Taiwanese director Ang Lee scored Oscar nods in the early 90s for The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He also made uniquely American movies like The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride With The Devil (1999) before bagging the Best Foreign Picture gong in 2000 with wistful martial arts adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A fall from grace was to follow - namely, Hulk - but Lee shows no fear with his latest venture, gay romance epic Brokeback Mountain.
The script was knocking about Hollywood for a long time...
It was almost four years ago I read the short story and then the script. I think this is one of those great scripts that had never been done and was just floating around. James [Schamus, producer] mentioned it was something quite special and asked me to take a look and when I read the short story I got quite choked up. When one of the characters says, "All we got is Brokeback Mountain - everything is built on that," it strikes me as some kind of existentialism. Towards the end... I got tears in my eyes.
The material is pretty peculiar because it is realistic, American rural life, which we've hardly seen. We've seen a lot of westerns with gunslingers, morality tales and romance, but I had never seen anything like that. It was refreshing and mysterious - great material - but we went ahead to do the Hulk anyway.
Why did you choose Hulk over Brokeback?
I got a big heart back then - big ambition. After Crouching Tiger I wanted to do something really ambitious. I got what I wished for and provoked a lot of anger and I was exhausted... Actually I was very tired and felt like I wanted to retire. Then one day I asked James how this movie [Brokeback Mountain] turned out and he said so-and-so person was attached and it's not done yet and I knew I did not want to miss it a second time.
I just asked James to promise me, "If we go about this, don't make me angry," because I didn't know if my body could take any more at this time. Then my father passed away, but before he passed away he said, "Go ahead and do another movie," because he saw me getting depressed and not having anything to do. [Before] he never encouraged me to make movies. Even when I got an Oscar he thought I should be teaching or doing something for real. I never told him I was going to do a gay cowboy movie... This was really a healing process for me.
The love scenes are quite brutal. Is it true that Heath Ledger almost broke Jake Gyllenhaal's nose when they kissed?
Yeah [laughs]. I encouraged them to do a passionate kiss and I encouraged them [saying that] you could never kiss a woman that hard so give me the most heroic western kiss and they went about it and almost broke each other's noses. At the time we were easy enough [together] to crack jokes. Usually I don't rehearse those scenes - technically I will rehearse it, but how they [the actors] go about it, I just expect them to deliver.
How did you prepare them for what must have been these very difficult intimate scenes?
[This was] based on rehearsals and what we talked about and all the actors' preparations were pretty standard. We nailed each character by repeatedly saying a line, or doing a certain movement, or feeling each other and feeling the space between themselves and between nature and themselves until we get a taste of that character. We did all of that, but for shooting you need to be fresh and spontaneous so I don't talk too much [to them] except for technical notes. So they [the intimate scenes] are a lot easier to deal with than location and sheep!
Was there any effort to schedule the love scenes later in the shoot?
I wish we could have that freedom to shoot according to dramatic need... But no, this was a low-budget film so you shoot whenever you can shoot. More importantly, they have to accurately portray the age - how they carry themselves. Those details go a long way when you add it up to 20 years... That's where you feel it is epic even though it is [based on] a short story, it is an accumulation of slice-of-life. So that part was actually a lot harder for us to do accurately. We were very careful about making that work.
Were Heath and Jake the actors you originally envisioned for the film?
No, no. I saw other actors. I decided to go with younger actors and have them play older so we can use that young innocence as an ingredient and carry it on. I think they were good enough that I would rather go with good, younger actors - like in their early 20s - and I think these two are among the best in their age group and they very much wanted to do it... Jake plays the opposite of Heath and it creates a very good couple in terms of a romantic love story. The chemistry, I think, is great.
Is the western setting vital to the nature of this love story, or could you have set it somewhere else?
You could but it wouldn't be as poignant and poetic and elegiac in the way it was inherent in the literature provided by Annie Proulx. I just don't see any other way... I think that particular time she set it in really helped the privacy of their feelings and the uniqueness and therefore [it was] a pure way of telling a love story. It's almost like the oldest love story, but you have the newest texture - a newfound texture, so to speak - and so I treasured that.
Do you think there'll be a problem in the way people will perceive this film even before seeing it?
I don't know. I think calling it a gay cowboy movie is an easy pitch, but there seems to be a connotation that it's a joke - like Blazing Saddles or something [laughs]. I think it's a serious love story but I think there are people who might have a problem with it.
Brokeback Mountain is released in UK cinemas on Friday 6th January 2006.