Diana Ossana and James Schamus
“I was sort of relentless,” Ossana admits of her eight-year odyssey to bring “Brokeback Mountain” to the screen. “It was both a blessing and a curse for the people around me.”
Having read the short story in the New Yorker in 1997, Ossana first brought it to writing partner Larry McMurtry’s attention.
Their script became known as one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, but getting young stars to commit to roles that seemed like career suicide didn’t happen until Ang Lee signed on to direct.
Ossana says that handing over the reins to Lee wasn’t hard. “It didn’t really feel like it went out of my hands. It felt more like we just got this superlative cast and crew to come onboard. Finally, I had all of the soldiers that were marching forward to get this thing made.”
Lee didn’t tinker much with the script. “He wanted to take one scene with Alma and move it into the middle of script,” she recalls. “And at the beginning, he was very concerned that the characters didn’t talk a lot. But then we talked about movies we loved like ‘The Deer Hunter,’ where so much happens in the characters’ faces, and we knew right away we were on the same wavelength.”
Ossana and McMurtry schooled Lee on the American West by taking him to locations in Wyoming. “It was a world he was not at all familiar with,” says Ossana. “We recommended he watch ‘Hud,’ ‘The Last Picture Show’ and the miniseries ‘The Streets of Laredo.’ ”
Having lived with the story and characters for so long, Ossana was the go-to person when the actors had questions about character motivation, she says. “On set, Ang doesn’t interact with anyone very much except the cinematographer and the first a.d. He’s a stern father on set, and he expects everyone to step up.”
When asked what her producing duties entailed, Ossana laughs, “Oh goodness, you name it. It was an incredibly demanding shoot, both physically and emotionally, since more than 80% of our story takes place outside.
“I offered moral support. I looked at wardrobe and locations. I talked to wranglers about horses and guns and fishing equipment. I talked to the dialect coach about accents and terminology in the script: Was it ‘fish and game’ vs. ‘game and fish?’ In one of the opening scenes, the prop folks had a Texas license plate instead of a Wyoming one on Jack’s truck, and it needed to be a Wyoming truck.”
Adds Schamus, Focus Features topper and the film’s other producer: “Weather was an issue, but we planned cover sets carefully … The hardest part of producing ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was remembering how hard we thought it was going to be.”
“I loved being on set. I love hard work and the family interaction. … This was a labor of passion from the beginning. I felt we were all family and all in this together,” Ossana says of her first time as a producer of a feature film, which actually had a smaller budget than some of Ossana’s and McMurty’s TV adaptations.
She recalls a day on set when filming the intense, emotional “shirt” scene. “Our first a.d., who is this tough, 70-year-old guy, came up to me. He said, ‘I’ve been in this business for over 45 years and I never got choked up until now.'”