Lee shows the fun side of Woodside in his latest film.
A quick look back on the career of director Ang Lee shows a couple of early comedies (“The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman”), followed by a string of dramas without a laugh to be found (“The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain”).
But now Lee and his writing and producing collaborator James Schamus have returned to lighter territory with their adaptation of the book “Taking Woodstock,” a look behind the scenes at how the infamous rock festival was put together at the last moment. It was a welcome change of mood for Lee, 54, who felt more relaxed on this set than on previous ones.
“I imagined it would be nicer to just chill out and lose my control-freak characteristic,” Lee said during a recent series of interviews in New York. “Even just smiling is a learning curve. Who was it ... Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s 'Twelfth Night,' who has a problem smiling? Every time I smile I think of that character.”
Yet it wasn’t a calculated move on Lee’s part to do a comedy-drama over a drama.
“I don’t really develop projects like a usual director, who has 15 things in development and then chooses one to do,” he explained. “I never do that. I finish one and then I see what happens next. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that.”
This film came along when Lee bumped into and got to talking with Elliot Tiber, upon whose autobiographical book the film is based. But Lee remembers hearing about Woodstock while he was growing up in Taiwan.
“I was 14,” he recalled. “I saw it on television, in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV yet. It was really cool. And later, when I came to the States (to study film), I gradually knew more of Woodstock because I kept hearing references about it ... an ideal utopia.”
While music is mostly relegated to the background, and can be heard at a distance, Lee and Schamus made sure to lovingly fill the film with accurate details. Hence, scenes of acid trips and jammed roads stand out nicely.
“Everybody around me had done acid,” said Lee, laughing, when asked how he researched the big LSD scene. “I was tempted (but didn’t). The final shot of the trip is how I would like people to see the essence of Woodstock – as the center of the universe. The hill becomes water, then becomes sea waves. And you have this cosmic shot. That’s how I envisioned it. The movie sort of built toward that.”
The recreation of the car-crammed Route 17B was a different story.
“That was a treat to direct,” said Lee enthusiastically. “I did a lot of research. I’d heard so many stories that I couldn’t fit into the movie, so in that big shot I could fit in many themes. It took a while to figure out where to stage that, and how the road goes so I could see it. I’ve become kind of a craftsman over the years, so I take a long time. Then we had to rehearse the camera movement – like where to focus. So it took more than half a day to shoot. It took six takes.”
Still, that complicated scene was only a small part of a very detail-oriented adventure in authentic moviemaking.
“There was a lot of studying,” said Lee. “Working with smart people and doing interviews and reading, that all helps. And I have some experience doing a period piece, which is important. I found that doing ‘The Ice Storm’ (set in the 1970s) really helped. I think to get things like props, hair, the way people held themselves, that’s laying bricks; that’s just hard work. And to get the attitude right, even down to the extras, is a lot of work. It’s a labor of love. You have to love it to do it.”
Asked what he hopes audiences will take away from the film, Lee was quiet for a moment, then said, “I hope happiness and good feelings. The innocent part of hoping that things can still be changed.”
He stopped talking again, then softly added, “Our collected memories of innocence.”
The Patriot Ledger
'WOODSTOCK' CREW RECALL EVENT MEMORIES
Demetri Martin, 36 (Elliot) – “I saw part of the documentary at home when I was a kid. I remember seeing the split screen and all those hippies, and I remember them saying, ‘three days of peace.’”
Emile Hirsch, 24 (Billy) – “It was just a word that I associated with peace and happiness and hippies playing guitars. It was nothing specific like it was a concert in 1969. It was very vague. I think that one of the reasons why Woodstock is so famous is because it’s this big utopian ideal of the peaceful good old days – in a good way.
Liev Schreiber, 41 (Vilma) – “Swami Satchidinanda, who was the guru that spoke at Woodstock, was my mother’s guru. And I spent some time on his ashram.” My father was a hippie, my mother was a hippie-socialist, so I had some experience with the culture, but not really any with the festival. But I knew what it was.”
- Ed Symkus