Looking Back on Misters Minghella and Ripley
Director Anthony Minghella 1954-2008.
I ran across Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” on HBO last night. It was late and had been a long day. I figured I’d watch a few minutes, wind down, then hit the sack. Of course, I couldn’t take my eyes off it for the duration, and awakened the next morning sleep-deprived, but grateful for the chance to revisit a modern classic. It got me thinking back a few years…
I first met Anthony Minghella in January of 2000 at the press junket for “Ripley.” Moments after sitting down with him, I knew Minghella was a different breed from most of the filmmakers I’d interviewed in the past, particularly those from this side of the Pond. Minghella struck me as both a gentleman and a gentle man. He loved Bach as much as he revered the films of Hitchcock and the writing of Harold Pinter. He also listened as well as he conversed. I knew I would never forget my conversation with Anthony Minghella and, after a special American Film Institute screening of “Cold Mountain,” he actually approached me at the post-screening reception, warmly shook my hand, and thanked me for the article and conversation we’d had three years earlier. When he died suddenly five years later after surgery, aged only 54, I knew immediately that cinema had lost a major voice.
Thankfully, his films and his words remain. Here are a few of the latter.
This article originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Venice Magazine.
Anthony Minghella never intended to be a filmmaker, so no one was more shocked than he was when he picked up a Best Director statuette at the 1996 Academy Awards for his work on The English Patient. Minghella’s first love was, and in many ways still is, writing, and he had in fact been a successful playwright, with many of his works performed on London’s famed West End. All pretty heady stuff for a lad of humble origins. Minghella was born to Italian immigrants January 6, 1954 on the Isle of Wight, in England. A lover of literature from an early age, Minghella graduated from the University of Hull, where he went on to become an instructor of theater arts. He then quit teaching to pursue playwriting full time.
After several moderate hits on the stage, Minghella decided to film one of his unproduced scripts, a supernatural romantic comedy entitled Truly, Madly, Deeply as a vehicle for his good friend, actress Juliet Stevenson. Co-starring Alan Rickman as Stevenson’s deceased husband who just can’t stop loving her, the film was a hit in England and did well enough on this side of the Atlantic for Hollywood to entice Minghella to its shores. The result was Mr. Wonderful (1993), a competent, if uninspired romantic comedy starring Matt Dillon, that did little to showcase the incredible talent that Minghella possessed. That all changed with The English Patient, the sweeping romantic drama that walked away with nine Oscars in 1996, including Best Picture.
Minghella’s latest is, dare we say it, perhaps even better than the magnificent English Patient. The Talented Mr. Ripley is based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel, and was filmed once before, as Purple Noon by French director Rene Clement in 1960. While that fine film still holds up today, this latest version is not only superior, but is one of the finest films of 1999, firmly establishing Minghella as one of the most inventive and talented directors working today. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a men’s room attendant in a fancy New York hotel in 1957. A social doppleganger, Ripley has no discernible identity or personality of his own, but survives by mimicking others that he views as superior and far more interesting than himself. When a chance encounter with a wealthy blue blood sends Tom off to Italy to fetch the man’s wayward son (brilliantly played by Jude Law), Tom’s true nature comes out: not only is he a doppleganger, he’s also a sociopathic killer! And thus begins this Hitchcockian exercise in mistaken identity, sexual confusion, and class struggle (Highsmith also penned the novel on which Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train was based). Minghella has created a hypnotic masterpiece, blending his own deft directorial touches with John Seale’s gorgeous 1950’s Technicolor-style cinematography, Roy Walker’s meticulous production design, Ann Roth’s equally perfect period clothes, and a cast that dreams are made of: Damon, Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman (playing a womanizing preppie this time!), and the wonderful Philip Baker Hall. This is a rich, beautifully layered film that begs for multiple viewings.
The film is amazing. The recreation of the 1950’s Technicolor look is really remarkable.
Anthony Minghella: Well, I’d like to take credit for that, if I could, but I also managed to work with a really brilliant cinematographer (John Seale). I’ve been very lucky in that the people that I’ve worked with have stayed with me and I’ve borrowed a lot from them and learned a lot. I’ve found this amazing group of people: Ann Roth, who did the costumes, has done probably 100 films; Roy Walker, the production designer, has been working for 50 years in films and worked with David Lean and Fred Zinnemann; and Walter Murch, who’s my real mentor, is the editor. The smartest thing I’ve ever done is to surround myself with people who are more knowledgeable than I am, and try to learn from them. Also they insist on my being ready and prepared and having a point of view.
Walter Murch’s book (In the Blink of an Eye) is one of my bibles.
I can’t tell you what it’s like to have him waiting for the film to be finished. He’s so rigorous. I’m very compulsive. They had to snatch the movie away from us yesterday and so “Okay guys, that’s enough.” Otherwise, we both would have kept working on this movie for the rest of our lives. And because of that, I think the finish of the film is very detailed. He’s a wonderful sound editor as well as a film editor. You can keep building the film and refining it. I love working with someone who wants to see if there’s one more thing we can do to it, one more line we can find, or one thing that can make a difference.
You wanted to make Mr. Ripley prior to The English Patient, right?
Not prior to The English Patient, but for a while, it looked as though The English Patient wasn’t going to get made, which would have broken my heart. I was marooned, waiting to see if we could get financing. Sydney Pollack called me and told me that they had acquired the rights to the Patricia Highsmith novel, which is a book I love very much. I re-read it, and thought that it would be worth (adapting) while I was waiting to do The English Patient. While I was writing it, I thought ‘Wait a minute, why not direct it, as well?’ And Paramount was good enough to wait while I finished The English Patient.
What was it about the story that drew you to it?
Several things. One was, I loved the audacity of a character who gets away with it. I thought it would be a challenge to pull that off. I also thought that implicit in pulling it off, was a moral phrasing. Film fiction in
particular, always aspires to a neat resolution, and I really didn’t want to find that resolution, I wanted to find a resolution that was tragic. Getting away with murder in terms of a public accountability is one thing. Getting away with it in terms of the spirit is another altogether. What I wanted to say at the end of the film is that Ripley may not be caught by the police, but he’s trapped inside a prison of his own making, which is his mind, from which there’s no escape. It’s the cruelest sentence. And I think the punishment of escape is what interested me in the film. The other thing was that I felt the character was so recognizable to me, not in terms of what he did, but why he did it, and what he did that was at the heart of it, which
was a sort of self-loathing, a sense of inadequacy, of being an outsider, a sense of yearning, to love and be loved. I recognized every single one of those qualities. And every time I went to write a new draft, it got more and more personal. I felt that everyone knows what it’s like to feel inadequate, and everyone knows what it’s like to wish they were someone else, to have the grace, the privileges, and the talents of somebody else. The idea of being a fake somebody rather than a real nobody is one of the testing
temptations of life. Also, I think the fear that we all have of what people would think of us if they knew who we really were, if they knew what was in our hearts would they reject us? This idea of the basement where we hide our demons, which is the most interesting part of every person, and the thing that they’re the most frightened of. It’s so full of noise and terror. And that really, really intrigued me. And finally, it was set in Italy, the country where I’m most happy. So the chance to go there with the people who I made The English Patient with, was too great an opportunity to turn down. Plus, the story takes place during one of the most exciting times in Italy’s history. While we were shooting, I could fantasize that La Dolce Vita was being shot around the corner from us! (laughs)
The other thing that struck me about it, was that it was a genre-blending film: it was a mystery, a thriller, a character study and a love story.
Well that’s one of my problems as a filmmaker, I want my films to be everything: a jazz film, an opera film, beautiful to look at, as dark as it can be, as tragic as it can be…I want all the volume controls turned up.
Who are your biggest influences as a filmmaker?
I play a game sometimes, which is: who would be the best director of this movie? I always thought that David Lean would have made The English Patient and that Hitchcock would have made Mr. Ripley. It doesn’t change the way that I make it, it reminds me of what was wonderful about the movies that these men made. What Hitchcock did, was give you a sense of being disturbed. I kept thinking about Vertigo, how you’re never allowed to get your feet on the ground. You always have the sense that the ground is going to open up and swallow you. So that was very much in my head. But my biggest influences overall have always been Italian cinema, early Fellini, the Taviani brothers…When I first really began to study it one summer, I remember thinking ‘Thank God, I’ve found the place where I belong. I found the world that I understand in the humanism of those films. There’s a film by Ermanno Olmi called The Tree of the Wooden Clogs that had a profound effect on me. I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting him when I was in Italy. There were no words to express what a life-changing effect his work has had on me. The Bicycle Thief is another film that has been a big influence. As a writer, too, I’ve always related more to Italians. As a writer I’ve always felt sort of muddling and skinless, that I tend to deal more with feeling, whereas most English writers like Pinter and Stoppard and Edward Bond are very austere. So I didn’t know where I belonged until I discovered Italian cinema, either as a writer or as a filmmaker.
Let’s talk about your background. You were born and raised on the Isle of Wight.
I was, and lived there ’til I was 18. At the time I was there, I couldn’t wait to leave, and now I would go back in a second. I had a wonderful first 18 years, which at the time seemed isolated and stark to me. I didn’t realize what a rich world I was in. That’s why I love Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) so much. I felt it was about my life (laughs). It’s about a bunch of guys living in a seaside resort, dreaming about going to Rome. I used to do the same thing with my friends, hanging out, looking over at the mainland. “What are you going to do?” “I’m gonna go to London and be a musician,” or an artist, or a writer, or whatever. In fact, most of them ended up staying there. Later when I read Samuel Beckett, he said “There are two types of fools: the fool that keeps moving and the fool who stays where he is.” I always wondered which kind I’d be, and I guess I’m the fool who keeps moving. (laughs) So I was very happy to leave, and became an academic, after graduating university. I taught theater history and all the time I was writing, and eventually resigned and became a playwright. Originally I thought I’d write music, but I stumbled into playwriting, just like I stumbled into filmmaking. That’s the way it’s always been for me. There’s never been a plan. When you talk about your career, it has all the authenticity of a career, but while you’re living it, it has all the mess of life.
You mentioned music. What’s some of the music that has influenced you?
Bach, who is my compass, I think. I couldn’t be more of a maniac for every possible type of music. I’m as in love with John Coltrane as I am with Mozart. John Martin, who’s a Scottish singer and has a song at the end of Mr. Ripley, Van Morrison, I love opera, which you can probably tell from the movie. When I’m writing, one of the ways in for me is to listen to music. When I was writing The English Patient, I listened to Hungarian music and Arab music, to Italian music from the end of the war. That was the sort of river that I was rowing. The same thing with Mr. Ripley. I surrounded myself with opera and jazz. It’s an incredible voyage, selecting the right music.
When you were growing up was there one film, or piece of music or play that did it for you, where you said “This is my calling”?
I was quite an unhappy adolescent. I was a much angrier person at 15 than I am now, and was a much more politicized person, and a rebel. I got into a lot of trouble when I was in school. I couldn’t even tell you why, which is why I get very bored with explanations in movies, which are always so simple: “He’s this way because of that.” If only we knew why we are the way we are, if only it weren’t so mysterious. What happened to me when I started listening to a lot of west coast music like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead…I thought maybe through the piano, which I so despised learning, I could exorcise some of my demons. I mean if you gave me list of composers at that point in my life, Bach would have been put on the very bottom! I viewed him as the man who tortured me during my piano lessons!(laughs) So like some kids have a diary, I had a piano in my bedroom, and just banged away at it, and wailed at my demons. I think the first time I wrote a song when I was 15 or 16, that’s when I realized the way to escape: through creating something, through performing something. Through creation I could celebrate what was different about me, rather than apologize. The music was really the way out for me, and I think that’s the case for many people. I have this vision of my parents reading this version of my childhood, and not recognizing it, saying “We were very happy.” And we were! We were very happy, and I’ve always been very close to my family, yet I was miserable, and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t. And that’s what’s so intriguing.
What did your father do for a living?
He was and still is an ice cream man. My parents had a little café when I was growing up, and now they just run their ice cream factory and wholesale it. Neither of my parents went to school, were very poor. I don’t think they ever gave themselves the luxury of a lot of cultural exposure, but they’ve gained it as they’ve gotten older. They’re finally living the sort of life that they deserve. In fact, they’re both in Mr. Ripley. That’s my father playing bocci with Jude Law.
Tell us about some of the plays you wrote.
I had just started to get some recognition as a playwright when I stopped writing plays (laughs). The last thing I did was performed on the West End, called Made in Bangkok. It was a fairly savage, but humorous look at why men in western Europe travel 6000 miles to behave in ways that they’d never behave at home. It’s a kindred spirit of Ripley. In fact, there’s a moment in that play when a man is confronted by his wife about what he’s been doing, She says “Why didn’t you come to me and tell me what you wanted. Why did you have to hide?” And he says “Because there’s a basement inside of me. And if I let you into it, you’d never be able to look at me again.” In effect, that was an early rehearsal for Ripley, about people who are so ashamed at who they are, they have to hide from it. So the secretiveness of men is very much at the heart of Made in Bangkok and Ripley. It reminds me of this guy I once met who said “I really hate people who cheat on their wives openly. I would never cheat on my wife within 50 miles of home.” And he said this with no sense of irony.
How did you make the jump from playwriting to directing?
It was less a jump than a lurch. (laughs) Essentially, what happened was I was writing plays for television, theater and the radio, and I worked with all these great directors and was always working with the same actors. But I was always turning my plays over to someone else, and I thought ‘Wait a minute. Why not do that myself?’ So I did Truly, Madly, Deeply with Juliet Stevenson, who’s a great friend and with whom I’ve collaborated probably nine or ten times. We shot it in 28 days for $600,000. It was a very “private film” in many ways. Doing it was a life-changing event for me, because I suddenly realized that this was what I should have been doing all along.
Any advice for first-time directors?
One thing that I’ve realized about making films is that when you get to the end of the movie, all the things that made your nervous about the idea of the film come back to you. So if you see something disturbing about the idea of the film in the beginning, try to fix it before you shoot. The fragility of the idea in its initial incarnation will be the fragility of the film. You always tend to think that some magic dust will sprinkle itself over the problem in the script and fix it, but it doesn’t, and the problem will still be there when the film is finished.
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