Big adventure

Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli on camels, the desert, The English Patient and The New Pope

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ann Roth won an Oscar for Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Ann Roth won an Oscar for Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient

For Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, shot by John Seale (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr Ripley, Michael Apted’s Gorillas In The Mist, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist), Oscar-winner Ann Roth and her then assistant Carlo Poggioli (costume designer for Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope with Jude Law, and The New Pope with John Malkovich and Law) dressed Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine, Ralph Fiennes as Almásy, Juliette Binoche as Hana, Naveen Andrews as Kip, Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio, and Colin Firth as Katharine’s husband Geoffrey.

Ralph Fiennes as Almásy
Ralph Fiennes as Almásy

The English Patient won Oscars for Best Picture (producer Saul Zaentz), Director, Actress in a Supporting Role (Binoche), Cinematography, Editing (Walter Murch), Original Dramatic Score (Gabriel Yared), Art Direction (Stuart Craig, Stephanie McMillan), and Sound (Mark Berger, David Parker, Christopher Newman, Murch), and BAFTAs for Best Picture, Screenplay Adapted, Actress in a Supporting Role (Binoche), Cinematography, Editing, and Music (Yared).

The day after her birthday, Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli (who gave Ann the beautiful pale blue scarf she is wearing in the photograph) told me about their adventures together, on film sets and on vacations and how all was almost lost in the Tunisian desert during The English Patient shoot.

Over birthday cake, sent over by Meryl Streep, Carlo confirmed that even when dressing a Pope he kept Ann’s motto in mind to always add something that is slightly wrong. To paraphrase Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict in The Two Popes - “Sartorially, I’m not infallible.”

Ann Roth on costumes for the Bedouins in The English Patient: “These people were not movie actors. Or any actors. They had never seen a movie. And nobody wanted to go there to dress them - except Carlo and me”
Ann Roth on costumes for the Bedouins in The English Patient: “These people were not movie actors. Or any actors. They had never seen a movie. And nobody wanted to go there to dress them - except Carlo and me” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Carlo Poggioli: Ann and I we went on so many adventures. When we went to Matera, [Italy]?

Ann Roth: When we went to Matera, did we not sleep in a cave?

CP: Ha, ha, yes!

Anne-Katrin Titze: You slept in a cave?

CP: We had so many big adventures! How about when we slept in the place where this man was killed the night before? Do you remember?

AKT: Jesus! This is not what I expected to talk to you about! Costumes and not places where people are shot!

CP: We had a good time in Matera. We had big adventures. How about when we lost the suitcases in the middle of the desert during The English Patient?

AR: Oh my god! This is a story that is not interesting to you. You're hearing it anyway.

Carlo Poggioli: “We had a good time in Matera. We had big adventures. How about when we lost the suitcases in the middle of the desert during The English Patient?”
Carlo Poggioli: “We had a good time in Matera. We had big adventures. How about when we lost the suitcases in the middle of the desert during The English Patient?” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Let me be the judge of that.

AR: So we're doing The English Patient. And there is the scene in the beginning of the film in the desert. At any rate, about 200 and some miles in this funny shaped country and down at the bottom, we were going to find 14 or 15 men with their camels that they owned that were going to look like they're starting out and we meet them at the top of the country a month later.

These people were not movie actors. Or any actors. They had never seen a movie. And nobody wanted to go there to dress them - except Carlo and me. Mostly me. Nobody else wanted to go. At any rate, we had to have the same costumes on these guys that we had on their doubles at the top of the country.

CP: Six hours of the desert.

AR: So we put them [the costumes] in a box and we tied them to the top of the jeep that was driving us down.

CP: Two suitcases.

AKT: And the suitcases fell off the jeep?

The Cliftons - Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas)
The Cliftons - Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas)

AR: And we didn't notice it, did we?

AKT: Are they still somewhere in the desert to this day?

CP: No, at one point Alfredo [Bocci], our guy who was a wonderful helper.

AR: Is he living?

CP: Yes! So at one point in the afternoon, the shadows came down and Alfredo from the window - we were sleeping …

AR: The shadows!

CP: He said, "You know Carlo, I think we lost something. Because I don't see the shadow of the suitcases."

AR: The shadows! Also I'd like to tell you we had to stop driving when the sun went down because there was no road. We were driving in the desert, there was nothing there. Maybe 14 camels.

CP: At one point we thought, okay, we have to stop. We checked and we didn't have the suitcases.

AKT: So what did you do?

Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas)
Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas)

CP: All the other crew was waiting for us to do the shooting. By that time, we didn't have cellphones. At one point, we thought, what do we do? And the driver said "Ah, the only truck that we saw going the opposite way was a truck of Bedouins, like ten, 15 people in the back of a truck. They said to us "Hello, hello" at exactly that moment.

So we stopped and the driver said we had to be lucky. What do we do? Either I go back to find the suitcases or we go ahead to say that we didn't have the suitcases? Because it was hours! So we said, you know what? We stop here, we wait for you, you go back to see if you can find the suitcases. Ann was there and she was looking at two little camels. I will never forget. You remember the camels?

AR: Yes.

CP: They were white.

AR: Yes, they were Algerian.

Kip (Naveen Andrews) with Hana (Juliette Binoche)
Kip (Naveen Andrews) with Hana (Juliette Binoche)

CP: So Ann was great, she was with these camels. I was so worried, can you imagine? If we lose the costumes, we cannot shoot. Anyway, we were lucky because the driver came back after an hour or something more and we found them.

AR: We found them. It was a more dramatic story.

AKT: Carlo, you said you learned from Ann that the best costumes always have something that is slightly wrong. How did you deal with that advice when dressing the clergy, specifically your Popes?

AR: How is the Pope wrong? Is the Pope ever wrong?

CP: I will always remember what Ann told me - something has to be wrong in the character.

AKT: That's how attraction works. We may not know it but it's the flaw, the detail that isn't quite right that intrigues us. In clothes, in paintings, anything. So what's wrong with the Pope? [Carlo was and is doing the costumes for Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope with Jude Law, and The New Pope with John Malkovich and Law.]

The New Pope NYC subway poster - costumes by Carlo Poggioli
The New Pope NYC subway poster - costumes by Carlo Poggioli Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CP: Ha, Ha, there are many things. The New Pope? The New Pope is completely different from the other one. The old Pope, let's say, they have such a metamorphosis in this one! The characters, they change completely. I was so happy, because the first time it was, oh my gosh, but when you do the second series, that will be easier for us. Because I had everything ready from the first series.

But the script - it was so amazing - the characters from the first one, they have such a development, it's completely different. So then I had to start again to think about this character. That's what you'll see in January, I think.

AR: What's it called? The New Pope?

Read what Carlo Poggioli had to say on Terrence Malick’s The Last Planet, Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope and the impact of Federico Fellini.

Read what Ann Roth had to say on Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Josh Singer, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, John Schlesinger, and Mike Nichols.

Read what Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli had to say on working together during The English Patient and Roth on creating the backstory.

The New Pope premiered on January 13 on HBO.

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