‘Brokeback Mountain’s’ 10th Anniversary: Ang Lee and James Schamus Look Back

'Brokeback Mountain': Ang Lee & James
Photofest

This year marks the 10th anniversary of “Brokeback Mountain,” which made history as the first gay romance to cross over into the mainstream, eventually grossing $178 million worldwide. Nearly a decade later, it’s still the most successful same-sex love story that Hollywood has ever produced. The film’s director Ang Lee and producer James Schamus spoke to Variety in separate conversations about their memories of the movie, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as closeted cowboys.

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Schamus: “It started when I was at Good Machine, which was a scrappy low-budget outfit. We read the short story (by Annie Proulx), and of course it’s a quick read — an instant and brutal one. We found out it wasn’t under option. We tried and tried again for six years to get financing, and there was no luck. You’re such a big target for ‘Are you kidding?’ And then came the day that Good Machine got morphed into Focus Features. I remember early on, sitting behind my desk as a studio head and realizing, ‘Oh, I could pitch myself on this.’ ”

Lee: “I cried at the end of reading the short story, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so moved. The language was unfamiliar to me. Actually, nothing was familiar to me. But the idea of a mysterious romance up on Brokeback Mountain — one that once you leave, you are always pursuing and can never get back — always haunted me. There was a moment in the story where Jake says, ‘All we got is Brokeback Mountain.’ That really hit me and touched my heart. I felt compelled to make the movie because of that mystery.”

Schamus: “I remember when I met Heath. He came to my apartment, in Columbia University housing. He arrived at my front door, and we’d been joking around about the tent scene where he spits in his hand. I pretended to spit in my hand before I shook his hand, and said, ‘Come on in, man. We’re doing this.’ I was such a fan already.”

Lee: “Jake met me, and I thought he was great for the part for a romantic love story. Heath came in and wanted to do it right away. I think he told me that he learned from one of his uncles, who is also a very macho, homophobic gay, much like Ennis, and also a rancher. I interviewed about 20 or 30 actresses for each of the female roles. Michelle Williams was the second one to read, and as soon as she walked in, I knew it was her. With Anne Hathaway, I didn’t really know her work. On the Universal lot for auditions, the casting director told me the next actress coming in to read was going to apologize for her clothes and makeup, but to just let her do that and go into the reading. Then Anne came in, wearing heavy makeup and dressed as a princess, because she was shooting a parade scene for ‘The Princess Diaries 2’ on the Universal lot. She used her lunch hour to audition for the part.”

Schamus: “The budget was well below $15 million. After we locked in, the movie was stress-free. It was a very happy set outside Calgary.”

Lee: “I was pretty shy shooting sex scenes, so I designed a very complicated one-shot deal, with 13 points of focus. I made it technical so that no one would think about anything else except hitting their marks. Once we got past the first take, nobody was shy anymore. We tried to make it as real and compelling as possible, and they were very professional. Getting into the first take was hard, and it was the 13th take that I ended up using, which was the last take.”

Schamus: “We watched it with friends to know it had the impact that we wanted. I didn’t know how far it would carry us commercially. I knew we had a film that worked emotionally.”

Lee: “I also thought it would be an arthouse film with a very small audience. I was nervous about the subject matter hitting the shopping mall, and I was surprised at its success. I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s a poignant love story.”

Schamus: “You could sense the lack of excitement in Hollywood after the 847th trophy was picked up, and I could tell that a lot of folks felt there was a safe political narrative (with ‘Crash’). The day the Oscar ballots closed, I gathered everyone at the company in the Focus conference room, and gave a speech. I said, ‘Look we lost.’ I wanted everybody to be happy for the other guys. I was very proud of the Focus team and Ang that night. There was so much emotion and symbolism involved in that campaign.”

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  1. Quentin Smith says:

    It’s taken 9 years to steal myself to watch the film again, and I’m even more mesmerized than before. Surely all of you involved in the film, from Annie Proulx onward, are proud of the high art that you have created. Searching for my sexuality as a high schooler during WWII in 4 summers spent in the Colorado Rockies, my wild fantacies then were realized in Brokeback Mountain. I wish I could thank every one of you personally for bringing back to me long-ago yearnings and joys, and even the pains.

  2. 10percenter says:

    Thanks to the agency where I was working, I was at the Venice Film Festival and staying at the hotel where the BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN company was having an after its world premier. I went up to Heath Ledger and told him I was an agent at the company that represented him, that I was so proud that we represented him, and that as I gay man, I was so moved by his performance. I thanked him for that, and I could tell from his reaction that he was utterly surprised and so taken back, both professionally and personally, that the film and his work could have such an enormous affect on someone.

  3. Mel McCarthy says:

    I remember Brokeback from ten years back, read all the interviews and followed its progress. The story was optioned by the screenwriters, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. They optioned it in 1997 with their own money when it first appeared in the New Yorker, wrote the script, and were relentless about sticking with it and getting it made, particularly Ossana. They held the option and brought it to Ang Lee and Focus. She was a producer, was involved in every aspect of the film, and was on set for the entire shoot. It would be interesting to hear from them as well about Brokeback’s evolution, I’d bet they have some interesting stories to tell.

  4. blue439 says:

    Does anyone care about Crash any more?

    • Bill B. says:

      Not many cared then. It was not a critical success for the most part. Its win (one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history), was due to two things: Homophobia and the acting branch of the Academy which is the largest voting branch they have. Brokeback had 5 roles and Crash had about a quarter of Hollywood who all voted for their friends in Crash. As we all know, there are scads of awards given out throughout the country and this was never mentioned and is the only Oscar winning picture that was not even nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

  5. JustSayin' says:

    Before Ang was locked in, that script came across my desk while I was working for another director. Still today, it remains one of the best scripts that I have ever read. Even though he really enjoyed it too, my boss at the time wasn’t sure ‘who’s gonna come see a movie about gay cowboys?’ I said it would transcend the subject matter and I think it really did. Everyone involved – writers (script and story), producer, director, cast, locations, costumes, dialect coach, cinematographer, editors, actors, and everyone else who worked in it – came together and made a beautiful, relatable, human story. It holds up no matter your sexual preferences. Everyone can relate to frustration and loss – even if they aren’t gay cowboys.

  6. DJ says:

    I said it 10 years ago and I will say it 10 years later, Brokeback Mountain deserved to win the Best Picture Award at the Oscars. It was one of the best movies I have ever had the pleasure to take in… and it has left its mark…

    • Karen W. says:

      Could NOT agree more. One of (if not the) biggest Oscar miss EVER.

      Thinking of those Oscars makes me so sad. I was so torn about who should win Best Actor: Heath or PSH and when PSH won I said: well undoubtedly Heath will get nominated another time and win and my God PSH will surely win again.

      SO SAD.

      • nara tims says:

        Hollywood is a broke buck society for filth. The public votes in dollars to see worth while movies not x-rated vial crap the unmoral producers think the public should see.
        Hollywood is dying a slow death, dying in it’s own puke.

        SO SAD.

      • Unser says:

        It lost in the Oscars because it never should have been nominated. Grossly overrated film that only appealed to a tiny fragment of the viewing audience. Even the Hollywood hype machine couldn’t get it a win, and it did not deserve to win over much better films.

  7. Coach says:

    I would not invest what I pay for a nice steak salad at The Grill on any gay or lesbian-themed film. The public rejects them and does not pay for such fare. I’m in business to make money, not lose it for some “cause.”

  8. P.Lazaro says:

    Great film, with the best kiss scene ever! A true classic

    • nara tims says:

      Do you really want everyones little children to see to that romance on a netflix TV movie?
      Shame on you.

      • P.Lazaro says:

        This and any other film with a R rating should not be seen by children, then again that’s completely under the parents discretion… THis film doesn’t have people eating each other, it doesn’t have genocide and it doesn’t grand theft auto robbery, or drugs and it doesn’t portray women less than men. I guess children have seen worse…

  9. KD. says:

    Adjusted for inflation, Brokeback Mountain outgrossed The Imitation Game by 12 million in the US. Worldwide they’re about neck to neck.

  10. YI says:

    How mature. Go get some though.

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