In the stellar career of Ang Lee, one movie stands out like a sore thumb, not only as one of his few boxoffice clunkers, but as a film which he edited for a studio. “Of the 11 films I worked on with Ang, it’s the only one that was not his cut,” says Lee’s longtime writer-collaborator James Schamus, who will appear with Lee onstage at the Walter Reade after the work-in-progress director’s cut of Ride with the Devil screens August 10 during the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s complete Lee retrospective.
The two men undertook an arduous restoration and re-edit of the Civil War era western, which was produced by Good Machine and released by Universal/Polygram/Gramercy at a time of considerable turmoil at the studio. Lee had turned in a lengthy cut of the film, but Universal convinced him to cut 11 minutes to meet his contracted delivery of two hours, 15 minutes. Ironically, Schamus, who is now running Focus Features at Universal, has inherited the Polygram film library. “Most of all, the new movie has breadth and pacing,” says Lee. “More plot and action. All the information is laid out. There’s a big action war sequence that is longer and more detailed. It feels more epic. It makes a big difference to me.”
From the perspective of a decade, Ride with the Devil stands out for its ensemble cast, including Tobey Maguire (post-Ice Storm), Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Jim Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, and Jeffrey Wright. “I liked to do something about America that had not been done before,” says Lee.
One reason the movie about guerilla fighting among pro-Union Jayhawkers and pro-slavery bushwhackers along the Kansas/Missouri border may have underperformed, says Schamus, was that Lee took historical accuracy too far. While they shaved Maguire when he turned up looking “like a rabbi,” recalls Schamus, many of the men were probably sporting too much facial hair, he says.
Lee returned to a western setting with Brokeback Mountain, for which he won the directing Oscar in 2006. Criterion will release the new director’s cut of Ride with the Devil on DVD in May, 2010.