First Look: Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock

By Corey Scholibo

Originally published on Advocate.com April 15 2009 11:00 PM ET

Advocate.com's
exclusive first look at Ang Lee's new film
Taking Woodstock

includes this photo of Liev Schreiber, who plays Vilma, a drag
queen who serves as a bodyguard during the Woodstock festival.
The film is based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber, the gay man
who made one call and a few weeks later managed to stage one of
the most defining cultural events in American history.

In this scene,
which takes place about halfway through the film,
Vilma is showing Elliot -- played by Demetri Martin -- a photo
of himself and his lover when he was a marine in Korea.

TAKINGWOODSTOCKX450(Focus Features)

 

James Schamus, the
screenwriter of
Taking Woodstock

and CEO of Focus Features, which is releasing the
film, says Lee, whose previous credits include
Brokeback Mountain,

describes Vilma as a sort of angel for Elliot,
"someone who's going to be watching over him and helping
become who he needs to be."

Schamus phoned from a
sound-mixing session to tell Advocate.com a little bit about
the new film and why the studio that brought us
Brokeback Mountain

and
Milk

is going to impress us once again.

Advocate.com:So Mr. Schamus, tell us a little bit about the film.James Schamus:

Demetri Martin plays our hero Elliot Tiber, and he's a gay
interior designer who's living in Greenwich village, but he's
gotten flat-broke and he's at that horrible moment where you
have to move back in with your parents for the summer. And his
parents are the most nightmarish Jewish parents imaginable who
run a crappy little motel in the Catskills in the middle of
nowhere. It's just a shit hole, and the bank is about to take
it over. They're behind on the mortgage, and he goes out there
to help them out. And he's trying to come up with schemes to
figure out how to make money and save the hotel for them, and
they always fail. And up in this Catskills town he's actually
the president of the chamber of commerce because there is no
real commerce; it's just a bunch of old folks sitting around.
But every summer he gives himself a permit to hold a music
festival on the front lawn of the motel.

And one day he hears
that a neighboring town has thrown out some hippie music
festival. So he picks up the phone, he calls Woodstock
ventures, and goes, "Well, I've got a permit." And
half an hour later they land in a helicopter, look at the dump
of a motel and the swamp behind it, forget it. So then Elliot
is like, "Three miles up the road is our friend who's got
a farm, let's check it out." And three weeks later, half a
million people are there. It's this crazy story of this guy
who's kind of a bit of a schmuck, but a lovable one who happens
to pick up the phone and make one call, and one of the greatest
moments in the history of human culture ever happens. And in
the midst of all this, he's also finding himself, and really
coming to accept who he is as a gay man, and as somebody who
can finally come out from the under shadow of his parents. And
he literally, the last day of the concert, gets in his car and
drives to San Francisco. And that's the end of the story.

It's really lovely
to have a movie which, you know again, we always say this,
after
Brokeback

, you know, the floodgates of gay cinema in Hollywood were
supposed to open. And you know, it's like, "OK, let's
do it again with
Milk

." I think what's great about this is that you have a gay
hero, and it's just not really a problem. There was
something tragic in
Brokeback

, and you have the issue in
Milk

, but it is great to work on a movie in which it's like,
"What's the big problem?" He's going to be himself.
It's very sweet. His gay identity is part of the story, but at
the same time, so what!

Is that really the central focus of Elliot's book?

The thing is, his book is a memoir from when he's a baby to
basically the end of Woodstock. The movie, we're not filming
the life of one guy, we're doing Woodstock. In this case, it's
really the story of how one phone call from one guy sitting in
a motel in one little town in the Catskills triggered this
whole unexpected tsunami in the culture. And he's just this guy
who just happens to be at this place, and it's a wonderful
story of how it really does change his life. How Woodstock
helps him, and transforms him, and frees him from the situation
he's in.

How did you get connected with the material and with
Elliot?

It's a hilarious story and not one that any writer should
necessarily take as an example. Ang [Lee] and I were in San
Francisco promoting
Lust, Caution

, and Ang was doing an early TV morning show, and the guy who
had done the interview before, promoting his book,
Taking Woodstock

, was Elliot Tiber. And Elliot said, "Hey, you got to read
my book -- it'll make a great movie." And Ang took the
book and started reading it, and handed it to me, and I was
like, "This is the way to tell the Woodstock story, from
Elliot's perspective." Literally somebody was like,
"Read my book," and it worked. Elliot is a hoot. He's
a truly great character.

How involved is he in the film?

Not really, but he came on set the first day and was part of
the ceremony. They're reissuing the book this summer.

And you wrote the screenplay with him? Or did you adapt the
book yourself?

No, no, I wrote the screenplay.

How did you decide on Demetri Martin?

Just when you see it, you'll understand. It was really
hair-raising, 'cause I just went out on a limb. I just
believed in this guy. Honestly it was my teenage daughters. We
all just kind of hang out and do homework together, and work
together at home. And one day we're taking a break and went on
to YouTube and you see his "Demetri Martin Jokes With the
Guitar" sketch and he's got masses of views.

So someone might have been cast from being popular on
YouTube?

That's correct. I just started looking at his stuff. It was
kind of hard because he'd never been in a movie, but Ang came
in and read him, and put him on tape and it was cool. But
it's like, "Oh, no. It's on me if it doesn't
work!" [
Laughs

]

And Liev Schreiber plays…

Liev Schreiber plays Miss Vilma, who's a friend of a friend of
the village who stumbles on what's going to be Woodstock and is
helping do security at the hotel. The locals aren't happy about
the festival and are spray-painting slurs on the motel.

And is he a drag queen or a transsexual?

I think he's a drag queen.

Was the music that came out of Woodstock part of your
life?

No, I never went to Woodstock.

But I mean, the music itself.

My brother had the album, and I always remember the album being
around. And it really represented an idea of what it was like
to be a teenager. But I can't claim to be part of the Woodstock
generation… I am slightly too young, I guess, fortunately.

So have you cleared all that music to use in the film?

We've cleared tons of music. But the whole joke of the movie is
[that] even though he's three miles down the road [from the
festival], he never gets there. There's always something that
comes up… He ends up having a three-way with Paul Dano and
Kelli Garner in a van and they end up taking acid, and gets
caught in mudslides and can't get there till the very end, but
you hear it in the background and of course we have a great
soundtrack. So we have everything from Nash and Young to the
Grateful Dead to Jefferson Airplane -- Richie Havens just came
in and recorded a new version of "Freedom" for us. It's
kind of hovering around the edges because it's not about the
concert itself.

So you didn't have the crowds to deal with…

Well, we have thousands and thousands and thousands of extras
in the movie because they were all converging in the crossroads
where his motel was.

Going back to your description of the film, it sounds sort
of like the "post-gay" idea. That phrase gets thrown out a
lot. What do you make of that? Can we just skip past this
issue, in that it doesn't have to be the central focus of a
film anymore? Do you think that gay subject matter derails a
plot anymore in a viewer's eyes?

I don't accept post-gay. I don't think we're there yet. On the
other hand, I think the way we get there is to pretend that we
are. Just like, so what? So on one hand, I think we would be
kidding ourselves if we said that it was a post-gay moment; on
the other hand, I really believe that American audiences, if
they're not ready for just, in a very off-hand way, to accept
that it's just part of the story, and it's just very
natural, and very real, and it's very human, then whatever,
who cares. We're going to act as if that's the case. And I
think in acting, if that's the case, I think it's more the
case.

Not to get off topic, but speaking of a film that really
tried to act as if it was not the case:
I Love You Phillip Morris.

You must have seen and had to consider whether to buy it, or
did that film do it in such an extreme that maybe it didn't
work?

Well, I think the tonality of it was different. What I was
saying was this is a movie in which being gay is not the
problem. It's something that's real that he grapples with
as part of his life, part of his identity he's finding. And the
film really embraces that as part of his journey. It's very
much a part of the story -- nobody's shying away from it -- but
it's like, for every gay character, why does that have to
be the problem? Gay people have a lot of other problems… Like
half a million people showing up in their front lawn. It's
like, "Hey, let it happen." That's kind of the
attitude.

I was talking to another filmmaker who's casting a gay film,
and he said the problem now is not finding an actor to play gay
but to find one who hasn't played gay this year. Did you find
that to be the case?

[
Laughs

] That's awesome. That's fantastic. I always say the same
thing; I've been saying this for years. Everybody's charting
the progress, and the setbacks, and letting every
representation… And is it in them? Is it too political or not
political enough? Did Proposition 8 [win] because… You know,
you could drive yourself crazy. Or you can just get up in the
morning and go, "Hey, another great story." The
on-screen stuff we track, but I feel that really the progress
is going to be when some big Hollywood gigantic action movie,
with the hot babes and action hero, and the star shows up with
his boyfriend on the red carpet. That to me, that's going be
the next moment. In the meantime, we're still going to be
making good movies and selling them, and being unapologetic
about it. But we're also being oddly breezy about this one.
There will be some headwinds against it, like we didn't make it
problematic or central enough, and we'll hear it and engage
that discussion, but it's also important for the LGBT
community to know that we're out there at the front of the
line, and have a sense of ownership of the movie and
characters.