Pictured Ang Lee with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of Brokeback Mountain. Photos by Kimberly French. Heath Ledger and Ang Lee on the set of Brokeback Mountain.
It's not hard to see why so many actors have fought to work with Asian director Ang Lee. This is a man whose main concern seems to be making the person in front of him feel that he has all the time in the world. Certainly, the normal constraints of the standard press junket interview seem to be far from his mind as he carefully considers and explores each question put before him. The soul of gentleness, he responds thoughtfully to questions as he sips tea from a delicate white china cup. He's happy to explore yet also exudes enormous confidence. This is not surprising from a man who lists The Wedding Banquet, Sense & Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk and now Brokeback Mountain on his resume.
WCT: First of all, let's talk about your discovery of Brokeback Mountain.
AL: I didn't discover it. James Schamus, the head of Focus Films, brought it to my attention and developed it for me. He said, 'This is something special. Probably if you don't make it nobody will make it.'
WCT: And that piqued your curiosity?
AL: Yes, and then after I read the short story, of course, and the treatment, I knew I had to do it. Then I went ahead and did The Hulk, but this just refused to leave me. It was haunting, haunting. After The Hulk I assumed it was already made, so I asked James, 'What happened with Brokeback Mountain?' and it had passed to somebody else but eventually, luckily, it came back to me. To me there was something very fresh about it. The American rural west was very interesting.
WCT: I grew up in western Nebraska and that country is very familiar to me.
AL: It was unfamiliar country to me and I never liked westerns, either, but the balance was really cool between the characters and then add to that the gay context. Everything in it is so vibrant. The characters have no understanding of what they're feeling, no language to even begin to understand. Everything is so private. So you have this grand western landscape and to also use the idea of Brokeback Mountain as the extension of the characters. And what is Brokeback? It's an illusion of love. They'll never find that. They've spent 20 years chasing after it. I believe at the end that Ennis knows he had a taste of love and he missed it. That blue shirt is like a talisman of that. It was very effective, very powerful, it just hits you. It deserved me to take two years of my life to find out and make a movie. The writing is what drew me in.
WCT: So the inability of the characters to be able to express?
WCT: So that's what haunted you about it? Because that's certainly a theme in your work—certainly in Crouching Tiger and Sense & Sensibility. What do you attribute that to? Is that how you grew up?
AL: Repression, social obligation versus personal freedom. Yeah, that's a recurring theme.
WCT: That was a big thing with the gay characters in The Wedding Banquet, too.
AL: Although The Wedding Banquet was an Asian family drama and this is a love story. Yeah, I guess the way I was brought up has something to do with it. Very conservative, very dutiful. I guess on some level I was repressed, always encouraged not to be a filmmaker. Underdeveloped, always discouraged to do everything I actually wanted to do. But I'm a rebellious child and a very nice person, so eventually I became a nice rebellious person. And I came to the United States and forever a foreigner. So I can very much identify with gay characters in Wyoming or a bushwacker who is German or Blacks who fight for the south and all of that. I understand trying to fit in and not quite being the same. The world is a funny place. If you take the gay guys as being straight—they're pretty normal—in The Wedding Banquet—the straight world is crazy. That's kind of how I see the world. It's very easy for me to identify with those characters, and characters who have a hard time making decisions, too.
WCT: I love hearing you articulate that because as a gay man I've read, of course, a few things here and there preparing for today, and when I heard Jake Gyllenhaal say on Letterman, 'This is not a gay cowboy movie, this is a love story,' but as a gay man I'm like, 'No, it's not, it's a gay movie.'
AL: ( laughs ) 'It's a gay cowboy movie'—everybody says that.
WCT: Is that an example of being politically correct so everybody in the straight world can 'feel good' about this movie? Give themselves a pat on the back? See, I want to claim this movie for myself, for my community. I've waited for this movie for a long time, WE'VE waited for this movie for a long time, and I don't like any hint of a whitewash.
AL: You've seen the movie, you've seen the posters. It's pretty unapologetic. I think it's right out there with it—this is the movie, this is what it's about. I think that two things we have ( in the movie ) are brave—one is that it's set in the world of the western, the western is something you don't mess with; it's a movie genre, it's a fiction. Even though some Irish guy invented it and that has a bigger impact in real life. So now you're facing a big enemy. And people think it's funny; it's something like Blazing Saddles or something. I don't like that connotation. This is a serious piece, a study of real people in the west. The other stereotype is the gay cowboy.
WCT: Because that says gay porn immediately.
AL: And has such a funny connotation. So how are you going to market this? A gay movie has a certain vibe that limits it to certain art houses. Marketing-wise, we wouldn't want to say that it's a western so it can offend. But we want to reach more major markets than 'gay cowboy' or strictly gay movie that's for the art houses. I think 'love story' is probably the easiest way to promote it but yeah, it's a gay movie. Come on. It's a gay love story in the west. But it also overlaps with the western because there's so much of that masculinity. So in that sense it's not a real love story in the movie genre because you don't have all the sweet talking and all of those genre yearnings. In the look and the way they behave is very masculine, it overlaps. They're very non-verbal. So we didn't want to fall into that trap of 'gay movie.'
WCT: But obviously on a certain level you must believe that America is ready for a mainstream love story between two men—does that cover all the bases?
AL: I don't know. America seems to be so backward to me these days ( laughs ) . I'm not going to wait until it's the perfect time to make it because there's probably no such thing and if I don't make it, somebody else will and I would have missed it. I don't really care if America's ready. I have no problem with the material, I believe in it, I wanted to make it—it becomes somebody else's problem when they see the movie and they don't like it. I don't think it's a perfect time but who knows? People who seem to be saying they have a problem—when they see the movie I think they'll be affected by it. It's a very powerful love story. The human condition should speak to everyone.
WCT: It's a very old-fashioned Garbo kind of picture, actually. I loved that. How about casting? Did you have any trouble? Did Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal immediately come to you? Were they your first choices?
AL: Yeah, actually. When I decided to go with a younger cast and age them the course of the 20 years of the story. They are among the best. Heath I think is great in terms of carrying all that internal anger and strife.
WCT: I loved Anne Hathaway in that feisty little role.
AL: And Jake I think found beautiful motivation and he and Heath made a beautiful couple on screen.
WCT: In all your movies you're able to draw out these wonderful emotions from your actors. I think of Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility. How did you prepare these two for what was obviously some 'taboo' stuff? Did you have a rehearsal period?
AL: Well 'taboo' is what's so attractive to actors—it's so challenging and makes for the best dramas. I think the best way to go about 'taboo' is to be emotionally direct and then the taboo, hopefully, doesn't become so taboo. You have to get past the emotional obstacles to get to the core or the heart so hopefully those taboos don't matter anymore. Hopefully that's the case—hopefully the audience will really feel it. I can't tell you how I do it. I think they have to come to the movie ready for that process. The material I chose is very helpful, it's inspiring. It has to be seductive, that's half the work, what I choose to do, who I work with, how I prepare the work. By the time they come to work I'm halfway prepared already. So I'm at an advantage. I think every actor is a different case and it's my job to seduce them.
WCT: And you seduce the audience as well. I love how you brought the audience into this world a long time before the romance was introduced.
AL: I think that's important. You have to take a western pace. For some people that might be too slow, but I think you can really bank on that once you establish that.
WCT: I think you then also note the importance of just one gesture or one word. That's such a western movie tradition.
AL: I think actors have standard preparation for their characters and that's learned from school or their experiences, from each other. But most importantly, you have to be their tailors—what makes them look good, what makes them feel good. That's what my job is. It really depends. It's an organic process. After a while they know they can trust you. There are really no rules.
WCT: Well, it's obviously a very personal film.
AL: There are also universal aspects to it. A lot of movies have that effect on people. A lot of people will be able to personalize this.
WCT: Do you think it will help straight audiences because it's set in the past and Ennis has a strong relationship with his daughters? They may be gay but they're also married. They may be gay but there's a softening.
AL: I think so, but I think most of all it's because that period helps the story in a way because everything is secretive. Today, the obstacles might not be there and the story wouldn't be as convincing as in the past. It ends in the '80s and that stuff is still taboo. I think the period distance, how they have to keep it a secret and have to function in society, which you don't necessarily see as much today. I think the time period also made the story so much more poignant. The constraints made it so much deeper. And then your love for your child and in some ways functioning as a husband, that was genuine—sexuality aside and the emotions that are generated there. In the movie we expanded the women's parts—their struggle to deal with it.
WCT: Well I think it's going to be a massive hit, but you're talking to choirboy No. 1 here.
AL: ( laughs ) Well, so far it's been seen by a sophisticated audience. I don't know how the shopping mall audience will respond.