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First Look: Ang
Taking Woodstock

First Look: Ang
Taking Woodstock'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 body guard during the Woodstock festival.'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.

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 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. 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 playsaEUR| 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 generationaEUR| 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 upaEUR| 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 withaEUR| 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 problemsaEUR| 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 representationaEUR| And is it in them? Is it too political or not political enough? Did Proposition 8 [win] becauseaEUR| 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.

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