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Ang Lee and James Schamus Discuss the Mistakes They Made With Taking Woodstock

On Wednesday night, the National Arts Club awarded its Medal of Honor in Film to director Ang Lee and his longtime collaborator, Focus Features president James Schamus. It was, the two frankly admitted, probably the only accolade they’d get this year, given critics’ — and audiences’ — tepid reaction to Taking Woodstock, which Lee directed and Schamus wrote. The two of them spoke with Vulture in the drawing room, after the entrée, but before the dessert.

Taking Woodstock got criticized for not having the concert footage. How do you respond?
Ang Lee: We didn’t want to do the concert. We wanted to do not only the outskirts, but the spirit of Woodstock, and take that to heart. That’s what “Taking Woodstock” means, or so they explained to me. It’s cheaper that way, but it’s not the entire reason.

Was it part of the reason, though?
AL: Sure. But Woodstock was so much bigger than the concert. The concert was kind of not that great. Concert-wise, a lot of musicians went. Most of them did bad performances because conditions were really bad. Unless you’re a documentary filmmaker, not a whole lot of people see the stage very well. That’s not the experience of Woodstock. The author, he tried, he never got even close to Woodstock. So that was the story. [James Schamus joins us]

We were talking about not seeing the stage in Taking Woodstock.
James Schamus: Which is absurd, because if you were at Woodstock, you know, Janis Joplin would have been the size of a pea, you wouldn’t have heard anything anyhow, and you would have been having sex in the tent while on acid in the mud. That’s what happened.

I made two big mistakes. I put “Woodstock” in the title, and I put his name on the poster. Because, you know, everybody who goes to an Ang Lee movie, you want to be sublimely depressed by the end of the film. And if you have Woodstock in the title, you think you’re going to be seeing Joe Cocker screaming onstage. [Turns to Ang, pats his shoulder] So it was my bad. I’m sorry.

You feel like people want to come out of your films depressed?
AL: No, I mean, didn’t start out my career that way. The first full movie was very uplifiting, and three of them are comedies. [Woodstock] did better in China.
JS: It opened No. 2 in a lot of Asia. It was a big commercial film in a lot of the rest of the world.

It lost money?
JS: What can I tell ya? It didn’t do well at all. The great news is, we can actually come to the National Arts Club and get an award, and it has nothing to do with an Oscar campaign because nobody’s going to freaking vote for your movie for the Oscars, I hate to tell ya! [Slaps Ang’s back, who is laughing]
AL: It’s fine. Whatever.

But money is becoming a big issue in independent film.
JS: Oh, I’d say. Look, we’re in our eighth year at Focus. We’ve been profitable every year. We just passed the billion-dollar mark in domestic box-office. We’re making money. We’re having fun. We’re working with really cool filmmakers. So it’s stupid of me to sit around and complain. On the other hand, I live in the real world, and things are tough out there, and I’m not immune to that. We keep making movies that we believe in. Some of them work, like Brokeback. Some of them don’t work commercially, like Taking Woodstock. And you gotta take your lumps. Look, I got whooped. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I’m the head of the studio, and then I write and produce a film. But I’ve worked in the business long enough to know that if you can’t get a good ass-kicking every once in a while, then you shouldn’t be in the business.

Photo: Patrick McMullan