Friday, March 28, 2008

Minghella on the Page

How I do love Mr. Anthony Minghella who was the son of ice cream makers on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England. David Carr wrote that he “used expansive tastes in literature and a deep visual vocabulary to make lush films with complicated themes that found both audiences and accolades.” Having recently gone through three of his screenplays for this article, Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The English Patient, the phrase “deep visual vocabulary” might be the perfect words to describe his writing style.

He was definitely in a class all by himself. I fear I may be over-generalizing here, but due to the fact that many writer-directors are basically writing scripts for themselves, they tend to toss format to the wind and allow their scripts to get bogged down with camera angles and technical details. What’s interesting about Minghella is how he stays (not perfectly but) relatively close to proper format. He never writes “we see.” He never mentions camera angles. He consistently stays focused on the story from beginning to end. Obviously, for Minghella, the script is the story and nothing else matters. And he tells that story very simply, very visually, very cinematically, and he avoids all those technical details that’ll pull you out of the narrative.

I thought I’d share a few cinematic storytelling examples I enjoyed while reading those three scripts. I had quite a few examples but trimmed it down to these smaller scenes.

Hope you enjoy them.




I love how he bookends this scene. He starts it off with us looking up at the sky, a beautiful night. A lot happens in this brief Civil War skirmish, and then Minghella ends the scene looking up at the sky again but for very different reasons. The other amazing thing is that the scene also ends with an obvious fade to black, but Minghella won’t write a transition. Even his fade to black is kept within the context of his story.


A beautiful night. Lots of stars. Inman and three others, including Butcher, slide over the top of the trench, far to one side of the stand of trees. The plan is to cast a wide arc that will bring them around back of the trees, closer to the enemy side than their own. The four men slither over the ground. They pause. Inman has arrived at a tangle of corpses.

He slithers over them.

They work their way towards the trees. THERE ARE A HALF DOZEN FEDERALS CROUCHING IN THE COVER OF THE TREES. They are dozing. Only one of them sits with a rifle surveying the Confederate lines, the others have their backs to the enemy, sitting against the trunks, grabbing a few minute's sleep.

As the four rebels approach, still crawling, one of the Federals opens his eyes, sees the attack, shifts for his rifle. INMAN IMMEDIATELY STANDS UP, FIRING INSTANTLY, killing him and two others, while Butcher throws himself at another.

The exchanges are brief and savage and one of Inman's party and all of the Federals lay dead. Then the rebels break from the trees.

A FLARE goes up, then another, both from the Confederate trenches. INMAN AND HIS ACCOMPLICES ARE PICKED OUT IN A BRILLIANT GREEN LIGHT. Shots follow, from both sides, aimed at the three returning men as they zigzag towards their own lines. As they get close, voices cry out, rippling down the trench, joining their own admonitions: Don't shoot, Hold your fire, they're our boys, Hold your fire!!! They're almost home. Butcher is laughing, whooping. Then just as suddenly he falls, wounded. Inman stops, turns back, runs to him.

Inman collects Butcher, drags him, carries him. They're fifty yards from their lines. A BULLET CATCHES INMAN IN THE NECK.

He goes down like a tree, blood pouring from his neck. Lying on the ground, he watches the phosphorescent lights slowly fade to black, all sound fading with them.



Two examples I’d like to share. First, a scene that was a prologue in the script but I believe was ultimately used for the final shot. I love the simplicity of this visual statement about Ripley. The light and darkness say it all about Ripley’s arc with crystal clarity. This is also the one and only time I can recall Minghella actually referencing the camera.



Fade up on Ripley, as in the final scene of the film, sitting, desolate in a ship's cabin. The camera rotates around his face, which begins in light and ends in darkness.

Second, I love the way Minghella conveys very simply and visually in this short sequence the idea of Ripley, the outsider, desperately wanting in. You get it. You don’t need it explained. You don’t need Ripley verbalizing his inner needs to anyone. We know it by his actions.


Ripley runs past the droves of arriving concert-goers and heads for the theater. Music continues.


The interval: A thick mass of men in tuxedoes grooming themselves at the basins. Ripley turns on faucets, offers towels, brushes off dandruff. Men talk over, round, and through him. Put coins in a bowl.


The concert continues. Ripley peers through the curtain at the performances. A haughty woman in the box turns round and he closes the curtain.


An empty auditorium. Ripley plays Bach in the blue ghostlight. A caretaker emerges from his rounds, flips on the house lights. Ripley jerks up from his playing, waves apologetically.

Sorry, sorry. I know. Sorry.



Lots of great moments one could discuss, but I especially love the way he wrote the opening sequence in the film. Szerelem, szerelem, she cries, in a haunting lament for her loved one, and the flames erase all that matters - his name, his past, his face, his lover…


SILENCE. THE DESERT seen from the air. An ocean of dunes for mile after mile. The late sun turns the sand every color from crimson to black.

An old AEROPLANE is flying over the Sahara. Its shadow swims over the contours of sand.

A woman's voice begins to sing unaccompanied on the track. Szerelem, szerelem, she cries, in a haunting lament for her loved one.

INSIDE the aeroplane are two figures. One, A WOMAN, seems to be asleep. Her pale head rests against the side of the cockpit. THE PILOT, a man, wears goggles and a leather helmet. He is singing, too, but we can't hear him or the plane or anything save the singer's plaintive voice.

The plane shudders over a ridge. Beneath it A SUDDEN CLUSTER OF MEN AND MACHINES, camouflage nets draped over the sprawl of gasoline tanks and armored vehicles. An OFFICER, GERMAN, focuses his field glasses. The glasses pick out the MARKINGS on the plane. They are English. An ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN swivels furiously.

Shocking bursts of GUNFIRE. Explosions rock the plane, which lurches violently. THE WOMAN SLUMPS FORWARD, slamming her head against the instruments. The pilot grabs her, pulls her back, but she's not conscious. The fuel tank above their heads is punctured. It sprays them both, then EXPLODES.

THE MAN FALLS OUT OF THE SKY, clinging to his dead lover. The are both ON FIRE. She is wrapped in a parachute silk and it burns fiercely. He looks up to see the flames licking at his own parachute as it carries them slowly to earth. Even his helmet is on fire, but the man makes no sound as the flames erase all that matters - his name, his past, his face, his lover...


Laura Deerfield said...

Lovely. More literary in tone than most scripts - but so were his films. They also had a sensuality about them that entranced me.

Those descriptive paragraphs - much longer than I would tend to be comfortable using, but still very little that doesn't convey a specific image. Even in a line like ". The plan is to cast a wide arc that will bring them around back of the trees, closer to the enemy side than their own" I can picture the glances and gestures that were used to convey this on screen.

He's also very aware of color and light in his descriptions. A writer, but with a director's eye.

I know several people who thought The English Patient was boring, but from the opening shots, where the dunes curve like a woman's body and the shadow of the plane touches them like the delicate touch of a cautious lover, I was pulled in and fascinated.

It's movies like Minghella's that make me love cinema.

Anonymous said...

Laura - pity your friends who found it boring!

My library of books on writing is deliberately small, but "Writing Dialogue for Scripts" by Rib Davis is truly excellent, and he dissects a wonderful scene from the English Patient - where Almasy and Katharine make love in a cupboard at the Christmas party - to discuss subtext in dialogue.

Joshua James said...

Isn't that line " The plan is to cast a wide arc that will bring them around back of the trees, closer to the enemy side than their own" one of those most grevious of sins, an unfilmable?

Just asking, heh-heh.

Great post, and Minghella was a playwright, rock on playwrights!

Mystery Man said...

Terraling - Thanks for that. That was a decent book.

Laura & Josh - I picked up on that line, too! No, I would never write that either nor recommend writing lines like that. He definitely over-wrote many action paragraphs, I must say. I thought that many of his big blocks of action lines could've been just as powerful with half the words.


Anonymous said...

Replace "the plan is to" with "they plan to" and straight away it describes an action and encourages you to picture them gesturing silently etc...

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