By Bob Graham
Published: August 20, 2009
The Director Talks About Working with Heath Ledger On the Set of
One of the opening shots in Taking Woodstock, the new film from the
director of Brokeback Mountain, shows a field covered with wild thyme
in a brilliant lavender, but it was not necessarily intended to be a
whiff of gay things to come. "It does look very gay,'' admits James
Schamus, director Ang Lee's longtime collaborator. "Very gay shot.''
It's sometimes hard to tell if Schamus is kidding or not.
One thing he definitely was not kidding about: certain comments in
the August issue of Vanity Fair about Heath Ledger's working
relationship with Lee during the making of Brokeback Mountain.
"I found those comments to be pretty offensive," the ordinarily
affable Schamus declares.
Schamus and Lee were in San Francisco on a press tour for Taking
Woodstock, their bittersweet comedy with a gay main character that
takes place entirely on the sidelines of the legendary music festival
40 years ago. The film opens Aug. 28 in San Francisco.
In the Vanity Fair article about the last year and a half of Ledger's
life, an account based on director Terry Gilliam "and other
insiders,'' the magazine said Ledger found the Brokeback shoot
"difficult.'' Ledger's agent Steve Alexander said the late actor
"thought Ang Lee was an incredible director, but Ang is a taskmaster
and he doesn't coddle his actors. He pushes them until they give him
what he's after. It wasn't what Heath was used to, but it obviously worked.''
Gilliam claimed that Ledger "was looking for a father figure and
that's why it was difficult . . . because Ang Lee is not a father
figure. That's why he (Ledger) felt very isolated there.''
Gilliam is the director of Ledger's last, not yet released film, The
Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. When Ledger died of the effects of a
combination of prescription drugs, different aspects of his
unfinished role were completed by several actors (Johnny Depp, Jude
Law and Colin O'Farrell).
Says Schamus: "You know this is another director kind of claiming a
mantle of a relationship with Heath that was lovely and beautiful,
and I truly respect it, but the bottom line is that the love, the
respect for the work that Heath delivered (on the Brokeback set) is
part of that experience. There was so much love on that set for
Heath. It was a difficult part. When he goes in to embrace his role,
he embraced it one hundred million percent.''
Whoa! Back up a little. "Taskmaster''? Isn't a director sometimes
required to be a taskmaster? (Lee won the Academy Award for best
director, and Ledger was nominated as best actor.)
The soft-spoken but firm Lee says he has not seen the Vanity Fair
article, but "I think when I deal with actors, I give them my best.
Whatever it takes to get there. With an actor, you share things with
him or her, things you don't even share with your family. It's so
private that sometimes the darkest side of the character is always
vulnerable. It's very specific and very strange territory. You have
to be very careful. I was hyper when I deal with them.''
"Yeah, you're in an altered state. You're giving your best.''
Interjects Schamus: "I think you mean heightened.''
Lee gestures with both hands to the top of his head. "You're in a
different state. You're very alert. You're in a different zone. When
I share that with somebody, I'm giving them my best. I think that's
all there is. Some of them find it's hard but some of them find it's
very precious. But everything is on the screen. That doesn't
disappear. When he passed away, that's how I calmed myself down. That
document. That's pretty brave and that's not going to fade away.
That's how I want to remember him. That's how I worked with him, and
that was it.''
Schamus has collaborated with Lee on 11 films, as producer,
screenwriter or both, which is what he did for Taking Woodstock. He
says the fact that there is a gay hero in it should be taken as "no
big deal.'' In Brokeback, "being gay is really a big problem.'' In
Taking Woodstock, "being gay is something you're working through as
part of your life story, it's part of who you are.'' Lee calls the
gayness in Taking Woodstock "just coincidence,'' not the central issue.
A novice character actor but a seasoned standup comic, Demetri Martin
plays Elliot Tiber, whose true story this is. Elliot's parents
operate a rundown Catskills motel, and when he hears that a pop music
festival has lost its permit in nearby Wallkill, N.Y., he finds
himself in the thick of frantic arrangements for what became known as
Woodstock, which took over a neighboring dairy farm and became one of
the iconic events of the '60s. Half a million people set up camp to
hear the The Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Santana et al for
three days of peace and love, enhanced by grass and LSD, in a decade
otherwise filled with assassinations, riots and war to say nothing
of the emergence of the gay liberation movement.
There is no performance footage in Taking Woodstock. What we have is
a subtly comic clash of the "normal'' with the hip and spaced-out.
Martin may be a newcomer to films, albeit an able one, but he is
surrounded by a cast of pros, including Liev Shreiber as a
transvestite ex-Marine, Emile Hirsch as a freaked-out Vietnam vet,
and two names that may not be familiar to many Americans but likely
will as soon as the Academy Award nominations for supporting actors
are announced. They are English actors Henry Goodman and Imelda
Staunton, who play Elliot's screwed-up Jewish parents and emotionally
dominate key aspects of the film. Paul Dano has a brief but
unforgettable moment as a blissed-out tripper in a VW van.
One of the beauties of Schamus's script, based on the real Elliot
Tiber's book, is that nothing is announced or explained, such as
Elliot's being gay.
Little things accumulate - a telephone call from New York that dawns
on you is about Stonewall, and Elliot's flirting with a carpenter,
which straight audience members may not even realize is flirting, but
gay ones certainly will.
"Writing comedy for Ang means that you get to stay underneath the
traditional set-up,'' says Schamus. "It's funny, but there's no one
standing around with a hammer hitting you on the head.''
The makers of this film have latched on to Woodstock as a
transformative moment in recent American history, but it really was
only a moment, and the political and social chaos of the era continued.
When the hippie producer of the festival rides up on a horse and
announces that he's working on a deal with the Rolling Stones for his
next project, no one says so but what he's talking about is the
ill-fated Altamont concert.
So the good vibes lasted about three months, if that. "Woodstock for
me,'' says Schamus, who was a kid in North Hollywood living on
Mulholland, "was that I was under lockdown because the Manson Family
visited the neighborhood the week before. That wasn't a particularly
innocent moment. You know, the hippies were coming to kill us. That's
what my mom thought.''
Taking Woodstock (the title is a play on the phrase taking stock) is
bittersweet, Schamus says, "because it means we have to respect the
sweet, we have to celebrate that innocence,'' even though "you are
creating a sense of loss.''
The actor Demetri Martin met the real Elliot, who is now in his 70s,
when he was preparing to play him in the film. "It's kind of a tricky
thing where I think Ang was very careful here about making a
character who is repressed but still has feelings. Back in those days
Elliot was kind of reserved, kind of shy. Now he's outgoing, he does
bits, as they would say in comedy, joking around, kind of quick.
Maybe if he was afraid of being out then or of his parents knowing,
he's certainly not like that now. He's out there.''
Martin, who is 35, worked for a year as a writer for Conan O'Brien
and now is involved in creating two comedy film scripts, which are in
the pipeline to be produced. He was surprised when he learned that
Ang Lee wanted him for the film. "I always felt that if I ever got to
be in a movie, it would be mainly because I wrote it.''
Schamus seems to get a kick out of pushing people's buttons by
calling The Hulk "Ang Lee's gayest film.''
"Part of that is to re-frame what is incorrectly thought of as the
bad object of Ang's career. The Hulk is always the whipping boy,
right? The one that didn't work. OK, look, gay in this sense, you
know, a guy in tight shorts running around beating off the Army. A
lot of muscles there; he's got a good regime. Hey, you know, come on,
guys, this is San Francisco!'' (The film is set in San Francisco.)
"And, by the way, it was a joke.''
Like Schamus's other jokes, there's something serious behind it.
"Culture and gay culture are very hard to differentiate when you work
in cinema. They all kind of blend together.''