Anthony Minghella and Lisa Gunning interviewed by Cath Le Couteur
Anthony Minghella and Lisa Gunning (editor) interviewed by Shooters co-founder Cath Le Couteur at Koko’s for the Shooters Xmas party 2005.
[Cath] Shooters - Anthony Minghella started off writing plays for radio and television and theatre. He went on to make the extraordinary debut feature “Truly Madly Deeply”. He then went on to win a slew of awards and nominations with “The Talented Mr Ripley”, “The English Patient”, and “Cold Mountain” with “The English Patient” winning him an Oscar for best film and best director. He is incredibly passionate about film and a wonderful man – please welcome Anthony Minghella - Shooters give it up!
Anthony firstly thank you so much for coming and also for letting us all get an exclusive preview on your latest film. Can you tell us a bit more about “Breaking and Entering”.
[Anthony Minghella] First of all I feel like we should be singing rather than speaking! “Breaking and Entering” is a story set in London in Kings Cross. About 5 years ago I wanted to write a play and I had an idea for a play called “Breaking and Entering” about a couple who come home from a dinner and they find that their house has been burgled. And when they try and work out what has been stolen they find out that things have been added and what has been added is what is missing in their marriage. I tried to write that play many times and I could never do it. I have lots of notebooks at home with about two scenes but that was all I could do. I was in Romania for nearly a year making “Cold Mountain” and one evening I remember suddenly thinking there was a different way to tell that same story and so that story evolved and transformed itself into “Breaking and Entering”.
Your first film was an original screenplay and you then did a trilogy of adaptations. So coming back to an original screenplay - was that a deliberate choice?
I really wanted to make a film in London at home and a contemporary film and a smaller film. I mean Mike Figgis was talking earlier about some of the industrial imperatives of making bigger movies and I really felt that it was a good time to be at home and shooting with a small crew and being able to hold onto an idea and not have it in any way evolved by the process of so many people. I mean “Cold Mountain” was a very expensive film there were lots and lots of people involved. It was important to the studio that the film performed in a particular way. I mean it is hard then to hold onto your own vision and your own sense of your voice as a film maker after all all of us want to do the same thing which is to speak on film, to tell stories on film, make them as personal and as real and to maintain the integrities as much as is possible. And in a film like “Breaking and Entering” because it is sufficiently small it is possible for me to hang on to my own voice without compromise really.
There are a lot of writers in the audience and we’d love to understand more about your process of writing. This film has three key characters?
It started off with an idea about two mothers and their children and two special mothers with two special children. The idea was to look at the way in which how you care for children is very informed by how much money you have and where you come from. And so there is one child who is Bosnian and the child of a single mother who lives in Kings Cross on an estate. And then there is a Swedish middle class woman who lives in Primrose Hill who has got a child who has special needs. And in a sense it began with this mirror idea of two interesting women with two interesting children all of whom needed attention and care and needed to survive in London and then looking at how those two worlds collide. And so it began with a population of two women and two children and then grew into a much bigger population as I went along. And it is a lot to do with the fact that in London now I think there is a sense of the working class in London that has disappeared but in fact what has happened is there is a new class and under class of people whose names we don't know and can’t pronounce. We don't know where they have come from and they are from all over the world and they are becoming an invisible class in the middle of London. And I think most film makers and most story tellers are very intrigued by invisible stories and invisible people. And so I got very interested in the fact that in my office in London where we make films our cleaners are Nigerian, we have a lot of collision with people from Eastern Europe, we don't know them, and they don’t know us, and so the film sort of tries to investigate a bit of that world.
And when you say you started with these two women, these two particular characters, did those characters change much during the process of you writing the film?
I mean anybody who is a writer in the room probably doesn't know anymore than I do and I certainly don't know more than you do about where ideas for people come from in stories that you tell. I was very interested in Eastern Europe. I went to Bosnia and I went to Sarajevo before I started writing and I met a lot of incredible people there and obviously the people I met informed me and I wrote about. And I have also in the last 10 or 15 years met several quite interesting women who have children who are enormously demanding for one reason or another. I think they have made a huge impression on me and so I guess they are in some ways in template you know aggregation of the woman that I wrote.
Trying to get at the heart of the writing process it is such a difficult job and you have had tremendous experience now. Are you someone who does a lot of thinking and preparation before hand, are you writing huge swathes and then kind of cutting it back, or are you a lean machine day one when you start the script?
I wish there was anything lean about my mission. I love writing and it is what I have always done and I feel most myself when I am writing but the process of creating work is as mysterious to me today as 20 years ago. I think what is an interesting analogy is that I go on holiday sometimes with my family and a friend and we were once in a place in France where there was a very nice swimming pool. And one morning my son ran down to the pool and did a big belly flop into the water and then my friend did this incredible dive off the board and my wife kind of slipped in very gently and swam and I kept walking round and round and round the pool trying to pluck up courage to go in. And then eventually after about an hour I sort of got in and then I stay in for a very long time once I am in and I think that is very much the way that I write.
Once I’m ready I can stay in for a long time.
I guess for a lot of us, as writers, finding the truth in writing or trying to get to at the heart of who we are and be truthful to who we are, is the real challenge. Is that something that is second nature to you now?
Well I think if you are a film maker, I mean these two short films which we saw at the beginning of the evening, both of which I thought were really interesting. It is hard to make any film and it is hard to write anything and so I think on the whole what you want to do is to be as close and as accurate and as true to your own sense of the world that you can be. There is no point in… all you have is your taste as your writing… You have nothing else. If you are a director you get paid to make decisions and to have choices and so you have to invest in some sense in your specialness. And I think one of the strange things about courses and tutors and books is that they suggest there is some other way to be other than the way you are that will launch you in a career. But of course all that anybody wants is your particularness, your specialisness, what is unique about you and so the only course and the only advice that really matters is discover what it is that is particular about the way that you look at the world and try and invest in that and try and grow that individual course because that is what everybody wants.
It seems like a lot of the characters in your films don't often say what they really mean. Is that a device that you like to use to reveal character?
Well I think now, for example, if I said exactly what I was thinking, it would be very hard because it is very strange being in here and being in a club trying to talk about making films. And so if I said what I really want to do now is to go home as quickly as possibly can and be released, I mean it wouldn't help me, and so what I will try and do is engage with your questions. I think most of the time we don't use language to express what we feel… you know there is a line in my film in “Breaking and Entering” where a woman says to one of the characters animals don't speak because they have got no need to lie. And largely language is a kind of smokescreen. It very rarely conveys exactly what we want to say and it very rarely expresses in any kind of accuracy the feelings that we have. And that is why I think sometimes writing which is too beautiful or too finished or too transparent always sounds like a lie. It always sounds like you can hear the writing because most of the time we are stumbling towards meaning, we are stumbling towards some kind of communication. And often it is by our failure to speak or by our clumsiness with words or by our… I mean I was in a situation yesterday where I was very nervous and somebody asked me a question and I told a lie. You know it was a stupid lie. I was awkward it was a question that had no need of anything other than a correct answer but I was nervous and so I said something that wasn't true. And a friend of mine told me about her mother who once tried to commit suicide by throwing herself from a building and she fell seven stories and lived. And when the policeman came to ask her her name while they were waiting for the ambulance she told the policeman a lie about her name because she was a bit embarrassed. She had broken every single bone in her body but she still felt a bit awkward and uncomfortable.
But I think that that is the way that we are as human beings you know we use language like a set of clothes because we are terrified of revealing ourselves. And so I think we are right, it is a good thing to remember.
There is probably not that many writers who aren’t now aware of the ‘screewniting gurus and books’ that pop up on all script courses. What is your view on what best helps writers?
I think writing helps writers. You know I remember once when I started and I kept rewriting the same scene and I had a friend who was a working writer and he would read the scene and he would give me a note and I would go back and rewrite the same scene. And eventually he said you know I would love never to read this scene again why don't you write another scene. I think there is a danger that you kind of just don't commit as a writer and in fact what separates most working writers from those who want to be writers is they have just committed more and they have written more and they have finished more. And you know it is a discipline to write, it is hard to write, it is no fun necessarily writing when you could be here dancing or whatever it is that happens in this building when we are not here! Unimaginable things obviously go on here that I never see because I stay at home with my pencil and notepaper you know. And I think it is a lonely activity but it is a beautiful activity but I think that looking for mystery about writing is a waste of time. There are no mysteries. It is about going on a journey, it is about saying I really feel I have something to say because if you have got nothing to say then don't bother writing. You know you don't have to write there are other things to do.
I do think that there is money available for writers I still think that writers are misunderstood in the film business. That directors don't acknowledge and producers don't acknowledge and distributors don't acknowledge that everything happens with somebody sitting in a room writing down a moment. And I think it is important to say a moment rather than a line of dialogue because I think that dialogue is not what we do as screenwriters what we do is we create events in which people can behave. Obviously this dialogue that is coming out of my mouth now is nothing to do with me personally, its to do with this architecture and the fact that there are lots of people and I can’t really see them, there is a bar which I can see, and there is noise and we are on the stage. It is not the conversation we would have if we were sitting in a car or it we were on a date, it’s just a completely different thing. You know if we were sitting side by side in the bathroom we wouldn't say exactly what we are saying right now.
And so what we do as dramatists is we dramatise you know, we put scenes together and often it is not so much even what happens in one scene it is the relationship of one scene to the next scene and how that transition operates. And so for instance in a film you can have a very beautiful duet between a man and a woman and between two women and between two men two people speaking can be wonderful. And then you can write another wonderful scene and it has two people speaking and it is gorgeous and then you can have another fantastic scene with two people speaking. And eventually it is rather like a house with lots of bathrooms you just don't want to go to another bathroom you know it doesn’t matter how good it is your appetite for a duet is exhausted. One of the things as dramatists that you need to remember is that writing is like building a house you know that you need to contemplate how many kinds of rooms you are creating and whether you are exciting interest again in these two people speaking because you have binned a party scene or you have binned some movement. So you are not always writing… it is not about beauty and it is not about individual moments it is always about this whole event that you are mapping and you are taking people on a sort of narrative journey.
We did an event a couple of months ago with Stuart Beattie who wrote “Collateral” and he talked about how he put all this blood and sweat into his script and how great it was when he was paired with Director Michael Mann. He said it was the perfect match. You are a writer and you direct the stuff that you write. So potentially you are an even more, perfect, perfect, match. Do you ever find that your writing head, fights your directing head? Do you ever think that you might limit yourself because you love a line rather than reveal something visually?
I think that obviously one of the hardest things for writers and for directors is to find material and each other. You know if you have written a wonderful screenplay you have to find a director who is prepared to commit to doing it. If you are a director you have to find a piece of material that you can fall in love with. The chances of that happening are much easier if you have written a screenplay yourself. You know that you are the right person to direct it and so it misses out one very difficult part of the process. Obviously if you are a writer/director there is always a danger that you are not objective about the material. On the other hand I think objectivity is not what we are doing. The job is always committing and in the film the great thing is you commit with collaborators and if your collaborators are strong enough and good enough and you love them enough, then they will tell you very quickly when they think your compass is not accurate. And I have a group of people that I work with from film to film who are not at all shy in telling you what they think is right and what they think is wrong. And people in my office in London who watch everything and tell me when they think I am doing well or badly. And I have a card, I may have said this before, over my desk and the card says if nine Russians tell you you are drunk lie down. And I think that if you have people around you and there are nine of them that say the scene is too short or too long or whatever, it is then it is a good time to pay attention.
When you made your third film “The English Patient” and you got all those awards. What was the pressure like? As new filmmakers it feels sometimes that there are big expectation on us to do well with our first features, and that we are never ever, ever, ever going to get the chance to do it again unless the first does really well.
I have absolutely no wisdom about film making I can tell you that. I made a film after “The English Patient” and when I started previewing it in America, it was “The Talented Mr Ripley”, they do these preview cards and you have to fill out what you think about the film. And we did this first preview in Northern California and the first twenty or thirty cards that I read had either scratched out the card or had said this is a terrible fag movie or what is wrong with you we hate you now because I didn’t make “The English Patient”. You know obviously we were very lucky with that film and I think if it had been released in a different year or the climate was different or if it had been post 9/11 then it wouldn't have been received in the same way. You know there these strange things when all of the auguries line up and we were just very blessed with that. But by the same token when I was trying to sell that film I would go to various studios and they would say there is no market for World War II romantic films in the desert. And subsequently with every project, they say haven't you got anymore World War II romantic films in the desert and so you get compartmentalised in whatever thing you do. When I was first writing people didn't want me to direct. When I started directing people didn't know why I wanted to waste time writing. When I had made a film that was big people said well you are naturally looking to write big films, but before that they said I was obviously naturally designed to make small films.
I think that your job is not to engage too much with other people’s opinion of you to keep searching for what is the thing that excites you and makes you feel like that you are doing has some worth. That is the hardest thing for me. Not what film I am making but why I am making films. You know there is a big world out there with things going on in it and if you are going to make a film it ought to be about something it ought to have some value because otherwise you are just contributing to a kind of drip drip drip of stuff. There is so much stuff going on all the time and unless you feel like there is some urgency about what is in your mind or in your heart why add to it you know do something else. And so my anxiety has never been about which film to make it has been about why make films or write at all.
So on why make films.. Do you always know what your film is about at the very beginning of your process, or is it something that you learn through the process of the film and that you end up only understanding at the end?
I mean everybody here wants to be involved in film I assume and everybody has a sense of the film that they might make playing in their head. And certainly you know when I wrote “Breaking and Entering” I had a very strong idea of what it would feel like to be in it and to watch it and to be part of it. And always the tonality of it. The sort of tone which is the thing that is most illusive, it has a very specific tone which is very beautiful. And I think that finding your tone and that particular music is the thing. If you look at Mike Figgis’ movies they have always got a key signature of some description and I think that I always have an idea of what the bit of the film might be like, what it might be to watch parts of it. But how you get there and how much change there is in the process is always extraordinary because as soon as an actor appears they would say your line and they would live your life that you have created and they even change it and it is made much more beautiful by those changes. Because I have only ever written for actors I am very useless in writing for instruments. I am very used to how an instrument might change in the music and I love that. And so I try to write in a way that there is a surprise element. And I think the other thing is when you are shooting a film if you know too much you know the camera has only got one eye and so if you are looking at the world like this then there is a whole half of the world that you can’t see.
And so I think that part of the job of making films is also to try and keep your eyes open literally and metaphorically and see all the other things that are going on that might feed the film in some way. And I have done that many times and I have always been really grateful at the end of a shoot when the camera has strayed into the world of it. I have a friend Walter Salles who made “The Motorcycle Diaries” and also “Central Station in Brazil” and in the middle of Central Station there is a whole episode where they get caught up in this big religious event and that wasn't in the film it just so happened when they were shooting in that period they bumped into this big religious event and it fell into the film. And I think that is because he comes from a documentary background and his eyes were wide open and he saw that could feed the event that he was making. And I would love to feel like every film wasn't just what I knew but also what we all collectively found out.
You are known as having a tremendous affinity and love of working with actors, can you tell us a bit about the cast that you chose to work with in “Breaking and Entering”?
This is the third film I have made with Jude Law and I love working with him and I think he is a very undervalued actor. And Juliette Binoche is somebody I worked with in “The English Patient” and I have stayed very close to. Ray Winstone is in the film he is another collaborator I love to work with. And Juliet Stevenson is also in the film again who was in “Truly Madly Deeply”. And I have always loved Robin Wright Penn, I had her in the “The English Patient” ten years ago and I have kept in touch with her and I know Sean Penn and they are both great people and so I was very keen to work with her. But then the casting process is another adventure you meet people that you didn’t know whose worked you have liked. Martin Freeman is in the film and I love him as an actor and so it was great to have the opportunity. And the great thing if you are a film maker you tend to be a film fan you know and so I love films I love watching films and a part of me I suppose is keeping a little pocketbook of performances that I have enjoyed or thought were special or might be consonant with kind of writing that I do. In the end you know directors have to be cast as well as actors it is not just you work for everybody or everybody works for you you have a specific way of working that not every actor would flourish in. And also you can’t help the actor and so part of the job is to work out whether there is a possible alchemy between you…
Can you expand on that? I mean do each of the actors have different working methods? Do you go on set with a particular way that you like to work with actors?
No I have no theories at all other than to say that I try to find a way that we are all are after the same thing. I am sure every director would say the same in the audience which is that part of your job is to keep speaking what the film is, what you are trying to do, and to try and help the actor sometimes by saying absolutely nothing, sometimes by getting very close to them and sometimes by keeping as far away from them as possible. You know it is like any interaction with other human beings sometimes they put their arm around you if they are not feeling great. Sometimes getting too close to them is terrifying or it hinders their ability to resolve the problem. And so I think you have to be the best kind of watcher, the best kind of listener for everybody. And I think that films are the reflection of the way that the director has looked at actors and listened to them. And so what you are seeing in a way is one person’s idea of how the world works that is mediated through a series of performances. And so how I look at Juliette Binoche is how I am asking you to look at her. That is what directing is, it is almost like the dirt on the lens is the director you know the distortion on the lens is that eye of whoever the film maker is.
In all of your films, there are extremely intense moments of deep sorrow and despair. Is this something you could talk about more generally - how you might approach a very difficult scene with actors?
I think that in emotional moments in film, actors are incredible people aren’t they. It is a very interesting thing you know if you are working with a camera and you are photographing an actor, sometimes you go and stand in front of the camera with them because it is so invasive. You know it is so present and they are tied to the shot or the more personal, the closer the camera seems to get, and it is this big mechanism that is stuck right by you, and there is somebody holding it, and there is somebody holding a microphone. And it is a very odd thing to then say to the actor show me your heart breaking, or show me you dying, or show me you making love or whatever it is that the scene is about. And I think that part of it is just simply finding a way for the actor to prepare and then to in a way, to make sure that you collect very quickly the moment so you don't ask somebody to cry all day or you don't ask them to die all day or you don't ask them to stay in bed all day. You know you try and set up and arrange so that it is easy, as easy as possible. Sometimes you play music that seems to fit a scene, I mean you just use any device that you can think about. In a way again there is no mystery. If we need to do something very intimate now we would probably say can everybody else go away for a while because we can’t actually think that clearly while you are all watching us. And I think that being able to get rid of the crew and being able to quieten the set, treating the set as a sacred ground. You know when you are shooting it should be absolutely focused, it is not a place to screw around it is a place to do your work. And part of it is making sure that everybody is conscious of what is happening, that you are trying to make something and you are asking a lot of other individuals other human beings to reveal themselves and then commit. All of you commit to it and realise that there is an interaction that is going on. If you are committed then you are halfway to the actor committing as well.
I wanted to ask you about the power of secondary characters in the films that you have done. Philip Seymour Hoffman in Ripley is unbelievable, he lights up the screen as this grotesque bully who also has a strong humanity. How do you approach your secondary characters?
I have always thought it very strange in dramatic fiction that there are so few characters because in life there are lots of people you know, and actually nobody knows the central character in their story. I mean it is a very odd thing isn’t it because if we got somebody to stand up in the audience when they stood up, they would feel like it was their story, it is their story. And for everybody there is one story being told and yet we all interact and for a moment you know, I am experiencing this only from the limited perspective I have from sitting here. Somebody down there is experiencing it from the perspective that he has. But what is odd about the camera is that when the camera swings onto you, you are by definition the centre of the film and so I think that you have to treat whoever the camera sees as being momentarily central. And that is also very similar to the way the world works. We all have occupied a central place. Nobody thinks I am a minor character in my life and so I have always wanted to write as if you could walk off with anybody who came into the film. Anybody if they were in the film for one line or a hundred lines that they walk off more story than you can tell. And I often write more story than I can tell for them. And Philip Hoffman is a very typical example when you cast a wonderful actor in those roles, they kind of insist that there is more story, they insist that you should spend more time with them. And then it is difficult sometimes for me as a film maker because my films are too long, they are hard to deal with, there are too many people in them. But I feel at least they feel alive in that way that life has that chaotic decentralised sense of things. It isn’t all about protagonist and antagonist.
And I have also tried not to pass judgement on people because I feel like again nobody wakes up in the morning and says oh I’m the bad guy in my story or I am the good guy in my story. We are all of us trying to make sense of how we are and sometimes we behave well and sometimes we behave badly. And if our stories are otherwise then they don't reflect the truth of what it is like to be in the world.
We should say that Gabriel Yared was going to join us (Anthony’s composer) but he is really sick and we are very sorry that he couldn't be here. We even brought a baby grand onto stage so he could take you through some of the amazing compositions that he has scored over the years. In the spirit of Gabriel not being here Anthony, maybe you could just tell us a bit about your working relationship with him and your relationship to music?
Well Gabriel Yared! I think you probably all know his music from “Betty Blue” onwards and I have collaborated with him for a decade or more. I think he is the most extraordinary composer working in film. He is also a very special man and he and I are very close and he has been very generous to me because I began my creative life as a musician. That is not unlike Mike Figgis as well both of us began as musicians. I suppose my biggest regret is I have never written the score to one of my own films but it is also accepting in a way that your talent is very limited. I had a very limited talent as a composer but it has made me love musicians and love music. And I have always thought that film and music have this incredible dangerous fragile but extraordinary relationship with each other and when I am writing I listen to music and I think about music and I think about the movie as a music piece. That fact that we have showed you one clip which is based on a Bach syphonietta it is not an accident because often when I am thinking about how people are then it comes to me in a more musical way than it does in a theatrical way. I think about writing is much more to do with motifs and sort of symphonic structure than I would thinking about it as a piece of prose or a poem,
And so how the music in my films has worked has been very important to me and I have loved Gabriel’s music for a long time and it was great when we finally got a chance to work together. And what is remarkable about him as a film composer is that he is a composer who in another period would have been writing opera or writing dance or writing in a more conventional compositional venue. And somehow he has sort of side-stepped into film. He is a real composer and has an enormous command of orchestration and arrangement. And he has also let me right into the centre of the process so that he and I play together or improvise together or he lets me look at the score and we will cut out pieces. The Ripley score grew from me taking improvisations of his and working on them and we wrote some music together. It is a fantastically creative, complicated, sometimes dark partnership, because he is very fragile as an individual and has to be nursed through the process.
When you talk about tone of quality and how it seeps through all of your films when you are making them.. is there a song, a sound or a tone for “Breaking and Entering”?
Well funnily enough, at this venue, the perfect people to be here tonight were Underworld because when I was writing I was listening to a lot of their more recent music which is very interesting and very abstract and very industrial. And I started to listen to them a lot during the writing of the film and then thought well I have been listening to them all the time perhaps I should get in touch with them all. And so I met with Rick and Karl from Underworld and they have come on board as a sort of band with Gabriel and so they have created the music for the film. It has been a sort of triangular composition. It has been an amazing thing to actually grow this new marriage of different musicians. I mean they couldn't be more different from Gabriel, but they are actually incredibly close now and it has been a very interesting journey to see what kind of music they are creating. It is very soft and very delicate like a fabric of cloth that they are making, and it is more like a record they are making than a score. We are gradually adding it sort of layer by layer into the film. And so I have no idea where we will end up it has been a really interesting journey.
Just one more question on music before we bring in the very fabulous Lisa Gunning. It was something when I saw Ripley, and again it could be a crass question because it is a bit of a how do you do that question. But in Ripley, it struck me as being extraordinary the scene where Matt Damon, Ripley, is walking towards the door and he is holding a razor in the pocket of this very, very white dressing gown and as he walks over to Marge it is the most kind of shocking scene. And you have added music to it that is really beautiful and lyrical. You didn’t choose to go for something really discordant and sharp that might somehow emulate the kind of shock of that scene. You went for something completely against that and it is super shocking. How did you come to that decision?
There is this thing about music it is called Mickey Mousing. You know where if something is frightening you have da-di-da-da and if it is beautiful you have a string section playing. I think that often film makers and composers try and find a way of subverting that expectation and actually if you do it really confidently it can make it more intense rather than less intense. Sometimes not using the obvious score makes the moment more touching, more thrilling. Sometimes it doesn’t and it is very odd because everything is a gamble and you know when we were doing Ripley, some of the people involved in the film felt that the music was too lyric for the story. They wanted a bit more excitement, particularly the studio wished it were a bit more exciting. But it was never meant to be a thriller you know, we were looking for a film that was about music arguments and there was an argument about jazz and classical music and we were sort of following that thread rather than paying too much attention to the fact that it was a scene with a guy with a knife and a girl. And you know you might say that another director might have done it in a much more thrilling and conventional way and conventional is not bad. But it just that our taste and Gabriel’s taste in particular was to do something that was a bit more ironic and strange than what you might have expected.
We are going to bring on Lisa Gunning, but before we do, Anthony do you want to introduce Lisa for us and tell us a little bit about how you met. Lisa is an amazing editor and has had a background doing commercials and promos. This is her very, very first feature film and Anthony brought her on. Over to you.
Lisa Gunning it is very interesting because I think it is a good story. You know often people say to me how do you get into the film business? What do I have to do to get into film? I want to be a film director or an editor or a producer. And actually on “Breaking and Entering” there are two very interesting stories. The producer of “Breaking and Entering” was an intern in my company and he was a fantastic intern and so then he started working for me as an assistant and then he starting researching for me and then he came to work on Ripley and then he was the co-producer of “Cold Mountain” and now he is the producer of “Breaking and Entering”. And so the way that he got into being a producer was by being an intern and it really happens. And Lisa is somebody that I worked with on a short film that I made based on a Samuel Beckett play called Play. And she is very young and extraordinary and this film I don't think any movie editor would have had the wit or the innocence in a way to have cut it in the way that I wanted. But Lisa instinctively, because she came from that much more cubist world of the commercial, where cuts are faster and the ellipse between chance is much more daring. And so for her to deal with Samuel Beckett was much easier I think than say Walter Mursch who is the editor I have been working with in my films before, who is the most extraordinary genius for film but I think the chaos of Play would have been confounded. Whereas Lisa just took to it like a duck to water. And when I was thinking about doing this small film in London I thought it would be great to work with people like me in a way who were trying to do something new because I felt that I was trying to do something very new and small and personal and so I thought why not ask Lisa because I feel like she is ready and she needs the chance to do a film and she will bring the freshness and verve that she has in life to work on the film. And she is really such a huge talent and I will be very proud to say in a few years time that I was the first person to work with her on a movie.
We have got a two minute clip of “Play”
Can I just contextualise this because on a very weird evening, and I must tell you this is as a weird an evening as I have had recently, do any of you know what “Play” is?
OK.I only have two photographs in my office and one is of Glen Gould who played Bach and the other is of Samuel Beckett and is was by far the biggest influence on me as a student and as a postgraduate student. As a young writer I was a terrible anorak or Samuel Beckett. 4 or 5 years ago the Beckett family foundation asked if there could be a whole canon of all his pieces of work put onto film and so I pinched to do one of these plays and the thing about this play “Play”, because it will be very strange when you see a tiny section of it, the idea of it is that I think that when we die it might be that we are asked to rehearse some of the banal sins and transgressions that we have made, again and again and again and again and again and again and again. And there was apparently a Greek talking statue of Menelaus and when the sun hit the statue’s mouth it was obliged to speak and when the sun left it it stopped talking. And the play in the theatre is three people in urns who speak whenever a light hits them and they say the same things again and again and again. And so it is the most beautiful bit of writing that is really this idea of purgatory being just awful repetition of when we are screwed up and having to talk about it. And so when I came to make a film of this I thought instead of having a light which is a very theatrical idea, I would use the camera because that is the biggest interrogator that has ever been. And so the camera is like this unseen interrogator of these three people who have been in these urns for perhaps a hundred years or fifty years saying the very same things again and again and again and again and again. And so that is the context of this strange clip that you will see.
The clip is watched and Lisa Gunning comes in.
Welcome Lisa! And congrats!
I think the first question to you has got to be, you know, it is day one, Anthony Minghella is on set shooting his latest film, what are you doing?!
I’m shitting myself! Anthony is so wonderful at making everyone feel comfortable and he has so much faith in all the people he works with, but I was still terrified.
Had you done much preparation for it?
Well I tried to read lots of books and tried to you know to have some idea of what I was doing but I really didn't. I totally calmed down when the first lot of rushes came in because they were so beautiful and the film just started you know. I just started getting involved with the elements of the film and I completely forgot about the fear and the terror that I was experiencing at the start.
And so what was happening? Anthony was shooting and sending stuff back which you started cutting immediately?
Yes. I tried to keep up with the shoot and basically cut scenes as they came in obviously they were completely out of order and context. I just basically had to keep up with the shoot.
Was that hard I mean did you have a lot of time to reflect?
Not really but then the scenes just became like little sketches and then I would put them away and come back to them, and have to keep you know, looking at them again more in context with other scenes that would join onto them. And that was kind of how it was. And by 3 weeks into it, me and my lovely assistant Katie who has just been amazing as well, (it is her first feature film too), we just got into a rhythm.
Things were beginning to feel good
They were getting better after week 3 and then by week 5 we were on a role. And Anthony would come in and look at things and give us lots of confidence. Yeah it was an amazing experience.
Anthony did you talk much to Lisa earlier on about the kind of approach that you wanted?
I think the thing about making a film is it is very hard as an experience just to make film all the time. With shooting you have to shoot everything. Every day there is another day coming and there is another day coming after that and actually that is the joy of it, where you are just in it. And so Lisa was just in it from the first day and having to make decisions and so we were all just swimming along together. The way of it is sort of self-evident I think and it will be the way that she and I will work. Lisa has got a very good eye she has got very good judgement and I knew that from working with her before. And so it was simply a question of saying this is our new job, this is our new journey we will approach it as if we are approaching a commercial or anything, it is just material to make again into a new story. You know those funny packs you can get from the stores which have words and you can make poems from and put them on your fridge. Well a film is a bit like that. There is lots of material and you can take them and put them together and make poems from them and put them on your fridge. And so I think that that is what we have been doing its remaking the movie that I have been shooting.
What happened when you came back from the overall shoot I mean how did it work between you?
[Lisa] Well 3 weeks after the shoot we screened the assembly and so I madly put everything together in time for 3 weeks after the shoot and then Anthony and I sat down and watched the whole film and…
And Anthony are you around all the time during the edit?
[Anthony] We cut in my offices in North London and so I was either in with Lisa or downstairs in my office and we can just work together every day. Editing is a very mysterious process. It is essentially about trying to find out if the film you have really made is the film that you think you have made. And then try and make that film that you have made collectively as much like the film that you wanted to make and need to make as best you can. It has been an interesting journey to find out how Lisa can help me to get to where I need to be on this journey and this particular piece of story telling. And it is very much to do with her.
Have you challenged each other I mean are there scenes where one of you has gone I just love the way it works in that way and another of you has gone well I am not so sure?
[Lisa] He makes it so easy for me to say what I think and so I feel incredibly comfortable just being very, very honest. We often have this telepathic weird thing where Anthony speaks exactly what I am thinking and vice versa. We don't disagree an awful lot but when we do its like its completely cool. We don’t have fisty cuffs!
[Anthony] I think that the editing room is the most extraordinary part of film making. It is the most real part because you are no longer explaining what you want to do or dreaming about what you might do. Its what you have done and so it is real. You put an image next to another image and another image to another image. It couldn't be more prosaic in a sense that you can’t any longer say it was going to be a wonderful scene because it is a scene that we have shot. On the other hand it is so delicious to see what happens when you jump into it and change it and remake it. And Lisa has got an incredibly good distinctive way of getting to the heart of a scene.
How much is the current cut? How close is it to the script you wrote?
[Anthony] Well the film in the first assembly was 3 hours and 7 minutes long and the current version is 2 hours and 3 minutes long and the first hour that I shot has completely disappeared.
The first hour of the film has gone?!
The whole first hour of the film has gone?
[Lisa] Pretty much because it seemed like the film started about an hour in and so we thought lets get rid of the first hour and see what happens.
[Anthony] I am actually much more pressured than Lisa described but in the end there is only the film. I mean all that matters is the film and not your ego or anybody else’s ego.
Lisa you have come fra background of shorts, promos and commercials. What do you think is the biggest thing you have learnt from doing a fiction feature?
[Lisa] Probably not to get too totally caught up in the minutiae of something and to keep sketching and sketching and looking at it from backwards and from far away and then coming back and fixing things. Because so often you can get caught up in the tiny, tiny things which take you out, and are a complete waste of time when you actually watch the film in its entirety. And so really it was learning to tune in and just let the film tell you what it wants.
And just to finish up because we must go to audience questions. Anthony, having had so much experience now, is there anything that you wish you had learnt earlier on when making your first films?
[Anthony] I think if I had known anymore than I did when I made “Truly Madly Deeply” I would never have been able to make it. I was so naïve with that film it is laughable. When I made “Truly Madly Deeply” a guy from Paramount happened to be in London and came into my cutting room and said, he was looking at the scene where Juliet Stevenson was crying and her nose is running, and she said do you have anymore coverage of her in that scene because her nose is running, and I didn't know what coverage meant! I knew so little about the film making process that I had no idea that you created all kind of different bits of material and put them together. It was just like making a home movie of something I had written. I couldn't make that film again now and there is something about it which is more tender and more truthful because there was so little guile in it. And so I wouldn't want to change any of it.
Lets go to the audience, we can’t see very well, I think there is a microphone that is going to be paraded around by one of the lovely social butterflies. If you have got a question, please put your hand up.
My name is James and I just wanted to say, you know your first film, you thought it was very naïve the way that you did it. I just want to say I have seen it and you made it exactly the way it needs to be at the time you are doing it. And when it is done you should never sort of look back and say well I have got this knowledge now, that’s what I had then, and that is what I needed to make that film then. Do you see where I am coming from?
[A] Absolutely yeah
[Audience] And I just wanted to ask you questions about a character because the way I am writing… I find with characters it is easier to trust your instinct and the characters always seem to come out. Whereas like in a book you need to make sure the characters are very separate people and they set out all these rules for this. What are your comments on character?
[ A] James is saying what wisdom is there about writing characters in film and I would say that the wisdom is the one you have just said yourself in that you have to invest in everybody you write as if they were, and this is sort of self evident in a way, as if they were three dimensional beings. There is no doubt about how we write is as much to do with who we are as the characters that we write and we can’t distinguish from the fact that they will always reflect the way we look at the world because they come from inside the tiny sphere of knowledge and experience that we have. Then we have to try as best as we can to give them separate surprising lives so that we can be surprised by our own writing as well a simply write out what we think.
[Audience] Would you ever do another film about Tom Ripley again in the future?
I think it would be awful to do something else about that character. That film was an enormously important film, for me it was the most personal film I think I have made and it was painful to make and it was hard to make. It was hard to put it into the middle of a Hollywood studio that had very little interest in the sexual ambiguity, the class issues and all the things that really intrigue me. And I was very happy to have my say with him and that worked but I think the idea of ever going back. I mean somebody wanted me to remake “Truly Madly Deeply” you know and I thought well gosh that is what purgatory would be like. There are so many other stories to tell I think.
[Audience] I was just wondering when you write a film, do you actually go out and find characters to study or are they already in you?
One thing that I have noticed, that used to be even more of a problem, it is less so now, is that when people speak to me I can often see what they are saying as if it had been typed. You know I get very sort of oddly obsessed with the way that words come out of people’s mouths. And I think that part of it has been a kind of autism that imagines how what we were, just like if it was typed, because that is what I do all the time. I make speech patterns. Obviously I am greedily trying to make out why people are different and how they are different and try and remember it all the time. But when I am writing I have no real sense of what is happening at all. In fact one thing is I often discard parts of my clothing, nothing interesting, but you can see where I have been in the course of the day or the night because there will be a sock or you know a shoe or a jacket or a sweater in different parts of the places I go to to write because I just basically crawl around writing and so I am not really conscious of the process. I think most of writing is about concentration, how to concentrat,e and how to meditate. All I am trying to do is to find the most calm and free way to explore.
When are we going to be able to see “Breaking and Entering” do we know yet next year?
Sometime between April and November we think
Shooters – we are so thrilled to have them both here - please give it up to Anthony Minguella and Lisa Gunning. Best of Luck with the film.
(And a confetti canon explodes…)