The Reeler


January 26, 2007

Breaking Even

Minghella, Binoche and co. talk about getting personal once again in Breaking and Entering

Jude Law and Juliete Binoche in Anthony Minghella's drama Breaking and Entering (Photos: The Weinstein Company)

At a typical press junket, the actors provide the glamour and spur on coverage -- the director shows up for credibility, but provoking a worthwhile celebrity quote is foremost in most journalists' minds. The New York junket for Breaking And Entering went a little differently, the occasion being more than just the release of a new film into an overcrowded market; following a decade of novel adaptations (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), Anthony Minghella is directing his own original screenplay for the first time since 1991's Truly, Madly, Deeply. It's a full circle of sorts: that film, an expansion of a BBC teleplay, was Minghella's leap from the stage and TV (he was deemed the Most Promising Playwright by the London Theater Critics Award in 1984) to film, and since then he has been working on other's people material. "I'd never intended to do any adaptations, it just sort of happened to me," Minghella said. "So I felt it was very urgent that I try to make a postcard of where I was and go back to somewhere I belong."

That place is contemporary London, in the King's Cross area, where landscape architect Will Francis (Jude Law) has decided to move his studio despite warnings about the high crime rate. Subject to repeated burglaries (during pre-production on Cold Mountain, Minghella's own office in north London had been broken into 13 times in eight weeks), a frustrated Will stakes out the building himself, kept company by partner Sandy (Martin Freeman) and a Romanian prostitute (Vera Farmiga) with whom he ends up exchanging only coffee and conversation. The stake-outs keep him away from home -- where his constantly, mysteriously angry partner Liv (Robin Wright Penn) takes care of their possibly autistic daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers) -- and allow Will to not only track the thief (a Bosnian teen gymnast played by Rafi Gavron), but begin an affair with his mother (Juliette Binoche).

As that cursory, clunky synopsis suggests, a lack of ambition or plotline are not among Breaking And Entering's failings, though dialogue such as "I'd like to take all your smiles and lock them in a box," suggests why the film has received some of Minghella's most unenthusiastic reviews. Still, the emphasis at last week's gathering was very much on his return from the land of epics; with Penn on his right and Farmiga and Binoche to his left, the shaven-headed, imposing, quasi-patrician Minghella dominated the proceedings effortlessly. His responses were often fully-formed anecdotes, and the director seemed relieved to have taken a break from the epic and tell his own stories both on screen and off: "I loved the fact that in making this movie there weren't many more people involved on a daily basis than there are in this room right now," he said. "When I was making Cold Mountain, there was one day when there were more than 2,000 people on the set. It's very hard to keep your focus and tell stories about individuals."

The research-exhaustive process of making big films has clearly altered Minghella's working process permanently. "When I was making Cold Mountain," he began again, "I have a very vivid memory of standing on a hill one day and thinking 'I need to go home and make a movie which has no research, which is simply about the world I live in and the place I live in. It will be very fresh and very quick and very rough and ready.' And I've never done as much research as I've done for this movie! Every line that we had, some expert patrolled and disagreed with and quarreled with. We had analysts, teachers, psychiatrists, free-running experts, Bosnians, Serbs. I went to Romania, I went to Sarajevo, I went everywhere. It was extraordinary how little I knew and how little I got right about the world I thought I inhabited."

Filmmaker Anthony Minghella on the set of Breaking and Entering

Asked how she went about researching her depressed Swedish girlfriend, Robin Wright Penn began by deferring to Minghella: "I remember when I said to Anthony in the beginning, 'I'm sure you know some Scandinavian women. Where did you get this character?' He said, 'Just go to Stockholm.' So I went for 48 hours, and this is basically what I got. I met a couple of people who said, 'Well, most of us are suicidal because we don't have a lot of light throughout the year.' I said, 'What do you do with that tendency other than just become an alcoholic?' And she said, 'Nobody talks about it.' And that's all I needed. I didn't want to investigate further what the dynamics were between those people and try to isolate that culture. I felt like that was a culture in and of itself, to have that feeling of doom every day when you woke up."

Farmiga's response to the same question was more succinct: "For me, the prostitute could have just as easily been a cashier. For me, she was more of a philosopher, so I didn't feel the need to turn a few tricks to learn about that." The actress was equally careful to treat Minghella's script and guidance as the start-and-end point of knowledge necessary for working on the film. Minghella is a researcher to the core, no longer a relatively carefree small-scale playwright but a de facto businessman responsible for a successful return on millions in investments, and the tension between the attempted return to his roots and the conflicted result is manifest.

"The first preview we had in London," he said, "the first question someone in the audience had was, 'They didn't research this movie.' And there's always a 'they,' and you're sitting there thinking 'I'm "they,"' and I said, 'In what way?' And he said, 'There are absolutely no Eastern European prostitutes in that street corner. There used to be, there aren't any more.' Everybody in the audience just looked at this guy questioning the authenticity of the Romanian prostitute." Everyone in the room laughed at this anecdote; more than just a funny story, however, it reveals something Minghella genuinely wishes he had gotten right; having abandoned large-form storytelling temporarily, he finds himself more beholden than ever to research and revision-by-committee. That Breaking and Entering bears no trace of this paradox suggests that it is more successful as a departure from Minghella's directorial arc for the audience than for the artist himself.

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