Anthony Minghella 1954-2008

Anthony Minghella, who died unexpectedly Tuesday at the age of 54 , made some films that were truly great (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”),  some that were madly overrated (“The English Patient”) and others that were deeply flawed (“Cold Mountain”). In all of them, however, he demonstrated the same principles: reverence for the art of film, ambition to push that art to its limits, a sincere humility and an engaging sense of humor. Also as an admittedly more writerly than cinematic filmmaker, he was one of the most articulate directors to interview. All of these qualities came through in conversations with the man, and I was privileged to talk with him when he was promoting “The Talented Mr Ripley,” his best film, in 1999. Or rather, I shared that privilege with a room full of other journalists, accounting somewhat for the disjointed nature of the exchange. One thing I do recall about the free-for-all discussion is that I gave Minghella a bit of a hard time because the studio had promoted the film as a romance between the characters played by Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow when in fact the sparks were flying between Damon and Jude Law. Minghella was a good sport about it, though, and true professional that he was, avoided answering the question. Also, many of the questions came off inaudible or indecipherable on the tape, which in some cases is probably just as well. Here’s an attempt at a reconstruction:

Q: [unintelligible, something to the effect that he sure knows how to pick them when it comes to casting]

AM: I mean I think, like everybody else, I’m a film-goer and I look at the images and I get excited and I manage to persuade and maneuver these people into the film. I look around one minute and there is a crude, young cast and I look around the next minute, there’s movie stars and talented young actors.

Q: [unintelligible; sounds like, “Hey, that Matt Damon is one cutie pie. When did you stop messing around with writing the script and other dumb stuff like that and try to sign him up?”]

AM: It took me about a year. After I went back to the screenplay, I started it before the motion picture [“Good Will Hunting?”] and I went back to it, and it took me over a year to get the screenplay to point where I felt I could shoot. By that time, I was casting. And it was just before “Good Will Hunting” came out that I cast Matt.

Q: [unintelligible; sounds like: “Didn’t some old lady write a book about this story? Booo-ring!”]

AM: She [Patricia Highsmith, author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”]died within a few days of my starting working.....I think it’s much easier to work on a book while the author is still alive. I loved to spend time with Michael Ondaatje [author of “The English Patient”]. It was one of the best times I have ever had in my life, to be able to re-imagine the book and then send every drop to the writer to get his comments and his guidance and his approval, because then you know that the desicions you’re making are consummate with the world of its original conception. And it was much harder to re-imagine this book without the blessing of the author. So, I would have much preferred her to be with me and to be onset and to be sure that......

Q: Are you afraid that fans of the book are going to be critical or disappointed?

M: Well, all I can say is that I know for a fact that if we were a reading group—let’s say that this is a reading group and our week’s project is to read “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and then we all said, “Okay, what do you think was great about the book?” I know that we would end up with one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight different versions of, no the key moment is this moment, no it’s not about that, it’s about this. And you have to accept, with a certain amount of chastening, to accept that all I can do is to record as passionately and enthusiastically as I can what I felt I was reading and accept the fact, because everybody’s playing the perfect version of a film in their head when they read a novel. That’s one of the wonderful things about reading. It’s so intensely personal and perfect. All I can do is tell you about my experience with that book and try and console myself with the fact that the book remains intact, with respect to any misconception that I may have had. And try and just feeling like I’m being a good reader of this book and reporting it as faithfully as I can while understanding that every single decision I make will betray as much about me as  it will about the film.

Q: [Unintelligible; I’m guessing it’s something like “was this on Oprah’s Book Club or something?”]

M: No.

Q: With that reading group example that you’re talking about..........

M: Well, let me say this. Let’s extend our reading group into a screenwriting group now. The novel is, Patricia said herself, she felt as if Ripley was writing the book over her shoulder, that he was typing the story for her. When you go back to the novel, you’ll see that it’s entirely implicit. It’s all about a way of looking at the world. It’s not really about activity and the problem with film is that it’s explicit. It’s about people doing things, so Ripley has to meet people. He has to do things. So, the minute you start to make a screenplay, you’re going to be inventing. You’re going to be inventing somebody he meets, inventing somebody he doesn’t. Because you don’t have information in the novel that will say, “He spent six weeks in Rome. It was glorious.” Well, unless I put a caption up on the screen, there’s no way of dealing with it, except by saying, “What does it mean to be glorious?” I’ve got to send him to an opera. I’ve got to try and do the things that I felt would be consummate with his sense of enjoyment. So, I wasn’t trying to editorialize the book. I was simply trying to pick it up from its interior experience and make it an exterior subject to the film. It wasn’t about my saying, “Well, I’ve got to throw in some characters I just thought of today.” It is simply the prosaic business of, if you’re in a house, you’ve got to put a bathroom in because you’re going to need to go to the bathroom at some point. So, that’s the job of the builder is to make the house practical. It’s not about any sense of me wanting to have my say, particularly. What I would say to you though, and I think it’s a fair way of talking about this film, is that there seems to me always a difference between what the story was and what the film was about. And you could argue, and I would find it hard to defend, if you said, “You’ve made the film about something different than the story.” Because it seems to me, I love the idea of a film about a man who commits murder and gets away with it because it’s so unconventional and so audacious. But, I’m also the least nihilistic and the least cynical person and I want to think about what the consequences of that are. There seems to me to be a distinction between the public accountability and justice. Ripley very well may not be caught  in the end, but he’s in a prison from which there’s no escape, which is the prison of his own head. That isn’t necessarily what the thrust of this sequence of novels was. It was what I felt was my argument with the events of the film. I was reading about  [Cosimo de Medici?] and he said that the painter always paints himself. What one of the most disturbing things for a writer and for a filmmaker is that whatever it is you think you’re doing, you always end up feeling incredibly exposed because you’ve made a thousand decisions everyday. Somehow, the .......always exposes what your taste is and what you’re take on the world is. At some point you’ve just got to say, “You know what? I may not be the best adaptor or this may not be the truest version, but this is all I know how to do and I’ve given all I can to make it as interesting and as complex as I can. But, in the end, it’s some of my own faults.

Q: [unintelligible; it has something to do with some joke or comment made on the set of “Ripley” that was reported in a “Premiere” article by Christine Spines. Apparently it wasn’t as outrageous as Minghella suggests here because I can’t find any other reference to it anywhere]

M: Oh God, I just want to kill myself. I was on the set at the time. It was about the seventh day of shooting. I mean, it was an entirely specious remark and if I could go back and realize and there was someone on the set who wasn’t part of the filmmaking experience, I would eradicate that moment because it was a joke. And I think that what I was concerned with is trying to make sure that we didn’t pull our punches. That there was a real sense of romance in the film, irrespective of which gender was involved. Just as when Ripley is with Meredith, I wanted to be as authentic and pungent a moment between two people as I could manage. So, when it was a moment between Ripley and Peter Smith-Kingsley [the character with whom Ripley has his most overtly gay scene] I want it to be as authentic and as glamorous a moment and as truthful a moment. And not to try and comment on it. And so, I was working and working to make that moment as pure as I could and when I felt that they’d done that, then I made a joke, which was, “Now they’ve done it. Now we’re in trouble.” It was only that. It wasn’t for publication and I have more faith in an audience than that suggests, so far as I would make this movie if I felt that the audience was sufficiently happy to think and to feel and to be challenged as I am as an audience member myself.

Q: Do you have any problem with the studio pushing the film as a romance between Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow when it seems clear that the romantic interest is elsewhere?

AM:  This is a sort of tough room. I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty, which is the studio, both Paramount and Miramax, have been incredibly supportive of this project and very supportive of me as having a singular vision of a film. It could very well have been challenged. I could be sitting here with you trying to explaining why Ripley is caught in the end, why there’s no Peter Smith-Kingsley in the film, and I’m not. They supported a view that I had on the material and the take on it. Of course, there was apprehension and I think if I ever make a film in which there is no apprehension, then I should stop doing it. I’ve got a journal entry from when The English Patient was released in which I wrote, “If there are more than ten people  at this film, I will be astonished and I was astonished. I hope that there will be the same sense of astonishment about the degree of sophistication that the audience has for this movie. I think there’s a great sense that people want to be challenged. After all, I’ve made four movies. I’ve seen maybe 4,000 and I’m much more often a member of the audience. I’ve got to assume sometimes that there are lots of other people like me in the audience and all I’m trying to do ever is to try and make the kind of movie I’ve loved myself, which I’ve revisited myself. I think that movies which simply assert that status quo, which simply tell you that the world is exactly the way that you imagined it was, are a complete waste of time. For me, I’m not interested in them. I want to go and see a movie where I can say, “Well wait a minute. The world is different today than it was yesterday for me.” I remember going to see “Tree of the Wooden Clogs” and feeling like my head had been spun around. I’ve always wanted to try and make a movie in which I felt that one’s head would be spun around and what seemed to me is the center of the story, which is an assertion of the fact that everybody feels alone. We’re so encouraged to feel worthless and disappointed in ourselves; that we’re so encouraged to believe that it is better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody in our lives. Every magazine, every commercial says, “Don’t feel good about the way you look. Don’t feel good about your nose or your eyesight or your hair or you clothes or you lifestyle. Cash it in. It’s not good enough.”

Q:  [Unintelligible. Sounds like: “Does this  ‘Ripley’ tee-shirt make me look fat?”]

M: I think you’re very smart to say that. I would also like to say that one of the reasons that I cast Matt was that I thought he was a Dickie Greenleaf and that this character, Ripley, can’t see that everything that he has is perfectly good enough. But, he’s  got such a distorted view of himself. And that the irony of the film, the tragedy of it, is that he gets to a place in the film, finally, where somebody would say, “Here are your talents. Here are your gifts. Here is who Tom Ripley is.” and it’s too late. He’s annihilated Ripley. He’s annihilated the possibility of a love. If only he could see exactly what he had to begin with, none of this would have happened. You’re absolutely right to say that in the middle of this film are some of the icons by which we are tormented. I’m not being disingenuous to say that wasn’t quite what I thought I was doing when I cast the film, but you’re right to say it’s one of the most complex things about the movie, is it’s a film about people inventing themselves and making themselves up and people are dissatisfied with themselves. The very things that we are encouraged to think about and aspire to are these characters and these actors.

Q: Why is Matt Damon the ideal person to play Ripley?

M: Well, first of all, to answer the question honestly, who knows? When you cast it, it’s not really a judgment on other actors, it’s a judgement like a blind date. You think, I could go on a journey with this person. When they talk, I understand and when I’m talking, they seem to understand. I have to tell you, if you allowed me to, I would spend the rest of the day telling you about Matt Damon because I think he’s the most astonishing actor. He is the best accomplice a director could ever wish for. We shot 96 days. On the last shot, he was as excited, devoted, and focused as he was on the very first. He’s as smart as can be. He’s as kind to the crew and he’s such an example of a young American actor. He’s absolutely exemplary. And also, he dignified the writing to such an extent. I mean, I’m a writer first as well as a filmmaker and I hear every moment and imagine every moment. It’s so wonderful when you watch somebody working and they give you back all you hoped for and more. My one fear for him is that his performance is so new, so quiet, and so unshowy, and delicate that people may not understand the what the transformation of the acting performance is. It doesn’t have the sort of pyrotechnics, which people seem to go for. It’s done very very carefully. In some ways, I felt that he took responsibility.......It was a series of duets, the film, in many ways that Ripley encounters. I think he welcomed every actor into the film , welcomed every character in, but........

Q: Are you a fan of  “Purple Noon?” [Rene Clement’s 1860 adaptation of the same novel]

M: Yeah, you know I’ve talked about “Purple Noon” more in the last 24 hours than I’ve ever thought about it in my life. I like the movie very much. I thought it was of its time. I didn’t  seem to have very much to do with the novel, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was treading ground that had already been covered in any way. I thought that Alain Delon [Ripley in “Noon”] was probably the most beautiful person that I’d ever seen in my life.

Q: Did the sexuality ever go further or did it play on the screen exactly......

M: It was no more. We didn’t have any more material. In some ways, I thought we dug out every possible moment that we had. I loved the idea, I made a scene in  “The English Patient” where Kristen Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes were in the bunker and I thought it was a scene in which the work was wonderful, and I wanted that to be an equivalency between two men in this film, which was as delicate as that scene was and which was as unabashed as that scene was. I think that Ripley is so at odds with everything about himself, in terms of sexuality, so at odds with every part of his being that anything more explicit than that would have terrified him. You’ve got to remember that part of this film is about 1958, you know? What it meant to expose your ideas and desires is very very different from now and much more different, I think, than we can imagine.

Q: [unintelligible; something like, “Gwyneth Paltrow is so great! How great would you say she is?”]

AM: Well, you know, she has such an effortless ability to summon class and privilege and also a generosity of spirit. I have this whole notion of taking Gwyneth as this welcoming sunny girl, this beauty, and saying, “What journey might she go on?” And I had this notion that she had this kind of leak in the emotional temperature. She started off at 82 degrees in the first scene and then the second scene, it was 81, then 80. By the time she’s in Venice, she’s been transformed from the Gwyneth that we knew into this woman who is so exasperated and heartbroken and changed and cool and dangerous. And that just seemed exciting to take what we know and transform it. I think that, again, I felt very lucky in this movie with both Gwyneth and Cate [Blanchett], who I think, as good as it gets, would be willing to sign on to a movie for the movie and not for a particular part, but just to be part of an idea of a film. That was very much her.

Q: .....What does this movie portray about you?

AM: That I’m a frustrated composer, that I’m a bad jazz pianist, that I’m the worst player of Bach in the world, but that I love all these things.

Just a footnote: Minghella died at the same age as did Krzysztof Kieslowski in 1996, both after surgery — Kieslowski for his heart on March 13, Minghella on his tonsils on March 18 . So I guess the lesson is that if you’re a famous 54 year old filmmaker and it’s March, hold off on that operation.

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