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Saturday, 11 January, 2003, 12:22 GMT
Minghella ready to star for BFI
Anthony Minghella
Minghella: One of the UK's best-known film-makers

Anthony Minghella's The English Patient won no fewer than nine Oscars in 1996. The film's remarkable critical and commercial success made him one of Britain's most admired film directors.

Now he's taking on a new role as one of the government-appointed cheerleaders for cinema in Britain: the chairmanship of the British Film Institute, which runs London's National Film Theatre and Imax cinema, the London Film Festival and the National Film and Television Archive in Berkhamsted.

It's a new departure for a man unfamiliar with the worlds of politics and public sector bureaucracy - though, as he points out, anyone with his experience of making films knows all about managing money and people and achieving ambitious aims in the face of formidable difficulties.

Minghella started out as a writer: his early radio plays won several awards. He made his first film, Truly Madly Deeply, in 1991.

The English Patient was his second, The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999 his third. He writes the scripts as well as directs, and these days is a film producer too - he co-produced the recent Iris and The Quiet American.

Passionate

He's just returned from eight months in Romania filming Cold Mountain, an adaptation of a novel about the American Civil War starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. The North London office of his production company is crammed with boxes of papers, clothes, equipment and film negatives still waiting to be unpacked.

Upstairs Minghella and his editor, Walter Murch (another Oscar-winner), are assembling the rough-cut of the film.

Minghella is a man passionate about cinema - especially world cinema. Of the 10 films that have most moved him in recent years, he told me, not one is in the English language.

That passion is something he hopes to convey to others in his new role. Indeed at one point in an exclusive interview with the BBC he suggested the British Film Institute might be better renamed the International Film Institute.

A particular hobbyhorse is persuading people that there is more to film than the American blockbusters that dominate our commercial cinemas.

"It's like walking into a bookshop and finding only cookbooks," he says. Cinema is a treasure trove of material from all over the world. And a better-educated public with a wider knowledge of cinema in general might have a bigger appetite for the kind of films we make in Britain, he says.

Lottery

But he is not one of those who believes that the British film industry is finished. A spate of largely unsuccessful lottery-financed films and a slump in the number of films being made in Britain by American producers has rattled many in the business.

Last year another leading British director, Sir Alan Parker, criticised what he called the "little England" approach of too many British film-makers, who were producing films that were too parochial and that no-one wanted to watch, with too little regard for the market.

Sir Alan's views deserve respect because he is the chairman of the Film Council, the government organisation which channels funds (including lottery money) into UK film production. It was the council that appointed Minghella to his new post at the BFI, and provides 14.5m a year to support the Institute. Minghella himself is expected to join the council shortly.

But the two men see things slightly differently. "I don't think the situation is as parlous as it is sometimes described," says Minghella, "and I don't think it's as melancholy as Alan described it."

Minghella prefers to see a glass half full rather than a glass half empty. He points to the high regard in which British directors, actors and technicians are still held abroad - especially in Hollywood.

Taking risks

But he acknowledges there are problems. "It's quite clear it's not a particularly healthy industry at present. We're not getting enough movies made here, our studios aren't busy enough, we don't have enough studios, we're not good at lassoing the talent we have here and containing it within the British Isles, and we should all be working to address that."

He and Parker agree that the film business is an international one - both, after all, have built successful careers as directors only by going to Hollywood to finance their films.

But whereas Sir Alan says British producers must learn to think globally, Anthony Minghella thinks the issue of where a film is financed is largely irrelevant. After all, as he says, some of the American companies that invest in British film-makers are themselves owned by Japanese companies which derive their revenue from the whole world.

In his experience British investors simply aren't prepared to accept the risks associated with films, unlike the Americans. It's unrealistic to hope for more purely British productions.

The important thing is that British film-makers should be employed making films with distinctly British themes or a distinctly British voice.

As for the BFI - Minghella wants to give the organisation itself a higher profile and a stronger identity. But he may be deflected from some of his aims by the BFI's own internal problems. For one thing, it could do with more money, especially for the National Film and Television Archive. Transferring the archive's holdings to digital formats is essential for their preservation. It's also expensive. So is making the collections more readily accessible to the public.

And there are question marks over an ambitious plan to replace the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank with a new state-of-the-art Film Centre: once again, the main question is who might pay for it.

Nonetheless, the BFI has acquired an articulate and charismatic figurehead whose personal commitment to cinema is unquestioned.

See also:

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