The snow will not stop falling during this bone-chilling night in a remote corner of the Transylvanian Alps, deep in the heart of Romania. The wintry mix -- and the foot traffic of more than 100 crew members on the already rain-soaked ground -- has transformed the area into a giant swamp of lavalike mud. A pack of wild dogs roam near the catering tent, looking for scraps of food. In the middle of the set, a 300-pound pig cooks over a roaring fire. Blood from the hog's carefully slit throat drips into a cauldron. Flames lick at the animal's flesh, and Jude Law is scraping the charred skin with a knife. Natalie Portman stands on the cabin's porch, her nose crinkled and her eyes squinting at the sight. ''It's a good reminder of why I'm a vegetarian,'' Portman says. ''Jude and I both won some PETA award last year for being, like, famous vegetarians.'' Two animal lovers helping to roast a pig is all in a day's work on Anthony Minghella's epic film Cold Mountain, which follows a Confederate soldier named Inman (Law) who deserts the front lines of the Civil War to embark on a four-year trek home to his beloved Ada (Nicole Kidman) -- who is getting by on her farm with the help of Ruby, an unsentimental handywoman (Renee Zellweger). All involved in the production seem willing to endure conditions that have included 21 consecutive days of summer rain and temperatures ranging from 110 degrees to below zero. And all involved know the stakes are high -- particularly for Minghella and for Miramax, which also backed his Oscar winner The English Patient and cofinanced The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Just weeks ago, two thirds of the way through production, Minghella received word that MGM/UA was bailing out of a cofinancing agreement, forcing the House of Harvey to shoulder the entire $83,460,000 budget -- not to mention at least $30 million in marketing costs to open the film on Christmas Day. Cold Mountain, the movie Miramax is hoping will extend an unbroken streak of Best Picture nominees that began with 1992's The Crying Game, is by far the company's largest investment in a single film -- and, says cochairman Harvey Weinstein, ''the toughest movie I've ever made.''
''I feel like Michael Cimino must have felt making Heaven's Gate,'' Minghella confides, referring to the notoriously costly disaster that torpedoed the career of its Oscar-winning director and ruined a studio. ''There are many similarities between this film and Heaven's Gate -- the scope of the film in my head, the vistas, the mounting of the production.''
Though set in the eponymous town in North Carolina, Cold Mountain is being shot primarily in Transylvania to cut costs. (An entire Civil War-era town was built for less than one third of what it would have cost in the U.S., and 1,000 Romanian army soldiers were hired as extras for 11 weeks at a paltry $300,000.) The filmmaking hub is located near the remote mountain town of Poiana Brasov, a three-hour drive on a two-lane road from Bucharest. The sets are each about an hour's drive from the small, basic hotels that house the cast and crew. To reach the old mill, for instance, you drive down windy roads where bears and foxes are often spotted and through a Gypsy village that has visibly suffered from years under a Communist dictatorship. On the final stretch of undeveloped dirt road, it's not unusual to pass a bearded mountain man carrying a homemade pickax and guiding a pair of oxen pulling a wagon. ''There are no industrialized scars anywhere for the camera to pick up,'' Minghella, 49, explains. ''When you are in Romania, you are in Cold Mountain.''