We’ve managed to get an exclusive interview with it’s director, Ang Lee on his experience filming the movie and on the Woodstock festival itself plus we take a look at his interests in the music scene.
Ang Lee Q&A Interview
Do you remember Woodstock yourself?
I remember seeing it on the news, there were some big hairy guys jamming on their guitars and a sea of people. Very brutally, they said, “Woodstock is happening in the States, in New York.” That’s all I can remember. But that music was in the air The baby-boomers were about to take the world to another chapter of history, so, as an adult, I could not escape from that. It’s still in the air. And over the years, Woodstock has become a legendary symbol: of freedom, a new generation, and many many other things.
Why did you cast Demetri? Was it because he was a comedian?
Ironically, when we cast him, we thought he might be funny. But, in person, when I shot him, I realised he provided something else, something totally different. He’s a new person to movies. What he does onstage doesn’t translate to the movie. In my movie, he doesn’t play funny. Onstage, he ‘s known to be funny and he’s taking control. He plays on the persona of being awkward, but he’s very smart. That’s how it works. But it doesn’t happen in this movie – in Taking Woodstock, you, the audience, know more than he does, and that’s the funny part. He provided the right vibe for the movie, and you do go along with him – we weren’t wrong about that. But I was nervous; I knew I couldn’t take advantage him being a comedian to make the movie funny. It would have ruined him and the movie. Instead, I found something else in him, something more moving.
What appealed to you about the book that you based it on?
To be honest with you, it was more about Woodstock than the author’s family drama. But Woodstock itself is very a grand idea – you cannot capture it, and I wasn’t going to redo the documentary, which is a classic in itself. That wasn’t gonna happen. So if you want to capture the end of the 60s, or even Woodstock, you have to anchor it somewhere. And I just found the angle of that little motel, the personal change that Elliot goes through and the change the family goes through, by taking Woodstock into their heart, was one way of approaching Woodstock. I just saw the possibility of doing something small but with the feeling of Woodstock. That’s what got me hooked. And then I get into the family drama, and I always do family drama. (Laughs) That’s actually part of the job.
Why do you keep exploring this issue? What draws you to families?
Well, it’s something you can’t resolve. The movie has a resolution, but in art, I think, we can only make a presentation of the phenomenon. I’ve always been interested in the conflict of people looking for freedom. It’s kinda stupid to stick together in a relationship, but then when you find freedom, it’s kinda sad. You lose the bond. So that kind of mood I very much like to portray again and again. It’s at the centre of human art, I think. And relationships.
How true is this story?
That’s a big question. That’s a very good question. It’s from an autobiography, of course. But how much I can trust the writer…? (Smiles) He did make the phonecall to Michael Lang. And when I went into the historical accounts, and traced an oral history of Woodstock, I talked to Michael Lang himself, and I talked to Joel Rosenman himself. And I heard different stories. It’s really like Rashomon. For example, who found that meadow? I heard at least four accounts. Everybody says, “When I saw that meadow, that was it. It was destiny.” They’re all the first person who found that piece of land, that amphitheatre. So that’s a very good question. I did a version of the book, that’s all I can tell you. Woodstock is faked in the movie anyway. It’s off-screen.
Did you immediately see the connections with The Ice Storm?
Yes, I did. When I heard the word Woodstock, I remembered doing a hangover Woodstock. Woodstock was the peak of the innocence, of the happening. And that passion was sinking. And when you sink things, it leaves a terrible, bad taste. And that’s The Ice Storm.
Were you aware of the 40th anniversary of the festival?
I think something was in the air. How come this material came to me a year before the 40th anniversary? I did take the effort to purposely take the risk of the potential actors strike and decide to make the film anyway, just so we could hit this year for the anniversary. But last year, I think it was simply fate.
Have you ever been to a rock festival?
No. The only thing I’ve been to on that scale was Simon And Garfunkel’s reunion in Central Park. I was there.
So you’ve never had the festival experience?
No, I’ve never taken acid. I’m almost ashamed to say!
Are you a music lover?
When I was young I was more hooked into classical music. I was not a particularly hip person. But if it’s in the air, I’m aware of it. I’m like the average person. Not particularly cool! (Laughs) But making a movie is something else. I have to get in there and learn my stuff then. Painfully enough, sometimes after making a movie I have to talk about it, and I don’t really remember the research materials. They sort of come and go.
When you make a movie that’s set in the past, do you deliberately choose a style that is appropriate for the movie? The Ice Storm looks like a 70s movie, and Taking Woodstock looks at times like an end-of-the 60s movie…
I think there are two parts of history. One is the actual history, the other is the culture. And I think movie-making is somewhat closer to the reality, because that’s what we remember. So I had to take care of both things. In my earlier career, when I did Sense And Sensibility, I would go for the real thing, with my historical research, and I would run into problems. People thought it didn’t look British enough. Then I realised that there’s a theatrical combination, too, that’s part of the culture. And I learned from those experiences. I’m kind of torn between the two. Sometimes I walk away from them, sometimes I embrace them. On this film, it was a conscious decision to go with split-screen, 16mm, shaky camera and a lot of zoom lens work. The biggest decision was whether to use that zoom lens or not. I think it’s already 40 years out of fashion – once you’ve used a zoom, you can’t cut around it. It’s hard to back off. So that was probably the toughest decision I had to make.
Do you foresee any problems with the censor?
I think I’ll get some raised eyebrows about the drugs and nudity. Officially, in terms of releasing it, we’ve already got an R rating in the States, not an NC-17! (Laughs) In some countries we might have problems, but in the States it’s up to the audience, how much they can take it. I had to be sure that the nudity was for fun. It wasn’t erotic, I had to be very careful about that. And the acid trip was just the acid trip. I had to go for it.
Why did you have the acid trip distract Elliot from getting to the stage?
That’s how most people saw Woodstock. It’s not like the documentary, where you’re right by the stage. Most people experienced it the way they do in the movie.
Were you nervous of shooting a trip scene?
I was nervous, yes, but at the same time I was excited, because I saw the chance, as a filmmaker, to do something, cinematically, very ambitious and interesting. That’s how I saw it. I saw the old movies about drug experiences, and they were limited by the old optical ways of doing things. And usually they’re cheap B-movies, that don’t really represent the experience as people have explained it to me. So that became an ambition; it was a wonderful chance to do something cinematically.
What did you find out in your research?
The first thing I heard from people was that things bend. And another thing, that was very important, was that they see the essence of things. So I had this idea that I would shoot the sequence in 16mm – in the dark – which is why it’s really rough, like a hippie 60s movie. But the trip I shot in 70mm, so it’s super-clear, and rendered in 4K, digitally, which is where we started to manipulate it. So that was something I was very proud of.
You mention Altamont, which was the end of the hippie era, right at the end of the movie. Were you tempted to explore that side of the story more?
Well, The Ice Storm is sort of that. I’m sort of doing the prequel to The Ice Storm. But we did feel that we needed to mention it, even though that might put a slightly risky factor in what’s supposedly a feelgood comedy.. But to ignore the history is probably wrong too.
Do you think the memory of Woodstock has any resonance for America today, after the election of Obama?
I hope so. I don’t wanna be didactic or anything. I think the reason we got attracted to Woodstock, and wanted to make the movie to share with everybody, was part of that psychology. I think so. I believe in fate, some bigger track that’s going on, without our consciousness. I do think that. Although I don’t think I was conscious of it. It was something that was in the air.
Are the gay scenes in the film a thank-you to Brokeback Mountain’s supporters?
(Shrugs) It was in the book. We didn’t go as heavy as it does in the book, where he goes to the these Times Square movie theatres. There’s a lot of dirty stuff! But that’s not Woodstock, that’s his life and it has nothing to do with Woodstock. So certain gay parts had to be lightened up. It’s just a fact of life that he’s gay. It’s like the character that Liev Schreiber plays. You can’t even say he’s gay, cross-dressing or queer, you just cannot categorise him. And he’s so at ease with every aspect. That’s kind of Woodstock to me.
And when Liev says, “I know what I am”, is that perhaps the theme of the film?
TAKING WOODSTOCK IS OUT ON DVD AND BLU-RAY MARCH 8