The Future of Recreating the Past: Taking Woodstock's Internet Production

By Mike Jones | April 16, 2009
An online ad for Taking Woodstock An online ad for Taking Woodstock

In the second of his series of articles about the way the internet is used by the movies, Mike Jones looks at how the web kept Ang Lee’s new film groovy.

This is part of a series of articles on FilmInFocus in which Mike Jones examines the role played by the internet in both film production (on Medicine for Melancholy and Taking Woodstock) and film promotion (Bottle Shock, Fast & Furious, Milk and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.)

When Jane Evans, Executive Vice President of Production for Focus Features, first started producing movies in 1979 even fax machines and cell phones were years away. "When we got our first computer in the office in 1989, we had to hire someone who knew how to use it," laughs Evans. "And there was definitely no internet. Just data processing."

Thirty years later, Evans can now log on to find the right site for Ang Lee's sixties anthem Taking Woodstock, the true life story about Eliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), who saved Woodstock by bringing it to Bethel, NY. Since the original location of the seminal concert is now a bit overdeveloped, the production needed to find a similar area in upstate New York to set the film. Evans explained, “We needed a farm with a large, rolling green area that replicated the actual Woodstock site. Rather than driving all over the place or renting a helicopter, [we] we went to Google Earth and zoomed right in."

From her desk chair in front of a computer monitor, Evans can fly all over the country looking for locations. When she finds something she likes, she then taps into the area's film commission website, who can then email her more information. "They will put together a package of photos, which we'll import into our own online photo site."  After all images and info for all potential sites are collected, the director is brought in to pick his favorites, or even upload other image ideas, which Evans then forwards to film commissions to match.

As the Taking Woodstock production kicked into gear, the wardrobe and art direction departments took to eBay and Craigslist looking for the perfect 60s threads and paraphernalia for the actors and set. Before the internet, the production design department would burn a lot of time hunting through garage sales and vintage shops. These days, even a barn used in key scenes was found online in New Hampshire, and moved to New York.

Woodstock Map

Map of Woodstock

In a film about a music concert, getting the right songs to work by, if not cut in, is essential. So an iPod filled with downloaded music of the era was constantly refreshed for director Ang Lee.

Historical consultant David Silver used the web to create a "Hippie Handbook" for all the crew and cast. For those members of the production not familiar with, or alive during, the 1960s, it served as their Cliff Notes for such topics as "Overview of Counter Culture," "The Summer of Love," "Haight Ashbury," "Political Activism," "Drugs," etc.

Like Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy production, the Taking Woodstock producers used a casting site (cast-it.com) to coordinate decisions. Audition tapes were uploaded and available to only those with passwords. "Usually it was just the director and producer. The rest of the production heads didn't see their choices until they pushed a button."

Unlike Melancholy, however, Woodstock needed extras. Lots of them. To re-create the infamous Route 17B traffic jam, in which concert goers abandoned their cars and walked to the concert fields, the production not only needed a lot of period cars but also a background cast of hundreds. The production department would have normally canvassed high schools and colleges, passing out flyers and grabbing people on the spot to sign up, to fill their extras’ slots. But the casting department also advertised heavily on local newspaper websites and Craigslist, where the postings called for "townspeople, college kids, young hippies."  In other words, “long-haired freaky people, please apply.”

For the concert itself, they needed over 6,000 hippies to fill up the muddy fields of their concert set. As the open casting call made the rounds on various websites, people in the comment section began to step forward, offering cars, tie-dyeds, and themselves. On some sites, excited extras even posted news (and some armchair quarterbacking): "I just got the casting call today, I have a costume fitting tomorrow, and I think they are going to film my scene on wed. the 24th. the producers are playing it by ear, the weather has not been cooperating, and the trees are already changing color. They'll have to pick up the pace!"

Mike Jones is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s held staff positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, Variety and currently blogs on the film festival beat at The Circuit. He's written scripts for Columbia, HBO, MGM/UA, among others. Recently The Gotham Group optioned his adaptation of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

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