 1 Ladies screenplay, I picked him up at his modest cottage at the famous Mokolodi game reserve in Botswana, and had to pry him away from the cleaning staff. He counselled, consoled, cajoled, a young Motswana woman who wanted to get married but insisted that her boyfriend save up money to buy enough cows for her dowry first. Anthony crunched on cereal, out of an open box, “I love cereal’, he looked passed me as I arrived, his mind far off with the woman’s story, her life, the cows, maybe his parents’ cafe, these seemingly random pieces, all connected to a full and vibrant understanding of life. We had to buy several boxes of cereal that trip!
He had a supreme talent for accepting life’s tangents as opportunities. Life presented itself in moments around every turn for him. When he and Carolyn arrived at the Sir Seretse Khama airport in Gabs, again the designated driver, I drove to pick them up. Carolyn had lost a small case so we had to wait. Anthony darted to the tiny bookstore contented. He loved a good book store (he loved stores generally, I found. I was always shopping with this great director). There he found Unity Dow’s book, The Screaming of the Innocents, which became a key to the mystery of his No. 1 screenplay. Carolyn’s lost bag resulted in a found sensibility. No. 1 Ladies, a comedy, could only be made once he understood the darkness. Anthony said to me, “it’s like an oil painting. You start with a dark canvas, and then you add the light.’
And that’s what I think is happening now. “Our Ant’ is in the darkness and we have been left behind, suffering in shock. I do not feel him at the moment even though I am in the bush, a place he adored with the praying mantis, monkeys, grunting hippos. He found a new canvas in Africa, in Botswana.
But – I believe what will happen – for I have seen it over and over again in the years I have known and worked with him – – is that he will soon emerge for us, to soothe, translate, beckon, explain, calm – in the light. He will find his light, and lucky us, he will take us with him permanently, in magical ways, that we will see throughout our lives because of his influence, ways that will continue to inform, to tell us — what it means to be alive.
I wish he were in Africa with me now, in the bush, soaking in life, losing his backpack, searching for his sun cream, laughing at his own bad jokes. But I do know that he will live on in ways I cannot yet understand, his ways, which will enhance and enrich our lives forever.
For that’s what he did. That’s who he was.
Thank you Anthony.