Brokeback Mountain: Ang Lee Discusses his Oscar Winning Film, Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal

To me, Brokeback Mountain is uniquely and universally a great American love story. Working on this film, I was relearning my love and enjoyment for filmmaking and learning something about myself and my own relationships.
— Ang Lee

From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee comes an epic American love story, “Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx and adapted for the screen by the team of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas, the film tells the story of two young men — a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy — who meet in the summer of 1963, and unexpectedly forge a lifelong connection, one whose complications, joys, and tragedies provide a testament to the endurance and power of love.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” was first published in The New Yorker in 1997. It won a National Magazine Award, among other accolades. The story was subsequently published in Ms. Proulx’s 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The screenplay adaptation was written by the team of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.

Early one morning in Signal, Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet while lining up for employment with local rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). The world which Ennis and Jack have been born into is at once changing rapidly and yet scarcely evolving. Both young men seem certain of their set places in the heartland — obtaining steady work, marrying, and raising a family — and yet hunger for something beyond what they can articulate. When Aguirre dispatches them to work as sheepherders up on the majestic Brokeback Mountain, they gravitate towards camaraderie and then a deeper intimacy.

At summer’s end, the two must come down from Brokeback and part ways. Remaining in Wyoming, Ennis weds his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he will have two daughters as he ekes out a living. Jack, in Texas, catches the eye of rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). Their courtship and marriage result in a son, as well as jobs in her father’s business.

Four years pass. One day, Alma brings Ennis a postcard from Jack, who is en route to visit Wyoming. Ennis waits expectantly for his friend, and when Jack at last arrives, in just one moment it is clear that the passage of time has only strengthened the men’s attachment. In the years that follow, Ennis and Jack struggle to keep their secret bond alive. They meet up several times annually. Even when they are apart, they face the eternal questions of fidelity, commitment, and trust. Ultimately, the one constant in their lives is a force of nature — love.

Origins

If a project is not scary and sensitive, then it’s probably less interesting to me. After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we were on our way to make our next project, and James Schamus mentioned to me that he just came upon this interesting material. I read the short story, which I wasn’t aware of when it was first published. I had tears in my eyes at the end, and it stayed with me. I then read Larry and Diana’s screenplay, and it was a very faithful and great adaptation.

Two years later, I asked James, “What happened with Brokeback Mountain Did it get made yet” He said, “We haven’t been able to make that movie.” Lucky for me. I said, “You know, it’s stuck with me over the years. I can’t get it out of my mind.”

Affinity for the Story

James got the rights, and I started thinking about making the movie right away. Before I knew I could physically do it, I jumped on. I just knew, in the bottom of my heart, if I let it go, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Filming Literature

Legendary writers who are very much alive and still working — that’s a lot of pressure. In the back of my head was, “This will not please them; this will; that will” Structurally, this was very challenging; it’s an epic short story. But, as a filmmaker, you’re creating a special enclosed space and time — your own world.

Taking Risks

I decided to take a risk and go with a younger cast. It’s a 20-year story, and you cannot recreate youth that easily. I decided to go with actors in their younger 20s. The young have innocence and freshness, and believe in what they’re doing. They make the effort, and you don’t over-instruct them. Nothing’s more rewarding for a filmmaker than when young actors listen and then come up with great results.

Jake Gyllenhall

I already knew him as a great young actor. I met Jake in New York, and he said, “I want to be in this movie so badly.” He was totally motivated.

Heath Ledger

I feel very fortunate to have Heath in the movie. He’s a natural. He has great coordination, he’s very dedicated, and he does his preparation. He meticulously aims towards a certain target and firmly believes in what he’s doing.

He and I talked about how Ennis doesn’t speak much. Deep inside, he has a big fear from a childhood traumatic experience, and from his awakening to his own sexuality, which is not allowed to be expressed in the West. Ennis has to cover that up with his attitude and, sometimes, violence. He can get very violent, because of how scared he is. So he’s 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.

Anne Hathaway

She’s an amazingly sophisticated actor for her age. For her character, everything’s great when she’s young, but when she turns bitter, her makeup starts to get thicker and her hair gets higher — and lighter, too. Each time she shows up, the hair is a different ‘do and a different color, so we’re charting the character accordingly.

Poignant Love Story

Everyone has a yearning for love. Maybe you have that taste of it that you keep wanting [to get] back; maybe you never have that. It’s a poignant story — “would have, should have, could have”

To make a great romantic story, you need great obstacles. Ennis and Jack are in the American West, which has macho and traditional values. So, everything they feel, they have to keep private. It’s precious, and something special that they cannot articulate. That’s very dramatic for me.

Living in a Lie

We all have secrets. But we are societal animals, and we need to live with other people and have to fit in. You could easily say that Ennis and Jack live in a lie, but they had to. I don’t think they knew any other ways to survive as human beings. It’s not like they had other choices.

Michelle Williams

It’s a very sad situation, and Michelle is very genuine about it; she should rip your heart. I like making dramas about conflict, through which you examine humanity — the complexities in human relationships — and see where we’re at. Dramatically, this was like a gold mine to me.

Larry McMurtry

I went down to Texas to visit Larry, who’s like the authoritative father figure in that world. I had the privilege to be toured by him to all of the real-life The Last Picture Show places. We went to the ranch where he grew up. I took photos, and he talked to me about the West. He’s very generous about sharing his experiences and his books, for art department research.

He also gave a list of places to visit in Wyoming. So I went all over Wyoming, where Annie Proulx [also] spent some time with me. Doing the research, and being there in Wyoming, really helped a city person like myself.

Cinematography

Rodrigo is a great DP. He’s very quick. I love his work from Alejandro Gonzsalez Irannitu’s movies; also from Alejandro’s crew, I took composer Gustavo. The movie is poignant and stark, so we needed sparse music here and there, and his fits perfectly. Each time we could not afford a song, he would write us one.

Dramatic Core

The dramatic core is finding Brokeback Mountain. It is elusive and romantic. It is something that you keep wanting to go back to — but probably never will. For Ennis and Jack, it was their taste of love.

Cowboys

Cowboys are so shy; they don’t know what to do with their hands. They don’t talk that much; you can’t dig anything out of them. In the first scene, when Ennis and Jack arrive looking for a job, there’s no dialogue. We staged how they positioned themselves, and used the space — how comfortable they are with each other in the distance.

Nonverbal Culture

That bottled-up feeling — Larry had written me about the nonverbal culture in the West. I’d done [a movie about] a verbal culture with Sense and Sensibility. In some ways, this was harder, because, if they are not verbalizing their feelings and being level in their communication, then how do you express their feelings in cinema You have the Western elements; the landscape, the sky, the animals — whom they’re nurturing, actually.

Training the Actors

Heath went to camp, too. He and Jake needed to feel comfortable and find a chemistry — and Jake needed to get blisters and bloody hands, chopping wood, hauling bales of hay, putting up fences.

Weather

We didn’t have good luck with weather — we had sleet, hailstorms, and it was always cold — and mountains are not controllable. Logistically, it was a stretch, and the budget was modest — this was an independent film, and the cheapest I’ve made since Eat Drink Man Woman — but sufficient to make my vision come true.

Shooting

You realize, when you place the camera you have to tilt it up a little bit; the sky is so grand. It’s not only the big landscape, but the big sky. Principal photography on Brokeback Mountain was completed in August 2004. Post-production was finished in the spring of 2005, marking the culmination of the story’s eight-year journey to the screen.

The American West

We know the West from movies, as the romanticized world of gunslingers. But the real West, I don’t think people around the world know about that much. People like me, coming from Taiwan, outside of America, think of America as New York and the West Coast. But there’s this big chunk of rural American life that we don’t really know too much about. It’s a love story about those people.

I think people need to know about that side of America. Like everybody, they have a heart — and they don’t talk too much about it. You have to really dig to discover it, and share that experience.

Biases

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 [had]. Biases might disappear when you look into the heart of people. I hope that’s the case with our love story.

Ang Lee’s Career

As director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee received the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. Based on a novel by Du Lu Wang, that film won 3 additional Academy Awards — Best Cinematography (Peter Pau), Best Original Score (Tan Dun), and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Tim Yip) — and was nominated for 6 more, including Best Picture and Best Director. Mr. Lee won the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Awards for Best Director, among other honors.

Born and raised in Taiwan, Lee moved to the United States in 1978. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre from the University of Illinois, he went to New York University to complete a Masters of Fine Arts Degree in film production. His short film Fine Line won Best Director and Best Film awards at the annual NYU Film Festival.

His first feature film, Pushing Hands, was screened at the 1992 Berlin International Film Festival and won Best Film at the Asian-Pacific Film Festival. The film was also nominated for 9 Golden Horse Awards [Taiwan’s equivalent of the Academy Award].

Pushing Hands was also the first film in his “Father Knows Best” trilogy, all of which starred actor Sihung Lung. The next film in the trilogy, The Wedding Banquet, premiered at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival. It won the top prize (the Golden Bear) there and subsequently opened to international acclaim. The film was nominated for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, and received 6 Independent Spirit Award nominations.

Lee capped the trilogy with Eat Drink Man Woman, which was selected as the opening night feature for the Directors Fortnight section of the 1994 Cannes International Film Festival. Named Best Foreign-Language Film by the National Board of Review, the film was nominated for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, and received 6 Independent Spirit Award nominations.

In 1995, Lee directed Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Emma Thompson, from the Jane Austen novel). Sense and Sensibility also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture [Drama] and Best Screenplay; was named Best Picture by BAFTA, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Board of Review; and won the top prize (the Golden Bear) at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. Lee was cited as Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the Boston Society of Film Critics.

He next directed The Ice Storm, adapted by James Schamus from Rick Moody’s novel, and starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, and Tobey Maguire. The film premiered at the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival (where it won the Best Screenplay award), and was selected as the opening night feature for the 1997 New York Film Festival. For her performance in the film, Sigourney Weaver won a BAFTA Award, and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, for Best Supporting Actress.

Lee’s subsequent films were Ride with the Devil (adapted by James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, and reteaming the director with actor Tobey Maguire); the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and the boxoffice hit The Hulk (starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly).