'Mountain' man Minghella known for thoughtful, literate adaptations

One can hardly think of Anthony Minghella without a book nearby, and perhaps that’s why people think of him for bigscreen adaptations.

A former playwright and university lecturer on drama, the London resident — a native of the Isle of Wight — is known for his exceptional eloquence, for pressing books of poetry on friends, and devotion to the written word.

So when he declared, despite notable success with his screen versions of “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” that he wasn’t interested in doing another adaptation, no one in the industry listened.

He was sent copies of “Cold Mountain” from four directions at once, and when he began to read it — quite reluctantly — he recognized with growing excitement that the project was meant for him. “It had in it everything I was looking for,” he declares.

Before he was halfway through the book, he’d picked up the phone and called his production company, Mirage, begging for the chance to make the novel, which won the National Book Award in 1997 for author Charles Frazier, his next project.

His excitement tied in to other books. “I’d been reading this Canadian poet, Anne Carson, who wrote a series of poems about pilgrimage, and Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines,’ a beautiful book about aborigines who go walking. I was writing about pilgrimage in my journal and wondering what kind of film I could make about walking as a journey of the spirit. Then I opened ‘Cold Mountain,’ this 12th-century Chinese epigram at the front, ‘Men ask the way to Cold Mountain; Cold Mountain: There’s no through trail.’

“It seemed the place was a spiritual destination as much as a geographical one. So the story appealed to me as enormously cinematic; and yet it allowed me to investigate the spiritual life, and walking as a penance or an atonement.”

Minghella began a relationship with Frazier, paying him visits in North Carolina, where they walked and talked about the book. He also sent him every draft of the script for comment. Before Minghella could even begin writing, he immersed himself in music, a method employed on each of his projects.

A folk/pop performer and recording artist as a teen, Minghella says, “Music is at the heart of everything I’ve done.”

At one point, working with record producer T Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) he collected more than 1,000 Appalachian songs for possible inclusion. “I began to fall in love with this indigenous music of the South,” he says. “Very often in making movies, the music is the last guest invited to the table; I wanted it to be there from the beginning, as a means to help the actors prepare.”

In the movie itself, Minghella uses live music to transport and refresh his characters. In one scene, incorporating his discovery of the Sacred Harp singing style that survives in the North Carolina mountains, Ada (Kidman) and others deliver ringing gospel music in a country church. In another, fiddle music and singing appears to humanize a cold-blooded killer — almost.

Minghella found ways to bring his deeply felt anti-war sentiments to the material. He opens the film with an apocalyptic battle scene based on a historic event — the Battle of the Crater — that appears only briefly in Frazier’s book. Union soldiers dug a tunnel under a Confederate base and dynamited the Rebels, opening a deep crater into which, in the confusion and smoke, then rushed, only to be shot like fish in a barrel by surviving Confederates. Some 5,000 soldiers died in the pit.

In the movie, the carnage serves as the catalyst for Inman to desert the army, deciding that his promise to return to Ada is the only thing worth living for.

Despite the intensity and artistry of the battle scenes, Minghella insists, “I was not drawn to this story as an opportunity to have men running at each other with guns.”

Known as a painstaking filmmaker whose process takes its own time, Minghella says he arrived in Los Angeles for the first screening of “Cold Mountain” with the final reel literally carried in a shopping bag. After the cocoon of creation, the chaos and media frenzy of award season has been jarring. By the time of this interview, he was lying on the floor of a hotel room with an ice pack on his head.

He’ll be present for the Q&A’s, hand-shaking and special events surrounding “Cold Mountain,” but don’t look for him during screenings. “I can’t watch my own movies. I’ve learned you can only live in the process of making a movie. You can’t live in the result of them.”

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