Leave it to Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director known for such meticulous chamber dramas as “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Ice Storm,” to make a battle epic intimate.
Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, “Ride With the Devil,” adapted by James Schamus from the Daniel Woodrell novel “Woe to Live On,” mixes character-driven drama with the adrenaline rush of a Western. In this way, the film contemporizes a conflict known mostly through textbooks and the Union skew of photographer Mathew Brady.
Scheduled for a Nov. 24 release Stateside, “Ride” focuses on the margins of the war from the perspective of the pro-Southern “Bushwackers,” who engaged in guerrilla warfare against the anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” and the Union army along the Kansas-Missouri border.
As Missourians, the film’s protagonists are conflicted by circumstance; they are residents of a slave state that officially sided with the Union during the war’s outbreak in 1861. Adding to the story’s complexity are the characters of Jake Roedel (played by Tobey Maguire), whose German heritage makes him suspect to his fellow Bushwackers, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), an ex-slave who fights alongside the Bushwackers out of loyalty to his former owner. (Skeet Ulrich, Jim Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and pop chanteuse Jewel, in her acting debut, round out the young cast.)
Wright, best known for his title turn in the biopic “Basquiat,” took great pains in researching his role. “Because (Holt) was a freed man fighting for the Confederacy, it’s not something you want to jump into with just the imagination,” the Tony Award-winning actor says. “The (Civil War) still dredges up social issues and the politics of cruelty in this country, and I don’t think we’re as knowledgeable about a lot of it as we pretend to be.”
Lee, a veritable chameleon as a filmmaker, was immersed in Merchant-Ivory territory during “Ride’s” genesis.
“We were over in England making ‘Sense and Sensibility’ when one day Ang turned to me and said, ‘I’d like to make a movie where people have dirty fingernails,'” Schamus recalls.
“Ride’s” associate producer Anne Carey had read and savored Woodrell’s novel years earlier and brought it to Lee’s attention.
“I could see the movie in my head as I read the book,” the director says in the film’s production notes. “It’s dramatic: young people coming of age in the worst possible time in American history. I liked the theme of self-emancipation.”
Schamus was so loyal in adapting Woodrell’s book that he lifted large swatches of dialogue intact. The result is a screenplay that reflects the colorful language of such 19th-century writers as Mark Twain and Sir Walter Scott, but which is given a remarkably natural lilt by the cast.
“There’s this kind of feeling of going back to that same sense of language, which is both a kind of spoken vernacular poetry and also very literary sounding to our ears,” Schamus says.
Lee, who spends a lot of time in the rehearsal process, put the actors through a six-week boot camp during pre-production where they were given everything from riding lessons to a reading list.
When talking about Lee’s style as a director, the same words come up continually among actors and colleagues: hard-working, patient, subtle, meticulous, honest, humane.
“He’s fairly quiet; he’ll give you a lot of room, then when he feels he needs to he’ll give you direction,” explains Maguire, who also worked with Lee on “The Ice Storm.” “He tried to keep it all very subtle and realistic.” As with the scrupulously observed “Sense and Sensibility,” a singularly English 18th-century comedy of manners, and the 1970s suburban dislocation of “The Ice Storm,” Lee’s foreign-born perspective worked for, not against, “Ride’s” intrinsic Americana.
“As a foreigner, he really can scratch and piece things together using an outsider’s eye,” Schamus says. “It’s a real kind of anthropological regard on us.”
In fact, Lee has much in common with the character of Holt, who ultimately bears no allegiance to either the Union or the Confederacy.
“What adds to Ang’s insight is his being an outsider gazing in on the melee, and coming to it without any forged emotional attachment to either side,” Wright says. “He can afford to look at it and see the truth of it in a way that allows us to step into that world and draw our own conclusions.”