Anthony Minghella: an Interview in Remembrance

In our private emails and one time we met in person, Minghella was as kind and personable as could be hoped. This isn't spin or the tricks of memory -- his own words below are ample proof.
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Several years back, I wrote a column for the Writers Guild of America's website, called "E-mail Interviews." The purpose was two-fold: to give screenwriters insights into how other writers dealt with their craft, and let the public see that there were real people who actually started with a blank page and created the movies and TV shows that they watched and (hopefully) loved.

One of those interviews was with Anthony Minghella, who passed away today at the age of 54. The effort on my part was simple enough -- I sent questions by e-mail about the craft of screenwriting and hoped that the subject would be eloquent in his or her response. Pretty much all the writers who agreed to be interviewed did so wonderfully. But Anthony Minghella was among the best. As you'll see below, he went far beyond expectations and was gracious, detailed, insightful, gracious, informative and gracious. It's difficult not to emphasize the "gracious" part. In our private emails and one time we met in person, he was as kind and personable as could be hoped. This isn't spin or the tricks of memory -- his own words below are ample proof.

Anthony Minghella became best-known as a director, but he was first and foremost a writer. His works which ultimately he brought to full-life directing began that life with the blank page.

We did the interview in March, 1999. I'm happy (and far too saddened) to republish it here with no changes. Precisely as written. His words truly do speak for themselves. And happily we have his films to keep speaking for him, as well.



Anthony Minghella wrote and directed the film, The English Patient, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, and for which he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition, he wrote and directed Truly, Madly, Deeply and the upcoming The Talented Mr. Ripley. His many plays include Made in Bangkok (which won the London Theatre Critics award for Best New Play), A Little Like Drowning, Two Planks and a Passion.

For television, Minghella wrote the trilogy What If It's Raining, was a regular contributor to the series, Inspector Morse, and wrote all nine episodes of The Storyteller for Jim Henson. His award-winning radio plays include Hang Up (winner of the Prix Italia) and Cigarettes and Chocolate.

Minghella is currently adapting Charles Frazier's bestselling novel, Cold Mountain, which he will also direct.

>>WGA: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?

AM: I became interested in writing by a circuitous route. As a teenager I was obsessed with music and with writing and performing songs. Throughout my university course I continued to write music and lyrics, often for plays being produced in the university's Drama department, which was my undergraduate centre. In my final year I threaded a group of songs together into a kind of musical with some dialogue embroidering and contextualising each number. A local playwright, Alan Plater, saw the resulting event and called me and asked me in his capacity of chairman of the theatre company based in the city, whether I'd like to write them a play. Up until that moment I'd never imagined being a dramatist. But I wrote the play and stumbled into a career.

Most of my life has worked that way. Of course, like all film-makers I've been mesmerised by cinema since I was a child. My parents, Italian immigrants, owned a small cafe in a seaside town on the Isle of Wight, a little island off the southern coast of England. It was adjacent to the local cinema, and the projectionist rented a couple of rooms in the back of our building. So I was introduced to the movies, a la Cinema Paradiso, in the thrilling arena of the projection booth as well as through the normal access of Saturday morning pictures and then, later, as a teenager attempting, hopelessly, pointlessly, to explore two desires at once, by dating in the back row.

I remember the emergence of wonderful American cinema in the late sixties and early seventies, of taking my father on our one and only family cinema trip to see The Godfather. I remember watching The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, and bursting into tears. I remember discovering Fellini and I Vitelloni. I drove sixty miles on consecutive nights to see a Francesco Rosi movie, Illustrious Corpses. I wanted to be Robert de Niro. I discovered Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer, Kurosawa and then Kieslowski. And because I spent 10 years at University, studying and teaching, I had the luxury of being able to read and read and read.

>>WGA: When you write, how do you generally work? Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence?

AM: I work fitfully, in hope rather than in expectation, invent methods which last a week, and fill notebooks with tiny, illegible writing which often defies my own attempts to decipher it. I find any excuse not to write, despair of writing, measure my achievements like a schoolboy and give myself undeserved rewards for completing a page, daren't leave my room when I'm working in case I finally have a fully-formed thought, and preside over the process convinced that in a drawer somewhere exists the finished piece of work, and that I'm permitted, to the delight of some cruel spirit, to have fleeting access to the drawers, sometimes for thirty seconds, sometimes for an hour, but then it slams shut and will never advertise its next opening. I know that the minute I leave the room to annoy my family, to catch the end of a football game, to lie down, the drawer springs open and waits until it hears me take the stairs...

I always listen to music, my passion and vice is music, I will be denied access to heaven because of the number of CDs I own, and I have gluttony for all types and colours of music. I might listen to Hungarian folk songs, Portishead, Ella Fitzgerald and Van Morrison in the same work session. And I always listen to Bach. My work has been a shameless advertisement for Bach, from my plays, through my first film, Truly Madly Deeply, through The English Patient and most recently, in The Talented Mr Ripley, which has The St. Matthew Passion in the first scene.

>>WGA: What sort of stories and characters interest you?

AM: I'm interested in stories which insist on a dog fails-to-eat-dog kind of world. I hate misanthropy, want to believe that there's a possibility that we might all be redeemed, that hope deferred makes the soul sick, that our humanity is fragile, funny, common, crazy, full of the longing for love, the failure of love. I want to tell stories which require something of an audience, by way of thought, argument, emotion, because I'm more often in an audience than I am a maker of films, and that's the kind of movie I want to see.

>>WGA: How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?

AM: I've been writing for over twenty years, all my adult life, and so I suppose that I've made peace with myself and my hopeless, undisciplined technique. I've stopped unravelling everytime I'm unable to write. I wait. The drawer opens. Waiting is part of writing. When I write the word 'waiting' by hand it even looks like 'writing.' I also make notes. I rarely understand them afterwards, but it's better than a blank page. I also love to read poetry. So I might read poetry for an hour when I'm stuck. Just remembering how careful you have to be with words, how much we're obliged to be poets as screenwriters, is energising. Raymond Carver is good for writer's block. Or C.K.Williams. Or Ann Carson. Or Michael Ondaatje.

>>WGA: With the original novel of The English Patient being such a difficult, sprawling work, what were the particular challenges in adapting it?

AM: (This answer is taken in part from my introduction to the published screenplay)

Michael Ondaatje's mesmeric novel, The English Patient, has the deceptive appearance of being completely cinematic. Brilliant images are scattered across its pages in a mosaic of fractured narratives, as if somebody had already seen a film and was in a hurry trying to remember it. In the course of a single page, the reader can be asked to consider events in Cairo, or Tuscany, or England's west country during different periods, with different narrators; to meditate on the natures of winds, the mischief of an elbow, the intricacies of a bomb mechanism, the significance of a cave painting. The wise screen adapter approaches such pages with extreme caution. The fool rushes in.

The next morning I telephoned Saul Zaentz in Berkeley, the only producer I could think of crazy enough to countenance such a project, and suggested he read the book. He has made a brilliant career out of folly, and is one of the few movie-makers who loves to read. I have never seen Saul without a book within his reach. He called me back a week later to tell me not only did he love The English Patient but that Michael was coming in from Toronto to give a reading from it that weekend at a bookstore near Saul's home. I encouraged him to see this as an omen.

When I began work on the screenplay a number of things were quickly evident -- I was completely ignorant about Egypt, had never been to a desert, couldn't use a compass, couldn't read a map, remembered nothing from my schoolboy history lessons about the Second World War, and embarrassingly little about Italy, my parents' country.

I promptly borrowed a cottage in Durweston, Dorset, and loaded up my car with books. I began adult life as an academic and nothing gives me more pleasure than the opportunity to tell myself that reading is a serious activity. I waded through eccentric books on military history, letters and diaries of soldiers in North Africa and Southern Italy, pamphlets from The Royal Geographic Society written before the war. I found out about the devastation visited on my father's village near Monte Cassino, discovered we had a namesake who was a partisan leader in Tuscany, learned about the incredible international crucible that was Cairo in the 1930s.

The one book I didn't take with me was The English Patient. I had been so mesmerised by the writing, so steeped in its richness, that I decided the only possible course available was to try and write my way back to the concerns of the novel, telling myself its story. I emerged from my purdah with a first draft of over two hundred pages (twice the length of a conventional screenplay) which included, even after my own rough edit and much to the bewilderment of my collaborators, episodes involving goat mutilation, scores of new characters, and a scene about the destruction of a wisteria tree in Dorset which I swore privately would be the most memorable in the film. Needless to say none of these inventions survived to the first day of principal photography.

Over successive drafts -- each of which were subject to the ruthless, generous, exasperating, egoless, pedantic and rigorous scrutiny of Michael and Saul -- some kind of blueprint for a film began to emerge. We met in California, Toronto, London and, best of all, in Saul's home in Tuscany where I am ashamed to admit there were memorable discussions held in the cool, aquamarine pool, our chins bobbing on the surface of the water, punctuated by bouts of what we called water-polo but which was essentially a form of licensed violence to work off our various pent-up hostilities and at which Michael proved to be a master.

I loved Michael's book, he became the film's champion on the hard road that followed. At the very least, film adaptations become a pungent advertisement for their source material, like hearing a friend recount their excitement at having read a great new book. For that is what the role of the adapter seems to me to be - the enthusiastic messenger bringing news from somewhere else, remembering the best bits, exaggerating the beauty, relishing the mystery, probing the moral imperative of what he or she has read, its meaning and argument, watching for gasps or tears, orchestrating them and, ideally, prompting the captive audience to make the pilgrimage to the source, while asserting the value of the film in its own right. The adapter must attempt to be the perfect reader. But, as Italo Calvino said of storytelling - the tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it. It seemed to me that the process of adapting The English Patient required me to join the dots and make a figurative work from a pointillist and abstract one. Any number of versions were possible and I'm certain that the stories I chose to elaborate say as much about my own interests and reading as they do about the book. And that is just as true of my film of The Talented Mr Ripley and the fortthcoming Cold Mountain.

>>WGA: What is your best experience as a writer?

AM: My best experience as a writer was probably working with Michael Ondaatje. He let me dismantle his novel, reimagine it, and still had dinner with me and gave me good notes. But the best thing about writing has been the writer's life, the sense of being expressed, the ownership of the day, the entirely specious sense of freedom we have, however slave we are to some boss or other. I wouldn't trade it for any other life.

>>WGA: Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?

AM: I talked about the British playwright, television and film writer, Alan Plater. He gave me the first prod of encouragement. Samuel Beckett, whom I never met, was a true mentor, because he wrote with such truth and wit and compassion and severity.

>>WGA: Why do you write?

AM: I want to be glib and say I write because I am. It's almost true. Certainly I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, I never enjoy any day more than a good writing day.

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