x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Something happening: Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock

In his latest film, Taking Woodstock, the acclaimed director Ang Lee offers a historically authentic yet wryly humorous portrait of the flower-child generation.

The legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York in 1969.
The legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York in 1969.

According to the director Ang Lee, Woodstock was so clearly a pivotal event in the history of 20th-century pop that it even made the news in Taiwan. Lee's family had made their home in the nation's Pingtung region after the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Their son was born in 1954 - just in time to be old enough to remember the festival's global impact. "I was 14 at the time of Woodstock," he recalls. "I saw the concert briefly on the television news in black and white, a guy with big hair jamming on guitar. It was something happening in America, something very cool, then it was over."

Lee remembers that he felt deeply conflicted about the news footage. "The whole scene in America was kind of weird," he says. "In one way, that older America - the world police - was protecting us. I grew up on the front line of the Cold War. The most anti-communist, insecure place, probably on Earth. The security of America was very important. America were the good guys, so when we saw the anti-war riots and the hippies, it was actually disturbing. Well, I'd been trained - no, programmed - to be disturbed by that. But at the same time, it was in America so it was cool."

Forty years later, Lee found himself at Cannes to premiere his 11th feature film, Taking Woodstock, a comedy based on the novel by Elliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life. Tiber is one of the men who can claim to have helped put on the most famous music event of all time and Lee says that what makes the event so mythical is that it was about something more than just the music.

"I think it was the culmination of the late Sixties, starting from 1964," he says. "Actually the most beautiful year was 1967, I believe, a 'human be-in', a gathering of 10,000 people just being happy and holding hands together to celebrate humanity and nature, in San Francisco. And the summer of love, that is the famous one, that is very commercial as I see it, that chased hippies out of Haight-Ashbury.

"Then 1968 is turning ugly, with the assassination of King and Kennedy and 1969, when it culminates, this Woodstock thing, everybody wants to go? it's huge, humungous. Right after that, history turns a page. It's ugly." Then Lee refers to the notorious Altamont Free Concert in December 1969, which was marred by violence that culminated in the killing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by a member of the California Hell's Angels, who had been hired to provide security for the event.

"Usually people mark the next event as Altamont, mentioned at the end of the movie, as the end of the Sixties," Lee continues. "So I think Woodstock is actually quite messy, but it's also a miracle that nothing bad happened. It's the last glow of the 1960s. That's how I understand what it is. That is why it was so influential." So influential, in fact, that it is frequently said that if everyone who claims to have been at Woodstock really had been there, the event would have hosted half of America. As Lee says: "Most people couldn't even see the stage, more people didn't even get there, they got stuck in traffic. But they wanted to go to Woodstock and over the years it grows into legend - three days of peace and music and love, which is political, too. It is our last imagination of innocence."

Most people actually experience what happened at the festival through one of the most influential music documentaries of all time, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock. The documentary was a big influence on Lee as he tackled his fictional film. So much that he says his decision to use the split-screen technique in Taking Woodstock was because it was used in the documentary. "I have to admire how they did it then, before the digital period, how they lined things up. Scorsese was part of the editing team. It's easy today to do split-screen, we can choreograph it, it's all digital. So I purposely timed them a little messily, not quite perfect, to give a period look. I guess to create a 'real' documentary feeling."

Lee took other images from the documentary and restaged them in his film, such as a nun who is giving the peace sign and a father who is interviewed about having children serving in Vietnam. He also conducted interviews with key players and tried to surround himself with as many people close to the event as possible. "We had experts - a consulting historian, who was a colleague of Timothy Leary, and a scholar who knew everything about music and stayed next to me," he says.

But it was the music promoter Mike Lang who made the biggest impression. "He looks exactly like he did 40 years ago," Lee says. "A little bit more businessman-like, more fatherly, but he still lives in Woodstock, has the same hair, wears trainers and when he walks there's a little bounce. You have to give Lang credit. It was his idea and he stayed firm about it." The central protagonist in the film is Tiber, a character played by comedian Demetri Martin. The movie plays primarily for laughs and revolves around his seemingly foolhardy attempt to bring some cash into the small town in upstate New York. One of the central tensions is his relationship with his tightfisted parents, played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton. Lee, whose last two movies have been the serious dramas, Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain, is not known for his comedies. However, look a little closer and a certain sense of humour can be seen in areas of his oeuvre, especially The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet.

"It's actually a funny idea to do a comedy about such a glorified event," he says. "I took the humour from the book. It made very funny reading to see something that big from the perspective of such a small character. I thought that was a good way to cut into the event. I thought, 'I cannot restage Woodstock, it's not going to happen. I'm not going to do that. You can't capture it. You can only capture a small glimpse - and even that will involve hundreds of extras."

It was an arduous but fun task to get so many young people to play these extras. Typical of the director's meticulous attention to detail, he tried everything to make sure that everyone looked like they really had attended the festival. "Well, they were hired to do their job and they needed to look right," he says. "We hired local people not professional extras - a lot of young people from college, real hippies from New Hampshire? they are still coming there so we put an ad in the paper and they were happy to come to the set. They looked like real people, not actors. And of course the people who had the right body type were the ones in the foreground. There were about 200 core members that stayed pretty much throughout the shooting. We put them in hippy camp and gave them two days' training. We gave them a hippy handbook. They had to take an exam in history, hippy lingo? Then we had coaches for them to make sure they had the right attitude. That person would see to it that they didn't look like they were modern kids trying to act, but were very 1960s-like."

The film starts by showing the build-up to the concert, but once the concert starts it follows Tiber's trials and tribulations, rather than showing any of the acts on stage. While the big-name artists are omitted, Lee does make sure that he shows how much fun the spectators at the concert were having. As a result, the film looks like it was just as much fun to make. "The logistics were like a vacation," he says. "This was actually like a break for me. I was working, I looked busy and like I was doing something - my mind was fixated on something - and everybody listened to me, asked what I wanted and then did it. That was actually quite relaxed for me. The hardest part actually was making sure that at least the foreground people had the right attitude. That took a while. But it is still fun to talk to young people and say this is cool and that's not cool."

However, regardless of the relaxation Lee experienced during the project, Martin recalls that the director remained on-task with regards to bringing the best out of his actors. "Ang did a lot of research and he helped us research our roles," he says. "He started with a big binder with different sections - music, politics, movies, culture. I watched some DVDs he thought would be appropriate for my character and I know other actors did the same."

Still, although Woodstock retains its legendary status, Lee feels that the youth of today are very different to the ones that made the event so memorable. Now the father of two sons, 19 and 26, he says: "The vibe is not quite there. I look at my kids, and they are more sober than the people in this movie. Even those people in the movie, they are brilliant people, they have read the I Ching, all that stuff. There was brilliant music that doesn't happen now. Things are very different now, but what the younger generation did with Obama reminds me of Woodstock in a way. There is a can-do, can-change spirit - you old men step to the side and we'll show you what can be done. That's what I feel from this generation."