Winter 2003 may be remembered as the moment Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella’s production company, Mirage Enterprises, crossed the Rubicon and blossomed as a major force.
Mirage not only produced one of the year’s major Oscar hopefuls, “Cold Mountain,” but it also signed a three-year first-look deal with Miramax that encompasses three feature films and a television series in various stages of development.
In addition, Mirage has features in the works with Universal Studios, Scott Rudin Prods. and Working Title Films — including “The Interpreter,” which Pollack will direct — and pilots with CBS and NBC.
Per Pollack and Minghella, Mirage’s burgeoning success is not the product of a carefully orchestrated game plan, but of a series of happy accidents.
Pollack — who founded Mirage in 1985 and produced such films as “Presumed Innocent,” “Dead Again,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Sense and Sensibility” before Minghella joined the company in 2000 — says he never set out to become a mogul.
“I started to produce other people’s movies because I move at a turtle’s pace as a director,” says the two-time Oscar winner for producing and directing “Out of Africa.” “All this material would be submitted to me. I would mull it over and then I’d get cautious, decide it wasn’t quite right for me as a director, and I’d say no.
“Sometimes it would get to be three and four years between pictures and I’d start to feel guilty. Then I thought: ‘Why don’t I start producing some of these projects? At least I’ll be doing something creative until I find whatever it is I want to direct.'”
Minghella’s motivation for joining Mirage was almost identical: “It takes me so long to develop a film as a director that it’s fun to have something else to be neurotic about besides my own work,” says the writer-director, who won an Oscar for helming “The English Patient.”
The filmmakers’ decision to team up came not as a strategic epiphany, but evolved haphazardly over a number of years. The two first met at — where else? — a Hollywood party in 1991.
Pollack had just seen Minghella’s first feature, “Truly Madly Deeply.” He admired the younger man’s skillful handling of the fresh and quirky love story.
Minghella thought the critics had been unduly harsh on Pollack’s last feature, “Havana.” He felt Pollack had painted an authentic and poignant portrait of an aging gambler (Robert Redford) hoping to make one last score in the waning hours of Cuba’s Batista regime.
Minghella and Pollack ended up talking for a couple of hours — about their movies, favorite filmmakers, books and plays. “We had an immediate rapport,” recalls Pollack.
At face value, they didn’t appear to hold much in common. Pollack was 20 years older than the 37-year-old Minghella. Pollack grew up in South Bend, Ind.; Minghella on the Isle of Wight, England.
Yet both had fallen in love with movies as boys huddled in the dark of their local cinemas, and both got their start in theater — Pollack as a student and later instructor at Sandy Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, Minghella as an award-winning playwright in London.
More importantly, Pollack had directed some stunning literary adaptations (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” 1969) and sophisticated love stories (“The Way We Were,” 1973, and “Out of Africa,” 1985).
These were exactly the kinds of films Minghella hoped to make, though he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “Films for grown-ups are in short supply these days,” says Minghella. “People are happy to see them, but they’re very unhappy to make them because the risk is so high.
“I felt like a dinosaur, because I believed we shouldn’t judge the audience ahead of time in terms of what they’ll see. Classic literary adaptations don’t date. You can go back to those films years later and they are as contemporary as they were when they were first released. John Huston knew that, David Lean knew that and so does Sydney.”
‘Patient’ is a virtue
When the Englishman returned to the U.S. a year later to make his first American feature, “Mr. Wonderful,” he asked Pollack to fill him in on the idiosyncrasies of American production methods, and to advise him on the selection of crew members. A friendship began to blossom.
“We stayed in touch after that and Anthony began to write the ‘The English Patient,'” Pollack explains. “He asked if he could send me the script. I read it. He asked if I would make notes. So I did.”
Not only did he make them, Pollack flew to London to sit down with Minghella and go through the screenplay page by page. “Sydney reads a screenplay with incredible rigor,” says Minghella, who was impressed by the depth of Pollack’s storytelling knowledge and his generosity.
Then financing for “English Patient” fell through. After months of work, Minghella found himself without a project and flat broke. Again, Pollack extended a helping hand by sending Minghella a copy of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with an offer to adapt it.
“He knew my situation,” says Minghella. “It was a way for me to keep my head above water for a while.”
After Minghella finished writing “Ripley,” fresh financing was found for “Patient” and it went into production. “When Anthony had the first long, long rough assembly of ‘English Patient’ in 1996, he invited me to come to San Francisco and see it,” says Pollack. “We had a great time in the editing room. I could see that we would work well together.”
So they did “Ripley” next, with Pollack’s Mirage producing and Minghella directing. Cut to July 1997, London, the set of “Eyes Wide Shut.” Pollack was working as an actor on the picture and caught in the Stanley Kubrick vortex of endless retakes. Shooting was stretching on. Bill Horberg, then a partner in Mirage, Fed-Exed Pollack a copy of “Cold Mountain.”
“I got the book on a Tuesday,” Pollack explains. “Bill said, ‘You’ve got to get this thing read by Friday because we’re going to lose it. All of the A directors are starting to bid on it.’ I was working long hours with Stanley. There was no way I was going to get it read. We didn’t want to lose it, so we decided to send it to Anthony, who had become our go-to guy. Anthony read it in 24 hours and said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’
“When he came to town, I said, ‘Hey, this is getting ridiculous — three films in row — why don’t you just come on into the company and we’ll be partners.’ It wasn’t just that he was a first-rate writer and director. I thought he would be good at working with other filmmakers. I started as an acting teacher and there is a skill to being able to help somebody do something without intruding on their process. Anthony has that skill because he was also a teacher (at the U. of Hull) at one point.”
“It’s tremendous for me because I get access to Sydney’s huge reservoir of experience and knowledge,” says Minghella. “He’s been a real navigator for me. I try and use Sydney to keep me honest — to quarrel with me and test me. You need to have somebody who is going to honestly tell you, ‘That doesn’t work. That’s a dumb idea. What are you thinking?’ ”
Equally edifying for Minghella has been his role as producer. “Working as a director, you don’t come into contact with a lot of other directors, because there’s only one director on a movie. It’s quite a lonely process. But as a producer you get to work with other filmmakers and are exposed to different ways of working.
“When we produced ‘The Quiet American,’ Phillip Noyce let us in very deeply into the process. There’s a certain satisfaction in being part of somebody else’s film and trying to help them as best you can. I don’t want to make it sound utopian, it isn’t. Because you also see your own obstinacy and myopia reflected in others. You see people hanging on to things that are not working as well as they should. Then you look at your own script and see all of its fragilities. You can profit from that and learn to be a bit tougher on yourself.”
Sometimes a producer has to deliver n
ews that a director may not want to hear. “We’ve produced a lot of movies by first-time directors,” says Pollack, “and in those cases you’re on the spot because the studio looks to us to make sure things go smoothly. If the dailies are not looking good or it’s not coming together in the editing room you may have to step in and be more aggressive than you would like and say, in the nicest way possible, ‘Listen, this is not going right here. Let me step in and try some things.'”
Yet Pollack tries not to trample over a filmmaker’s intentions. When Tom Tykwer turned in his final cut of “Heaven,” Pollack and Minghella disagreed with some of his editing choices. So Pollack flew to Berlin to sit in an editing room with the German director.
“Tom was very open and tried it our way and decided he didn’t like it,” says Pollack. “At that point, my allegiance was to him and I had to argue with Harvey Weinstein and say, ‘It’s his movie.’
“Finally, that’s what you have to do as a producer. Otherwise you’re not going to get other directors to come and work for you, because they’re going to be suspicious. They’re going to say, ‘Why the hell should I go make a movie for Sydney Pollack? He’s another director. He’s going to try to get me to do it his way.’ You don’t want that.”
Once, Pollack only had to worry about his films. He could throw a pair of blinders on, and for a year focus on nothing else but the movie he was directing.
These days he finds himself jetting off to premieres of “Cold Mountain” in New York and London, attending press luncheons and publicity events for various Mirage projects, giving interview after interview, reading and giving notes on screenplays and TV pilots, and prepping for the next feature he’s directing. Does it ever feel overwhelming?
“Yes!” he snaps. “Completely! But I must enjoy it or I wouldn’t do it.”