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Ang Lee isn’t known for making lighthearted movies. Even his take on a well-known comic-book character, Hulk, was an exercise in inner conflict and tortured psyches. But with Taking Woodstock, the director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes a walk on the comparatively mild side. Based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin), the movie chronicles the build-up to the legendary festival from the point of view of a minor but key player: the son of Catskills hoteliers whose open-ended permit for a “cultural festival” allowed promoters to relocate to a nearby hamlet after the town of Woodstock gave the longhairs the boot. Focusing on the behind-the-scenes machinations that made the festival happen, and reducing the onstage performers to invisible specks on a distant horizon, it paints a portrait of people who were changed not by bands or even a movement, but by themselves.
The A.V. Club: Growing up in Taiwan, was Woodstock something you were aware of? Did it have the same resonance there as it does here?
Ang Lee: I guess not. I was 14 in Taiwan, and I was pretty conservative. My hometown was one of the major U.S. Air Force bases. We saw all kinds of planes come down, get repaired, and take off. My life was pretty studious, pretty boring. But I did take in a lot of American pop culture. Movies, television, music. But more pop, not typically hip. Like top 10 lists. I saw, even, on television, news in black and white. But that’s only television news. Guys with big hair jamming on guitar, a sea of people, some big happening, some hippie cool event. That’s very admirable. But that’s it. I didn’t know about the significance of that until much later.
AVC: Were you interested in Woodstock before you ran into this particular take on the story? Or was it really this approach, this character that got you interested?
AL: Well, I was interested in the book for two immediate reasons. Everything you do is an accumulation of cause and effect, and finally something happened that I awakened to the subject matter. Immediately, it strikes me as the other side of The Ice Storm, a movie I made. I was thinking I was going to do that movie like the hangover of Woodstock. I remember thinking that—get through ’69 a little bit, and gradually see how it gets to ’73, step by step. And then when I heard this story, it struck me that way. The other thing is that I did six tragedies in a row since The Ice Storm. I was in an abyss. I just needed something funny, lighter, or seemingly lighter. Just come out of the water and take a little breath or something.
So I was just like, “Psychologically, I need something like that.” And Woodstock is our biggest recollection of a time of innocence. Because right after that, we sort of turn the page. So it all fits in with what I need to do at this point.
AVC: Did it actually end up being easier to shoot? There are an awful lot of extras involved once the festival gets underway.
AL: Yes. Because I determined to do it that way. I determined to be nicer and happier, and it turns out it’s not that easy. It’s not just “Chill out and lose your control and let your hair down.” It’s more than that. You still have to organize everything, give it your best shot. You have to have knowledge. It’s different than those people who organized Woodstock. Like, “Whoa!” and see it explode. It is under control. It is somewhat of a learning curve. But the production was a happy event. And I was happier. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve dealt with outsiders before, and characters who are fighting against their own natures, like Demetri Martin’s character, this closeted would-be bohemian stranded in the sticks. But you also deal with the idea of revolution to various degrees in this, on a larger scale in Lust, Caution, on an individual scale in Brokeback Mountain. Do you know why those themes have particular resonance for you?
AL: I don’t consciously go for that, like that’s my next step in discovering a certain aspect of my life. When you go for something because you’re curious about it, you get psyched up about the chance of getting into it. It’s more like an actor meets a role, and you slip into that body and see what happens, to experience certain conditions, to adopt a certain character. I think it comes earlier, the realization becomes clearer and clearer during your searching for the character. Even shooting is a study of the character. It comes gradually. But it doesn’t take all the way to the end to realize what it is. I think both the character and the actor, and eventually the filmmaker—myself—are finding a way to accept their environment and being accepted and feel comfortable of themselves. I think that’s the process we all went through.
AVC: The idea of normality is important in the film. The U.S. is a very conformist culture, and so is communist China, where your parents and grandparents were raised. Revolution also plays a large part in your biography: Your father’s parents were executed during the Cultural Revolution for being landowners, and your parents fled to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. Do the ideas of conformity and revolution have particular traction with you because of your own background?
AL: The beauty of Woodstock is, it’s a utopia of acceptance, tolerance. So loving, the overall atmosphere. And I choose to live in America. That idea of freedom and the individual being accepted and respected, that idea—even though in reality, America still has a ways to go –—but the idea of being American, the American idea did attract me.
AVC: Screenwriter James Schamus said the two of you did a lot of research on Woodstock. Did you discover things about the festival or that time that haven’t been represented?
AL: Everything. I didn’t know it stunk. The organization was such a comedy of errors, and they were that young, and some of them are quite brilliant, and on and on and on. I didn’t know the reality, the money side. How the police worked, and all that, that it was a disaster area. I didn’t even know that there were a million people who couldn’t even get there. I didn’t know it was in the Catskills, the Jewish side of the town. So many things I didn’t know about.