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When you see a movie that you've written and directed, mostly it's a humiliating experience, Anthony Minghella, director of The Talented Mr Ripley, confesses to ANDREW L. URBAN.

Anthony Minghella has the reserve of an Englishman and the eloquent charm of a widely read writer - and the modesty of a monk. Women would call him cuddly on sight, but that observation would soon be embellished by reference to his intelligence and wit. Softly spoken, he listens to questions and considers his answers; there's none of the glib, well oiled publicity-speak that a global promotional tour might have instilled in him.

"the film sentence is very different from the prose sentence"

As was his widely acclaimed, Oscar winning The English Patient, Minghella's latest film, The Talented Mr Ripley, comes from a novel. To what extent is it important for a film adapted from a novel to stick to the novel?

"It has to be adjudicated on a case by case basis. For me, it takes a long time to make a movie so I don’t want to get involved with material I don't admire hugely. There's no general rule - all I'd say is it's not quite so willful an experience as it might appear to be from a distance; by which I mean the film sentence is very different from the prose sentence. In fact as a writer moving into film I've become obsessed by the difference. If I wrote the sentence of this meeting in a novel, and we were forced to make a movie of that sentence, we'd have to grow it…film is very prosaic. You have to have detail and you have to have something specific that you shove in front of the camera. The minute you make that translation you're inventing characters, incident and every decision you make betrays as much about you as it does about the original material. It's not that I trample over the novel but about the necessary dramatisation of the implicit sentence of prose into the explicit sentence of film. And along the way you get emphases and you have to jettison things simply because the time of the movie limits you."

And in a book there are two key elements: there is the story and there is the tone. What are the issues for him in dealing with those two elements?

"I like the question a lot - and you're right to make a distinction between what happens in a film and what a film is about, cause to me they're often quite distinct and Ripley has the appurtenances of a mystery story or a thriller but it isn't about that. It's a vehicle for me and my co-workers to talk about other things. But the process of making movies is much less conscious than the process of talking about them.

"a flashlight in a tunnel"

"We can sit here a year after shooting the movie and say what we were trying to do is this and this, but the experience of making a film is more like having a flashlight in a tunnel and trying to get out of the tunnel hoping you've got something with you at the end. For me, however analytical I am outside of filmmaking, in the process of writing, particularly, I'm not very analytical; I shamelessly become associated with the characters and then subsequently in the film and try and feel my way into the room, into their reality, and become very personally entwined with them all."

And in the end, Minghella and his team have made a film that's as complex and satisfying as the rather more involving process of reading a good novel. In this case, a novel about our self image and self worth, no less.

Minghella puts it this way: "I think what's at the heart of it is both its quality and its problem: which is that it's a very disconcerting movie. If the film did its job, the experience of being at the end of this movie is not a pleasurable one - unless like me you think there is a role for tragedy in fiction, and a role for the provocative. I think it identifies a fear that is more urgent now than it was 50 years ago when the book was written, which is the degree to which we are hostage to messages of inadequacy, the degree to which we are told that who we are and what we are is essentially unworthy, and that what we should do is aspire to be an other. This whole issue of buying identity is what the advertising industry has identified as a way of speaking to the public, by isolating their fears; are you worried about the way you look? Well, we can help you. Are you worried about your partners, your life, your couch, your car, your furniture….we can help you if you buy into our dream. And Ripley is the buying into the American dream."

"Obsessive! I eat, sleep, drink it"

But how well Minghella has achieved his objectives, he prefers to leave to others to assess: "The truth is, when you see a movie that you've written and directed, mostly it's a humiliating experience…frame by frame. You can admire the creative work of people that help you and the work of the people in front of the camera, but it's so naked an experience, and you know so much of how your inadequacies are on display.

"To be honest, I have no interest in the finished product at all. I am obsessive about it up until the minute I've delivered it. Obsessive! I eat, sleep, drink it, I get up in the middle of the night and work on it….I will never stop working. I cant bear to let it go…there was a courier each day outside the mixing room to take it away from us so it would be released on time. I'm a maniac and I work with other maniacs…John Seale, Walter Murch….The minute it's gone, I have no interest in it whatsoever. I don't mean that in a stupid way - of course I am delighted and honoured that people will come and see the film. But it's too masochistic to think about what we've done. I haven't seen The English Patient since the day we delivered it - or The Talented Mr Ripley."

"a certain amount of ignorance is a very good thing"

But as he gets further along the filmmaking track, more and more Minghella is starting to think "about how paralysing filmmaking can become, the more you know about it. I think a certain amount of ignorance is a very good thing, because you stop worrying about what the frame is doing. I've started to notice in myself this increasing obsession with the frame. And what it can do - and what the shot can do and what the light can do. It's great - up to a point. But then you see great movie makers who've become paralysed because they simply can't deliver a frame any longer. Whereas there was a time when I didn’t have the faintest idea why I was pointing the camera. I just knew I was obsessed with an actor or a moment - and it wasn't too over analysed."

Published February, 2000

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