Talking Film – Anthony Minghella
When Anthony Minghella died in 2008 aged fifty-four, he left behind a body of work that straddled film, theatre and television as a director, playwright and screen-writer. In Hollywood, he won the Oscar for Best Director for his 1996 film The English Patient, for which he was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. He followed this with nominations for The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999 and, as co-producer, was posthumously nominated for Best Picture for The Reader in 2008.
This weekend, as part of the Made in Hull programme that forms part of Hull's year as UK City of Culture, Anthony Minghella – A Retrospective features screenings of Minghella's work and discussions with his collaborators.
Born on the Isle of Wight into an ice-cream selling family, after playing in bands, Minghella studied drama at the University of Hull, where he wrote an adaptation of Gabriel Josipovici's Mobius the Stripper. He also taught at Hull on Samuel Beckett and medieval theatre. Minghella's first film as a director, A Little Like Drowning, was made in 1978.
Minghella wrote and directed for TV and radio, and in 1990 wrote and directed Truly, Madly, Deeply for BBC2's Screen Two strand. He turned down directing an episode of Inspector Morse in favour of The English Patient, which led to his major successes.
Here, co-curator of Anthony Minghella – A Retrospective, Dr James Zborowski, talks about the season, and Minghella's friend and former lecturer, Professor Tony Meech, talks about the backdrop to Minghella's work.
Dr James Zborowski
Year Zero Film-making: First of all, could you tell us about your first experience of Anthony Minghella's work?
James Zborowski: My first memory of watching Minghella was seeing The Talented Mr Ripley at the cinema when it was first released in 1999.
YZ: And what was it that struck you about his films?
JZ: I was eighteen at the time, and hadn’t yet thought about pursuing film studies as a career, so I was responding as an untutored teenager. The main things I remember are being impressed that Matt Damon was successfully playing a creepy character (my impression of him had been formed when watching him in Good Will Hunting as a troubled and clever but still ultimately honourable young man), and also being impressed by the oppressive tone the film maintains. Both things speak to Minghella’s skill as a director.
Having recently read the novel it’s based on, I’m impressed by the changes Minghella made to turn a novel about unappealing characters into a viable proposition for a glamorous star cast, while still maintaining the novel’s unsettlingness.
YZ: Tell me about the programming of the retrospective weekend and the thinking behind the choices you made in what's being screened.
JZ: When we sat down with Hull2017 and BFI Film Hub North to plan out the retrospective, we knew that we wanted to bring the three big Hollywood films – The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley, and Cold Mountain – back to the big screen, as their scope and spectacle are best felt on a big screen. We would dearly loved to have included Truly, Madly, Deeply in the retrospective, but the licensing proved too tricky. One day, perhaps!
The biggest challenge, and pleasure, was coming up with a representative sample of Minghella’s work for television in the 1980s and 1990s to show to an audience. The BFI National Archive very kindly provided us with a list of their holdings. I knew immediately that I wanted the Smith and Jones comedy sketch that Minghella wrote, and that that would be a great way to round off the evening’s programme.
I also knew I wanted something that Minghella did with Jim Henson. It was a tough choice, but in the end I decided to forego the Storyteller series in favour of the one-off drama, Living with Dinosaurs. Not only is it deeply lovely in its own right (a show about a child, but not just for children, which is a hard thing to pull off well I think), it also gives Truly, Madly, Deeply enthusiasts the joy of seeing Juliet Stevenson and Michael Maloney onscreen together again.
I also chose the first episode of What if It’s Raining?, a divorce drama that Minghella wrote for Channel 4, and a short conceptual dance piece Minghella wrote for the BBC. I wish I could have found room too for Maybury, starring Patrick Stewart. And of course it would have been nice to show an Inspector Morse episode, but they’re very long.
YZ: What's it been like looking at the films again, especially seeing it together as a body of work?
JZ: It’s been great. Minghella is great at emotion, and at little moments, and while these things are there in his big films, I think once you’ve seen his TV work, painted on a smaller canvas, you’re more attuned to those moments when they appear in his films. I’ve become quite interested in the details of Minghella’s biography – thanks in large part to being able to talk to people still here in Hull who knew Minghella when he studied and worked here – and when you know about Minghella’s love for things like Portsmouth FC and Bach, you get an extra little jolt of pleasure when these things crop up in his screen work.
YZ: What other things have been unearthed for the retrospective? Were there any surprises in terms of material you'd not seen before?
JZ: I’d seen very little of Minghella’s TV work, so that’s been the pleasing thing to have unearthed for audiences to be reminded of, or to enjoy for the first time. I’ve also had the privilege of working with Hull History Centre to put together a display of artefacts relating to Minghella’s stage and screen career – programmes, adverts, reviews, and so on. And further things have been donated to that display by Minghella’s former colleagues. So for example, there’s a letter that Minghella wrote to Philip Larkin, and also a report that he wrote after his first year on a permanent teaching contract at the university, listing all the lectures he delivered. To me, doing a not-dissimilar job, that sort of thing is fascinating!
One thing that interested readers can get their hands on quickly and easily on the BBC website is the episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Minghella. It’s a real treat.
YZ: What's the most important thing about Anthony Minghella's work today?
I think that when you know the whole Minghella story, he can be really inspirational to aspiring British film- and television-makers. Often, the world of Hollywood is one that seems utterly remote and unreachable, almost unreal, to people in the UK dreaming of a screen career. But here’s a writer who worked with enthusiasm and skill on a range of writing projects, starting with small plays and television screenwriting, seizing opportunities as they arose, and step by step, he was entrusted with larger and larger projects, until eventually, he was commanding productions with international locations and some of the biggest stars in the world!
I think that to be able to see that trajectory is a really inspirational thing. Also, the films still look great, and feel true. The three big films all have period settings, so are largely spared the fate of dating quickly!
Dr James Zborowski is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, Screen Subject Group Head, School of Arts, University of Hull. He is co-curator of Anthony Minghella – A Retrospective with Film Hub North and Hull UK City of Culture 2017.
Professor Tony Meech
YZ: First of all, could you tell me about your first experiences of Anthony Minghella?
Tony Meech: My first encounter with Anthony was when I watched a student production in which he was playing keyboard, dressed as a frog. That was soon after I arrived in Hull in January 1973. He was in his first year as a Drama undergraduate.
YZ: What was he like as a student in terms of any early potential he showed as a director?
TM: During his third year he took my film-making course. He shot a 16mm short film, which was shown as part of his final assessment, a philosophical musical called Mobius the Stripper, which he adapted from a short story by Gabriel Josipovici. He also directed Edward Bond’s play, Lear, which was a remarkable experience for all of us involved in the project. When he was working as a colleague in the Drama Department, we all went down to the Isle of Wight to make A Little Like Drowning, his first full-length film.
YZ: There was obviously a passion for the work of Samuel Beckett that he had, but how much do you think Minghella's experience of theatre fed into his films?
TM: While he was working on Beckett, he directed Play and Happy Days for the then Humberside Theatre. These were exceptional productions. He always said he was a writer who directed films. He was, of course, for many years a songwriter and a playwright before he started making films.
YZ: Minghella went on to teach at Hull as well before going on to work for the BBC. How did he relay his own experiences of film and drama to his own students?
TM: All I can say was that he was a very popular lecturer - teaching across the curriculum from mediaeval theatre to socialist (later committed) theatre. He always encouraged potential writers (such as Simon Moore and Nic Perry) in the same way that he had been encouraged by Alan Plater and Jim Hawkins. He worked with a group of female student actors, who felt that the student productions that year had been too male dominated to workshop characters, which he then wrote up into Whale Music. He also wrote each of the actors a song.
YZ: What do you think the legacy of Minghella's work on film is today, and what's important about a retrospective like this?
TM: Anthony had extraordinary loyalty to his family, his friends, the Isle and to Hull Drama Department. This loyalty was repaid many times over by the actors and crew he worked with. He established something of an informal ensemble of cast and crew, all of whom were devoted to him and lined up to work on his next project. This is pretty rare in commercial cinema. He was also a writer/director. The only large scale film of his I didn’t feel worked was Mr Wonderful, for which he didn’t write the script. He was, as I said above, a writer who directed films.
Professor Tony Meech is Emeritus Senior Research Fellow in the School of Drama, Music and Screen, School of Arts, University of Hull. He was a friend of Anthony Minghella, and is also participating in this post show Q&A session following the Anthony Minghella – A Retrospective screening of The English Patient. https://www.hull2017.co.uk/whatson/events/anthony-minghella-season-the-english-patient-usa-1997
Anthony Minghella – A Retrospective runs at the Middleton Hall, Hull, January 24th-26th as part of Made in Hull, Hull 2017 UK City of Culture. Full details can be found at hull2017.co.uk/minghella