Film: Ang Lee On Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee was born on October 23, 1954 in Chauchou, a town located in Pingtun, an agricultural region of southern Taiwan. He was raised there by strict parents who put an emphasis on education, especially on cultivating an appreciation of Chinese culture. He attended Taiwan’s National University of Arts and served in the military before immigrating to America where he earned a .B.F.A. in Theater Direction at the University of Illinois, and a Master’s degree in Film Production at N.Y.U.

Mr. Lee made his directorial debut in 1992 with Pushing Hands, a dramedy highlighting the tension between tradition and modernity which arises when a retired Tai Chi master moves to the U.S. to live with his Westernized son. His next two offerings, The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), each landed an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Film category.

Since then, the versatile director has successfully tackled an impressive variety of genres, reflected in a resume which includes a literary classic (Sense And Sensibility), a dysfunctional family drama (The Ice Storm), a Western (Ride With The Devil), a gay-themed romance (Brokeback Mountain), an erotic, espionage thriller (Lust, Caution), a comic book adaptation (Hulk) and a martial arts fairytale (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the deserving Mr. Lee himself was overlooked by the Academy as the picture’s director. He finally won in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, a tale of forbidden love starring the late Heath Ledger. Here, he talks about his new film, Taking Woodstock, a comedy about the 1969 concert which helped define the Hippie Generation.

What interested you in telling this particular story?

Well, a couple things. It just came upon me. While I was at a TV station in San Francisco promoting my last movie, Lust, Caution, I met Elliot Tiber, the author of Taking Woodstock. We were both appearing on the same show. He was coming on after me. When my segment had finished, while they were preparing for him, he gave me a two-minute pitch. It struck me, because years ago I had made The Ice Storm, which was set in 1973, as a sort of hangover of 1969. So, my mind became really intrigued thinking about ’69 when he started telling me about Woodstock and some of the anecdotes. Also, I was looking to do a comedy, after shooting a series of six tragedies in a row. So, I read the book, and it all just happened very quickly.

Do you feel any pressure to make movies about China?

Chinese culture is my roots, where I grew up, Taiwan—so, yes, I do feel compelled and also a lot of pressure to make Chinese movies. But they take a lot out of me. It is very hard for me to make art out of them. It’s too close. It can be painful and very heavy. Plus, I want to upgrade the production to the level I think it is in America. That’s an added stress for everyone who works with me, and even on the audience, too. I’m kind of in the vanguard of the industry’s development and cultural events, and that adds a lot of weight on me. It’s just not freedom. After I make a Chinese film, it takes so much out of me that I usually feel like I need to do a few English films to recover. (laughs)

How is making a movie in America more free?

Nobody makes movies like America, where you have a very healthy support of the industry, abundant materials and worldwide distribution. So, by doing English-language films you can fulfill a lot of dreams. That’s the freedom part of making non-Chinese films.