Director Ang Lee Discusses "Brokeback Mountain"

Ang Lee on "Brokeback Mountain," His Cast, and the Western Genre

Director Ang Lee and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of "Brokeback Mountain". © Focus Features
“Brokeback Mountain” Director Ang Lee on Working with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal: “They are pretty opposite. I think Heath is very methodic. I don’t usually ask them. They don’t have to tell me; they just understand what I tell them. When I see something I like, that’s all that counts. What they use, how they get there, I never bother them.

I guess Heath has a very meticulous way of approaching the character, because from take to take there is not a lot of difference.

It’s not like he pre-programmed it and he actually went without responding. He would respond, but he set himself in a certain zone that seemed to me pre-determined and he kept refining it. Jake, on the other hand, was more free style. Every take he would have a wide variety with an understanding of what the scene was about, what the character develops. That might conflict with Heath’s performance sometimes. He’ll respond differently. In a way, I think it’s good, because Heath is really the anchor for that Western mood. So, it’s good that he’s reliable and always that way with very subtle changes.

Jake, I sometimes had to remind him that innocence is on his side. As a young actor they are scary good, but they can forget that innocence is on their side. They are too skillful; they take away some of the innocence. So, basically just remind them.”

Ang Lee on Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Chemistry Onscreen: “The chemistry I pretty much played in my head because nobody sees.

I didn’t see it. I just imagined they were a good couple. I cast Heath very much as the short story required. I did something quite different with Jake. In the novel, he is even stronger, bulkier, shorter, very rough. And Jake, of course, is more like a city boy. I think he is a good romantic lead and I think he is a good counterpart to Heath.

I cast Jake first and then Heath. I was hoping I would meet somebody like Heath. As soon as I met Heath, I imagined they would be a good match for a romantic love story. The first time I met them together we were in L.A. in a restaurant. So, that was the first time all three of us were together.”

Ang Lee Describes His Approach to the Lovemaking Scenes: “I am a shy person. The way I go about a lovemaking scene is that we will talk about it during the rehearsing time. At what point in the drama does it fit in? Is there a character development? The psychological aspect? Chemistry, attention to him, what have you. But we don’t rehearse or exercise that. Just roll the camera and expect them to deliver. I will tell them, ‘If you don’t believe it nobody will. So you have to see it.’ And it’s their job to deliver.”

Ang Lee Doesn’t Think About the Performances in Terms of Being Brave: “Once you are in a zone, whatever scares you, once you are believing you are falling in love with something, it disappears. All they are worrying about is how to make it work. And after you make it, you have to talk your way out of it. You see what happens and you’re concerned again. But when we’re doing that, we are happy.

We are just happy and we are anxious whether a scene will work or not. They are good actors. That is what they should do. I believe that much. So it never occurred to me that female fans, girls, what would happen to their careers... They knew what they were getting into.

I remember at one point in the first lovemaking scene in the tent, I remember thinking, ‘This is brave,’ particularly of Jake. The way he pounds. You see in the dark…but I see very clear right in front of my eyes, the detail, and it was very close with a hand-held camera. The whole scene was in one shot. So many times you see beautiful lovemaking scenes with a lot of exposure or an awkward lovemaking scene, but I think it’s very rare that you see it private. And that’s what we were shooting for with this story. And I think you see some private moment there [with] actors kind of beside themselves.

I think, as actors are, they are pretty brave.”

Page 2: Director Ang Lee on Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams Falling in Love on the Set, Almost Giving up Directing After "The Hulk," and Revisiting the Western Genre

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Ang Lee Compares Working on “Brokeback Mountain” to “The Hulk” and “Crouching Tiger:” “Production-wise [this] was safe. I was exhausted. Not only ‘Hulk,’ even more so exhausting was ‘Crouching Tiger.’ So I had five years of exhaustion. This was very relaxed for me in terms of production.

The challenge was there. I read the short story and the script before I did ‘The Hulk’ and I decided to do ‘The Hulk’ because I didn’t think anyone would make the movie or see the movie.

It’s not really, really cheap as is required because of the subject matter. But it kept haunting me. After I had done ‘The Hulk’ I wasn’t going to do a movie for a very long time. I even thought about retirement some nights - some sleepless nights (laughing). Then I met my father. He’s retired and he says, ‘What’s going on? You look kind of weird. Depressed.’ He never encouraged me to make a movie, even after I got an Oscar. ‘It’s about time you do something for real.’ (Laughing) But he says, ‘You’ll be very depressed. You’re not even 50. What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to teach?’ I said ‘No.’ He always wanted me to teach, like a safe net.

I felt very weird, because I sort of blew him up in ‘The Hulk’ as a jellyfish and those images kept haunting me. I was in a really weird mood. And that movie provoked a lot of anger, so I was feeling very unhealthy. And so he says, ‘You need to go and make a movie,’ for the first time in my life.

And two weeks later he passed away. He was healthy and everything. So regardless of my condition physical or mental condition, I took on. I was in a strange mood. In some ways, it was a movie I didn’t dare to make for both economic and subject matter reasons. And at that time, it was very natural to do it and from my father to devise it [and it] happened to be a gay movie.

It was kind of strange. I didn’t tell him what I was going to make.”

Ang Lee on Revisiting the Western Genre with “Brokeback Mountain:” “Actually, other than ‘The Ice Storm,’ three other American movies were Westerns. To me, ‘The Hulk’ was kind of a Western. He is like a Western wonder hero out in the desert. To me, he is more of a Western hero than anything.

I think the American West really attracts me because it’s romantic. The desert, the empty space, the drama. Also, because of the familiarity. I did Westerns, but I didn’t do a movie Western. I did a pre-Western and somewhat of a deserty-grim-out-there Western (laughing). ‘Hulk’ to me definitely belongs in the West. I don’t see him jumping around in Boston or something. He’s not connected in that way.

There is something very romantic about the West. Same thing about China. …I think the unfamiliarity was very attractive to me. I didn’t really do the West. I did a pre-Western and a post-Western. I wanted to shoot straight, mainstream, somehow off-beat. Not only realistic West, which is quite unfamiliar to the world’s population - even to a lot of Americans. I know Americans from the cities, from Hollywood movies, televisions, so that unfamiliarity is centered almost anchoring America.

That conservative side; that mystery. It’s becoming more and more aware to us every day. And that’s really haunting with this particular material. It’s both haunting, evoking, and distilled the idea a romantic story to me. [It’s] a very pure form. That makes it very attractive to me.”

Ang Lee on Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams Falling in Love on the Set of “Brokeback Mountain:” “Well, it started happening shortly after rehearsal. I know Heath had just broken up with Naomi [Watts]. And of course, I kept pushing him towards Jake (laughs). I don’t know what I did.

I have to tell a story about how serious an actress Michelle is. The first kissing scene by the staircase, that’s the first kissing scene that we did. It was like the first week of shooting with Jake. So, the guys worked out and I was happy.

The guys were exhausted from the different angles we shot it. Then we turn around to shoot Michelle’s reaction. So, we talk about how she was crushed, she was blank, she doesn’t know what hits her. It takes the rest of the movie to see how pissed she is, everything. And so the guys were down there sort of leaning on each other for her to look at and she wanted them to start kissing and mess around. She could hardly see them (laughing)! They were just there to help her. So they started necking and she was not happy about it. Then they started kissing and she was like, ‘Come on guys, I need it!’ I was very impressed. And when I see on the monitor her face, that one moment… Again, no dialogue. And it’s very hard to show what she thinks. But I just think, for one second it’s really worth it.”

Page 3: Director Ang Lee on Scouting Locations, the Theme of "Brokeback Mountain," and Remaining True to Annie Proulx's Story

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Ang Lee Shares His Experience Scouting Locations for “Brokeback Mountain:” “Locations somewhat we have seen it. We have traveled through it or watched a movie. I think it was more the people. Of course, they are always nice people. They are just like everybody here, except they are nicer, and I felt guilty that I was going to do a tough movie about them (laughing). Something strikes me too, as a freshness.

Sorry to say, an eccentricness. You go to a bar and just see the things that they hang up. I can’t believe the things they hang up inside and outside of bars (laughing). I don’t know how else to put it except eccentricness.”

Director Lee said it was extremely important that Brokeback Mountain itself come alive and exist as a character in the film. “In terms of landscape it should play a character in the movie. It is called ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ It is a very existential idea to make. It’s about an illusion of love. They keep wanting to go back to something they really didn’t understand to begin with when they are inside of it. And they never get it. And when they get it, they’ve missed it. I think that is the theme for me that got me hooked on.

Brokeback Mountain has to be a character itself. So, how do we treat or how do we say it so it looks manageable? So it’s not a grand Western where people disappear in it, but you use that as a dramatic element coping with characters?

So it looks loveable. It’s suggestive; it’s romantic. Somehow to shoot it that way… So in a way it’s a Western, but it’s not really a Western.”

Ang Lee on “Brokeback Mountain’s” Theme of Conforming to Society: “A lot of that is in the script. We talked about conformism. The social pressures, so to speak.

It’s not really visible other than the Randy Quaid character giving them a stern look. Other than that, you really don’t see society. So, it’s really what society did to them. The actors have to carry that. The repression, the mental block they are putting on themselves. Particularly, [Heath Ledger’s character] Ennis.

Another of vehicle we have to use in that non-verbal culture, in that particular time, is the privacy that you sense. Because there is a lack of or no vocabulary to understand how they feel so we are including the wives when they see them kissing. The words crush but she wouldn’t know what caused that. There is no understanding. Everything they feel is private. So, again, the silence, the performance, the way they carry on the scene. I think that plays a bigger part than you see in society because we don’t really see that. We see Texas, they are dancing. They are ballroom dancing. That is about it. Then you see the father-in-law, kind of an a**hole and ‘the boy should play football.’ But, that’s kind of minimal. That doesn’t present a threat. Oh, and the bar. What we call the ‘macho bar’ when Jake gives a wrong stare…[and] it’s the wrong thing to do. But, [it’s] quite minimum.

But that’s something in the air.

I think that’s important in Western cowboy poetry, literature and therefore in the movie, is that things are in the air. They’ve got space and time. They’ve got a lot of wind. [It] drives you crazy, the constant wind. It’s in the screen the whole time. The place where we shot has the biggest wind in all of Canada, therefore the highest suicide rate in the whole nation. It just drives you crazy.”

Ang Lee on Remaining True to Annie Proulx’s Story: “Not only did I want to be loyal to her writing and I needed to do additional scenes to confirm her writing because we don’t have internal depiction, which she did most brilliantly. We don’t have that benefit. We are photography. So that tent scene, for example. I need to add another tent scene and I don’t even know if she liked it.

I always had this theory that she would hate it. To confirm that they commit to the love, so it’s reasonable for the next 20 years they are going back. I think in movies, in cinema language, you have to see them committed. In a book, it’s in the writing and you don’t see it. I explained it to her in terms of hands-off. Once you make the movie, it’s your work. I explained to her, that your writing is very hard to translate into cinema and she just smiled and said, ‘That’s your problem’ (laughing).”

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Murray, Rebecca. "Director Ang Lee Discusses "Brokeback Mountain"." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2016, Murray, Rebecca. (2016, February 17). Director Ang Lee Discusses "Brokeback Mountain". Retrieved from Murray, Rebecca. "Director Ang Lee Discusses "Brokeback Mountain"." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 22, 2017).