Was born at Karen in Kenya and grew up in England and Italy. At eighteen he hitch-hiked to Afghanistan and Nepal and has been an inveterate traveller ever since. He studied politics and philosophy at Oxford. Later he became a researcher for the BBC before joining AKA, a documentary film company where he made films about Max Frisch, Oscar Niemeyer and Melina Mercouri.
He began writing screenplays in 1969 and has collaborated amongst others with Jacques Demy, René Clément, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci.
His principal credits include Antonioni’s The Passenger (1974) and The Last Emperor (1987) with Bernardo Bertolucci, for which he won the Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
As a writer-director he made a half hour fiction film Samson and Delilah (1985), nominated for a Bafta, then the feature Afraid of the Dark (1991), a psychological thriller with Fanny Ardant and James Fox.
In 1997 he made Victory from the novel by Joseph Conrad with Willem Dafoe and Irène Jacob, which was an official selection at the San Sebastian Festival.
With his sister Clare he wrote High Season (1987), Silver Shell at the San Sebastian Festival, and for Bertolucci he adapted The Sheltering Sky (1990) from the Paul Bowles novel, and worked on Little Buddha (1993).
He has written the script for Bertolucci’s next film based on the life of the 16th century Neapolitan composer Gesualdo da Venosa, and is presently developing an action-thriller called The Crew from a story by Antonioni.