James Schamus has written and produced a hefty percentage of the films Ang Lee has directed. Together the team has assembled for The Wedding Banquet, Hulk, Lust, Caution and The Ice Storm, to name a few. Their newest, Taking Woodstock, is based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber, the man who unwittingly made possible an event that defined a culture and a generation. Many movies have attempted to capture the era’s zeitgeist on film, and the points of view on the era are often polarizing. That said, the filmmakers felt a responsibility to give great consideration to the approach they took representing Woodstock.
Schamus, who adapted the script from Tiber’s autobiographical book, says, “It was really important to bring a positive voice and not a cynical one to that moment because part of what the moment was expressing was hope.”
The film production, which began just shortly after Obama announced his intentions to run for the presidency, had a prescient feel to it. Demetri Martin, a stand-up comedian who now has his own show on Comedy Central, was chosen to play Elliot Teichberg, the film’s distinctly named protagonist. Of his feature film debut, Martin says, “It’s a pretty great opportunity. I figured, if they think I can do it I’ll definitely try.” Martin was previously cast in Moneyball, a high stakes studio comedy to be directed by Steven Soderbergh and star Brad Pitt. A film with that kind of pedigree is typically an easy sell, but the production was shut down. Martin was grateful for the casting but said, “To be in a movie that sees distribution now is even more difficult than I would have imagined.”
Ang Lee, who Schamus refers to as a “serial monogamist” when it came to his films, explains that he doesn’t know what attracts him to the material he chooses, he only knows that his attachment to this story was one that he couldn’t define and the only way he could deal with his fascination was to make a film about it. Perhaps it has something to do with the family drama in Tiber’s story—or perhaps it has to do with the controversy of the period.
Schamus and Lee felt strongly that their view of Woodstock could not be a cynic’s view. Still, their references for the imagery skewed towards the critical. “I made a suggestion [to Ang] for the scene where the protagonist is on the back of the motorcycle driving through the cars (on his way to the concert). I wanted Ang to make it a long tracking shot. My reference point was Godard’s
Weekend, which is as anti-nostalgic a vision of the ’60s imaginable and a real dystopian vision of what it means for the bourgeoisie to hit the road and see the country.” However, Schamus continues, “In that shot, we include all that political stuff in the background—we see a critique (of the time). We incorporated that without getting negative.”
While Taking Woodstock is sweet, it never becomes a syrupy demonstration of Summer of Love nostalgia, in part because Schamus and Lee incorporated the conflict of the time as a neutral and essential part of the context, but also because the two really did see the story as a hopeful curio of sorts. At the same time, the golden moment had an end with Altamont, the music festival held outside of San Francisco by Woodstock Ventures that ended abruptly with the stabbing of an African American man by Hells Angels. Schamus defended his respect for the period by saying, “Bethel, New York, in that weekend, was the third largest city in New York and yet there wasn’t a single instance of violence reported the whole weekend. So I think we have cause to pay some serious attention to that and not just look at the underside of that dream that was ruined by Altamont. But, in the last scene we do say, it’s real. It’s coming.”
Taking Woodstock is now playing in theaters nationwide.