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

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.

Variety’s 106-page marriage equality special issue includes Q&As, features, analysis, columns and more on Hollywood’s role in gay rights.

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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