A Perfect Shot: John Seale on the piano reflection from 'The Talented Mr. Ripley'
Before Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale shuffled off to retirement, only to be lured back into the fray by director George Miller for the virtuoso stylings of "Mad Max: Fury Road," he clocked a lot of hours working with filmmaker Anthony Minghella. The two collaborated on three major productions: 1996's "The English Patient," 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and 2003's "Cold Mountain."
The 1999 entry is, full stop, a masterpiece of modern cinema. With shades of latter-day Hitchcock pulsing through a narrative wound uncomfortably tight, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" might be the finest work Minghella, who passed away in 2008, ever committed to the screen. It features more than just evocative, but rather outright palpable atmosphere and a detailed sense of place. Minghella coaxed incredibly layered performances out of actors like Matt Damon, Jude Law (Oscar nominated for his work), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett and, as ever, told the story visually in captivating ways.
One of the film's many wonderful shots rates right up there as one of the single greatest film images I've ever seen. It comes late in the film, when Tom Ripley's (Damon) many lies and horrific acts are finally beginning to catch up with him and his carefully fabricated existence. Leaving the assumed identity of Dickie Greenleaf behind through a forged suicide note, he closes the lid of his beloved piano and looks at the twisted image of his reflection. As he slowly steps back, the image duplicates, splitting in two like an amoeba. And as he puts his glasses back on, as if shedding his duplicitous skin, the changeling moves ever forward in his web of deceit.
What follows is Seale, in his own words, on Minghella in general and that shot in particular.
"Anthony was exceptional. He was a fantastic writer. I found over the three films that actors streamed to his door to say his words, because he was just a magic screenplay writer who just put the most sensible, intelligent dialogue into actors' mouths. And they knew it and they loved it and they just hounded a path to his door to work on his films. But he was such a lovely family man. He loved all our families. He wanted to know how they were. It was a gorgeous way to work. Movies are hard work and long hours. But when you jump out of bed early in the morning to go and make an Anthony Minghella movie, you're there to go and talk with Anthony and be with him all day. It's not work. It's a holiday of discovery, of watching a director talk to and manipulate — as all directors have to — the character that they want to come out of that actor. And he had this magic way of doing it. It was like being in film school all day, every day.
"That particular shot is most interesting the way it evolved, because it was the script supervisor, Dianne Dreyer from New York, who is a wonderful, wonderful woman. And she could play the piano. Not well, but she could play. She started tinkling with it, and then she closed the lid. She was looking down when she closed it and she saw that image of herself [split apart like that]. She came over to me and she said, 'Johnny, you have another look at that. There's a very interesting shot there.' And I went over and I had a look and opened and closed the door and I thought, 'My God, that's amazing in representing the character. Anthony, come over and have a look at this.' And we looked at it and he said, 'Oh, please. Set it up. Set it up.'
"So to me it was a wonderful, Anthony's way of treating crew. It was so lovely that it drew you into the film and allowed you to then search for images. His demands of being that kind of a director meant that you were looking at the world as his film and you would be looking for those little ideas of images that would portray the characters in the movie. And that's the way that one developed. Dianne gives me the credit for it. She said I found it. No, I didn't find it. She did. And I think that's wonderful."