COLD MOUNTAIN - Q&A with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Minghella
Movie Interview by Mark Bayross
In London to mark the release of his latest film, COLD MOUNTAIN, British director Anthony Minghella and leading lady Nicole Kidman took time out from their busy schedule for an intimate press gathering one Sunday afternoon.
Anthony, where and how was your first encounter with the novel?
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: I think I have gone on record as saying that I would never do another big literary adaptation and a week later, I was flying to Toronto and I got to spend some time with Michael Ondaatje, who wrote "The English Patient" and has become a very close friend, and when I left he handed me a novel and said "my publisher's given me this to read, you should take a look at it". I put it in my bag and I went home, and when I got home there were two FedEx parcels waiting there, both with "Cold Mountain" in them, and then I got a call within a few days from Berkeley, where I had been living in Northern California, and it was somebody saying they had a proof of the novel and did I want it sent to me...so this book did seem to keep falling on my head and eventually, and rather reluctantly, I read it.
Well, I think we're all glad that you did! As we know, the film was shot in Romania and Nicole, I do believe you had an interesting encounter in Romania with some of the wildlife, a pack of wild dogs?
NICOLE KIDMAN: The thing that was amazing shooting there was it was so different, even in terms of just taking a walk. The first morning I was there I thought I would set off about 6am to try and get over my jet-lag and I went down into the forest and I said "No, I don't need anyone with me, I'm just going to go..." and there was this huge pack of wild dogs and I came running back... And I was told there were a lot of wild animals around and then we proceeded to see bears...on Saturday night there'd be a weekly bear-spotting...[laughs] We'd all have dinner together at the guest house and then we'd all go. You drive to work and there'd be sheep...it was a mountain town, a remote mountain town.
Anthony, so I assume this was the main reason for picking Romania as North Carolina because it had a feel and look of another age, unlike North Carolina now?
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: I was heartbroken when we had to leave North Carolina because it's a book whose soul is very much about a particular place - there's a real Cold Mountain and there was a real Inman - and I spent nearly six months with Dante Ferretti looking for locations and then the budget came in and the plug was pulled and I was really distressed to have to think about going somewhere else, but as is always the case with movies, there's always a blessing attached to the curse. In reality, if I could have got the additional monies I needed to go back to North Carolina, I wouldn't have done because what we found in Romania was something so consummate with the film, so beautiful and untrammelled... And obviously the thing to say about Transylvania is that it hasn't been either the recipient of or the hostage to the industrial revolution, so what you're seeing is this virgin landscape, so when Jude is learning to plough by hand in one field, there's somebody ploughing by hand in the next field. I remember driving past a field full of people scything the harvest...it really was like time travel: everything about that area, which made the film beautiful and also made it very hard to make the film, but I felt that in front of the camera, what we got was so extraordinary. Dante Ferretti, who is the Production Designer and is a marvel, was able to create a foreground which was entirely made by him - every farm, every crop, every corn field, every tobacco field...he built every single building that's in the film - he could do the foreground, but no designer could create the background, and what was wonderful was to be able to use this view that goes on and on forever there, and it's an extraordinary place and they were wonderful people and extremely helpful to us.
Nicole, can you ever imagine living in those times and in that environment, and could you be as self-sufficient as Ada?
NICOLE KIDMAN: You conjure up those images because you are playing a character. I remember when we were sitting out on the porch of the big house that we were in, and it was something we were shooting in that Dante had built and there was something so simple about it that you see the way people existed then and you see the way it was incredibly satiating at the same time. I think the way Ada learns to take care of herself...of course I could eventually learn to do that! [Laughs] But that to me, is one of the most powerful parts of the film actually. It was one of the reasons I really wanted to do it, because I wanted to work with Renée and I thought that the two of us up a mountain together would be fun, and it was! She's just great to be around and we spent a lot of time together...we were there for well over two months... [To Anthony] How long was she there for?
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: Two or three months.
NICOLE KIDMAN: Yeah, I think three months... And so we really got to know each other. And I think just being the same age as actresses in this industry and basically in the same position, and she had CHICAGO and I had THE HOURS coming out, just when we finished making the film together, so there was this really strange timing of us coming together and being able to share and help each other...and I hope you see that friendship in the movie, it's something I'm really proud of.
One of the more remarkable achievements of the film I think is the romantic tension that is developed and sustained through very little dialogue and very few scenes. Obviously that's down to casting and acting and writing, but was it a concern for you that the audience would have to buy into the reality of this relationship driving Inman on his homeward journey?
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: I remember when I was researching THE ENGLISH PATIENT and I kept reading about wartime romances and war brides and this strange thing that happens when death is very close at hand - life becomes very urgent and it accelerates relationships; people cling to each other, they cling to life in the face of so much cruelty and death, and it feels to me in these periods of war, the volume controls are turned right up, and camaraderie and compassion co-exist with enormous illustrations of violence and a lack of tenderness. There were these stories of soldiers returning from the Second World War and being met by this sea of faces of women and they would prevaricate upon knowing which of them was the woman they had married four or five years previously...and that felt very true to me. I would say this: these characters are very conscious of the fact that they hardly know each other - it's a thing that preoccupies them - they are holding onto an idea of something good in the face of so much bad.
Nicole, did that make you and Jude feel that the stakes were raised, rather like they are for your characters in the few scenes you have?
NICOLE KIDMAN: It was certainly something that the three of us - because it was really this triangle in terms of Anthony, Jude and I - when we embarked on this together, it was a very strange coming together when we had the rehearsal period and we all took it on...Jude and I were asking how do we make it believable that these people literally share at the most a kiss and glances and the occasional minute touch of the hand, and then make it believe that that would stay present in somebody's head and actually be their light for such a long period of time and draw them back, and I would constantly be saying to Anthony "are you sure we've got enough?", and it was more up to him to know what he had captured because we were so existing within it that you really are in the hands of the director and you hope that people will buy into it, that people will believe it and so far we don't seem to have encountered...
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: But it's also true what Nicole was saying...
NICOLE KIDMAN: [interrupting] ...but, sorry...[laughs] You just saw us on the set...! [Laughs] The idea that Jude and I...we were basically just passing off a lot of times because he would be carrying one part of the film, then I would go back to America and then I would come back and he would go back to London. So we were crossing in the night a lot. But we were constantly saying to each other, "hold it...remember..." in the scenes. Something we kept trying to remind each other was the presence of each other, because we were both very much aware that trying to feed that into each scene to the point where you feel snow and you remember Inman...that everything somehow has a presence of the person, that you are still seeing the world through their eyes, which I think is when you are existing with the thought of somebody, you view the world with them even if they're not there.
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: I wrote this moment where Ada is talking to Ruby, she reads from "Wuthering Heights" and she talks about this moment with the love of Catherine and Heathcliff - "little visible delight, but necessary" - and that seemed to me to be the clue to the character, but also, we weren't simply trying to make a love story and I think if we had been, we might have approached the film differently. The relationship between Ruby and Ada is at least as single in the film as the one between Inman and Ada, and the other thing is that they are both on journeys...the fact that their journeys collide is important, but it is also the case that Jude is on an odyssey to get home - for him, Ada stands in for home. But in the same way that there is a real Cold Mountain, there's a series of Buddhist poems about a place called Cold Mountain which is a spiritual destination, and if you'll allow me at least to say that there are other things going on in this film, one of which is a look at how people find redemption - the whole notion of walking and journeying in the same way as a pilgrimage in the Medieval period was a penance that you did in order to be allowed home, that's very much in my mind in the film as well as a simple romantic connection between a man and a woman.
Nicole, harking back to your stage performance a few years ago in London, any more plans for live work here?
NICOLE KIDMAN: I would love to do something again. I've talked to different people, but I haven't actually been offered anything recently. I was going to do something with Sam Mendes at the Donmar, but I ended up doing COLD MOUNTAIN instead.
Would you like to be directed by this man [pointing at Minghella] onstage?
NICOLE KIDMAN: I would! I'd like to be directed by this man anywhere [laughs] ...stage, film...We were going to do a recording of...we are going to do a recording of Anne Carson who is the Canadian poet who Anthony introduced me to actually. We are going to do a recording of "The Glass Essay" which is one of her poems that's beautiful...but I would love to come back and do something.
Nicole, this one of many quite arduous roles you have taken recently and we will be seeing DOGVILLE and THE HUMAN STAIN in the New Year. Do you ever find yourself taking home some of the trauma that you experience onscreen?
NICOLE KIDMAN: This was my balance role! [Laughs] DOGVILLE, THE HUMAN STAIN and THE HOURS...I kind of pick things in threes, I don't know how...not consciously, but I think there seems to be something there. This for me was something that I needed to do because it was about belief in someone, not actually losing belief in somebody. I felt that Ada is not damaged, I actually think that Ada still has this beautiful innocence to her, still believes...when somebody says that he'll come back, she believes that he will. The basis of it is always there and I love that, whereas something like DOGVILLE is a lot different and it certainly stays with you, which is why I think each role takes a little from you and then circles around you for the rest of your life, I don't ever think you abandon any of them.
I noticed the accent of Ada changes throughout the film and she becomes a little less genteel...
NICOLE KIDMAN: I was conscious of doing that, of having some of the effects of Renée through the last quarter of the movie, and the Charleston accent is very different to the accents the other actors were doing. Some of the sounds sound unusual but they are very, very precise sounds and you have to do them, because to an American ear, a well-trained American ear or a Southern ear, they can hear, they can absolutely hear everything and luckily Charles Frazier gave me the thumbs up on the accent, which was all I cared about! [Laughs] He and his wife and his daughter. I remember when Charles visited the set actually, it was pretty early on in the shooting, and he had spent how many years...?
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: Six years...
NICOLE KIDMAN: Six years writing this book. So, the idea of meeting the author and knowing that you are portraying something that existed in their head for that amount of time is very intimidating, and I did it with Michael Cunningham, but Virginia was a person who had existed, so to actually meet somebody and be playing a person that didn't exist, except to them, was difficult, but he was very generous to us and he came to Romania and he's since really embraced all of us, which was very important to me. In the same way that Philip Roth and THE HUMAN STAIN and Michael Cunningham...the last few films have been based on important novels.
On behalf of all the women in the world, how did you look so fantastic when it was so cold, and there was death, blood and guts all around... how was the porcelain skin maintained?
NICOLE KIDMAN: I got a tan! [Laughs]
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: The thing that's infuriating if you are a filmmaker is that whatever you do to her, she looks beautiful...
NICOLE KIDMAN: That's not true!
ANTHONY MINGHELLA: It is so true. Ann Roth, who was the Costume Designer on the film, and was extraordinary, the work she did... Because part of the story of Ada was that she starts off as a kind of doll - she is this strange creature that appears in this ordinary town and every head turns...all of those costumes and corsets and the idea that she is constrained in her father's image. And then Anne came up with this idea that when Donald Sutherland's character, her father, dies, she simply gave the rack of his clothes to Nicole and said "this is what you have, make them work", and so for the rest of the film, she's wearing the remnants of her own clothes, plus all of Donald's clothes, and soon as she put them on she looked like she'd just come out of Prada! [Much laughter] It was absurd and frustrating...!
NICOLE KIDMAN: That's brutal. There was a conscious decision by Ann Roth in terms of the trajectory of the character in that at the beginning, that's why she dresses me in that cream outfit while walking up this dirty mountain, and believe me, it's very hard to walk up a dirty mountain wearing cream...[laughs] ...with Ann Roth going "Don't get it dirty! We only have one!"...and with the veil, I felt like a strange bird, this exotic bird...and it was wonderful to have those things because the way you move, everything... and she would have us in the real corsets, the real boots, which were very slippery and are tiny, they're not easy to walk in, but it was great because when Renée is running me around the mountain, going "we need this, we need that", I was literally tripping and falling and trying to keep up with her because of all of my things changed the way I moved. And there was a huge emphasis on their hair, on the size of their waist, the embroidery on their gloves, all of those things - it was very important, particularly for a woman from Charleston - and then by the end obviously, it was just about trying to stay warm! [Laughs] And that is actually what I much prefer.
Nicole, everyone who works with Donald Sutherland has a story to tell...
NICOLE KIDMAN: I thought you were going to say, "has a crush on him", and I would say, "yeah, I have a crush on him..." [Laughs]
...I was going to ask whether you had any stories to add?
NICOLE KIDMAN: He has a lot of stories because he has been in possibly some of the greatest films. I would just sit there in a chair with him and say, "Tell me about KLUTE! Tell me about Jane Fonda! Tell me about DON'T LOOK NOW! How did you shoot that love scene in DON'T LOOK NOW? What was Julie Christie like?" And he's very, very open and he's a wonderful actor and he has so much knowledge in terms of books and he's very willing to share and I just adored him, and I was so glad he was playing my father.
Finally, do you have any plans to star in a comedy?
NICOLE KIDMAN: I just finished THE STEPFORD WIVES...we hope it's a comedy! [Laughs] Scott Rudin, who produced THE HOURS and saw me as Virginia, said, "You need to go to summer camp, and I'm going to give you STEPFORD WIVES and that's going to be summer camp". But I tell you, comedy's a lot harder! [Laughs] I was exhausted when I finished that thing! I'm on holiday now...!
Well, holiday or not, the film is an artistic triumph, matching captivating performances from its three main characters and a first rate support cast, to breathtaking cinematography and an epic feel that is sure to place them both back into familiar surroundings come 2004's Academy Awards.