COLD MOUNTAIN directed and written by Anthony Minghella, from the novel by Charles Frazier, produced by William Horberg, Sydney Pollack, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, with Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renée Zellweger and Donald Sutherland. 155 minutes. A Miramax production. An Alliance release. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
In a suite at the Four Seasons, Anthony Minghella, the Academy Award-winning director of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and the new Cold Mountain, which opens on Christmas Day, is pondering the odd turn his career has taken. After a few years in television, including stints on Inspector Morse and Jim Henson's The Storyteller, Minghella made the jump into feature films in the classic manner, with a small character piece starring Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson. Truly Madly Deeply got good reviews and won Minghella a British Academy Award for best screenplay.
Five years later, he came back with The English Patient, a massive historical romance that won a ton of awards, including the Oscars for best picture and best director.
"I look around and wonder how I stumbled into this. I do long to subvert my own career. I've gotten into this jag of enormous films. The metabolism of these films is so slow. Post-production on Cold Mountain took longer than the entire making of Truly Madly Deeply.
"My last three films required loads of research, and I think that appeals to the academic in me. I like the idea that each new film means I have to acquire a new library of books and music. I'd like to do another film like Truly Madly Deeply, though. Just shooting in rooms rather than building the world."
Cold Mountain, set in the American South in the mid-1860s, was filmed in Transylvania. What? On The Talented Mr. Ripley, there was no choice but to shoot Venice for Venice; you can't build Venice. But surely there are great patches of the Blue Ridge Mountains that still look like the Blue Ridge Mountains?
"I'd gone out, I'd scouted the locations, I was ready to shoot the film in North Carolina, and then we ran into some problems, the chief of which was cost, and we had to reconsider. I was devastated. We were four months away from shooting when we lost our locations.
"I went on the Internet and started searching for pictures of mountain ranges, and the Carpathians looked right. I went out with Dante Ferretti, the production designer. We looked at Transylvania, and it had the feeling we needed.
"Every curse is a blessing. The Industrial Revolution had an enormous impact on places that had an industrial revolution. There's no guarantee that a film shot in Carolina today will look like Carolina in the 1860s. In the Carpathians, there's a whole section of the country that has not been overwritten by technology - it looks pre-industrial. That gives you something you can't buy.
"You can dress the foreground - and everything you see in this film, we built; if you see a farm field, we grew it - but you can't dress the background. That's what the location gives us. You'll see nothing to challenge the verisimilitude of the story."
In Cold Mountain, a soldier recovering from a wound decides to leave the Confederate Army in the dying days of the Civil War to walk home to his love in Cold Mountain across 300 miles of North Carolina. Jude Law plays the soldier, Nicole Kidman his love. They're impossibly beautiful and noble, and fortunately surrounded by low characters like Renée Zellweger's Ruby who give the film its grounding.
Indeed, if you want a definition of courage in acting, look at Zellweger in this film. Her character is loud, has a bray of an Appalachian accent, bad clothes and nightmare hair. And she spends all her scenes standing next to Nicole Kidman.
"The interesting thing about those characters is that they're on opposite journeys. Nicole has to shed her corsets and come down to earth. The whole point of the character is that she's away from the earth. With Ruby, Renée had to journey from being a troll to being a woman."
Toward the end of the film, Kidman is dressed in a smashing black ensemble - long black belted coat, round black hat - that looks like nothing anyone would be wearing in North Carolina in 1865. I mention this to Minghella, and he laughs.
"Nobody realizes that in the second half of the film Nicole is wearing Donald Sutherland's wardrobe from the first half. (Sutherland plays Kidman's father.) Ann Roth, our costume designer, just gave Nicole Donald's clothes and shortened them a bit."
They also have to work to make Law look like someone who's been through a war. Rarely has an actor so good-looking had so much mud and blood smeared on him.
"I think Jude does some fantastic things in this film," says Minghella. "Toward the end of it, he looks transformed by the experience. He looks as if he's aged, and that's not in the makeup. Of course, by the end of the film, he was exhausted - he had the most physically demanding shoot of any of the actors."