How could anyone not love Ang Lee? Moreover, how could any queer not love him? The proliferate director not only brought us the groundbreaking gay movie The Wedding Banquet, he’s also responsible for many a filmic gem including Eat Drink Man Woman, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm.
On the phone, his naturalness and sincerity makes it feel as if I’m talking to an uncle — and who would have guessed he’s a Calgary Flames fan? “Once I saw the playoffs I was hooked,” he says.
His latest film, Brokeback Mountain opening Fri, Dec 16, is another masterpiece. “To me, Brokeback Mountain is uniquely and universally a great American love story,” says Lee. “The combination of the West with a gay love story was really special for me…. I cried when I read [the original short story]. I was really haunted by it.”
The film, adapted by Larry McMurtry from a short story by Annie Proulx, centres on Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), two cowboys in Wyoming whose heart-wrenching relationship spans 20 years.
The film brings Lee back to the top of his game (I know some folks were getting a little worried after The Hulk). Golden Lion winner at Venice, Brokeback Mountain is chock-full of superlative elements. Top-notch screenplay adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author? Check. Awe-inspiring locations and cinematography? Check. Hot, young Hollywood stars in passionate love scenes? Check, check and check!
So what was it that made this story stick for Lee? “I think it talked about the illusion of love to me. We don’t really know what love is. Everyone has a yearning for love. Maybe you have that taste of it that you keep wanting back; maybe you never have that.”
Heath Ledger knew right away that this was a film impossible to pass up. “It happened to be the most beautiful screenplay I ever read,” he says. “I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls — it’s all been done or seen before.
“The opportunity to tell a story that hasn’t been told just doesn’t come around, ever.”
Set in 1960s Wyoming, Ennis and Jack work together for a rancher one summer on Brokeback Mountain. The two men quietly spend their days and nights together isolated among the stunningly picturesque landscapes and eventually grow closer. Much closer.
But when autumn comes, the two must abandon their secret world for marriage and families. The only chance they get to see one another is through surreptitious meetings over the next two decades.
“You could easily say that Ennis and Jack live in a lie, but they had to,” says Lee. “I don’t think they knew any other ways to survive as human beings. It’s not like they had other choices.”
It can be tedious to see depictions of angst-ridden, impossible gay love. The Children’s Hour or Personal Best, anyone? But Brokeback Mountain offers a refreshing realness and pathos to Jack and Ennis’s situation.
“To make a great romantic story, you need great obstacles,” says Lee. “Ennis and Jack are in the American West, which has macho and traditional values. So everything they feel, they have to keep private.”
The production was shot in Calgary last summer where they brought in the Calgary Gay Rodeo Association to give the actors a “cowboy training camp.” Lee hired researchers, watched documentaries, read gay writings about the midwest and even travelled around the area to help get a sense of authenticity for the film. But Lee remains humble about his meticulousness. “I work as hard as anybody else I think…. Doing the research, and being there in Wyoming, really helped a city person like myself.”
Interestingly, Lee avoided watching Western movies. “That’s not what I’m trying to make,” he says.
When asked what made a straight, urbanite from Taiwan latch on to a story of gay cowboys, he laughs. “I think they deal with a lot of twisted elements — there’s no language for them — very private and twisted. That was something very special for me and yet different from my own experience.” But Lee feels the über-masculine genre of the Western has a homo side that’s not been depicted, adding, playfully: “Just because you don’t go to the other side of moon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Working with a director like Lee was a new experience for Ledger. “He doesn’t say anything!” says Ledger, joking about Lee’s taciturn nature. Lee let the actors explore the characters for themselves. “I didn’t know what he told Jake and Jake didn’t know what Ang had told me. So essentially those characters truly meet in the film.”
Jake Gyllenhaal has said in the press that working with Ledger required each of them to trust the other to take risks. “It was wonderful creating an intimacy with him. He made me feel comfortable; he made me want to be present, and that’s the best thing you can ask for from someone you’re acting with.”
The strong performances are another big payoff of the film. Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis is gritty and passionate and acts as a nice contrast to Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully sensitive and headstrong Jack.
Ledger sits up when talking about his character; he gets intense. Ennis, he says, is “battling himself and his emotions. I wanted [the emotions] to bleed out of him as opposed for it to just happen.”
Lee describes Ennis as, “a scared kid inside, playing a Western kind of cool. Heath not only had to carry his own character and the whole character of the West, but carry the movie — and he underplayed powerfully.”
Not as tormented as Ennis, Jack is more charming and hopeful. “The question of identity, whether it’s sexual or whatever, is what makes this movie so powerful,” Gyllenhaal has said. “My own struggle with who I am, and who I am to other people, and what masks I put on, is hopefully interlaced with this character.”
Struggling to maintain their secret affair along with their collapsing marriages, Jack and Ennis are tempted by the idea of running off to tend a ranch by themselves. But Ennis’s fear is too great and the two play out their lives with powerful repercussions (get out your hankies).
Through the two main characters, the film constructs a beautiful metaphor of the Old West (Ennis) coming to terms with the New West (Jack), an exchange of conservative ideals for more liberal ones. It’s a perfect fit for Lee, who’s been referred to as traditional and progressive at the same time. “At heart, I’m conservative. I was taught the best way is to respect nature — that’s both conservative and liberal at the same time.
“I guess I’m contradictory that way.”
Lee lets out a long breath when asked whether he thinks a gay love story will be popular in the mainstream. “I have a very mainstream sensibility the way I make movies.
“I hope that people find different things in the movie than just [the gay issue].”
He continues: “It could be my wishful thinking, but if the feelings we’re portraying are real, if the actors believing what they’re playing appear to be real and emotion is created with the audiences watching, then maybe issues won’t be [in the way]. Biases might disappear when you look into the heart of people. I hope that’s the case with our love story.”