Taking Woodstock: Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Misfire

Woodstock may be a great subject, but it’s not readily or interestingly captured in Ang Lee’s new film.
Furthermore, the event has been done before: Michael Wadleigh’s three-hour 1970 documentary feature Woodstock won the Oscar Award.

Producer James Schamus, who adapted the script from Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life, written by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte, explains, “What we’re doing is telling a tiny piece of that story, from a little corner of unexpected joy that happened almost by accident and which helped this incredible event take place.”


It was almost by accident that Tiber’s tale happened to come to Schamus’ longtime filmmaking partner, Academy Award-winning director/producer Ang Lee. In October 2007, Lee was booked on a San Francisco talk show to discuss their film Lust, Caution, which was about to open locally. Tiber was booked on the same show to discuss his book, which had recently been published. While waiting to go on, Tiber struck up a conversation with Lee, and gave Lee a copy of his memoirs.


Lee remembers, “A few days later, an old friend from film school, Pat Cupo, called. He told me he had heard that Elliot had given me the book, and encouraged me to read it.”


Tiber enthuses, “Getting the ‘yes’ from Ang Lee was truly the ultimate trip. I have found in my life that whether you find the action, or the action finds you, the crucial thing is to act – and always now.”


Lee saw Taking Woodstock as following naturally from his previous work. If his 1973-set movie The Ice Storm was, as he says, “the hangover of 1969, then Taking Woodstock is the beautiful night before and the last moments of innocence.


“After making several tragic movies in a row, I was looking to do a comedy – and one without cynicism. It’s also a story of liberation, honesty, and tolerance – and of a ‘naïve spirit’ that we cannot and must not lose.”


Schamus also cottoned to the project immediately, and saw bringing the film to audiences as an opportunity for “a new generation to go back and visit Woodstock and get a feel for what it must’ve been like when you could have hope, and really move some mountains and enjoy it.


“Because we embraced that ethos, Ang actually enjoyed the hard work on this film. This is Ang’s and my eleventh film together; he keeps raising the stakes for himself and meeting new challenges.”


To make Taking Woodstock, the pair was joined by two-time Emmy Award-winning producer Celia Costas. She notes, “Ang Lee was going to be making a movie about when I came of age, almost in my backyard – an opportunity I couldn’t pass up!


“In the late 1960s, the world was your oyster, whether politically or socially. We were in the middle of a war, but despite that it was such a positive time and we felt that if we got together we could do anything. That’s something which has sorely been missed, and perhaps we are trying to begin to recapture that now.”


Costas found that “with his script, James created a smart and funny world that Ang can flourish in; he’s able to give Ang situations and concepts that Ang, as a unique humanist filmmaker, can – and does – run with.”


Schamus notes, “Underneath all the comedy in this movie are emotions, and meditations on what it means for people to transform themselves.”


In those respects, this latest work harkens back to the Lee/Schamus team’s earliest collaborations, while also continuing Lee’s career-long exploration of familial/generational dynamics. For Elliot and his Jewish immigrant parents Sonia and Jake Teichberg (portrayed in the film by acclaimed U.K. actors Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman), getting unexpectedly caught up in the preparations for Woodstock gifts them all with a learning experience, and then some; “For the first time in their lives, they have the opportunity to emotionally reveal themselves to one another,” notes Costas.


Schamus adds, “In the midst of a great cultural moment, Elliot comes to fully accept who he is. His gay identity is part of the story, and so is his identity as his own man – not just as his parents’ son. Woodstock is freeing and transforming for all three of them, but it’s Elliot’s life that’s the most positively impacted.”


Demetri Martin, of the hit cable series Important Things with Demetri Martin, makes his feature starring debut as Elliot Tiber in Taking Woodstock. His and Jonathan Groff’s casting are just the latest examples of Lee’s eliciting breakout


performances from fresh talent in his movies; Martin had been brought to the attention of the filmmakers by Schamus’ teenaged daughter, who had urged her father to watch a clip of one of Martin’s comedy routines (“The Jokes with Guitar”) on YouTube.


Viewing additional routines and footage, Schamus had liked what he saw, which was a presence conveying “a ferocity of intelligence, coupled with a non-assaultive style and vulnerability that is unusual in a stand-up comic.”


Just as the story had suddenly found Lee, Martin’s audition and screen tests convinced the director and Schamus that they had found their leading man. “I’d never worked with a comedian,” muses Lee. “But we made a very good choice. You want to see more of Demetri; you like him, he’s a fresh face.


“In his demeanor and his disposition, he is very close to the characterization in the script. Plus, he’s genuinely funny.”


Martin says, “In stand-up I’m trying to be myself. Doing this meant I would have to be someone else, and interpret another writer’s words and storyline.”


The actor was immediately intrigued by the emotional arc of his role. He notes, “When we first meet Elliot, he doesn’t have a real relationship with anybody.  He seems kind of stuck between obligation to his family and cutting the cord.  Guilt seems to be a big part of what keeps him in the kind of behavioral patterns he’s in.


“For me, this was an exciting opportunity to work with Ang Lee and learn about acting.” Martin did just that, logging three weeks of rehearsal prior to the start of filming and also spending time with Tiber “to ask him about some specific details.”


Costas assesses Martin as having “great timing and great instincts. He’s perfect for Elliot, like Dustin Hoffman was perfect for The Graduate.”


By the spring of 2008, the project was quickly coalescing. As always, Lee went to great lengths to marshal research. David Silver, hired as the film’s historian, was given a mandate to put together what became known as the “Hippie Handbook,” a compendium of articles, timelines, essays, and a glossary of “Hippie Lingo,” from “freak out” to “roach clip.” (Selections from the glossary can be found on page 18 of this document.)

Even words that had long permeated the culture were re-investigated. Silver reveals, “The first hippies were 19th-century German immigrants who came to
Northern California and lived a communal agrarian lifestyle. Some decades later,


the term ‘hippie’ derived from ‘hipster’ and ‘hip,’ the idea being that these people as a whole were cool.


“The word has a light feeling, and did not necessarily mean someone was radical, or an activist. They were more interested in smaller, interactive changes between and among people.”


Lee clarifies another point, noting that “Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock. But we don’t think of it as ‘White Lake’ or ‘Bethel,’ we say ‘Woodstock.’”


Location filming was set for New York State’s Columbia and Rensselaer Counties, as well as a couple of days in New York City. Taking Woodstock was one of the first films to take advantage of the enhanced (by 300%) incentives and tax credits that the state now offers; the production boosted the local economy with millions of dollars.