Anthony Minghella: The Talented Mr. Minghella

Anthony Minghella performed a near miracle by turning the novel The English Patient into an Oscar-winning film. Despite the presence of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in starring roles, he's not doing anything easier with his new film, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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Anthony Minghella was born on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England to Italian parents famed (as they are still) for their ice cream factory. After attending university in Yorkshire and working briefly as a university instructor, Minghella began writing music, and at rhe same time found himself encouraged by friends to write plays. It was playwriting rather than music that brought him success. He won a London Theatre Critics Award in 1984 for Most Promising Playwright and another one in 1986 for Best Play for his Made in Bangkok. That acclaim led to TV work, which itself led to writing assignments for Jim Henson's television series The Storyteller. Henson was so impressed by Minghella that his company produced his directorial debut, a short film called Living With Dinosaurs. That same year, 1991, Minghella wrote and directed his much -admired first feature, Truly Madly Deeply, which he followed a couple of years later with the amiable shambles Mr. Wonderful Then, in 1996, Minghella turned novelist Michael Ondaatje's scaringly literary The English Patient into a nine-time Oscar-winning movie of David Lean-size aspirations and mystery, and suddenly became Hollywood's most prestigious miracle worker. People who still harbor hope for the possibility of ambitious, important films that succeed with a broad audience couldn't wait to see what Minghella would do next. The answer was a corker: an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's creepily elegant, resolutely literary novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The daunting Ripley, which is about an amoral sociopath who decides to take over the lush life of a rich, aimless expatriate, had been made into the influential, eyebrow-raising art-house film Plein Soleil (or Purple Noon) back in 1960. Directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon, Plein Soleil made understandable compromises with Highsmith's tale. Minghella, word had it, would be more faithful to rhe original. A stunning young cast--Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gate Blanchett and Jude Law--was soon assembled, and, with many of the same first-tier technical talents from The English Patient aboard again (including cinematographer John Seale, costume designer Ann Roth, composer Gabriel Yared and editor Walter Murch), Minghella's Ripley quickly became one of those films movie lovers await with doubt-ridden suspense and crossed fingers.

STEPHEN REBELLO: How did you react to the often repeated remark that one had to be both English and patient to enjoy The English Patient.

ANTHONY MINGHELLA: [Laughs] I was trained as an academic, but my instincts as a writer are unintellectual. There's nothing "from, the head" when I go to make movies. I'm interested in emotional journeys rather than theoretical ones. The Talented Mr. Ripley, for instance, is very influenced by Italian filmmakers like Fellini, De Sica, the Taviani brothers and Rossellini, whose movies have an enormous spirit of humanity that doesn't judge, doesn't simplify. I love that, and I think that like them, Ripley has an operatic edge to it-- it's naked, raw and emotional.

Q: How did you first encounter Patricia Highsmith's work?

A: The first notice I got on the first play I ever wrote said, "The tone or this play reminds me of the tone of Patricia Highsmith." I had no idea who she was, so I went out and bought her work.

Q: So, flashing forward, how did the film come about?

A: When I first came to America about four years ago, Sydney Pollack, who was a great supporter of Truly Madly Deeply, had invited me several times to his house to talk about film, and his company had offered me various projects. When there was a long, artistically and financially problematic stall on The English Patient, Sydney, who, with producer Tom Stern, had wrested the rights to The Talented Mr. Ripley from a German company that had been controlling them for many years, said, "I know you're not going to be shooting The English Patient for at least another six months. Would you think about adapting this book?" Within a week of beginning to work on it, I found myself in the curious position of feeling like I didn't want to let go of the material. I wanted to direct it, and I asked Paramount if they would wait for me. Ultimately Sydney was able to persuade them to wait.

Q: Did you revisit any earlier screen versions of Highsmith's novels?

A: I knew Plein Soleil I knew Wim Wenders's The American Friend, which is based on another Ripley novel, and I've loved Strangers on a Train for as long as I can remember. What was interesting to me about the movies that have been made from Ripley books is the extent to which they've departed from the source material. They're rather like jazz versions of the originals. While I feel this movie is a much closer adaptation, it's also wildly different in its tonalities. It's sadder and more emotional as a film than a novel, because I feel very sad about what happens to Ripley. Also, the novel proceeds on the basis that nobody else warrants attention but Ripley, yet it seems to me that in order to make the film work, you have to create a whole world of people who are hurt by what Ripley does. The film has to hurt more than the book allows the audience to feel. You have to keep reminding yourself that there's a consequence for every one of our volitions.

Q: How did you go about casting, or, since you're a composer, bring in the "orchestra" and "soloists" once you'd composed the music?

A: Casting is the most painful part of filmmaking. It's where you either win or lose. As you put it, if you've written a violin concerto and you don't get a violin, you're in big trouble. If you get a violin, it has to be one with the power, the range and the voice. One vow I made to the producers is that if I couldn't find a Ripley, I wouldn't make the film. We actually talked to about 100 actors. It's like making a suit and imagining how someone's going to fill it, wear it, walk with it. You find yourself envisioning all sorts of different wearers.

Q: Was the suit too big or too small for Leonardo DiCaprio, who was known to be a top choice?

A: I was very interested in Leo, We talked. And talked. I think that the casting process is mysterious. I would have been very intrigued to see what he would have done with the role, but you're looking for someone who has the same passion, the same yearning as you do. Matt Damon was the right person. It was a role he couldn't get out of his system. He wanted it desperately. I was very happy to have found him.

Q: How did that happen?

A: At one point, I was going to have a cameo as one of the analysts in Good Will Hunting, but even though it turned out I liked the script very much, I was too busy. When I saw a rough cut of the movie, I was very excited by Matt in every respect, but it didn't tell me whether there was a Ripley in him. So I sat with him for a half a day in New York, working and reading, and that meeting told me he was the person I wanted. He was so insightful and sympathetic to the material and to what the film was in my head. He is the single most important thing to me about the film.

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