Mark Harris: Honoring Anthony Minghella
In the heartfelt tributes that followed the sudden death of director Anthony Minghella on March 18, one of his greatest virtues too often went underappreciated: Minghella was a terrific writer. Beyond the fact that he wrote almost all his own screenplays — for Truly, Madly, Deeply, for The English Patient, for Cold Mountain, for The Talented Mr. Ripley, and for what will stand as his final film, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency — Minghella was one of the rare contemporary filmmakers truly, madly, deeply, and unfashionably in love with the maddening puzzle of how to make a plot unfold. He was fascinated with what novelists could do to create stories — and inspired by the uphill task of reinventing those stories for the movies.
Time and again, Minghella would set himself up for defeat by picking a novel that seemed to have found its perfect form on the page, and challenging himself to find a cinematic language in which to retell it — an approach that would honor the original material while standing on its own. That enterprise is, more often than not, doomed to failure. To attempt it is to resign oneself to the fact that a slew of critics — and moviegoers — will inevitably judge your work in comparison to something that they’ve already experienced and loved. ”The book was better” is the epitaph for so many adaptations of beloved books that it takes a unique combination of humility and stoicism to spend one’s career fighting those odds.
Perhaps because, in the history of movies, pictures had a 30-year head start on words, many cinephiles still talk approvingly of ”pure cinema,” defining that term by the degree to which a director can speak entirely with his camera, not with words. Directors with writerly passions are sometimes treated with mild condescension; they’re not seen as ”naturals,” because, as Pauline Kael once put it, ”a movie that is primarily words tends to evaporate.” (She wasn’t entirely wrong, but giggle over that one the next time you watch All About Eve or Annie Hall.)
Minghella faced down the possibility of that kind of semi-dismissal with diligence and artistry. He understood that only a beautifully crafted script could give his performers the tools they needed to dig deep, and he had a gift for thawing out actors who in other hands could seem chilly or opaque. The résumés of Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, and Alan Rickman are all stronger because of him, and his work on their behalf began with his painstaking page-by-page construction of scenes, dialogue, and character.
NEXT PAGE: ”Michael Ondaatje [author of The English Patient] knew he was lucky to have his work in the hands of a writer who knew he had to do more than just transcribe it.”
Of writing The English Patient, Minghella said, ”The only way I could construct the screenplay was to abandon the book,” which he accurately called more ”an anthology of thoughts and ideas and feelings” than a story. The novel’s author, Michael Ondaatje, knew he was lucky to have his work in the hands of a writer who knew he had to do more than just transcribe it. Sometimes the leaps Minghella took were daring efforts to reach beyond the range of his source material. The ending of his version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which he attempts to look briefly inside the heart of a killer, bravely risks opening a door that Highsmith herself either wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge was even there.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed the director Sydney Pollack, who became Minghella’s producing partner in 2000. Pollack, at that moment, was deeply engaged in trying to fix somebody else’s broken movie, looking at the footage and trying to figure out a stronger shape for the narrative. He liked the imperative of problem solving, but he also knew that the problem should have been solved much earlier. We sorely need directors like Minghella and Pollack who respect the craft and complexity of screenwriting. Put as much work into your script as you do into your direction, and you can end up with something like Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (which Minghella and Pollack produced). Movies are much richer because of directors who understand how much work has to be done before a foot of film is shot.
In 1996, Minghella was speaking to a screening room full of journalists, introducing an early cut of The English Patient that was slightly more leisurely than the 162 minutes it eventually ran. ”It’s a long movie,” he said with great cheerfulness and not an iota of apology. ”So use the bathroom now.” It wasn’t a request: He meant now, the way parents tell a little kid to go before they get in the car, even if they don’t think they have to. He wasn’t joking. He waited, grinning, as people got up, shuffled out, came back in. And then he started the movie. Was he a control freak? I don’t think so. He was a storyteller. And he didn’t want anybody to miss part of the story.