October 21, 2022
It is a very existential idea to me. It’s about the illusion of love. They keep wanting to go back to something they really didn’t understand to begin with, when they are inside of it. They never get it. And when they get it, they’ve missed it. —Ang Lee
By Koraljka Suton
In October 1997, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx had her short story entitled Brokeback Mountain published in The New Yorker. The following year saw the author win both a third place Henry O. Award and the National Magazine Award for her deeply tragic and poignant tale of a love between two cowboys that blossoms in 1963 Wyoming and ends up spanning two decades. The idea crept up on her after she witnessed an elderly cowboy wearing a peculiar expression of longing and sadness on his face as he watched several young men playing pool in a bar in Sheridan. This made Proulx wonder whether he was gay and what it would be like to be an old homosexual cowboy living in a place where not complying to the standards of heteronormativity was nothing short of life-endangering. Her curiosity resulted in a writing process that lasted around six months, a period during which she penned more than sixty drafts of the story and renamed it several times (Drinkard Mountain, The Pleasures of Whiskey Mountain, Swill-Swallow Mountain etc.). In a 2005 Advocate interview, the writer spoke candidly about why the crafting of this particular short story took longer than finishing a novel: “Because I had to imagine my way into the minds of two uneducated, rough-spoken, uninformed young men, and that takes some doing if you happen to be an elderly female person. I spent a great deal of time thinking about each character and the balance of the story, working it out, trying to do it in a fair kind of way.” Knowing very well that the subject matter she decided to tackle was a controversial one at best, Proulx never thought that Brokeback Mountain would see the light of day, let alone be adapted into a hugely successful, culturally significant, groundbreaking motion picture eight years later.
A mere few days after the story was published in The New Yorker, and a year and a half before a somewhat expanded version was included in Proulx’ collection of short stories called Close Range: Wyoming Stories, author and screenwriter Diana Ossana read it and emerged from the experience profoundly moved. Having immersed herself in the story a second time the following day, she contacted her longtime collaborator and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, who she had been writing with since 1992. Wishing he had authored the story himself, McMurtry proclaimed it a masterpiece and Ossana wrote to Proulx, informing her of the pair’s shared desire to turn Brokeback Mountain into a screenplay. Proulx gave them the green light, despite not being able to imagine a cinematic version of her work, and the two writing partners optioned the story with their own money, something they had never done before. But even though the screenplay was finished before 1997 came to a close, making the film happen was no walk in the park. Director Gus Van Sant was the first to show interest and allegedly wanted Matt Damon and Joaquin Phoenix to star in the adaptation. But in 2018, Phoenix set the record straight, saying he would have done the film in a heartbeat had it been offered to him, adding how honored he felt “that people would think that I was worthy enough to be in it.” Other Hollywood A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Philippe, Brad Pitt and Josh Hartnett declined the lead roles, prompting Van Sant to move on to other projects. McMurtry was convinced agents were advising their actors against saying ‘yes’ to Brokeback by claiming that a straight actor taking on a gay role would be career suicide.
In 2001, CEO of Focus Features James Schamus bought the movie rights, but was well aware of the risk involved, telling the Huffington Post: “Honestly, it was a bit of a laughing stock. You know, the gay cowboy movie.” According to Ossana, people in the industry praised the script, but no one was ready to be in it for the long haul due to the film’s perceived controversial theme. In 2002, Ossana urged Schamus to show the screenplay to director Ang Lee who the producer had already collaborated with on several films. Lee was taken with both the short story and the script but he and Schamus decided to do The Hulk instead: “I was pretty wrecked by making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My friend Jim [Schamus] introduced me to this little story by Annie Proulx, and towards the end when they talk about all they’ve got is Brokeback Mountain, that was an existential question to me. What is this Brokeback Mountain? They say, “We don’t really have a relationship, it’s just Brokeback Mountain,” and I cried there. That really perplexed me. I grew up in Taiwan, so nothing is more remote to me than gay cowboys in Wyoming. At the time, I was in the flow of doing something pulpy and picked to do The Hulk, which wracked me even more. But the story just refused to leave me.”
His father’s death and the exhaustion brought on by both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk made Lee contemplate retirement. But he did not want a film centered around anger to be his swan song. Seeing as how he thought the story that “just refused to leave” him had, in the meantime, been turned into a feature film, the filmmaker asked Schamus what had become of it. Upon finding out that the movie had still not been made, Lee did not waste time hesitating. With River Road Entertainment and Focus Features financing Brokeback Mountain and Lee sitting in the director’s chair, the search for the perfect cast could continue. In 2003, Ossana’s daughter suggested the late Heath Ledger, so the screenwriters watched Marc Forster’s 2001 drama Monster’s Ball and knew they wanted the Australian actor for the part of Ennis Del Mar, the more silent and closed off of the two cowboys. But the studio was not convinced, claiming that the then 24-year-old actor lacked masculinity. Lucky for him, another actor who had been attached to the projected backed down and Ledger was sent the script. Deeming it the most beautiful screenplay he had ever read, he was all in, more than willing to portray a character of such subtlety and complexity.
Jake Gyllenhaal accepted the second lead role, that of Jack Twist, eager to work with Lee and his friend Ledger, who he bonded with after neither of them got cast opposite Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! Anne Hathaway auditioned for the part of Jack’s spouse Lureen while filming The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and since she was on lunch break, the actress was still wearing an over-the-top hairpiece and a gown, but that did not distract her from focusing on her objective—securing the part of Lureen and finally being seen as something other than a Disney princess. She also lied about knowing how to ride a horse: “My parents have given me a lot of gifts in my life, and one of them is: If you’re ever asked if you can do anything, say yes. You can learn anything in two weeks if you’re motivated enough.” The role of Ennis’ wife Alma went to Michelle Williams, who Ossana had spotted on the teen show Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), immediately recognizing the actress’ emotional depths. The four actors formed a close bond during the film’s production, which should come as no surprise given the fact that they spent months shooting in Alberta, Canada, living in trailers by a river. Ledger and Williams even fell in love and had a daughter, with Gyllenhaal becoming the child’s godfather.
In its very first scene that starts off with a breathtakingly beautiful scenery shot accompanied by Gustavo Santaolalla’s simple, yet deeply evocative opening composition, Lee effortlessly establishes the tone and tempo of the one film that nurtured him “back to filmmaking and as a person.” Slow-paced, deliberate and without a single superfluous scene, shot or line of dialogue, Brokeback Mountain wastes no time introducing us to Ennis and Jack, but then takes all the time in the world to flesh them out as humans, in ways both raw and refined. In the summer of 1963, the two nineteen-year-old ranch boys get the job of herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Lee does not spare us the details that go into the logistics of the gig, deliberately taking us through its mundanities and repetitiveness, so as to gradually and realistically construct the shared microcosm that Ennis and Jack agree to co-inhabit until summer’s end. But Brokeback, in all of its magnificence and might, does not care much for the plans of men. Every once in a while, the two co-workers are faced with challenges that mother nature places before them, such as wild animals, storms and blizzards. As it turns out, snow in the middle of August is not the only force of nature that takes them by surprise, leaving them dazed, confused and torn—after a night of intense whiskey drinking, the two end up sleeping in the same tent and having sex. The following morning, in a manner both terse and detached, they deny being queer and come to an understanding that the one-time thing they got going “ain’t nobody’s business” but theirs.
While Gyllenhaal’s Jack is extroverted and more prone to talking, Ledger’s Ennis is a man of few words, his lips sealed tight, his thoughts and feelings barely reaching the surface, fighting for their right to remain hidden and unexpressed. For he had learned that expression meant exposure, and exposure led to death. As a child, Ennis became severely traumatized when his father showed him the mutilated corpse of a gay man. It was in that moment that the boy’s entire system shut down and proceeded to keep him alive the only way it knew how—by receding, retracting, contracting and vanishing. By remaining unnoticed. By denying, disowning and repressing everything that would render him vulnerable and thus endanger his existence. Such as having feelings for another man. But when those feelings do inevitably develop and emerge, what enables Ennis to give into them is the safe embrace of Brokeback Mountain, arguably a character in its own right, an unjudgmental entity that allows for freedom of expression without repercussions. “Old Brokeback got us good, don’t it,” whispers Jack into Ennis’ ear four years later, during the pair’s first post-Brokeback rendezvous. After finishing their summer job, the two go their separate ways, get married and have children. The decision to see each other again becomes a choice point that results in them meeting up on Brokeback once or twice a year for the next two decades.
There is nothing melodramatic or boisterous about the way that Lee, Ledger and Gyllenhaal depict the tragic love story between two men born and raised in the American West, where the moving parts that make up the cowboy myth rely heavily on sexism, homophobia and toxic masculinity. Brokeback Mountain challenges that myth by presenting us with real people and the struggles they face when the Marlboro man archetype they have been indoctrinated into is met with an oppositional force. And that oppositional force is the unique life current that runs through their core, carrying with it the truth of who they truly are, what they truly want and how they truly feel as sensitive and inherently free human beings. This tug-of-war is both external and internal, raging inside the main characters (most notably Ennis) and disabling them from creating a life for themselves on their own terms—because doing so has the potential of ending fatally. And while Jack’s current manages to spill through the cracks and boldly lead the way to a more authentic life, Ennis remains stuck in a state of freeze—unable to move, unwilling to initiate, afraid to express. “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” he tells Jack, unknowingly describing the prevailing state of his nervous system, one that has learned to endure, as opposed to (embrace) change. Ultimately, the li(v)es they choose to live due to the very real trauma caused by (internalized) homophobia end up affecting not only them as individuals and the future of their relationship, but also their families. We are meant to feel for Jack and Ennis just as much as we are intended to sympathize with their wives. There are no winners in this constellation—only emotionally neglected people doing the best they can with the tools, resources and levels of (self-)awareness they’ve got. And that ain’t much.
The deep-seated loneliness they all feel permeates Lee’s beautifully shot film, his direction managing to be highly unobtrusive, yet touchingly poetic. Every shot is infused with a stillness that has the potential to either run deep like still waters or erupt like a volcano. He enjoys making us hear the sound of silence—sometimes rife with tranquility, at other times bursting with tension born out of all the words left unspoken. He wants to submerge us in the monotony of the characters’ day-to-day and then juxtapose it with their scarce meet-ups that end up being the highlights of their unfulfilled lives. The years that go by seamlessly blend into one another and by the end of the film, we feel as if we had aged alongside Ennis and Jack. Their stuckness becomes our stuckness, their pain our pain, their weariness our frustration. Brokeback Mountain is not a film that sizzles and pops, but one that smolders with the kind of slow-burning despair that gradually nests itself inside our being before chewing us up, spitting us out and leaving us exhausted, broken and gasping for air on the side of the proverbial (dirt) road.
Upon finally hitting theaters in 2005, the film meticulously reflected how far we had (not) come as a society in terms of accepting otherness in the form of queerness. On the one hand, critics recognized Brokeback Mountain’s artistic and cultural value, praising it to high heaven. Lee’s well-thought-out masterpiece went on to dominate the award season with a total of one hundred thirty-seven nominations and eighty-five wins, including eight Academy Award nods and three victories (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score). It made $178.1 million worldwide, on a $14 million budget. Proulx herself claimed that she “may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.” Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams and Hathaway all received huge acclaim, with everyone except Hathaway getting their first Oscar nomination. On the other hand, audiences were quite understandably divided. Because although much more graphic queer films had existed for decades, Brokeback Mountain broke new ground by finding its way into the mainstream like no other queer movie before it, thereby providing a majority of straight viewers with a reference point for LGBTIQ+ cinema.
But there were those who neither wanted nor were ready for queer representation to enter the mainstream to begin with. And so, Brokeback Mountain became like a beacon that beckoned the homophobia ingrained in the very fabric of our society to rear its ugly head. I remember being seventeen and watching the movie a total of eleven times while it was playing in theaters, desperately wanting to peel back another layer of the proverbial onion with each viewing. And not a single one went by without someone pompously walking out in protest or shouting homophobic slurs at either the screen or the moviegoers themselves. American right-wing commentators regularly slammed the film for promoting “the gay agenda.” Iconic scenes and lines became the butt of many jokes in various media outlets. And the Academy showcased its hypocrisy by giving the Best Picture Award to Paul Haggis’ relatively forgettable drama Crash, making it one of the biggest snubs in Oscar history.
Brokeback Mountain undoubtedly paved the way for its cinematic successors. It was made at a point in time when gay actors remained closeted out of fear of losing their livelihood, while straight actors were hesitant to play gay roles for the exact same reason. Today, the latter is yet again the case, but the reasoning behind it is different due to the pendulum having swung in the opposite direction. Therefore, Lee’s film cannot be separated from the zeitgeist that birthed it, just like the story itself can be neither analyzed nor understood outside the spatial and temporal context of 1960s Wyoming. But if we do decide to strip away all the layers of context, what we are inevitably left with is a uniquely specific tale that manages to transcend its specificity, thus revealing itself to be incredibly universal. When the end credits rolled on my very first viewing in February 2006, I wiped away my tears and made my way towards the exit. At that moment, I heard a man behind me telling his friend in both disbelief and amazement: “But… I mean… they actually loved each other!,” as if it were the first time in his life he dared to entertain one such possibility. It was then and there that I knew. Not only why Brokeback Mountain had to be made, but also just how game-changing and consciousness-expanding it would become. Love and loss—you cannot get more universal than that.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“What impressed me about Brokeback Mountain was the quality of the storytelling. Annie wasted not a single word in that story. I felt I knew and understood those characters early in the telling. It was the power of the emotions evoked by the story about two ordinary ranch hands falling in love that moved me and the way their story shifted and changed. Unpredictable, like life.” —screenwriter Diana Ossana
A monumentally important screenplay and a screenwriter must-read: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana’s screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. [PDF] (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon at other online retailers. Our absolutely highest recommendation.
RODRIGO PRIETO, ASC, AMC
Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has made a name for himself in the filmmaking world by working with world-class directors such as Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Alejandro González Iñárritu. He received three Academy Award nominations for his work on Brokeback Mountain, Silence and The Irishman. Some of the highlights of his brilliant career include such films as 25th Hour, Babel, Frida, Argo and many others.
Beautiful handling of light and shadows in the emotionally crushing sequence of a character’s inner struggle. Stunning images.
YouTube channel Cinematographers on cinematography featured a great hour-long conversation with Rodrigo Prieto. An illuminating talk in which the artist discusses his craft, obstacles and challenges he had to face in complex productions and his unconventional use of camera movement and lighting. Worth your time.
Rodrigo Prieto talks about his experience of working with Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese. What’s especially interesting is how he explains why Brokeback Mountain was a perfect choice for him right after doing much more complicated big-scale spectacle of Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANG LEE
Back in 2005, Ang Lee gave an interview to AboutFilm about his work on Brokeback Mountain and why he decided to shoot it. This great talk was conducted by Carlo Cavagna.
Did you feel any trepidation in taking a movie that was controversial—or let’s say less safe—after making The Hulk?
Production-wise it was safe. I was exhausted. Not only from The Hulk, even more exhausting was Crouching Tiger. I had five years of exhaustion. So, Brokeback Mountain was very relaxed for me in terms of production. The challenge was there though. I read the short story and the script before I did The Hulk, and I decided to do The Hulk because I didn’t think anyone would make or see this movie. It’s not really cheap, as is required because of the subject matter. But, it kept haunting me. After I had done the The Hulk I wasn’t going to do a movie for a very long time. I even thought about retirement some nights. Some sleepless nights. [Laughs.]
Then I met my father. He says, “What’s going on? You look kind of weird. Depressed.” He had never encouraged me to make a movie, even after I got an Oscar. He always used to say, “It’s about time you do something real.” [Laughs.] But he said, “You’ll be very depressed. You’re not even fifty. What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to teach?” I said “No.” He always wanted me to teach, like a safety net.
I felt very weird, because I sort of blew him up in the The Hulk as a jellyfish, and those images kept haunting me. That movie provoked a lot of anger, so I was feeling very unhealthy. Then he said, “You have to go make a movie”—for the first time in my life. And two weeks later he passed away. He was healthy and everything. So, regardless of my condition—physical or mental condition—I took it on. So, I was in a strange mood. In some ways, it was a movie I didn’t dare to make for both economic and subject matter reasons. At that time it was very natural to do it, from my father’s advice. And it happened to be a gay movie. I didn’t tell him what I was going to make. [Laughs.]
All of your films have been in different genres. This is the first time you are revisiting one, with the Western elements. What is it like for you to revisit a genre?
Actually, other than The Ice Storm, my three other American movies were Westerns. To me, The Hulk was kind of a Western. He is like a Western wonder-hero, out in the desert. To me he is more of a Western hero than anything. I think the American West really attracts me, because it’s romantic. The desert, the empty space—it’s a great stage for drama. Also, it attracted me because of the unfamiliarity. I had done only a pre-Western and somewhat of a desert-y green monster Western. [Laughs.] The Hulk to me definitely belongs to the West. I don’t see him jumping around in Boston or something. There’s something very romantic about the West. Same thing with China—something romantic is always set in the West, the Gobi Desert.
I think the unfamiliarity was very attractive to me. I wanted to shoot a straight, mainstream, somehow offbeat movie with a realistic West, which is quite unfamiliar to the world’s population, even to a lot of Americans I know from the cities, from Hollywood movies, television. That unfamiliar world is centered, almost anchoring America. That conservative side, that mystery—it’s becoming more and more aware to us every day. That’s really haunting with this particular material. It’s both haunting, evoking, and it distilled the idea a romantic story to me. A very pure form—that makes it very attractive to me.
You traveled with [screenwriter] Larry McMurtry to Western locations while scouting the movie. What surprised you about Western people or locations that you didn’t know before?
The location, we have seen it. We have traveled through it or seen it in a movie. I think it was more the people. Of course, they are always nice people. They are just like everybody here, except they are nicer, and I felt guilty that I was going to do a tough movie about them. [Laughs.] Something struck me, with my fresh eyes. Sorry to say—the eccentricity. You go to a bar and just see the things that they hang up. I can’t believe the things they hang up inside and outside of bars. So imaginary. I don’t know how else to put it. Of course that will annoy a lot of Westerners, because they’ll say, “We have a lot of normal people.” There are two sides. One is like that. It’s like they don’t want you to go into their territory. I saw a sign in Wyoming—a “No Trespassing” sign. And it says, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” [Laughs.] Some characters are like that. If they hear you’re coming with the Wyoming film commissioners, they want nothing to do with the state.
But they are also very nice people, because they are lonely and when you go to the countryside and want friendliness, you can’t shut them down. They keep talking and talking and talking, and they have this Wyoming lazy town kind of thing. You have to pay a lot of attention. They have this easy tone. Very slow, very easy. Relax, and we’ll talk about something really tragic. One tragic story after another—the most miserable things. It’s just on and on, slowly. And you have to pay attention. They take long pauses. So, I learned a lot like that. Of course, if you watch Larry McMurtry you learn. He’s the epitome.
Can you talk about the cinematography? It was very beautiful.
I got a Mexican DP, Rodrigo Prieto, who worked with Alejandro Iñárritu on 21 Grams, Amores Perros. Because 21 Grams was Focus [Features], that’s how they hooked us up. I wanted somebody cheap, up-and-coming, who shoots fast, and a real talent. And of course, what he did here was the total opposite of what he is famous for—the hand held, gritty kind of filmmaking. I wanted something more transcendent, more serene. Limpid. But, sometimes eccentric. I got ideas from location scouting and still photography. I think a talent is talent. He is very smart, lighting very quickly and efficiently without much direction, so we would save everything for the actors.
In terms of landscape, I thought it should play a character in the movie, because it is called Brokeback Mountain. It is a very existential idea to me. It’s about the illusion of love. They keep wanting to go back to something they really didn’t understand to begin with, when they are inside of it. They never get it. And when they get it, they’ve missed it. I think that is the theme for me that got me hooked. Brokeback Mountain has to be a character itself. So, how do we treat it so it looks manageable—so it’s not a grand Western where people disappear in it, but you use it as a dramatic element? So, it looks loveable. It’s suggestive, it’s romantic. Somehow you have to shoot it that way.
You’ve talked about finding an eccentric world, a world that is completely new to you in the West. But at the same time you have to draw out the universal human elements of the story, and you have to depict the conformism of this unfamiliar world. How does an outsider go about doing that?
A lot of that is in the script. Conformism—the social pressures so to speak—are not really visible other than the Randy Quaid character giving them a stern look. Other than that, you really don’t see society. So, it’s really about what society did to them. The actors have to carry that—the repression, the mental block they are putting on themselves, particularly Ennis. And also another vehicle we have to use in that non-verbal culture, in that particular time, is the privacy that you sense. There is no vocabulary for them to understand how they feel. We are including the wives. When Michelle Williams’ character Alma sees them kissing, her world is crushed, but she wouldn’t know what caused that. There is no understanding. Everything they feel is private. So, again, the silence, the performance, the way they carry the scene, I think that plays a bigger part than society, because we don’t really see that. We see Texas, when they are ballroom dancing. Then you see the father-in-law, kind of an asshole, who says, “Boy should play football.” That’s minimal. That doesn’t present a threat. Oh, and the bar when Jake gives a wrong stare and he has to run, because it’s the wrong thing to do. But, quite minimal.
It’s something in the air. I think that’s important in Western cowboy poetry, literature, and therefore in the movie is that things are in the air. They got space and time. They’ve got a lot of wind. Drives you crazy, constant wind. It’s on the screen the whole time. The place where we shot has the biggest wind in all Canada, therefore the highest suicide rate in the whole nation. It just drives you crazy.
High suicide rate? Why is that?
Constant wind. When you are out there you go crazy. It drives you nuts. Just stand there for a year in the wind, and you’d go shoot yourself. I don’t know, it does drive you crazy when you’re doing that the whole day. So, I learned that and Larry also reminded me, so we shoot wind and put in the sound of wind, twenty, thirty types of wind mixed in. All kinds of wind. In Annie’s writing there is a sentence like, “In the trailer you could hear the wind like a truck load of dirt dumped on.” They always talk about wind. Very important to how you carry on the mood. It’s such a non-verbal culture I think those elements are very important. They have to be romantic.
Can you talk about working with Heath and Jake? Do they have different approaches to the work?
Yeah, they are pretty opposite. I think Heath is very methodic. I don’t usually ask them. They don’t have to tell me, they just understand what I tell them. When I see something I like, that’s all that counts. What they use, how they get there—I never bother them. I guess Heath has a very meticulous way of approaching the character, because from take to take there is not a lot of difference. It’s not like he pre-programmed it. He would respond, but he set himself in a certain zone that seemed to me pre-determined, and he kept refining it. Jake on the other hand was more free style. Every take he would have a wide variety, but with an understanding of what the scene was about, what the character develops. He’ll respond differently. In a way, I think it’s good, because Heath is really the anchor for that Western mood. So, it’s good he’s reliable and always that way. Very subtle changes. Jake, I sometimes had to remind him that innocence is on his side. As a young actor they are scary good, but they can forget that innocence is on their side. If they are too skillful, they are too good, they take away some of the innocence. So, basically just remind them.
Did you audition them together?
How did you know they would have the chemistry?
The chemistry I pretty much played in my head. I just imagined they were a good couple. I cast Heath very much as the short story required. I did something quite different with Jake. In the novel, he is even stronger, bulkier, shorter, very rough. Jake, of course, is more like a city boy. I think he is a good romantic lead, and I think he is a good counterpart to Heath. I cast Jake first and then Heath. I was hoping I would meet somebody like Heath. As soon as I met Heath I imagined they would be a good match for a romantic love story. The first time I met them together we were in LA in a restaurant. So, that was the first time all three of us were together.
Can you talk about shooting the love scenes?
The lovemaking scene—I am a shy person. The way I go about a lovemaking scene is that we will talk about it during the rehearsing time. At what point in the drama does it fit in, in their character development? The psychological aspects—chemistry, tension, confusion, what have you. But, we don’t rehearse or exercise that. Just roll the camera and expect them to deliver. I will tell them, “If you don’t believe it, then nobody will.” So, you have to see it. And it’s their job to deliver.
Considering these are both heartthrob actors, do you think these are brave performances by them, to play these characters?
I never think about it as being brave. Once you are in a zone, once you believe you are falling in love with something, whatever scares you disappears. All you are worrying about is how to make it work. And after you make it, you have to talk your way out of it. You see what happened, and you’re concerned again. But, when we’re doing it we are happy. So it never strikes me whether they are being brave or not. They are good actors; that is what they should do. I believe that much. It never occurred to me that female fans, girls—what would happen to their careers. They knew what they were getting into.
But, I remember at one point, in the first lovemaking scene in the tent, I remember thinking, “They were being brave.” Particularly Jake. You see it in the dark—that’s pretty dim. But I saw it very clear right in front of my eyes, in detail. It was very close, actually, with a hand-held camera. The whole scene was in one shot. So many times you see a beautiful lovemaking scene with a lot of exposure, or an awkward love-making scene, but I think it’s very rare you see that it’s private. That’s what we were shooting for with this story. I thought I saw a private moment there. I think as actors they are pretty brave.
I can’t remember any film that trusted its source material as much as this one.
Not only did I want to be loyal to Annie Proulx’s writing, but I needed to do additional scenes to confirm her writing, because we don’t have the internal depictions which she did most brilliantly. We don’t have that benefit. We are photography. So, that tent scene for example—I needed to add another tent scene, to confirm that they commit to the love, so it’s reasonable for the next twenty years they want to keep going back. I don’t even know if she liked it. I always had this theory that she would hate it. I think in movies, in cinema language, you have to see them committed. In a book, it’s in the writing and you don’t have to see it. She’s very good in terms of being hands-off. Once you make the movie, it’s your work. I told her, “Your prose is very hard to translate into cinema.” She just smiled and said, “That’s your problem.”
How did you cast Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway? Did you ever think you were taking a big chance?
I am fortunate or unfortunate I didn’t see much of their previous work. Michelle, I didn’t see her work except The Station Agent. That was the main impression I had of her. Anne Hathaway, I had never seen anything that she did. I didn’t know who she was actually. They were purposely not letting me know. They said, “When this girl comes, she’s very young. She will apologize for her hair and make up”—because she was on the set of another movie. And she walked in and she said, “This is my lunch time. We’re doing a parade scene. A wedding parade scene.” She apologized again and again, and I said, “You play a character from Northern Texas so that’s just fine.” [Laughs] So, anyway, she did the best reading. And Michelle just looked right for the part to me. There is something really genuine about her, both in her performance and in person. I just can see right away that she play Alma. But, she’s actually the first one I met. And then there were twenty more to come.
Did you ever notice whether Michelle and Heath [who are currently dating] were getting on a little more than normal?
No, no. Well, it started happening shortly after rehearsal. I know Heath had just broken up with Naomi [Watts]. Of course, I kept pushing him towards Jake. [Laughs] Maybe I pushed to hard.
I have to tell a story about how serious an actress Michelle is. The first kissing scene by the staircase, that’s the first kissing scene that we did. It was the first week of shooting with Jake. The guys were exhausted from the different angles we shot. Then we turn around to shoot Michelle’s reaction. So, we talk about how she was crushed; she was blank; she doesn’t know what hits her. It takes her the rest of the movie to see how pissed she is—everything. And so, the guys were down there sort of leaning on each other for her to look at. And she wanted them to start kissing and mess around even though she could hardly see them. [Laughs] They were just there to help her. So, the guys start necking and she was not happy about it. “Come on guys, a real kiss.” So then they started kissing, and she was like, “Come on guys I need it!” [Laughs] That was [Heath’s] girlfriend! I was very impressed. And when I see her face on the monitor, just that one moment, for just that one second it’s really worth it.
Author Annie Proulx, whose short story served as the foundation of this film, opens up about the moment of inspiration that pushed her to write Brokeback Mountain, and gives her positive opinion on Ang Lee’s adaptation.
Far Out Magazine published an excellent take on the everlasting legacy of Ang Lee’s beautiful classic.
“Beautiful and epic, profound and intimate, the atmospheric melancholy is heightened by the character’s repressed desires, tragic denial and the incessant longing to be with one another. Flawless and sad, the cast delivers incredible performances that leave an indelible mark on the viewers; Ennis and Jack play their respective parts with commitment, vulnerability and compassion in this tear-jerker of forbidden love which makes it one of Ang Lee’s finest curations, a moving and compelling poetic saga of desire and denial that changed the course of cinema, paving the way for LGBTQ+ films to establish their legacy with pride.”—Far Out Magazine
Ang Lee gave an interesting interview to ClaudesPlace.com, a website featuring film reviews and interviews with a focus on independent films from a gay perspective.
At the 2006 Oscars, Brokeback Mountain was nominated in the Best Picture category, but it was Crash that actually went home with the award, much to the surprise and chagrin of many filmlovers who felt Ang Lee’s film was unfairly snubbed. In this article from 2018, Film Inquiry highlights the brilliance of Brokeback Mountain and explains why it’s still superior to Crash.
“Instead of the characters explaining their feelings of anguish and despair to the audience, it’s what the characters don’t say that reveals everything you need to know about them. Something I’ve only noticed on repeated viewings is that Jack and Ennis never say the words ‘I love you’ to each other, probably because it’s something that they don’t even want to admit to themselves. Their actions speak louder than their words, whether it’s gentle Jack attempting to tend to Ennis’ wound, or the two men having a fist fight to try to push out their romantic desires for each other, or even Ennis vomiting because of how disgusted he is with himself for acting on his physical attraction to Jack.
They are two intricate, detailed and subtle characters, and with the help of two powerhouse performances from Ledger and Gyllenhaal, the film is left with layers of complexity that viewers can only really dig into on multiple viewings. Compare this with something like Crash, a film so obvious and in your face with its message that it leaves the viewer with nothing interesting to uncover and explore. Not to mention that Crash contains a few problematic elements that only age more poorly with every passing moment.”—Film Inquiry
Great featurette on the making of Brokeback Mountain with plenty of brief interviews with the participants.
The moment Ang Lee won the Academy Award for Best Director at the 2006 Oscars.
ROGER EBERT’S HIGH PRAISE
“Brokeback Mountain could tell its story and not necessarily be a great movie. It could be a melodrama. It could be a ‘gay cowboy movie.’ But the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone.”—Roger Ebert
For those of you who want to dig even deeper into the process of making Brokeback Mountain, you might enjoy this making-of documentary that sheds light on some behind-the-scenes developments.
In its excellent The Hollywood Masters series, LMU School of Film and TV turns to Jake Gyllenhaal to share his thoughts on Brokeback Mountain. It’s brilliant to hear the personal perspective of the eloquent star.
Here are several photos and movie stills taken during the production of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Photographed by Kimberley French @ Focus Features, River Road Entertainment, Alberta Film Entertainment, Good Machine. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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