Ride The High Country

After grueling epic movies, Ang Lee makes a small film with an awfully big heart about gay cowboys.

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Ang Lee from the Filmmaker Archives Image Ang Lee on the set of Brokeback Mountain

When news broke that Ang Lee’s new movie, Brokeback Mountain, was about gay cowboys, some salacious wags giggled, dubbing it “Homo on the Range” and “Bareback Mountain.” But after it screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, the laughter stopped. And, for most of the audience, it was replaced by tears. The movie — due out this winter from Focus Features — is a heartbreaking saga of two men in love set against the backdrop of America’s contemporary West, and it demonstrates again Lee’s talent for staging complex human dramas that are both deeply conventional and culturally radical.

The original story by E. Annie Proulx was published in The New Yorker in 1997, where Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana read it and were inspired to adapt it to the screen. For the next seven years, the project kicked around Hollywood — it was at one time attached to Joel Schumacher and at another to Gus Van Sant — where it gathered dust as well as admiration as one of the great unproduced screenplays. Eventually, Lee, coming off the exhaustion of having done two complicated action pictures, remembered it and got producer James Schamus and Focus Features, which Schamus is co-president of, on board.

The story, at once intimate and epic, follows two cowboys — Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) — who meet during the summer of 1963 herding sheep up on Brokeback Mountain. Buoyed by the mountain’s beauty and sheltered by its privacy, the two men find that something is unleashed between them that neither can explain nor let go of. Off the mountain they go their separate ways. Twist bounces about Texas as a second-rate rodeo cowboy before marrying Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a well-to-do farm machinery retailer. Del Mar stays in Wyoming, gets hitched to his sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams) and tries to settle down to being a ranch hand and father. That is, until Twist sends him a postcard and the dam of emotions that has been building up since that summer on Brokeback Mountain breaks wide open.

The ensuing romance takes place over a 20-year period, during which the great changes occurring in America barely register a ripple in this western backcountry. But as the characters age, the story itself changes. What begins as a virile, boot-slapping paean to the American western and its not-so-subtle homoeroticism slowly evolves into a meditation on love, longing and regret. Lee, with the help of production designer Judy Becker and d.p. Rodrigo Prieto, has envisioned a West split in two. High up on Brokeback is the American dream; below, in the rusty rural towns, is America’s waking reality. It’s a division that the last election made painfully clear.

This is the second film — The Wedding Banquet being the first — which focuses on gay men. What is it about them that interests you?

Ang Lee: I grew up believing in the Chinese idea in Taiwan, believing in education, the nationalist party, my parents and all that. When I found a lot of that was phony, it sort of turned me upside down. I think that experience when I was 23 and I first came to the States, no longer believing in the place I came from, but also not being an American, made me realize that I have and will all my life be a foreigner, an outsider. That makes it very easy for me to see the world, the straight world, from a different angle. In my films, I always identify with the outsider, like the characters of Tobey [Maguire] and Jeffrey [Wright] in Ride With the Devil. Also, I understand things not being as we were told they were. That America, the civil war, the ’70s are not as we were told. So if I see material that looks very real to me and has a different angle and it is not what we see in public or in the media, then I find that very interesting.

From the storytelling point of view, is it interesting to have characters who innately have secrets?

Yes, and some sort of confusion. Probably in the city now, gay men don’t have confusion, but in the setting of the story, the two men, especially Ennis, have no vocabulary, no understanding, of what they are experiencing. And when Ennis finally does understand, it is too late. He has missed it. That makes the story really poignant. To me that is also a universal feeling — that we have missed something.

Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Alma (Michelle Williams) get married

Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Alma (Michelle
Williams) get married

Which is also the plot of the classic love story, nostalgia for the moment that has past, that moment when you fell in love.

For me, it is the nature of the true western, and not so much the movie-genre, gunslinger-type of western. A lot of westerns and western literature are really about the West disappearing, and that gives them a sort of elegiac feeling.

Many critics have argued that the western as a genre appeared at the very moment that the actual West, or what we think of as the Wild West, disappeared. But this is a movie about the contemporary West. How did the project get started?

James [Schamus] sent me the story as something that was floating around as a movie project. That was during the Good Machine [a production company] days. He thought it was something special but wasn’t sure if it was doable. I read the short story, and I choked up at the end. It was so special that I almost didn’t really know that language. It was almost more pure and special than the westerns I’d seen. Of course, a lot of the goodness of the material comes from Annie Proulx’s writing, a lot of the inner depictions that are hard to put onscreen. I then read Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s script, which made it work. It is extremely loyal to the short story.

But you didn’t make it right away. What happened?

Hulk. I was already signed up to do that, and I also heard some other directors had signed on to make Brokeback. After Hulk, after two really long movies, I was wrecked. I was going to take a break, but then I got depressed that I was taking a break. So I asked James, “Remember that Brokeback project? That is one story that sticks in my head. What happened to it? Did it turn out to be a good movie?” And he told me it hadn’t been done. Then the thing started crawling back into me. I knew that I should be doing that film, that if I didn’t do it, I would really regret it. When I do a movie there is always that feeling, that the script belongs to me, or rather that I belong to it. It will use me and consume me.

You obviously connected to the story. Did you also have any association with the landscape in which the story takes place?

Only as a tourist. Ride With the Devil was sort of a prewestern. Only the last shot was on the verge of that landscape. And I found the desert romantic, especially after doing Crouching Tiger and Hulk. But I wasn’t connected to that western landscape of high mountains and such. When I read the short story, and even the script, there was no picture of the landscape in my head. It was all about gay ranch hands; how they go about their emotions and how poignant it was.

Your movie is so much about the landscape. When did that vision set in?

It is usually when I do location scouting that I start to fashion the look and the pace of the movie in my head. I did location scouting in two areas. I went to Wyoming twice, one time getting the tour from Annie Proulx herself, and the other area was suggested by Larry McMurtry, and that was more along the west of Wyoming. The two had different ideas about where Brokeback is — her idea was Big Horn Mountain, and that is where I went first. McMurtry thought it was further west. In the end I had to make the film in Canada, so I had to find a similar essence based on my memory of Wyoming.

What was the reason for going to Canada?

Several reasons. It was financial in terms of tax breaks and unions. And because there was no filmmaking in Wyoming, we would have had to bring everyone there.

Talk about casting. Were Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal your first choices?

Actually I had someone else in mind when I read the story. But after I realized the importance of the time lapses in the film, I decided to go with younger actors.

Because it is easier to make someone older, rather than younger?

Yes. I cast Heath first — he was a very natural Ennis — and then I cast Jake, because I really like him. But I was a little worried that he wouldn’t be “cowboy enough,” not rural enough.

Ennis and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Ennis and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Gyllenhaal reminded me a lot of Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks’s Red River. A sort of pretty cowboy.

He also has that knowing look, and the way he looks up with such yearning — Clift had the same feel in The Misfits.

Another modern-day story told in the West…

…that is also about the loss of the West.

This film also marks a brand new crew — d.p., production designer, editor — for you.

After Hulk I was wrecked, so I told myself, If I want to do this, I need to start with everyone new to help me forget about the past. I felt bad about my old crew. They sort of understand, but I don’t think they really understand why I had to go through that. You work with the right chemistry of people, and it lasts for a while, but then you need something new to refresh yourself. It is healthy to do as an artist, but as a friend it hurts sometimes.

It must have been tough not to have the same vocabulary and shorthand you have with people you work with a lot. How did you work with d.p. Rodrigo Prieto to create the film’s look?

He had never done anything like this before. His strength was in Mexican movies — gritty, handheld, that sort of thing. I explained that we needed a serene quality, which is sort of the opposite of what he had traditionally been hired to do.

Were there westerns, like Anthony Mann’s big country epics, that inspired the look?

I used photography and painting much more than I used western movies. One normally thinks of Ansel Adams in terms of the American West, but I didn’t really want to do that. I looked at others, like Richard Avedon’s Photographs of the American West. And I looked at a lot of contemporary photographs of small towns. They used high contrast, with a wacky frame and lots of low shadows. I took a lot of inspiration from those photos. And I noticed that they put a lot of emphasis on the sky; they tilt up quite a bit.

And for paintings?

Mostly classic western paintings, like from the Hudson River School. I looked at [19th-century landscape painter] Martin Heade when it came to clouds and contrast. His work shows a very soft, not harsh, contrast. I also used Edward Hopper for the diner scene, and for that one scene where Heath meets Jake’s parents, I looked at Andrew Wyeth.

You make a stylistic contrast between the mountains and their small towns. What kind of dramatic or symbolic distinction did you want to make?

The mountains were magic, and everyday life sucks! As for the changes in the story, I told Judy Becker that we are doing a period piece in a timeless place. When we called upon 1,000 extras in Canada to play a rodeo scene in Wyoming, we didn’t have to change a thing, because not much changes there.

What about costume and makeup? How did you work on aging the characters?

For the women, we couldn’t really put on lines, so the hair becomes really all you can do. Each time she shows up she has a different hairdo and different hair color.

The film is oddly conventional and radical. How are audiences treating it?

It is tricky. So far, the audience is fairly sophisticated. When I set out to do this, I thought, This will be strictly arthouse because of the subject matter and the way it was in my head. The very early screenings just told me what to tweak. I remember James told me, “Right now it’s three hankies and two bladders, and the goal is four hankies and one bladder.”

All bodily fluids.

At the first public screening in Venice, I was surprised. The feeling was a lot warmer than I expected. Going in, they were calling it a gay cowboy [story], and then they stopped and started just calling it a love story. One pretty conservative person found it disturbing because he didn’t feel that there was anything wrong when he saw the tent scene. It makes me a little nervous when I think that it will go wider than arthouse. I asked James in the marketing meeting if we could just release it in the blue states, and everybody cracked up.