Taking Woodstock's Ang Lee and Demetri Martin: The Movieline Interview
Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock is as much a confluence of chance, mood and timing as it is an actual movie, one of those meant-to-be phenomena not so unlike the historic concert cited in its title. It started with Lee running into Elliot Tiber, the man whose Catskills motel served as ground zero for Woodstock's planners in the weeks leading up to Aug. 15, 1969; nearly 40 years later, Tiber was promoting his memoir on the same Bay Area television show where Lee was pushing his 2007 film Lust, Caution. Their introduction resulted in an adaptation by Lee's long-time collaborator James Schamus, who soon suggested comic Demetri Martin as a leading man.
And that pretty much settled it. Within months, Lee was in pre-production, Martin prepared to make his feature-starring debut, and Taking Woodstock had liftoff. (It opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and on Friday nationwide). But it wasn't always the smoothest ride from there. Lee and Martin recently talked to Movieline about the actor's dramatic boot camp, the challenges of playing a gay man and Lee's unusual approach to his first biopic.
I kind of wish I'd written a book I could pass off to you here, Ang, and maybe you'd adapt that in the next couple years. Have you ever had a project develop this organically before?
LEE: No. It'll never happen again. I wouldn't allow it to happen again.
LEE: Probably not. People pitch me stories all the time. Usually they're not really movie material, but people have a dream. It's kind of a burden when people share their life stories, and you have to judge whether it's a movie or not. A movie is very specific; you have to have a specific target and a connection with material that you're going to spend two years of your life with. But this one is different. I was promoting my last movie; I was in an abyss of tragedy. It was a very heavy movie, like the the sixth tragic movie I'd made in a row. The idea of innocence, happiness, comedy... That really hit me. And also, the film that started the pack of tragedies was The Ice Storm. I remember I made that because I was interested in the hangover from Woodstock.
And Demetri, I heard you have (screenwriter/Focus Features president) James Schamus's daughter to thank for your referral?
MARTIN: Yeah, it's crazy. He told me they were at home and that she showed him a clip on YouTube. That made him aware of me. He said, "Oh, I'll have a meeting with this guy." And that launched things.
How and when did you know this was a good project for you?
MARTIN: Well, I was surprised that was contacted and even being considered. I'd read the book the weekend before I met with James and Ang, and I was concerned when I found there were some chapters that dealt much more with Elliot's coming of age as a gay man in the '60s. I thought, "I don't know if I can give them the performance that they need if the performance is going to be about that." And then when I came in and met with James and Ang, they said, "We're probably going to focus more on the family in the weeks just before Woodstock." So not the background of his journey through some pretty heavy underground stuff happening in New York at that time. Once I knew that, I thought that I could do this, and hopefully I'd be what they're looking for. Then I read the script, and of course I saw scenes where I thought, "Oh, that'll be challenging for me." I was hoping I could rise to the occasion.
Of course, Ang, you directed Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal through similar apprehensions in Brokeback Mountain. How do you approach that?
LEE: First, you just do a screen test; you direct him and see how he responds. For the leading man, I don't see what's in their experience as an established actor. It's fake. You're just going to have to jump into it either way. Many times, as a regular person -- not a person onscreen -- you do have to ask, "Would this story happen to him? Is it his story?" It's a gut reaction, and I trust that more than anything. You may have to work hard to get there, and it may be painstaking. But you have to believe the story belongs to him. I looked at him, and how he responds to directing, how he reads the lines, and I have a taste of the movie. That's a very important signal. The rest is to be sensitive to each other and build a movie together. At the same time I did some drilling to see how he'd respond as an actor.
LEE: Like a drill sergeant! Or a zen master. Whatever it was to get him to act one way or another.
MARTIN: What was interesting was that there rehearsals for a few weeks before principal photography began. I had just come off my TV show, which is obviously much smaller, but I was responsible for a lot of different facets of that. When I came to the movie, you can only imagine how many things a director has to worry about. One actor is one of those things; there were all these hundreds of extras. There was this graph on the wall figuring out locations, how they'd shoot stuff, if 16-millimeter would work here or there -- all these other things. I quickly realized that I'm part of a big thing here, but at the same time, I'm the least experienced by miles. So when Ang got to spend time with me, I think I knew that I was part of the bigger picture this guy needs to worry about. It's not just a movie about me. He kept saying, "I need you be relaxed." I guess the thing is that on the day, what you need is an actor to be available -- at least so you have options in the editing room.
LEE: And "available" is an easy thing to say, but it's hard to accomplish as a tool for the movie. That's all the acting lessons are about.
That's interesting, because Woodstock was born from an era of optimism and earnestness where anything was possible. Today is much more cynical, and Demetri, your comedy -- your character, as it were -- is rooted very much in irony.
MARTIN: Ang said early on, "You know what you do on stage? That's not why you're here. This isn't about you as a comedian and how you do that. This is about finding out who this guy is and telling his story." On top of that, it does take place in a different time. So that was a big thing -- not having a film of ironic distance between the characters. That's where the availability comes in. You also have to be trusting -- not only of the director, but of everyone in the scene. It has to have the right vibe. [To Lee] Does that sound about right?
LEE: Yes. Part of this is just throwing away whatever your skill as a comedian is. Just throw it away. It takes a little while to get it down to zero -- to have a pure starting point and keep it that way. The first thing I remember saying was, "Don't talk back." Then I felt like a drill sergeant.
MARTIN: I was just going to say that.
LEE: "Don't explain why the thing you just did didn't work. Just do it again!"
MARTIN: I never realized how verbal I am. In stand-up you can always talk yourself out of stuff because it's words, words, words. So we'd do a scene, and I'd try something, and I just couldn't do it. Or do it well. So Ang would say, "I think it seemed like this..." And I'd say, "Oh, I think I understand. It was because..." And he'd say, "You seem like a smart guy. I don't need you to tell me back why it didn't work. Just listen and do it again." Very tricky. But going back to what you said about my comedy being based in irony: I'd agree, but in the comedy landscape, I'd probably be on the softer side of that spectrum.
LEE: He's not mean.
MARTIN: But in 1969, I'd probably be a real smart-ass. So it's funny in the historical context. Sure, Lenny Bruce existed, so I wouldn't have been that far out, but if you're talking about regular people who aren't snarky or sarcastic and who believe in things and connecting with people, it's just a really different thing.
This is the first Ang Lee film adapted from a true story or memoir. In what ways does that change your sense of responsibility to the details?
LEE: My responsibility is not to the details of Elliot Tiber's life. Not at all. He's one small person compared to Woodstock. My obligation is to what happened a few miles down the road -- its life story. So that's a balancing act. But everybody knows what happened in Woodstock; it's a big historical event I can't mess with too much. So in reading his memoir, in his mind there are things that are important, but to someone else's mind, it could be different. I have to take all of that into consideration -- the other history, the stories that overlap with his. Also, after all, we're creating a story. I created Elliot with James and Demetri. At some point the real Elliot Tiber has to fade away, and this is who you're looking at.
And as a comic, Demetri, the brand is you; your show is called Important Things with Demetri Martin. How is it playing someone else whom you can just call up on the phone?
It's an unforeseen opportunity. My plan isn't to do stand-up so I can go play a character in a movie. My plan was to do stand-up because I enjoy it as a form. I think it's really fun. But it's a strange thing when you get a chance to do something in life that looks very involved and would require a lot of work, yet it's not something you're aiming for. Usually you get something that requires lots of work that you specifically did to get that thing. While I want to be in movies and to act, it's a strange, unexpected thing. And I think the sooner you can understand your role in that larger thing -- not just "my movie career," but "this project" -- I think the better off you are. And everybody gets the results they want -- and sooner.