With his feature film retrospective going on at the Lincoln Center Film Society's Walter Reade Theater and the August 28th release of Taking Woodstock, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee is being put into an ever-bright spotlight. A premiere was already held in Woodstock and Manhattan to commemorate the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival's 40th Anniversary. And now, Lee, with primary screenwriter/producer James Schamus (also CEO of Focus Features), will unveil a new 138-minute long director's cut of his fascinating western, 1999's Ride with the Devil tonight.
Detailing the underexamined conflict between the pro-Union Jayhawkers and pro-slavery Bushwhackers along the Kansas/Missouri border, the film focuses on friends Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (The Ice Storm vet Tobey Maguire) as they wrestle with battle, romance and death. Lee and Schamus will appear on stage following the 7:30 pm screening to discuss their careers and filmmaking process.
Lee's 11-day series, Intimate Views from Afar: the Films of Ang Lee, (it began on August 1st) spans from his 1992 debut Pushing Hands, to his most popular, groundbreaking masterworks such as 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2005's Brokeback Mountain. In the following interview--part of a small roundtable held in order to promote Taking Woodstock, the 54-year-old auteur discusses these films and his career in light of this retrospective.
Q: You've made several films that deal with the nature of family. Taking Woodstock is as much about dealing with family as a lot of your earlier films, just a different kind of family. Do you look at family because of your own family experience?
AL: Maybe [because] in real life I'm actually a family man. I don't have a lot of life experience adventures.
I'm not particularly interested in the subject of family drama. But I'm interested in the change of time, something you think is secure that's believable that ultimately is not true, or it will change. And you feel insecure and you try to find your balance and place.
I think that's the thing that kept getting back to me. It just happened that I know family better than anything else, so I started writing them. It just got under my skin, they're profound. And people can relate to it without talking too much about it or introducing too much to establish it, because it's a very common feeling.
Q: In the recent New York Times piece about your Lincoln Center retrospective, it mentioned that your grandparents had been executed.
AL: Yeah, the whole family was liquidated.
Q: Being so close to violence personally, how is it to do movies with violence?
AL: It's very difficult. That's why I needed to do a comedy next, just to let me take a breath [after making [Lust, Caution]. I [didn't] take it lightly, I seriously made the movie. But that was a very heavy three years that I lived in that world. And the place had nothing spiritual holding it together except patriotism, so I sort of put female sexuality against it in the movie to examine it. It was very nerve-wracking.
It was very scary; just psychologically very threatening, even though I got a lot of help. Miraculously, the movie got made the way I wanted to make it; the version outside China is precisely how I wanted it to be made, no compromise. But the fact that it exists is pretty miraculous. But to live through that is a lot.
That may make Brokeback Mountainlike a musical to me [laughs].
Q: Growing up in Taiwan, you had this cultural distance from Woodstock, how did you come to appreciate it? Was that distance an asset?
AL: My idea of Woodstock, perhaps like many things I deal with in the movies, is a gradual evolution. When I first saw, it I was 14 in Taiwan. The images of Woodstock on television news, some huge hippie happening--guys with big hair jamming guitars, a sea of people, young Americans--[it was] really cool.
At the same time, big airplanes hovering overhead, American Air Force landing inside my hometown [to] get fixed before they take off at the air base. We [were] at the peak of the Cold War, we're the front line protecting Americans--what are these young people, are they out of their minds? But they're so cool. So it's nothing like, a [year before], the moon landing was all positive--it's nothing like that. It's a mixed feeling. But to a young person, they're pretty cool.
And when I came to the States, I just gradually knew Woodstock because you keep hearing references about it, and the influence got bigger and bigger; ideal utopia. And I saw a documentary [Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music directed by Michael Wadleigh] in 1980 when I was a film student here. I saw it at the Bleecker Street cinema. Which I used. As you can see, I took many shots. I didn't imitate it. It just kept on growing, kept on growing.
Q: What the tools did you use to make the film seem so authentic?
AL: Of course study, working with smart people, interviews, reading--that all helps. And I have a little experience in doing period piece, which is important. I found that doing The Ice Storm, that helped.
Just the way people were holding each other; people holding themselves differently. The attitude was different; that, you have to get right. I think to get things like props, hair, everything, that's laying bricks, that's just hard work. There's no secret; if you want to do it, do it. But I think to get the attitude right, even down to the extras, that's a lot of work. A labor of love--you have to love it, love to do it.
Q: How did you decide to risk the movie on comic Demetri Martin, a guy who never starred in a movie before?
AL: Well, his name came from James. After I met Demetri I did a screen test, thoroughly. I took a whole afternoon just trying him out and watching his captured image. Once I believe in him, I [could] believe that's the guy who took us through this biggest party.
Q: You got a great performance out of him. We expect a veteran actress Imelda Staunton to be good, but he is an unknown.
AL: At some point I just had to take a leap of faith. I believe in my gut reaction a lot. [Elliott Tiber] is clumsy, he's a fish out of water, he's [slow] in what's happening--he's like always a bit late, maybe because he's too smart or something. He just has that quality, and those who look at him are very sympathetic, good natured, and all that. I [can] believe he's the guy who took us through the party.
If you strip down to family drama, it's pretty thin. What makes that work is not in motivation and action, but the reaction to what happened two miles down the road, which is the biggest party ever. At the end of the movie they changed.
Technically, for a director, it's very hard to do. It looks easy but it's very hard, because people didn't do anything. I believe [Demetri] is the guy; nothing to do with his jokes. It started out because I didn't really speak English; I struggled to get my idea out, and also I found that's very effective [laughs].
Q: And how did you think of Liev for Vilma? He said it was your idea. Had you seen him in something where you thought he would be perfect?
AL: No, after I cast him [I learned] he did something before [Mixed Nuts] , so I checked.
The main thing I wanted from this character is he's not definable; you cannot put a category on him. And just the way he dressed, you could not pinpoint what kind of gay he is even. And he's using cigars... And he's comfortable with himself.
And also he follows out his own war. Think about it; children are fighting in the Vietnam War, and the children [are] leaving the parents who fought in the Second World War. And there is a forgotten war in between which played a big part, and that's the Korean War. So there's a veteran part; he's playing a catalyst for everything.
So you really needed a good actor to do it effortlessly without leaving any trace. He's just comfortable with himself, which set a good example for Elliot, and also bridged him and the father and everything. There were actually not a whole lot of choices. And James was insisting he has to have good legs.
Q: This seems to be a kind of an epic too. Is there still material that is going to be in the DVD?
AL: Tons of them; a lot of scenes got cut out. Some I'll bring back to the DVD, some I probably shouldn't. But there are a lot, it's very hard. That's why I have that big long tracking shot, to try and fit in as many as I can.
Q: You dealt with more actors in this movie than in all of your movies combined.
Q: Then you got hundreds of people cavorting naked, and people making little documentaries of people cavorting naked. How was it managing that?
AL: I was pretty smart and determined about that, that's no joke. You can't just like throw the dice and expect it to happen. I have a big rehearsal room and I call that the war room, [with] the big board.
I spent months building boards; every scene, all the different elements, groups, and how they develop from scene to like three scenes down. Everything you talk about, different tribes, the type of people, how they develop, all the elements, the war theme, the this theme, that theme. It [was] all [broken] down, so everybody checked that board and saw what they had to do to get prepared. It's a lot of work.
Q: How many shooting days did you have?
AL: 45. A quick shoot, too.
Q: Speaking of nudity--and violence for that matter--what did you find out from the reaction towards Lust, Caution? Has it been allowed to be shown in China or is it still banned?
AL: Well, it's not banned, you know.
Q: It was censored. Did they cut it?
AL: I cut it. I had to deliver it like an airline version, because they don't have rating systems. It went all right, it didn't do great business. Sometime later they'll pick it up as a DVD from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
There was a backlash to The Real Deal[directed by Tom Burruss], I think, and the government has kind of stayed back and let whatever happened [happen]. At one point they did come and say "Okay, no more arguing about Lust, Caution, let's just forget about it." Or something like that.
I don't really [discuss] it anymore. I don't know if the turbulence is over yet. But it certainly had a big impact in China.
Q: How are you going to cut an airline version of Taking Woodstock?
AL: Well, this one won't be shown in China. There's nudity, there's drugs, there's gay.
Q: And what are you doing next?
AL: I don't know if I should mention it. I'm still working on the script. I'm developing a script, Life of Pi. I'm not committing to directing it, I'm just seeing how the script works. And James still sends me stuff. Everybody sends me stuff.