Friday, November 13, 2009

Ang Lee's acid test

I was lucky enough to be the last person to interview Ang Lee at the end of a six-month promotion tour for his new movie, Taking Woodstock. Although I can't recommend the film is the best you'll ever see about the event - try the 1970 documentary Woodstock for that - it was a joy to meet the man who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Frankly, any director who successfully translates E Annie Proulx to screen once is allowed to make turkeys for the rest of his subsequent career...
Taking Stock: Ang Lee

By Susan Daly

Friday November 13 2009

When Ang Lee was preparing a scene in his new movie about Woodstock, in which his lead character goes on an acid trip, he thought: Maybe I should try it.

When Ang Lee was preparing a scene in his new movie about Woodstock, in which his lead character goes on an acid trip, he thought: Maybe I should try it.

The Taiwanese-Chinese director imparts this little snippet with a genial smile. In his buttoned-down shirt and pressed chinos, hair neatly parted, it is as if he's describing how he almost had steak for his dinner last night.

"I was tempted [to take LSD], I have to say," he laughs, "but when my kids said, 'Come on, dad, you have to try it', that's when I had to draw the line and put on the stern dad face!"

Lee is renowned for putting in hard research before he begins shooting his films. The sheer diversity of the subjects he has tackled in his career has required him to.

His breakout hit, Sense and Sensibility (1995), breathed fresh life into the Jane Austen revival genre. For Ride With The Devil in 1999, he tells me he became an amateur historian of the American Civil War.

When he returned to Chinese territory with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a year later, he brushed up on his rusty Mandarin Chinese dialect because its use was faithful to the wuxia movie genre.

Perhaps a flirtation with drugs would have been a preparation step too far, even for Lee. But the fact that he considered it at all indicates he was on a different trip with Taking Woodstock.

Two years earlier, he had directed erotic espionage thriller Lust, Caution. Before that came the heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain, in 2005. It won Lee a best director Oscar but the premature death of its star, Heath Ledger, devastated Lee.

"I was yearning to do a comedy after so many heavy duty films," he says.

He gave himself licence to have fun with Taking Woodstock and depart from his normal directorial style, which he says is "controlled, a little stiff". Kate Winslet once told how the cast members of Sense and Sensibility were required by Lee to write lengthy essays before filming began.

Lee is slightly baffled that he might have earned a reputation for being a difficult director to please. "I'm a nice guy, I don't know why they get so uptight when they see me," he says in his very soft, very gentle voice. "It seems I set a high standard and they think they cannot please me."

This time was different. Feeding off the peace and love aura of Woodstock perhaps, he says he felt very happy throughout shooting -- and he even let his cast know it. "With this movie, I let them know immediately that I appreciated what they gave me."

It could be said that Lee's slightly more relaxed attitude towards Taking Woodstock was a sort of preparation in itself. He believes that Woodstock was not really about the music or the performers; it was about the counter-culture it gave expression to. When he says that he wanted to "totally lose control and go with the flow" when making the movie, it was his way of tapping into that vibe.

He put hundreds of extras up in a "hippie camp", immersing them in books and films of the late 60s and, most importantly, allowing them to just hang out ("No drugs!" he adds quickly.)

Lee admits that he's a long way from being able to relax until a film is in the can. "I couldn't entirely let go," he smiles. "If something doesn't flow my way, I still come in and want to take control."

Still, it is this focus and attention to every detail that has made Lee so revered as a director. It's necessary, he thinks, for an outsider who wants to immerse himself in an alien world.

Lee's is a complex sense of alienation. Brought up in Taiwan by Chinese parents who fled Mao's Cultural Revolution, he only came to America to study film as a young man. Now 55, he is a naturalised American citizen, married to molecular biologist Jane Lin for the past 26 years. They have two sons, Haan (25) and Mason (19), and live in the New York commuter town of Larchmont. There's a chicken coop in the back yard, his boys attended public schools and Lee doesn't have showbiz pals. To all intents and purposes, his life is now woven into the fabric of American suburbia.

"I'm still an outsider," he says. It's not a complaint, just an observation. "But I feel like an insider when I make a movie because I created that world.

"The benefit of an outsider making a movie about something outside of their culture is that they don't assume they know, they haven't built up a lot of false information."

Hence the diligent research. Hence the absolute believability of his portrayal of the social topography of 70s America in The Ice Storm, or of the inner landscape of the human heart in Brokeback Mountain.

Taking Woodstock refutes the notion that if you remember it, man, you weren't there. It is based on the memoir of Eliot Techberg, a young man whose parents owned a rundown motel in the Catskills at the time when the Woodstock organisers were casting around for a venue.

Eliot, as chairman of the chamber of commerce in White Lake, granted the licence for the festival to be held in a neighbour's field.

"I heard a lot of people who were there said the film really looked like it was there; they were looking for themselves in my crowd."

It is remarkable that at the time of Woodstock, Lee was a 14-year-old studying for his high school exam in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, a base for American aircraft during the Vietnam War.

Lee and his pals were fascinated by Westernised culture. "Taiwan was conservative back then but we listened to American movies, television. I saw Woodstock on the television news -- it was in black and white, guys with big hair jamming on guitars, a sea of people.

"We worshipped anything that was groovy, that was American culture. But we also relied on America as the Big Brother, the good guys from the Second World War, protector, leader of Free World, fighting the Communist. So it's a mixed feeling."

The outsider theme runs through to the depiction of Eliot, played by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin, who comes to terms with his difficult Russian immigrant parents -- and also reconciles his gay identity with his small-town upbringing.

Lee thinks that people try to read too much into the gay issues raised by some of his films. Eliot's sexuality in Taking Woodstock is just part of the big picture. In his 1993 family drama The Wedding Banquet, homosexuality was "kind of a political method", he says, a device by which to illustrate the cultural gap between the old and young generations of a Taiwanese family.

And Brokeback Mountain, the film that had homophobics foaming at the mouth and others praising its sensitivity and layered portrayal of love and desire?

"I was actually interested in that gay romantic love." He pauses, then nods emphatically. "I would say that was a gay movie."

That is how it is with Lee. Being an outsider frees him to tackle the knotty subjects that other directors might shy away from. Right now, he's working on bringing Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel Life of Pi to screen. It's a book many have said is unfilmable.

"I think it's workable," he says calmly, "I think I have a way to crack it."

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