In shepherding “Brokeback Mountain” through its eight-year odyssey to the screen, Diana Ossana violated both of Max Bialystock’s cardinal rules of producing: Never use your own money — and never use your own money.
Encountering the Annie Proulx magazine story during a bout of insomnia in 1997, “it was like someone struck me with lightning.” She persuaded writing partner Larry McMurtry to read it, and asked him whether he thought it could be a movie.
“That moment,” she says, “was the first time in 20 years he’s ever immediately agreed with me on anything. Literally that very minute, we sat down and wrote asking Annie for the option to write a screenplay. And she trusted us.”
The team put up its own money to buy the initial option, another first. “Never in my entire Hollywood life did I ever send money out,” Ossana recalls McMurtry saying.
The script was immediately hot, legendarily hot. Directors came calling (Gus Van Sant showed up on their doorstep in Texas within a week of its being sent out), and actors “were passionate about it for a month or two,” but over the years big names kept dropping in and dropping out because no one would finally commit.
“Larry’s convinced that their people talked them out of it,” she says.
“People we never knew would come up to us out of nowhere, directors, big-name actors, and they’d say ‘I read your script, it’s wonderful!’ But when I’d say, ‘Well, do you want to make it?’ they’d stare at me blankly.
“I was frustrated and impatient, but we never lost faith in the potency of our screenplay. Larry kept reassuring me, ‘It’ll find its way.'”
And indeed, in 2003 Michael Costigan, a passionate early champion, suggested that it go to John Lyons at Focus Features, with which Ang Lee had been associated, and that was the turning point.