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Director Series: Anthony Minghella

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By Bill Desowitz
Anthony Minghella likes to refer to his closest below-the-line collaborators as his gang of Russians. He trusts them implicitly, bringing them into the creative process during the writing of the script: “When nine Russians tell you that you’re drunk, then it’s time to go to bed,” says the English director. For the Odyssey-inspired Civil War epic Cold Mountain (based on Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel), starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger, Minghella had to literally shift gears when production moved from the Carolinas to Romania for budgetary reasons after MGM pulled out of its partnership with Miramax.
Minghella discusses his invaluable collaborations with production designer Dante Ferretti (a newcomer to the gang of Russians), cinematographer John Seale, costume designer Ann Roth, composer Gabriel Yared and editor Walter Murch.

Below the Line: Dante Ferretti must’ve had it difficult enough without having to suddenly change locations from the Carolinas to Romania.
Anthony Minghella: It was soul destroying, to be honest with you. He and I had driven and trekked over a great deal of the Appalachians and we were delighted with what we found, and delighted with the locations…we had all the photographs and we’d done the ground plans. It was a tough day.
BTL: So it just came down to cost?
Minghella: Well, it was full of ironies. The film was an odyssey about an odyssey and I didn’t realize the degree. There’s a frontage piece that says, “There’s no easy road to Cold Mountain,” and, God knows, that’s true in terms of making it. The great thing about Dante is he is indefatigable—he doesn’t dwell on the defeat, he always looks for the win. He fell in love with Romania. He loved it and he put all of the work that he’d already done behind him and really encouraged me to let go. But the move was obviously predicated by financial imperative because the budget was unconscionable to shoot in America, and it’s very sad because the film commissions of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia worked really hard. But there’s so little incentive available to the studios now. That those states are poor states and they can’t make it attractive enough. And we tried very hard—we went to Senate level to make a case that there was a real reason to hang on to the film. But we had a problem anyway and the problem was that the movie had to end in snow. There had been no real reliable snow in South Carolina in some years and just on the percentage game we knew we’d have to go somewhere else anyway, and that somewhere else began to be the only [alternative], as is often the case in the contingency of filmmaking. The advantages of Romania were very apparent as soon as we got there because of its unadulterated landscape. The fact that the artisan group in Romania is still goading in the same vernacular as the 19th century, and the fact that the 19th century is really still present there.
BTL: You were lucky that they were still in that 19th century frame of mind.
Minghella: Yes. Oh, it was basically carrying on where Dante had left off. The great difference between Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain in terms of the design challenge was that there was a deliberate artifice to the construction of Gangs of New York. But the job that I asked in Cold Mountain was to disappear in the same way that I feel that John Seale in cinematography and Ann Roth in costumes are beautiful by their lack of visibility and lack of signature.
BTL: Explain what happened in the cabin where Dante forced you to visit the set and you were inspired to add the window between Inman (Law) and Sara (Natalie Portman)
Minghella: Dante’s worked with a lot of wonderful directors and he’s learned from them and he’s taught them, and I’d never worked with someone who insisted on my getting my hands dirty to that extent. With Sara’s cabin, I’d looked at the model, I’d been to the location. I thought I haven’t got time [to go back]. But Dante insisted. And when I was standing there and the planks of wood were in and the beginnings of walls, it just occurred to me as I was walking around that an interior relationship was more assuming than an exterior one. And we started to play with this frame and I realized that it would be perfectly legitimate that the corn crib had been added and that therefore the original exterior window now became an interior one and the possibilities of this, to be honest with you, to develop the story a bit further. There was an idea I had for that scene that came from an omnibus of Jewish short stories I read when I was a child, which was very Talmudic and very beautiful. And there was a story about a man who fell in love with a woman who was married. She was a shepherd’s wife and he was a teacher who had come to teach in the village and they never spoke, but they once collided with each other in the night and when they went back to their bedrooms they could feel the presence of the other through the wall, and that’s the rhyme I was going for in this scene. And so that was all Dante’s doing.
BTL: And with John Seale, despite his preference for naturalism, there is a lyrical beauty to his work.
Minghella: John believes that his camera should be in a dance with the actor. That’s what he’s most interested in. He knows what I want and he’s taught me that it’s a very bizarre thing now because I can’t remember any longer where my thoughts began and where his thoughts ended or vice versa. And we speak very, very little.
BTL: Is there any strategy that you used?
Minghella: Yeah. How little light we could use in the scenes. And a lot of our discussions when we were shooting was how much we could take away before the light falls to nothing. And that became a really interesting creative quarrel, which was let’s lose light. Let’s risk the edges falling away, let’s not feel that we have to light a room. And he loves source lighting anyway. He loves natural source lighting. That’s his mantra. There’s no light coming from there, so I’m not going to put a light there. His genius, I think, is the control of the negative and the fearlessness about the negative. Because we had many days where there was no stop, or appeared to be no stop whatsoever sometimes in mid-afternoon or early afternoon and he pushes and pushes the negative.
BTL: Like Walter Murch, who’s part scientist?
Minghella: Yeah. But he’s not a purist, John, in the sense that he doesn’t use fixed lenses. It’s better to be on a mini-jib; it allows the actors more freedom. He and I are in love with the mini-jib—we’ve had a new one designed. And John operates it. It means that the camera can move with actors and develop shots very, very quietly.
BTL: It set you free on The English Patient?
Minghella: Let anybody show us the path and let’s not get obsessed with our preparation. And I’ll give you a perfect example in Cold Mountain of that, which is I had a whole theory in rehearsal about the opening scenes, the battle scenes, which was that we would never show the Federal side until they came out of this. I had a dream about this horse standing up and as it began to run it would collide with this sea of Federals and that would be the first time we ever saw them. And it was a theatrical idea and I clung to it. It was one of the defining images of the sequence. But then when I was rehearsing, I went to the Federal side to look back to see where the rabbit would be running, and I realized the opportunity to make this statement that there was this army lying in wait. So I decided that, yeah, we would follow this guy coming out of the tunnel and then the camera just kept going up and up and up and you could see this flag of blue. Well, we’d had no plans for that, we had no arrangement for that but in the rehearsal we just shot it. So we got everybody we could find, put them in the uniforms, laid them down and that shot…
BTL: Now let’s talk about Ann Roth, who, you say, is the only one who intimidates you. What was her role in developing Ada’s transformation through the costumes?
Minghella: I had very simple ideas about these characters, very simple. Nicole’s character, Ada, is not rooted, that’s what I kept saying. She would take off with only the tiniest ballast keeping her on the ground. She feels like she’s a decorative creature…a manikin. So what Ann did was just to emphasize this length in her and to insist that all the actors at all times wear not only the exterior accoutrements of the costume but all of the invisible ones as well. The strapping in, the corseting the tying and just the imprisonment of the costume that she insisted upon for Nicole to an extent where Nicole couldn’t even sit down. And then there was a sense of the corset coming off, of the clothes relaxing and the woman appearing. And so Ann is working on that level rather than the level of what’s the material of the dress or what the Smithsonian costume is. It was all about the way the unseen costume intrigues. That’s how directors and designers and costumers speak to each other, and sometimes the audience is completely oblivious to it. And what I joke about Ann is that she’s feisty and she’s a marvelous, marvelous woman and, again, it’s very hard for me to imagine going to work without that group of people around me because they take me on in a way that I need because I’m very insecure as a filmmaker. They have great faith in me, but it’s a faith that comes from incessant quarrelling and I really welcome it.
BTL: Tell me about Gabriel Yared and the music.
Minghella: Gabriel came down to my house to [compose] and we actually wrote the two principal themes in the film while I was writing in my planner. And he improvises, we’d go up and we’d look at it and extract some things, and we’d start to grow in that way. He admits me so deeply into the process because he knows that’s where I want to be, and he loves it and he shares with me—he’s the person who on almost a spiritual level I’m closest to because we’re quite similar. I like to write with music and I like to think with the music. He’s allowed me into the process and I think as a result of that he’s written three beautiful scores for me and they’re so consonant because I can talk to him about the scenes as I’m writing and as I’m thinking. It’s a very symbiotic, good relationship.
BTL: And Walter Murch. I understand the two of you have a big brass B beside you that’s a constant reminder to strive for “Very Good.”
Minghella: Yes, Walter is the marriage in a way. If Gabriel is my brother, Walter’s turning into my wife in a sense or I’m turning into his wife because we spend so much time together for so long in the cutting room. He’s a filmmaker in every sense. He’s a writer, a director, a mixer, a sound editor, a film editor and, as you said, he’s a scientist and a mathematician.
BTL: And a philosopher. What was his bit of wisdom on this film?
Minghella: It’s always the same wisdom, which is don’t talk about the film you think you’ve made—look at the film you have made. Look at the film you’ve made and learn from it. Show up as a stranger to the film. That’s why I don’t look at dailies with him; I don’t talk about the dailies with him. I don’t tell him, even though I’ve designed the sequence to be cut in a particular way. He cuts in a way that he receives the material and that’s where we always start from, so that I try to go behind him and look at the film he’s seen and then come around the front again as the film develops and say well let’s try [this]. It’s a very respectful acknowledgement of the fact that the editor is a creative father in the film.
BTL: Other than cutting and matching shots to bring the lovers closer to us spatially, is there anything else that was noteworthy?
Minghella: Yeah, we did one thing on this film that is very interesting. We took away the question mark in our notes. ’Cause we write a lot to each other as well as talk. He’s a great writer and I like to write, and one thing we decided after the first assembly was we wouldn’t make questions; we would do everything that either of us wrote. Instead of saying, ‘Are we too long?’ we would shorten. If he said, ‘We need to be more contemplative at the front of the scene,’ we would just extend. And so we cut out the equivocation of that relationship—we would just do it. And then we would argue or—I never intellectualize—we would just examine it.

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