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Up a mountain, with Minghella

Special to The Times

The first time I spoke with Anthony Minghella was in June of 1997. My novel “Cold Mountain” had just been published, and I had been told to be home all day for a series of phone calls from movie folk interested in buying film rights.

People called and told me how they could make a movie bigger, better, faster. Someone said they would make me an associate producer. Even back then, I suspected that title might not be the most exalted position one could hold.

Anthony called near the end of the day. I knew his movie “The English Patient” had just won nine Oscars a few weeks earlier. I didn’t particularly want to see the movie. Maybe because Michael Ondaatje had been one of my favorite novelists for many years, and I was wary of any adaptation of his difficult, beautiful book.

The first thing Anthony said had little to do with Oscars or with bigger, better, faster job offers, exalted or otherwise. He said, I can only promise you one thing. My next movie will not be as successful as “The English Patient.” After that, we talked for 10 or 15 minutes. Mostly about books, mostly other than mine. Movies barely came up, his or anyone else’s.

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The next January, we spent a wet week driving around North Carolina, hiking in the mountains, talking about books, staying up late watching movies -- “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for one. We drove all through the mountains and down to the Atlantic, 700 miles at least. It was like a college road trip.

On one walk in a remote valley, we came off the trail several miles from the car. A cold rain had begun falling. We stood there, two wet middle-aged bearded guys by a dirt road near a white frame country church. A pickup came along and we hitched a ride. The driver was an old man, a fisherman, and Anthony interviewed him about his life. At the end, there was some awkwardness and confusion about saying thanks and shaking hands. I explained that old-timers in the Southern mountains are sometimes odd about handshaking with strangers.

Later that day we sat by a cemetery at the top of a hill. To the south was Cold Mountain, tall and pure and blue. In the other direction, a smoky little paper mill town, ugly and raw in winter. The house my grandparents had lived in was a hundred yards away from where we sat. Anthony looked both directions a long time and then said, I need to get both these things into the movie. We drove on with a new Van Morrison CD playing. The lyrics to one song: “Been to Hollywood, ain’t no good/ I’d rather be like Robin Hood.” I remember that detail because we both found considerable humor and applicability in it. It all seemed a small and personal and unglamorous beginning for an enterprise that would eventually come to involve an army of people, including the Romanian army.

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My book, his movie

Over the next five years, we saw a good bit of each other in London and Rome and many more times in North Carolina. We went back to that remote valley with Dante Ferretti, production designer on the movie, to photograph and measure the little country church that he later rebuilt in Romania, an exact replica except that it was 6 feet longer to leave room for cameras at the back.

Along the way, Anthony sent every draft of his screenplay my way for comment. I hadn’t expected it, and we didn’t always agree on the details. I didn’t win all the arguments, and that was all right with me. The book was mine and the movie was his. But it is hard to imagine a book writer being treated with more respect and consideration.

There is a story, maybe apocryphal, about a film-writing class. The teacher asks the class, What is the screenwriter’s responsibility to the book writer? The students answer enthusiastically and in unison, none at all. I’ll just testify, that would not have been Anthony’s answer.

In Romania on a bitter cold day in late 2002. A scene with Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Jack White, Ethan Suplee and Brendan Gleeson. The guys were meant to be playing string instruments. Their hands were freezing. Everybody huddled around space heaters at every break in the filming, and my old-time musician friend Dirk Powell rushed in to advise on bow angles, banjo frailing technique. Anthony said, Charles, this is not a rhetorical question. This scene is in the book, isn’t it?

I honestly couldn’t remember. I think so, I said. Probably it is.

Later, when I checked, I found it wasn’t. But it could have been. During the editing process, as scenes were being cut, the ones I argued most strongly to keep were always the ones not in the book, the ones Anthony had imagined. The ones I wish I’d imagined. Especially, a long scene with the little white church and a dove. It went on for some time and was lovely. In the final cut, all that was left was just a flash.

I remember watching him in Romania one day, at the center of the enormous operation of the movie. Hundreds of people, the money and the power of it, all these talented people he had to trust to do their jobs through well over a hundred days of filming. And then the incompatible artistic and commercial expectations lying in wait. But in the end, it would be his name on the movie. Director: Anthony Minghella. Screenplay: Anthony Minghella.

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All I could think of was what an exposed position he occupied. Mountain climbers use that term to describe a point of great potential risk, chasms opening below you and not enough protection. During the work day, that exposure seemed to rest fairly lightly on his shoulders, though it looked like he might be getting about four hours of sleep a night. A great distance from years before, two guys wandering around in the rain, talking about a story, being writers.

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If only . . .

It is easy to be sad for the wrong reasons when a creator dies early, to yearn for the works left undone that we will never experience. That is surely a selfish impulse. I am convinced life is a great deal more than the sum of works, no matter who you are. It has to be. But still, I can’t help it, I’d like to see those movies, the ones Anthony would have made when he was 70.

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Charles Frazier is the author of “Cold Mountain” and “Thirteen Moons.”


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