Ang Lee - Beyond the mild side

Ang Lee was not the most likely director to create a film about Woodstock, and his authentic-looking LSD scene is from imagination not experience, he tells James Mottram

Friday 30 October 2009 01:00

Rather like Bruce Banner, the Marvel Comics character he once wrestled with in Hulk, there lurks an untamed beast inside Ang Lee. But this is no green-skinned creature with anger management problems but an anti-establishment auteur who dabbles in the dark side. You can see flashes of it in some of his films: the partner-swapping scene in Watergate-era drama The Ice Storm, for example, or the so-explicit-surely-its-hardcore sex in Lust, Caution. And now the LSD sequence in Taking Woodstock, Lee's flower-power comedy about the generation-defining festival.

The scene comes near the end as Catskills youngster Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who has been instrumental in helping the organisers set the festival up in his home town, finally comes to experience the true meaning of Woodstock. Picking his way through the half-a-million strong crowd, he encounters an unnamed couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) in a VW Van. Before you know it, he's tripping, in what must be regarded as one of the finest stand-alone acid sequences since Stanley Kubrick took us into the Stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This being the strait-laced Lee, he didn't actually drop acid. Gone are the days when filmmakers – as Roger Corman did for The Trip – would slip a tab on the tongue in the name of research. "I was tempted to do it," says Lee, rather feebly. "But I couldn't take it. One smoke of pot and I fall asleep. I don't get much out of it. But that's beside the point. My kids were saying, 'Daddy, you have to try!' That's when I shut down. These were mushrooms ... I said, 'Listen, I didn't go through a sex change operation to direct all these women's movies so don't get me started.'"

Instead, he immersed himself in dozens of volumes about "the psychodynamics of the LSD experience", says James Schamus, Lee's writer-producer on every movie he's made bar gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain and the Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility. As Schamus notes, "the screenplay is cheeky enough to give some advice on the LSD trip", directing him to Bob Rafelson's seminal Sixties acid movie Head, which starred The Monkees, "which Ang totally ignored".

Being detail-obsessed, it evidently hadn't escaped Lee's notice that most drug-scenes in films wind up tedious to watch. "It's a sensation," he explains. "It's not a visualised effect. So when you do it, you can piss people off. You get the opposite effect – you can irritate people. So that's a big risk to take. I found it fascinating as a filmmaker to get it right, or almost right. It does so much for the movie. I think the movie culminates in that moment. To me, that's how people see Woodstock – in waves."

The son of a high school principal, Lee was 14 and living in his native Taiwan in the summer of '69. "I saw Woodstock was happening on the television news in black and white – very briefly." It would be another nine years before he left home for the US – to study at an Illinois drama college and then at NYU film school – and life was "pretty conservative" back then.

"Even if guys had hair up to here [he motions to his collar], there were police patrol cars that would take you to the barber and cut your hair. And they'd cut a loose end off your jeans."

Ironically, the culture he came from enticed many westerners from the Woodstock era. "A lot of Woodstock is taking the alternative lifestyle to work against the establishment, which they found hypocritical, violent and imperialistic. What they did is look to the East, which is where I was. So what was hip to them was normal and a symbol of repression to me. Like Daoism and Confucianism, Maoist, whatever Hindu philosopher ... those represent something very repressive to me. But that was liberating to the West. Anyway, I felt quite at home when I did Taking Woodstock, in a funny way."

While Taking Woodstock features – in the background at least, as Elliot never makes it near the festival stage – songs from the likes of Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Doors and Joan Baez, music was never Lee's lifeblood. "I was not a cool kid," he admits. "I heard Bob Dylan, but not in depth, into his lyrics." His life was centred around family. "Home is something that's very basic," he says. "It's the nuclear relationship. My personal life was very much at home. I was not a very adventurous person when I grew up at home."

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No doubt this is why the notion of family – from the immigrant clan in his early hit The Wedding Banquet to the broken homes seen in The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain – has always compelled Lee. In Taking Woodstock, the film is primarily driven by Elliot's dealings with his Jewish parents (Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton), who run the beat-up motel that becomes the hub for the Woodstock operation. "It's so fascinating," smiles Lee. "The mother is horrendous! It was very real. The author [Elliot Tiber, whose memoir the film is based on] saw the movie last week, crying his eyes out, going, 'That's my mother!' He was totally in tears."

While Lee stops short of comparing his own upbringing to that of Elliot's, it's evident he too was at odds with his parents. Expected to join the family business, either as a scholar or a teacher, in the past he has admitted that his father never truly thought that his son's choice of career was a respectable one. "He thinks it's a good hobby but a terrible job," he once said. As conservative as Lee is in some ways – he has two sons with his wife of 26 years, Jane Lin, a former PhD student in microbiology – some elements of his work suggest he's still rebelling against his father.

Whatever his father might think about his choice of subject matter, Lee's films have proved remarkably successful. The Wedding Banquet, shot for under $1m, became one of the most lucrative movies of the Nineties. Loved by Hollywood, he was nominated for the Best Director award at the Oscars for his magnificent martial arts extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and won it for Brokeback Mountain. But he's also a darling of the arthouse festival circuit – with both Brokeback and his WWII Shanghai-set erotic drama Lust, Caution winning Venice's Golden Lion.

Jokingly, Schamus says that before Taking Woodstock arrived, Lee's "intention was to spend another 10 years making incredibly miserable, depressing movies, occasionally leavened by hardcore sex". While this may be an exaggeration, the 55-year-old Lee admits the days of his 1992 debut about an elderly tai-chi instructor Pushing Hands are over. "I cannot make movies how I started at the beginning of my career. If I'm being honest, to be lighter is a big effort actually! My learning curve [on Taking Woodstock] was to show more respect for the lighter side, to cherish happiness and innocence."

Nevertheless, after Lust, Caution – which caused untold controversies in China for its graphic scenes – he admits: "I needed something lighter to come out of it." He wanted to make "a much looser movie," he says, like a student filmmaker might. As for creating something quite broad: "I didn't quite reach there. I still rooted it in reality, the details. The style of the film is still quite controlled and still looks pretty good. I didn't go as far as I wanted to. It didn't go messy! So either I recognise my true self nowadays and take that as a fact, or I still have a long way to go. But this is where I am now."

As lightly amusing as Taking Woodstock is, the melancholic Lee can't help but stress the dark side of the era – from Emile Hirsch's screwed-up Vietnam veteran to making digs at the capitalist intent lurking behind the free love. The notorious Altamont festival – which took place less than four months after Woodstock, bringing a violent curtain down on the Sixties – even gets a mention. "It was a little risk [to include that]," says Lee. "It's supposed to be a feel-good comedy. And to bring that shadow in might end the optimistic atmosphere. But I'd be even more wrong to ignore reality and to lose that edge."

If this is what defines much of Lee's work, it's little wonder he's rarely played with the major studios. Finding a home at the Schamus-run Focus Features, it's no surprise that his one blockbuster outing – 2003's Hulk – was a flop. "Actually the experience on Hulk was the ultimate freedom because you have the money to do whatever you want. But the release of the film – how they sell it – it can be really painful. It makes you regret everything you did before." Currently working on an adaptation of Yann Martel's fantasy novel, Life of Pi – for 20th Century Fox – Lee has not completely given up on making big-budget studio movies. "I have maybe a few left in me," he smiles. He'll just need to keep that beast inside under control.

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