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The Mythology of Anthony Minghella

The Mythology of Anthony Minghella

Articles - Directing

Anthony Minghella discusses a shot with cinematographer John
Seale on Cold Mountain.

Anthony Minghella met
with MM over lunch while doing ADR for Cold
Mountain
on
Burbank’s Disney lot. The conversation, not difficult to generate
with this soft-spoken, articulate Englishman, addressed the genesis
of his new project, the writing process and why Cold Mountain may
be his last adaptation. For a while, anyway.

Phillip Williams (MM): What attracted you
to
Cold Mountain?

Anthony Minghella (AM): The
provenance of this project is quite interesting. I had not thought
about doing another
adaptation. I felt like I’d gotten into this cycle of adapting
novels, which had never been my intention. I’d actually done an
interview where I’d said that I wouldn’t do another one. I was
in Toronto, staying with Michael Ondaatje; we just kind of hung
out for a weekend together in a cabin he has there. And he gave
me a novel that he said his editor had passed on to him that he
thought I might react to. I put it in my case and went back to
London, and when I arrived, there were two Fed Ex parcels—both
of which contained the same book. So I actually received three
copies of Cold Mountain in one week. Then, several weeks
later, I got a box in the post that had been stuck in Berkeley,
where I’d been living, and inside was the manuscript to Cold
Mountain
.
So I took that as some sort of an oracle that I had better pay
attention. Before I finished reading it, I knew I would do it.

MM: What was it that you reacted to?

AM: It’s a gift to a filmmaker. It’s that very rare thing:
a book whose literature is extraordinary and evocative and beautiful,
but it’s also a book whose narrative is bony and muscular and strong.
Sometimes when you take a wonderful piece of writing and reduce
it to its narrative constituents, it’s often rather frail because
the novel, particularly the modern novel, has moved away from storytelling
as being its first priority. So a book like The English Patient,
which is one of my favorite books of all time, when you carve off
the flesh of its writing and its poetry, it’s indifferent to narrative.
In a way, it’s a poem. To make the story of the film from it was
extremely demanding.

With Cold Mountain, if you strip away
everything that’s apparently beautiful about it, you end up with a resonant,
thrilling narrative. It’s both a true story, or a speculation on
a true story, and it has the quality of memoir. It also collects
many of the anecdotal and/or factual material from the Carolinas,
during the war, that exists in letters and documents. It’s quite
consciously evoking The Odyssey and it’s also evoking a
series of Chinese, Buddhist poems called Cold Mountain,
which are all about the idea of Cold Mountain as a spiritual destination.
It’s a palimpsest—it sits on top of all these other sources—so
that when you read it, there’s a sort of slight mythological status
to it, which for a film is a wonderful, wonderful gift.

Jude Law, whom Minghella calls “a gift to a director,” stars
as Inman in the director’s latest epic, Cold
Mountain
.

MM: How important was the imagery
evoked by Cold Mountain, the place, as you were writing the
screenplay?

AM: Massively important. My wife is Chinese
and I talked to her a great deal about this poet [who wrote the Cold
Mountain
poems];
about the meaning of the poems. She is someone who has translated
Chinese poetry. I tried to write some poetry in the style of the
original, just to get a feel for this idea of the spiritual journey.
I was trying to make sure that there was a resonance below
the narrative, where
some of the concerns which intrigued me could speak. Inman, Jude Law’s character,
is operating very much at a level of pilgrimage, in the strictest sense of
the word.

MM: He’s looking to be redeemed?

AM: Exactly… He talks about his spirit being ruined. He
doesn’t understand in many ways why he is alive. He tries to work
out his purpose and what redemption means for him. There’s a significant
exchange between a blind man and Inman, where they debate the value
of possessing something for a precious second and whether it’s
worth having something for an ephemeral, evanescent period, or
whether it’s better not to have it. Some people think that a glimpse
of happiness is better than no happiness at all. The story essentially
hinges on whether or not you think the glimpse is enough. And he
does.

MM: You often play with what one
might call supporting or “subtextual” imagery. In
The Talented Mr. Ripley, for
example, there’s an image of Ripley’s face reflected by a piano
where his head appears to be split in two…

AM: Yes, yes…

MM: Is that sort of metaphorical imagery
something you play with when you’re writing? Or do you separate
yourself as a director and come back to that on the set?

AM: No, I think that the pen proceeds
through the whole process. The instrument of the writing changes,
but it’s still
a writing process. You’re writing with a notebook, you’re writing
on the computer, you’re writing with the camera. I translate my
notes to manuscript [form] and from manuscript to Final Draft.
And then we’re ending the movie on Final Cut and we’re writing
all over again. I don’t separate the writer from the director,
whether I should or shouldn’t.

In terms of the image of Ripley: I was trying
to find a visual iconography that supported what I thought were
thematic ideas,
because he’s a man who has no sense of his own value; who’s in
a dislocated state, who’s fragmenting. The first title treatment
has to do with fragmentation. What you want is for everything to
support everything else. You want symphonic ideas; ideas where
there’s a thorough composition. Sometimes you don’t succeed. But
the idea is to try and create the kind of work that has pleased
me as an audience member.

Minghella worked with famed production designer Dante Ferretti
to create the world of Cold Mountain, which stars Nicole Kidman
and Jude Law.

As an audience member, I love ellipses; I love
lyric filmmaking. I love moviemaking that takes adults seriously
and is demanding.
Inevitably, when you have the opportunity to make a film yourself,
it’s always going to be colored by your own taste. I love to go
back to the same films again and again and see how they’re made
and what their metastories are and how they inform the surface.
I come from a world of study and deconstruction. When I make films,
it reflects that training. Sometimes the danger is that people
will only see the film once and maybe I should pay more attention
to basic storytelling issues and not so much time getting obsessed
with the undercurrents, and what in music you call the “inner voices.”

MM: Landscape can be so important
as a storytelling tool, and must have been particularly so
with Cold Mountain,
where the image of home is something that drives the central
character. What guidance do you give to your team when you’re
scouting locations?

AM: First of all, I had one of the great
production designers of all time, Dante Ferretti, working with
me. A fanatical scout
and traveler, he’s compulsive, like all of the crew that I’ve surrounded
myself with. He won’t ever settle for second best. Dante covered
thousands of miles looking for the landscape that we needed and
we scouted the entire film in South Carolina, because originally
we hoped to shoot the whole film there. Then, in terms of the finances,
it was just unsupportable. For the ambition of the film, we could
never have made it in the way that I wanted to in South Carolina.
We had to accept, rather reluctantly, that if I wanted to keep
the scale of the film, we’d have to look elsewhere. We had scouts
all over the place.

Finally, we compared some of our scouting photographs
with some of the Transylvanian landscape and it was remarkably
close in its
contours and its feel, but with an added bonus of being untrammeled,
because Romania is not an industrialized country; it’s largely
pristine. It has the advantage which you get almost nowhere now
of not just foreground and mid-ground authenticity, but a deep
background of untouched land.

I feel some remorse that we didn’t shoot the movie in the place
that it was set, because it means a lot to the people in that region;
it’s their story. There is a Cold Mountain, and obviously you would
elect to shoot the movie in the place it’s set. No movie I’ve made
has been shot in the place that it’s supposed to be. In the end,
you become a robber of locations: you burgle the best places you
can find and try and pull them into the fabric of your film.

MM: There is obviously a lot of personal, internal narrative
in a book like
Cold Mountain. Is there a way you can capture
or keep some of that long text by translating it into specific
imagery or re-occurring issues/52/images?

AM: First of all, my method of adaptation
is much freer than that. I’ve elected a way of writing as a screenwriter where
I think my job is to write my way back to the novel, rather than
to write from it. I don’t try and analyze the book chapter by chapter
and find certain correlatives. I go away and I write and hopefully
what I’m writing will take me back to the book. I don’t have the
book with me; I try not to imagine that my job is to top and tail
each chapter and edit the dialogue that’s in the book. I imagine
myself to be at the place where there is no book and someone has
told me a story. My job is to try and remember and extol the virtues
of the novel.

MM: How do you do that?

AM: What I try to do, particularly in a historical novel,
is understand its sources. Cold Mountain is
not a novel that was written 150 years ago; it was written six
years ago. Obviously, Charles Frazier researched his own book.
I tried to understand the reservoir that he drew upon and went
back to it myself to see if there were elements that would be useful.
Then, when I come to direct the film, I’ve got as profound an understanding
of the world as Charles had. I gathered up as much of the source
material as I could. In fact, I found my way back to many of the
episodes which are dramatized in the novel. It was fascinating
to see how the book had been built. After all of that reading and
research, when I feel that I can begin to write, I start.

"I came to filmmaking first as a writer and second as someone
who loves to work with actors. If you took away those two elements,
I’d have almost no interest in making films.”

I have a little cottage in the country in England
and, appropriately enough, it’s surrounded by a working farm
that probably is not unlike Cold Mountain’s Black Cove. So I was
able to dig into some of the events on the farm as I was writing.
I spoke to the farmers and tried to find out what they were up
to each season and why. One of the reasons I was attracted to the
book was because I, like Ada in the novel, often feel this odd
distance from the natural order of things. We’re so insulated.
There’s something ironic about sitting and researching in the little
writing room I’ve got, surrounded by the day-to-day rhythms of
a farm and realizing I don’t know the first thing about how the
farm is managed. In fact, I know almost nothing about my environ­ment
other than how to cultivate an inner life.

I write by hand and fill up notebooks. The
one book I didn’t have
with me while I was doing this was Cold Mountain.
It’s become a kind of superstition, to force myself to become a
storyteller and not an editor. To make sure that I honor the obligation
that I feel to re-mint the story for an audience.

MM: There are so many poetic issues/52/images
in your films, and  I
assume a lot of that comes to you when you are writing, but that
you wouldn’t necessarily put it into the script. Do you have
a companion journal where you chronicle the visual correlatives?

AM: The screenplay of Cold Mountain might
feel extremely terse, and that’s partly because I’m not writing
it to please anybody; I’m writing it as a technical drawing which
will grow into the film. I don’t keep a separate journal of issues/52/images,
but just like the notes of a composition, I know what the sounds
are going to be. Your question is a good one, as one thing that
I always find myself doing is reducing my research into issues/52/images
rather than dialogue. I think my way through the film in
terms of visual story, or finding ways that will collect and collapse
certain areas of the narrative into issues/52/images or into particular set
pieces. For instance, I can remember being in Hong Kong in 1998,
working from the book, and writing down a series of issues/52/images which
actually remained relatively intact through the entire adaptation
process.

I decided to begin the movie at the Battle
of Petersburg and I started with rabbits being forced out of
a burrow by barrels of
explosives. The first thing you see is a rabbit popping out of
a hole into the middle of a battlefield. I’d also had this image
of an escape of men chained together who were silhouetted against
a slope like a series of paper dolls and in some form that has
maintained itself in the film. So there are issues/52/images that stick with
me and they come as I’m reading or researching and I do jot those
down. So, in some ways—having denied that I do it—I suppose that’s
exactly what I do! (laughs)

MM: You made a dramatic leap as a moviemaker from Truly
Madly Deeply to The English Patient and The Talented
Mr. Ripley, in that the later films are much larger productions.
How did you find yourself stretching as you moved from making relatively
small films to epic material?

AM: I can’t really account for the transition, except to
say that it always seemed to me that the films that I admired were
intensely cinematic and lyrical and poetic and that they had a
sweep to them. I wanted to be able to create cinema of my own and,
for that, the most beautiful part of filmmaking is the medium’s
ability to flex between the intimate and the epic. You can move
from a character’s eyes to a huge landscape in a single film sentence.
It really does allow you to go from the minutely particular to
the expansive. I suppose that I felt able, because of the material
of The English Patient, to really explore cinema in a more
bold way than the material of Truly Madly Deeply required.
In the end, it’s about the landscape that the material generates. Truly
Madly Deeply
done in a more elaborate way would have been absurd.
The material didn’t require me to open my shoulders any more as
a moviemaker.

MM: Do you find that the bigger the production, the
more of a challenge it is to make time for the actors?

AM: I suppose the truth for me is that
I approach films as a writer first; my experience with actors
was a sort of organic
continuation of finding my plays being done by the same actors.
In Britain in the late ’80s, I found myself with the same actors
again and again; we all moved together into Truly Madly Deeply.
I worked with Juliet Stevenson Alan Rickman and Michael Maloney
before. So I came to filmmaking first as a writer and second as
someone who loves to work with actors. If you took away those two
elements, I’d have almost no interest in making films.

I suppose that what I’ve done, which I think is the cleverest
thing I’ve ever done, is to surround myself with an incredible
crew who’ve stayed with me, who’ve grown with me and who are prepared
to put up with me. They know what my priorities are; they know
that I would never surrender the moment with an actor for the sake
of the efficiency of the shot; they are patient with me and with
the cast. It has to be that way because in the end—and this is
the truth of moviemaking as far as I’m concerned—no effect, no
gesture of the camera, no lighting characteristic, no design or
costume flourish has any weight in comparison to a moment of performance.
If you can get the truth of a moment from an actor, with a video
camera, with them standing against the wall, that’s worth more
than any dollar that you can spend on anything else.

Of their acting styles, Minghella calls Renée Zellweger’s “very
particular and quite mysterious” and says that Kidman
is “first a filmmaker and second an actor.” Though
set in the Carolinas, the Transylvanian landscape offered Minghella
the look he needed for Cold Mountain.

MM: I’m curious about how the loyalty of the crew is
maintained, particularly on these long, demanding shoots. I’m
reminded of stories about David Lean in the jungles of Burma
and having people leave after five months because they couldn’t
take the demands he placed on them. How do you maintain a company
over a period of time?

AM: I try to remember that even if a
film is authored by one person, and I believe it is—that the film reflects the vision
of a single person, the director—the conundrum is that it’s achieved
by many hundreds of people. I’ve never allowed myself the delusion
that I was doing it by myself. I am extremely grateful to the crew,
and I let them know I am; I take their opinions very seriously.

MM: You’ve been able to support some
great work from actors, but what were some of your earlier
mistakes about directing
actors?

AM: Let me just work backwards and say
this: the one thing I’ve learned is that, given that I’ve written the scene, scouted
the location and worked with the design (there’s very little that
I haven’t had enormous control over), I’ve learned that the job
finally becomes one of witnessing, not controlling. If I’ve got
Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger in a scene and they’ve rehearsed
with me and are saying the lines that I’ve written and doing the
actions that I require of them, then beyond that, I don’t need
to exercise power over them. In fact, quite the reverse: I need
to learn from them and be instructed by them about the moment that
they’re in as actors.

I want to create spaces for actors where they
feel completely free and completely secure at the same time.
The security has to
be that they know that there’s no accident in the way I’m shooting,
and they know that I’m paying attention and watching and being
the best audience that they’ll ever have. But, by the same token,
I’m not trying to manipulate them. It’s one of the things that
I’ve always thought about. I’m a huge admirer of [pianist] Glenn
Gould, and if you listen to the way that he performs Bach, for
instance, it feels as if the music is being created by him and
not by the composer. It feels as if he has ownership, not only
in the performing of the music, but also in the creation of it.
That’s something I would love to achieve with actors.

MM: Could you touch on your work
with Renée Zellweger,
Jude Law and Nicole Kidman?

AM: What’s evident for any director is that you can’t use
a directing technique and bring it to bear on every actor. Some
actors require you to address each moment of a performance and
partner with them on each moment; some actors flourish when you
are quiet with them. Part of the job is simply to discover what
they want from you, because in the end the film will only be as
good as the relationship you can conjure with each individual actor.
What’s great about the central performances is that you have more
time to develop a language of communication with each actor. Renée,
Jude and Nicole are three completely different actors in the way
they approach their work. Nicole is extremely alert and attentive
to the whole movie at all times. She’s not so submerged in her
own role that she doesn’t understand where the film is. Jude is
a sort of a gift to a director; he is so malleable and delighted
and enthusiastic and present. With him you always feel as if you
have an ally who surrenders himself completely to the requirements
of the film. He comes to work with an
enormous joy and without ego.

"This is the truth of moviemaking:
no effect, no camera gesture, no lighting characteristic, no
design or costume flourish has any weight in comparison to
a moment of performance.”

MM: How do you use sound to tell a story?

AM: I love the ADR stage of moviemaking;  it’s an opportunity
to repair and focus the film and it’s an extremely creative phase.
In the case of a filmmaker like me, there’s an enormous amount
of lost material because of the length of the films that I make.
(laughing) They’re always boiled down from a long assembly.
A lot of reductions occur, and there are often scars. Part of the
job of ADR is to mend those scars or to make them as invisible
as possible.

MM: How are you using the term ADR?

AM: ADR (additional dialogue recording—ed.)
is taking the actors back in the studio and re-recording their
dialogue.
It’s either fixing production dialogue because there’s something
wrong with the recording, or it’s a creative process where you
have an opportunity to take a final pass at the screenplay. I work
with actors, change lines and just make the scene do more work.
You go from the dream of the film, which is the screenplay, to
the reality of the film, which is what you address in the cutting
room.

MM: You referred to sub-textual imagery before. Do you
use sound in a similar manner?

AM: I am able to work with Walter Murch,
who I think is probably the most significant editor that’s ever
been in film, not only because of his skills as a film editor,
but also because of his skills as a sound editor. He began with
sound and he and I are both preoccupied with the soundscape.
It’s not particularly theoretical; I think of the whole process
of moviemaking as growing, where everything is growing all the
time: you grow from a blank page to an answer print and you grow
the sound along the way. You learn about what sort of sound the
film likes; what sort of layers of sound the film is intrigued
by. Also, how sound works in transition.

Minghella jumped into the epic landscapes of The
English Patient
, with Ralph Fiennes; and The Talentented
Mr. Ripley
, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth
Paltrow; from a small-scale debut with Truly Madly Deeply,
starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman.

I love the pre-lapping and post-lapping of
sound. I love scenes that finish deep into the following scene
and scenes that begin
deep into the preceding one. Transitions become huge opportunities
in film; in some ways, ellipses and transition are the two most
secret parts of moviemaking. What you take away from a story gives
the audience an opportunity to fill it in. And then transition,
because the way that one scene becomes the next is crucial. It’s
one of the most pertinent and unique aspects of film. Every other
art form is largely about continuity; film is largely about discontinuity.

What
makes Minghella’s discontinuous harmonies of sound and
image so effective and arresting is that they unfold so effortlessly.
Yes, his work requires an engaged audience, but we’re never made
to feel that anything has been left out. In a Minghella picture,
image, sound, edit and performance are sewn together for the
the sake of both practicality and poetry.
MM

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