Moviegoers expecting Ang Lee’s latest film, “Taking Woodstock,” to be a tribute to the 1969 music festival might be surprised. “It’s not a concert movie,” stresses Lee. “To me, Woodstock means so much more than the stage.”
In fact, the picture, which hits theaters Aug. 28, barely focuses on the three-day event. Rather, Woodstock serves as a backdrop to a coming-of-age comedy based on the memoirs of Elliot Teichberg (now Elliot Tiber), the young, gay interior designer who accidentally brings the concert to Bethel, N.Y., in an attempt to save his family’s decrepit Catskills motel. After hearing the planned festival lost its permit from nearby Walkill, Teichberg (played by Demetri Martin), calls Woodstock Ventures producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to scout the local area for a new site. They settle on a nearby dairy farm — and history is set in motion.
The light subject matter is a departure for Lee, better known for more dramatic fare such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” but the Academy Award-winning director was drawn to the innocence in Tiber’s book. “I was at the end of doing six tragedies in a row, so I was looking for something funny and heartwarming. What struck me [about Tiber’s story] was there was no cynicism. Instead, it was a romanticized idea of utopia,” he says.
As a 14-year-old in conservative Taiwan, Lee was nowhere near Woodstock. “I saw it on the television news. Because it was in black and white and very brief, it didn’t leave a terribly heavy impression on me,” he recalls. “But the time as a whole, the late Sixties, definitely was influential. On one hand, we were at the peak of the Cold War, and on the other, the young American Baby Boomer was leading fashion-pop culture.”
So Lee did plenty of homework to prepare for the project. He started by interviewing Tiber, Lang and Woodstock organizer Joel Rosenman. In addition, Lee watched several Sixties pictures including Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary, which he calls “the most important [resource],” and others like “The Trip,” “Head” and “Candy” to decide “what not to do.” Another productive exercise was poring over archival New York Times and Time magazine photographs to grasp the overall feel of the period — and get a sense of the fashion. “The biggest thing was not to overdo it,” Lee says. “It’s important we don’t do ‘Hair.’ We didn’t want to make everybody look like they were art-directed hippies.”