FILM / Some kind of wonderful: Anthony Minghella would like you to forget Sleepless in Seattle. He tells Sheila Johnston why

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The Independent Culture
YOU'D think it was enough to make a highly regarded film, one which won awards and proved its commercial mettle on both sides of the Atlantic. It should be enough, too, to be a respected writer in a range of media, for theatre (Made in Bangkok), television (What If It's Raining?; Inspector Morse) and radio (Hang Up; Coffee and Cigarettes). But no: none of the above sufficed for the wonderful world of movie promotion, and when Anthony Minghella's first film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, began to attract attention, it was pitched, almost inevitably, as the thinking person's Ghost.

Now Minghella has just made his second film, a bittersweet romantic comedy called Mr Wonderful. It has an American setting (Brooklyn's blue-collar Italian community), American stars (Matt Dillon, Annabella Sciorra, William Hurt), a high budget and a neat concept (man tries to find a new mate for his ex-wife, but finds his own love for her re-kindling). And naturally, Minghella says, the question this time on everyone's lips is: 'Where are you on Sleepless in Seattle?'

The comparison isn't unintentional (if you've been to see Sleepless lately, you may have had a leaflet thrust into your hand promising that, if you liked it, you'll love Mr W), and Minghella is pragmatic about it. 'It's hard to get people to leave Screen One, where some huge blockbuster is on, and go next door to see a story about small events in people's lives. I feel vulnerable. But I don't know what else to do] The issues of those other movies don't concern me.

'I know this film is going to be compared to Sleepless in Seattle, although its intentions are certainly very different. Sleepless offers you escape into a world where all things are possible and delightful. It's streamlined, like a shark: it delivers so manifestly to an audience. But it's not a film I would want to make. Mr Wonderful presents, I hope, a recognisable geography, and the inability of most people to achieve anything very much. It's much more equivocal.'

That's not to say that this is not, on the whole, a sunny, sweet-tempered movie - 'It's not nihilistic or cynical or . . angry about anything. In particular,' says Minghella, almost apologetically. He's aware that it lacks the fierce, raw, blotchy grief of Truly, Madly, Deeply, but insists that this is down to the 'Hollywood lite' syndrome - the pressure to keep any darker moments bland and palatable.

'Mr Wonderful is set in a social territory where it's not easy to express your emotions as Juliet Stevenson's character could do in Truly, Madly, Deeply. That's part of the privilege of her class. The people here can't articulate their feelings as clearly. You can't just pour big emotional set-piece scenes into films willy-nilly: I tried to show it in a different way, and one which seemed more authentic, so that those moments come from, say, a halting and unsatisfactory conversation over a car.

'There's always the assumption that what makes screenplays good or bad is what people say to each other. Whereas my stories are more about the circumstances of talking and the inability or refusal to say what we want to say.'

Truly was written with Stevenson in view. In Mr Wonderful, as with all Minghella's work, casting was critical, but a more delicate and complicated business. 'There's much more baggage accompanying an American actor - literally, in the sense that they bring more people and things with them. Although it sounds very cranky and demanding from a distance, it becomes much easier to understand when you see the sort of scrutiny they come under.

'It's very hard, if you're William Hurt or Matt Dillon, to lead a normal life. You can't say, 'I'll meet you in a cafe at 9.00am' and expect that to be a straightforward transaction. Whereas I could have a cup of coffee with Juliet and it would be perfectly normal.

'That's just a social illustration. But, much more, there is a sense of audiences following actors through projects, expecting them to look good, investing in them for their appearance and public personalities. There's pressure on those actors to remain themselves rather than to play a character. Whereas in Britain still, rightly or wrongly, when we go to see Alan Rickman in a film, we're not necessarily expecting him to recreate a series of characteristics we've come to like.

'Matt was one of a very tiny group of actors who convince as working people. When I see him getting down into the ground in a pair of dungarees I find it entirely credible. With other leading men you find it hard to travel with them when they're not wearing a suit or a designer outfit. He inhabits the streets in a way that a lot of actors don't - he walks around New York; he has an attitude to the city.'

You can see why these things would equip Dillon for Mr Wonderful, much of which, unusually for an American film about intimate relationships, takes place in public, in bars, at the workplace and out on the streets. 'Emotional life is very rarely played out in some hermetic chamber. Normally it plaits into your coming to work and who your mates are, and yet films tend to haul people out of real environments and put them in places where those two heads can examine each other.'

The working-class milieu (Dillon and his clique are electrical workers) is atypical too. The lovers in Sleepless were a journalist and an architect, and, if you run your finger down the current American movies, you will see a checklist of lawyers, CIA agents, cops, famous rock stars and palaeontologists, but a conspicuous dearth of garbage collectors, plumbers and supermarket check-out girls.

'I think there's always some rather mechanical reason for that: partly it's because some professions give you control of your time: you're more mobile, and intersect with potentially interesting people and subjects. Also, America is an aspirational society. In New York electrical workers are the butt of a great deal of humour because they're always digging up the street. These guys are princes of the city in a way; they control it, though they're never given much credit for it.'

He is currently working on a new project called Seven Deadly Sins, a 'Faustian morality story' for Jim Henson Productions. Had he heard about an American film in the works called The Ten Commandments? Minghella heaves a humorous sigh. 'I can see that I'm probably about an inch behind some huge Hollywood project. I suppose that means that when people interview me about Seven Deadly Sins, they'll go, 'Now about The Ten Commandments . . . ' '

Mr Wonderful opens on 22 October; see box (left) for details of free preview screenings

(Photograph omitted)