James Schamus revisits Woodstock

Focus CEO talks about taking on 1969 event

On a typical day this past summer, James Schamus would wake up in his custom-made, eco-friendly house in upstate New York, take a quick dip in the pond and then drive down the road to resume working on his latest collaboration with Ang Lee, “Taking Woodstock.”

It seems a fitting routine for getting in the mood for a film about that high-water mark of the counterculture, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. The film, written by Schamus and based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir, tells the story of a Greenwich Village interior designer who, while helping his parents run their Catskills motel, played a pivotal role in bringing the 1969 event to life. When the concert’s organizers lost their permit in another town, Tiber offered his family’s motel as a base, while his neighbor, Max Yasgur, offered up his farm.

“It’s a great story,” says Schamus. The Focus Features CEO adds that the film does not attempt to be the definitive tale of Woodstock, which drew about 500,000 people to hear artists like Jimi Hendrix, Santana and the Who. That project, he says, would be “too vast” for him and Lee, “like trying to film ‘War and Peace’ — or rather, ‘Peace and Peace.'” Instead, they felt drawn to a smaller story as way to enter the Woodstock legend.

Shooting on “Taking Woodstock,” starring Demetri Martin as Tiber and Eugene Levy as Yasgur, is set to wrap in October, just as Schamus treks over to the real Woodstock to accept the Trailblazer Award at the ninth annual Woodstock Film Festival.

The production — with its casting call open to neo-hippies and college students and its request for old Volkswagens and other vintage cars — has stirred local memories. According to Schamus, there are really three Woodstocks today. “It’s a very good film festival,” he says. “It’s also a place with cool stuff and interesting pottery stores. And then there’s Woodstock the concept.”

That concept — the flower-power values that Woodstock still symbolizes — isn’t just a relic of the past, Schamus says. He sees a continuity of the ’60s spirit in the organic farms of today’s Hudson Valley and in the people who still live in the area.

For Schamus and Lee, “Taking Woodstock” brings a hiatus from heavier works like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution.”

“After six suicidally depressing movies in a row,” he says, “we both thought this would be a good idea.”

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