The son of a Polish-born violinist, Richard Kwietniowski was born and raised in England but felt very much of an outsider, in part because of his homosexuality. (He also jokes in interviews that he was often teased in school because he doesn't know how to play cricket). After studying film at the University of Kent and Berkeley, he began his career by making experimental shorts. His first, "Alfalfa" (1987), was a nine minute riff on language, offering an alternative alphabet keyed to gay slang (e.g., C is for Clone), and received attention at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. Kwietniowski followed with "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1988), featuring Quentin Crisp in a modern-day rendering of Oscar Wilde's courtroom speech about "the love that dare not speak its name" and "Flames of Passion" (1989), a gay twist on David Lean's 1945 "Brief Encounter", which received much festival exposure. Other short films include "Proust's Favorite Fantasy" and "The Cost of Love" (both 1991) and the 22-minute "Actions Speak Louder Than Words" (1992), which explores the confluence of the gay and hearing-impaired communities.
Since reading Gilbert Adair's novel "Love and Death on Long Island", which echoes Thomas Mann's classic "Death in Venice", Kwietniowski had wanted to make a film based on the book. He wrote the screenplay adaptation of the first-person story about a reclusive British author who becomes obsessed with an American film star and teen heartthrob, and then spent over 18 months trying to find backing for the project. Companies in Italy, Canada and the UK out up the money and the director was able to land the two actors he wanted for the leads, John Hurt and Jason Priestley, both of whom delivered strong performances under his guidance. The modest, quirky comedy earned generally positive notices and grossed over $2.5 million at the US box-office.