After his successful film Truly Madly Deeply director Anthony Minghella made Mr Wonderful in Hollywood with William Hurt and Matt Dillon. Here he talks to Jaap Mees about Juliet Stevenson, football and The New Chinese Cinema.
||With his first feature
film Truly Madly Deeply, in 1990, filmmaker
Anthony Minghella (1954) moved immediately into the
ranks of the best filmmakers in England. Before that
he had been acclaimed as a playwright, winning the
Best New Play Award in 1986 for Made In Bangkok.
He also wrote for television (What If It's Raining
and some episodes of Inspector Morse) and
radio (Cigarettes And Chocolate).
Minghella has his office in the same building as Jim Muppets Henson Productions in North London. He resembles a firmly-built bear with friendly observant eyes and a few day's stubble.
Do you consider yourself an Italian or Englishman?"
I was born and raised on the Isle of Wight, an isolated area with few foreigners. My parents were Italian emigrants and therefore we were considered rather exotic. My parents talked about INglesi, as if they were talking about foreigners. But when I go to Italy, which I try to do as much as I can, I feel very English. I had an English education. English friends and my Italian is not very good. For a writer it is a good thing not to be too assimilated. I feel most at home in America, because everybody there is from another country.
In my writing I'm interested in emotions, which probably has something to do with my Italian background. For a long time I didn't feel particularly at ease with English literature. It's more intellectually orientated and keeps a distance from the emotions. Happily this cool and cynical way of writing is becoming less fashionable nowadays. I live in the right time in that sense.
Noticing the positive reactions you got from both the audience and the press to Truly Madly Deeply, you live definitely in the right time.
I have always believed that there is a need for life-affirming films. Especially in the late seventies and eighties affirmation was considered naive and unsuitable. But to write a genuinely affirmative plot is very difficult and demanding.
I think at the end of the day you can only write well about things that are natural for you and about what you want to see yourself. I think that writers are responsible for what they write. I don't mean that in a moralistic kind of way, but I don't think it's very useful to write something without any perspective or realistic solution. I shall give an example.
My son of seven and I are fanatical supporters of the Portsmouth football club. Last week they would have been promoted to the first division if they had won their last game. My son identifies himself, strongly with the players, they are his heroes. He is very familiar with theatre and film heroes, he expected a victory.
Heroes in movies and theatre usually win in the end and after having conquered the necessary obstacles. But Portsmouth lost and my son was utterly confused and didn't understand it at all.
I give this example to show that I don't want to write just to shock or confuse my audience.
Let's go back to Truly Madly Deeply. How did you get the idea?
I wanted to write a script for Juliet Stevenson. I know her very well and have worked with her on about nine (theatre) productions. I feel very close to her. You could say it's a vehicle for her to express all her talents. She plays piano, likes dancing and has a quirky side to her which she usually can't express in the classical parts she is asked for.
In the storyteller, a former project, I had already experimented with an informal way of storytelling and I wanted to use it again. At the same time I didn't want to write a naturalistic story, but rather a magical one. My starting point was a duet, as in music.
After that I got the idea of a dead husband returning to his loved one. I like Magical Realism, ideal for film because of it's dreamlike character and because there are no limits except financially.
Yet, often the possibilities of film are not used, like in my last movie Mr Wonderful, which is completely unmagical. I think it's the last time I will make a film for a studio.
What interested me in Truly Madly Deeply was the fact that the story looks naturalistic, but could never have happened. It gave me the opportunity to tell the plot as a metaphor. It's about the ability to let things go in order to develop yourself. The film was shot in 28 days, with a small budget from the BBC. Nobody expected much and therefore the actors and crew were very committed. There was a real sense of harmony on the set."
Truly Madly Deeply was a huge hit in the American Arthouse circuit. Almost every important studio in Hollywood offered Minghella work. He was very surprised at all these offers. "I felt as if my L-plate was still attached to my wrist." Finally, he chose the independent studio Samuel Goldwyn Junior to produce his new film Mr Wonderful.
What is Mr Wonderful about?
It's about five working class friends who work for an electricity company. They dream of starting their own bowling club. The main character, played by Matt Dillon, can't afford to join-in, because he has to pay alimony to his ex-wife. His friends decide to help him out by finding him a new wife. In the film two of the characters don't achiever their aims. That makes the film rather melancholy, although it's basically a romantic story. The studio talked about those two characters as 'dead bodies', meaning emotional corpses. For me, however, that was exactly the reason I wanted to make the film.
One of the characters says in the film: 'When someone starts crying, another stops...the same goes for happiness.' It's a quote from Waiting For Godot."
Do critics ever compare you with Frank Capra, he also made magical and human films.
My new film The Seven Deadly Sins for Henson Productions is a real Capra film. It's about a man in spiritual crisis. He tries to do everything to be a good man, but all his efforts are in vain. Then he decides to be bad. The sins are played by creatures made by Henson Productions.
But I feel more familiar with the French and Italian Cinema. Especially the relationship films. The Tree Of Cloaks by Olmi is a marvellous movie: a small community is drawn in minute detail. I Vitteloni by Fellini is also one of my favourite films, it contains everything that I try to achieve in filmmaking.
I also like very much the intelligent and surprising films of Eric Rohmer and I see every film of Woody Allen. There are a lot of tributes to Allen in Truly Madly Deeply.
The most fascinating cinema now comes from China. Especially filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Yimou's Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern and The Story Of Qiu Ju are masterpieces. Kaige who made Yellow Earth won this years' (1993) Golden Palm in Cannes for his Farewell To My Concubine, alongside The Piano Lesson by Jane Campion.
Both Kaige and Yimou studied at the Peking Film Academy. They were the first generation of Chinese filmmakers who came in contact with Modern Western Cinema, and began to make films with a personal view on the world. They both graduated in 1982. Both are excellent story-tellers with great care for the characters in their films, and a sharp eye for colour and composition.
Before I shot Mr. Wonderful I took my two lighting-cameramen to a screening of Red Sorghum. I'm married to a Chinese woman, which makes it all the more interesting and gives more insight.
You have worked with actors like William Hurt, Felicity Kendal, Michael Maloney and Alan Rickman. Can you give a short description of each of them?
To start with Michael Maloney, he is one of the most underestimated actors. He is clever, vulnerable, understands complex emotions very well and knows how to express them. I don't understand why he's not as much in demand as Daniel Day Lewis, another gifted actor.
Mentioning Felicity Kendal, the first thing I think of is her voice. It's a voice of another era. Very theatrical and classical. I think she she would have been good in the films of David Lean. We got along well, but she wasn't particularly interested in my (life) journey, she had her own journey to go.
Alan Rickman looks like a Middle-European aristocrat. He is very militant, impatient and unforgiving, as an actor. He is excellent, but demanding of the people he works with. In that sense he is comparable to William Hurt who doesn't accept any fooling around on the set. He is technically a superb actor, a real pleasure to work with.
My relationship with the actors is very important to me. I am dependent on them. For some filmmakers, actors are a necessary evil or just elements in a bigger plan. For me the actors are definitely the most essential. I can't imagine films without them, films like that don't interest me. Some actors intrigue me, thus I try everything to get them in my productions and then unfold them.
Are you demanding of yourself and the actors?
I am reasonably tolerant in the preparation process of the actors, but also a monomaniac. It's a complicated balance. It's very well possible that I'm more edgy than I appear to be. I do everything possible to get the best out of my players. My starting point is that I love to work with actors. Actors appreciate it when they can give everything they have. They get very frustrated when they just have to show one side of themselves, and that is usually the same side. They are very keen on being challenged.
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