"I cried the first time I read it..."

Ang Lee, front-runner for this year’s Best Director statuette, guides us through Brokeback Mountain

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. How do you feel about it?
Thank you. Personally, I don’t really like competition, it makes me uncomfortable. But it’s great for everybody who worked on the film.

What made you want to be a part of Brokeback Mountain?
It was a beautiful short novel and I read that before I read the script. It was clear to me that it was a very unique but equally universal love story and that is what we would be shooting for. I got choked up when I read it and it was the challenge of showing that beautiful prose visually. They don’t know what love is, they were not allowed to love each other and to me, the most attractive thing was, “Are you willing to stand on the edge? Are you willing to take the fall?”

How did you prepare for the project?
I spent time in Wyoming under the guidance of Annie Proulx, the author of the book. She showed me what to look at, took me to the bars, the landscapes, to the towns and showed me photos – it was very educational. Dealing with the culture and peoples’ impression of the culture was always going to be difficult. I think most people know about the American west, gunslingers and landscapes, horses and cowboys. I think we learn about these things from the movies and really, it’s just an invention of the genre, a self-image. Stories are biased and fictional and the real western American life is a mystery so we created a western that’s not a gunslingers’ west. It’s eccentric, very special and tragic.

The landscape plays such a massive part in the film…
Yes, and I guess it’s back to how I was brought up in Taiwan and Chinese culture. I think we’re very indirect people – we don’t really say what we want to say but we find ways to express it. You find it a lot in poetry and painting, it’s always about nature and using it to reflect your state of mind. I think westerns can be a lot like that. It’s quite different from something like Sense And Sensibility, which is based in a verbal culture – this is a non-verbal culture and very repressed.

How did you use your surroundings to express that on film?
The love is forbidden so somehow you have to hide it and show it at the same time. I think Brokeback Mountain becomes a character itself because it somehow is a mystery in a romance and they keep wanting to go back. It establishes itself as part of the story.

This awards season has shown what a keen eye you have for casting. How did you settle on Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal?
Well, the character Heath plays is very macho and brooding so he needs to look melancholy and tough. He also has to look convincing as a cowboy and Heath is almost a natural as a ranch hand. He grew up on a ranch in western Australia, so he knew animals and he knew that line of work. He’s a very nice person but also brooding and very quiet – his way of acting is incredibly precise. Jack, Jake’s character, is shorter and almost unfit for being a cowboy. Jake is a method actor, so he can literally go anywhere from take to take. His coordination is so good, he’s so skilled and such a good actor for an early age. Once we started making the movie I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. I did ponder about the two of them simply because the story goes over 20 years. They’ve never been middle-aged, so once their characters pass 30 I had to remind them of the way they carry themselves.

How did you set up the intimacy between their characters?
I am a shy person and I figured the best way to go about it was not to rehearse the love-making scene. I think a good device is to tell them how difficult it is to set up technically, then if they screw up they feel sorry for everybody [laughs]. The technical side distracts them from the discomfort. The tent scene, for example, was one shot and very technical; it was complicated to light and difficult for the cameraman so we all focused on how to make it work, then the actors just jump in. I’m sure other directors would have a different way of approaching it.

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