The closing night of the 28th Starz Denver International Film Festival featured Ang Lee receiving the Mayor’s Lifetime Achievement Award (at the tender age of 51). Part of the festivities included a screening of his latest movie, Brokeback Mountain.
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- The Unseen
- Stolen Life
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Ahead of that screening, a panel assembled at the Denver Press Club to discuss the art of adapting short stories into screenplays. On tap were Annie Proulx, author of the original Brokeback Mountain short story; Larry McMurtry, famed Western author and co-screenwriter; and Diana Ossana, novelist and co-screenwriter. They were hosted by Denver film critic Howie Movshovitz and what follows are some of the highlights from the discussion.
Q: When the possibility of a novel or a story being made into a film comes upon you, how does it change what you think about what you’ve written?
AP: In this particular case, I was terrified because this was not my idea of a story that could be made into a film. It seemed to me that it was the kind of thing Hollywood had been avoiding for 100 years; it was the kind of thing that would call for great acting. It was a story based on landscape and I was sure the landscape would be the first thing to disappear. I feared also that sentimentality and reshaping of the story would absolutely take place.
I was quite shocked, frankly, when Larry and Diana got in touch and said they wanted to do a screenplay. They were willing to put up some money out of their own pockets, which is pretty unusual for screenwriters. Their enthusiasm was so intense when we spoke over the phone, I figured, well, why not? Let’s do it. And we did. I signed the contract.
Q: You came upon this story and how did it begin to grow in your minds in terms of film?
DO: When I started reading it, I thought, goodness, this is beautiful writing. I have a strong sense of who these men are. I got to the second page and the sex happens in the tent. My eyes popped open and I couldn’t wait to see what happened to these men because my impression of them was they are two very macho guys, sort of lower-middle class, working class fellas, up in the mountains doing their job and all of a sudden they’re in this relationship.
About two-thirds of the way through I began to sob. It was so intense, the feelings that I began to have.
I think what it tapped into for me was my own sense of loss and pain and regret about my own life and incidents in my own life. Loving someone who didn’t love me back, or someone loving me that I didn’t love back; the tragedy and the lost opportunity and the regret, all those things.
But what also struck me profoundly was the landscape and the picture that she painted with her words. There were so many things that struck me; the fact that her prose was so spare and so precise, but so evocative and unsentimental. That touched me as well. Sentimental writing or films bother me greatly. They feel very manipulative; they make me laugh, they don’t make me cry.
Right away the wheels began to turn in my head. I started to think, how can we get this out into the world in a major way? Reading, of course, for me is a solace. A lot of people don’t read any more, but a lot of people see movies. The world has become very visual. So I thought probably the best way to get it out to a large number of folks is to write a screenplay and make a film.
I’m saying all these words to you, but I didn’t think of it that consciously. It was just instant; this should be a screenplay and we should make a film.
LM: Only twice in my life as a writer have I ever read something that I wished I’d written. Brokeback Mountain is one of the two. The second I read it I thought, why didn’t I write this? It’s been sitting there my whole life. The other story, by the way, is a Grace Paley story called Faith in a Tree, which happened to touch me very much.
I’ve worked as a screenwriter for 44 years on something like 70 projects where I’ve done at least one draft. Never spent a cent; all the cents come from them to me. This story was so extraordinary, I saw it as the screenwriter’s opportunity of a lifetime, which it is. Truly is. We’re not going to see this again. We saw it as a great privilege.
Q: What is the work of adaptation? What do you have to do? What do you have to think about?
LM: We thought that story was perfection, we thought it was a story of genius. We did a preliminary script in which we used every single sentence and line and phrase, somehow. It came out to be a little less than 60 pages, about a third of the complete script. And yet we used everything, we stuck to Annie’s language like a tick. When we saw we were going to have to amplify in order to get a feature-length film, we amplified absolutely along lines she had suggested, mostly adding domestic life to these two guys.
And that’s what you got.
DO: Generally in adaptation, say it’s a novel, for example, you really have to cut away and decide what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to retain. As a general rule, very often you can make a very good movie out of a not-so-good book because you can cut away and then you add things in. It’s harder, sometimes, to make a good film out of good prose fiction because the beauty of it is in the actual prose rather than the action.
In this particular story, there would be a single sentence and we could take that sentence and write an entire scene about it. It would spark our imaginations and we would just take it and run.
Among the three of us, we didn’t have much friction and much argument because I think we saw the story pretty much in the same way.
AP: The joinery is seamless in this. I’ve come to the point where I think I wrote half of what they wrote. It’s really remarkable how beautifully put together it is. I think something very rare happened in working on this film. Certainly something rare happened for me working on this story, which was a very, very difficult story to write as a middle-aged woman trying to imagine life for two uneducated, rough guys in the ’60s who fall in love in a very unusual kind of situation. I had to do some extraordinarily intense imagining and in that process those characters took on a life of their own, which is something that has never happened to me in writing.
It’s taken me 8 years to exorcise them because the imagining part was so intense.
Frankly, when I saw the film for the first time, they roared up from the screen back into my head with a ferocity and power that I didn’t think was possible. So I had to start looking for an exorcist all over again.
Q: Is there a cinematic equivalent of a sentence?
AP: I wrote a piece a long time ago in American Film about the difficulties of adapting a classic. The mere fact that it’s a classic inhibits writers and directors. This is a classic story. But when we adapted it, it was only a story in the New Yorker; it was a new classic. We didn’t have the inhibition we might’ve had if we were adapting it 20 years from now.
What (audiences) want is somehow for the film to duplicate their reading experience, but film isn’t a reading experience.
Q: Are short stories more amenable to being adapted into a screenplay than a novel?
LM: I’ve argued for a long time that flat little novels that are not masterpieces but have strong characters, like The Last Picture Show and Hud, get made into movies. The reason is that the strong characters bring the actors. The actors bring the money. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a short story or a 3,000 page novel. If it’s got characters that will attract major actors, it’s got a chance. The star system is a system of funding. If you get the right people, you get the money. If you don’t get the right people, you don’t get the money.
Q: What generated the idea for Brokeback Mountain?
AP: Years and years and years of subliminal observation. What kicked it off was (when) I was up north on the east side of the Bighorns. There was a ranch hand I used to see around one place and another; I was a visitor at the ranch he was on quite frequently. I was in a bar one night in Sheridan. The Mint Bar, of course. This guy was there. He was against the back wall, back where the pool tables are, and he was leaning against the wall.
This place was jammed with really attractive women, just loaded with them, all kinds from tourists to local homegrown. He wasn’t looking at them. He was looking at the young guys playing pool. He was, I would say, in his mid-60s and he looked a little worse for the wear.
He was watching the guys and it could’ve been that one of them was his son or grandson, or they worked on the same ranch he did, or he was just interested in the game. It could have been any number of reasons why he was watching them so closely. But I thought I saw something in the way he was looking at them, a kind of subdued hunger that made me wonder if he was “country gay.”
That started a chain of thought. What would it have been like for him growing up in Wyoming? I counted backwards and that would’ve put it roughly in the ’60s. Sometime not too much later I started to write it and then it took on a life of its own.