Ang Lee finds comedy at Woodstockby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Oscar-winning director Ang Lee reinvents himself once more with a comedy opening this week called "Taking Woodstock." The film examines the pivotal 1960s concert through the eyes of the people in the small town which hosted the event.
Ang Lee says after making "Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain," and "Lust Caution," he needed a change.
"I did six tragedies in a row. I was just longing to do something comic," he said.
It was by chance that he met Elliot Tiber. He's a writer now, but back in the summer of 1969 Tiber was helping his parents run their motel in the Catskills. Somehow Tiber got the job of issuing events permits in their small town.
When he heard the Woodstock organizers had lost their original site, it was Tiber who called and invited them to come take a look at sites around his town.
In 2007, Tiber published a memoir about what happened, called "Taking Woodstock." Lee says he knew he had his non-tragedy, and also a way to tell a story about an iconic moment.
"Woodstock has become something so abstract, so grand, how do you capture it? That's like impossible," Lee said. "And I felt the book was a gift to me."
Thus, "Taking Woodstock" became a story about what happens to the community of Bethel, N.Y., when a group of hippies arrives in a helicopter and talks to a farmer about putting on what he thinks will be a small arts festival.
It's clear none of the locals have any real idea about will would happen when a huge concert lands in their town.
The film focuses on Elliot and his conservative parents. You don't hear much music in the movie, because he never makes it to the concert.
Lee cast comedian Demetri Martin in the role of Elliot. Martin had no acting experience. Lee worked with him for months before the shooting, but says Martin was worth the effort.
"And I do think I found the movie in him," Lee said.
In "Taking Woodstock," Martin's character Elliot has not dared tell his folks he is gay. Yet the forces he sets in motion make him confront his own and his family's realities, even as thousands of freaks and hippies turn up on their doorstep.
It makes for good dramatic comedy, but what attracted Lee to the story was what was at its heart.
"It's a movie about happiness and innocence, which means a lot to me now after all those tragedies, basically 13 years," he said.
Lee also says he sees a reflection of Woodstock in the idealism of young people today, and he thinks the film will resonate with them.
Actor Jonathan Groff hopes for even more. Groff plays Woodstock organizer Michael Lange, one of the characters who swoops into the community in the helicopter.
"Michael Lange was 24 years old when he created Woodstock," said Groff. "And I hope ultimately my generation gets inspired by the vision and the determination and the optimism that people like Michael Lange had in the late '60s. It's an incredible quality to plug into."
Groff has extensive experience on Broadway, having starred in "Spring Awakening" and the recent revival of "Hair," but this was his first film.
He says as Lee led him through the process, he began noticing the similarities between the director and his character -- Michael Lange. He says both are quietly charismatic, they never raise their voices, and their self-confidence convinces everyone around them things will work out.
When asked how he defines success in a movie, Ang Lee replies that it's the point when he knows he has done everything he can as a director, and he feels physically spent. As for the films themselves, he says it takes years to really judge whether they were successful.
"I think 'Sense and Sensibility' was successful. I think movies like 'The Ice Storm' -- it was a flop when it came out, but I think it's a success over the years."
And so while Ang Lee is happy with "Taking Woodstock" for now, he'll wait for a while before making a final judgement.
- Morning Edition, 08/28/2009, 8:25 a.m.