Q&A: Ang Lee

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CANNES -- Ang Lee, who diagnosed America's discontent in the '70s in his 1997 film "The Ice Storm," turns his attention to the more hopeful and certainly more musical era of the late '60s in his new film "Taking Woodstock." Based on a memoir by New York writer Elliot Tiber, who was unexpectedly drawn into the epic-defining Woodstock Concert when he offered the event's organizers a music permit he'd secured in hopes of keeping alive his parent's upstate New York motel. The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday talked with Lee about how he approached re-creating a concert that defined a generation.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You would have been 14 when Woodstock took place. Did you remember having an awareness of it at the time?

Ang Lee: I remember we heard the music -- not all of it, but quite a bit. It was in the air. I had a sense America was changing. In the late '60s, you saw it in the news, music, television. You knew something was going on. But there was a little bit of insecurity to that because Taiwan was under the protection of America. They took it lightly as I remember, not as seriously as I would think. But I remember seeing the news, about the concert running over those days. They called it a hippie invasion.

THR: Did you see Michael Wadleigh's documentary "Woodstock" when it first came out in 1970.

Lee: I caught it later on. In the '80s, I saw it in New York at the Bleecker Street Cinema. It was nothing like I know about it now. I think Woodstock for a lot of us, I think we tend to glorify it. Not until I came across the material making this movie, did I know a million people couldn't get in and all that stuff. It has been romanticized, I think.

THR: You first met Elliot Tiber in San Francisco when you were promoting "Lust, Caution" and he gave you his book. Did you know immediately you wanted to turn it into a film?

Lee: I was in a local San Francisco TV station -- it was about five or six o'clock in the morning before I had to head to the airport. He was right behind me, with the book in his hand, and he gave me a two-minute pitch and gave me the book on the spot. Later, another friend of mine who knows him gave me the book and said it was pretty funny. I read the book and thought there might be a movie there and I showed it to James (Schamus, CEO of Focus Features and Lee's frequent screenwriter). He said let's do it.

THR: Exactly what appealed to you about it?

Lee: My main interest in Elliot's pitch was on Woodstock, because it means so much, always, since it happened. Looking back, it really means something today. I think they started to plant a seed for many of the issues we are dealing with more seriously today. It's very spiritual and everything. When I read it, I just found so many anecdotes that are so fascinating. He didn't tell much about his own character -- that we had to create. But from reading the book, I definitely wanted to make a comedy. It's been 13 years, at least. I remember saying to James one day, "I want to make a comedy without cynicism," so I called him and said this might be the one.

THR: The project itself came together very quickly.

Lee: Quicker than other projects James and I have done together. In February (2008), we talked about making this into a movie. There was a potential actors' strike. But if we didn't do it last summer, we would have had to wait until this summer. We sat around and pondered it for a couple of weeks. We pretended there wouldn't be a strike and went ahead. But once we decided we had to write it, we had to start formal pre-production by May. That happened pretty quickly.

THR: Did you want to shoot in New York state around where the concert took place?

Lee: I knew it would be the East Coast. At first, we thought it would be Massachusetts or Connecticut because the geography is similar to Bethel, N.Y. Connecticut and Massachusetts had tax breaks that were attractive. We started to scout, but then New York had a tax break thing that was even better. The majority of things happened around the motel, so first we had to find a motel. So we ended up in this place called New Lebanon, N.Y.

THR: I would imagine that, unlike the original concert, the locals welcomed you.

Lee: Yes, in some ways, it's a parallel to Elliot's story. You see how excited the motel owner was. He was an older Indian gentleman. The motel was older and they didn't know what to do with it. Turning his place over to us, he was so excited. He was there every day, very much like the movie. It was the nicest location shoot I've ever had. They were very supportive.

THR: How did you come to cast Demetri Martin, a relatively new comic performer, as Elliot?

Lee: We felt like finding somebody new. Demetri was James' idea. I know of him not from his standup, but from his Comedy Central bits. James suggested I look at his Web site of his stand-up. But whether he's funny or not on stage has nothing to do with this part. He looked right. I screen-tested him. I called it drilling him, because the movie has to rest on his shoulders. He's a great learner. Being a comedian doesn't really apply to playing a part as an actor on screen, but he had something else to offer.

THR: So much about the '60s has been reduced to cliches. Was there a learning curve for the actors to get to the reality behind the cliches?

Lee: For me, it started from research, getting the music. We collected a lot of material and music, pictures, movies, what have you. I gave the actors all songs for their iPods. Each one of the main actors got 30 DVDs from me. And then we spend time together. Three weeks before we began shooting, they came up to rehearse. Even for the extras, we had hippie training camp. We had what we called a hippie handbook for the extras, the assistant directors. A history of the issues, the attitudes, the terminology. The way people carried themselves then was less perky, more laid back. We didn't want actors who had been working out. Nobody worked out, nobody shaved either.

THR: I understand the movie stops short of recreating the actual concert.

Lee: In some shots, you do see them in distance. That was partly about money and not only an artistic issue. But since this whole thing was about taking Woodstock to heart, that mystery is the best idea, not only just to save money. We go into as much detail as we can. There are a few scenes in the distance. But you do arrive there at end, once it's over.

THR: How difficult was it getting the music rights you wanted?

Lee: I should have the Focus people tell you the stories. It was a long struggle -- hair-raising up to last minute. But I'm very happy. I think we got everyone we requested.

THR: Since part of Elliot Tiber's story is about his coming out as a gay man, do you think the film will be viewed as a companion piece to "Brokeback Mountain"?

Lee: I think it's a very different story. In "Brokeback," being gay is the main issue. In Woodstock everybody's there, everything is tolerated for three days of peace and music. Our lead character could be anybody. It just happened to be Ellliot Tiber, who just happened to be himself. He's a closeted gay at the beginning, but he comes to terms with it. We didn't make big deal out of it.
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