“Innocence lost is a theme I care about deeply,” said “Taking Woodstock” director Ang Lee at the Bowery Hotel on a wet Wednesday night in Manhattan yesterday. The film, which screened in competition in Cannes had its U.S. debut earlier in the evening and the director and cast were typically mobbed by guests and handlers at the hotel in the East Village, many clad in ’60 garb. Afros, love beads, bell bottoms, platforms, head scarfs, tie dye and anything else flashing back to the love generation reigned supreme at the premiere party, though Lee styled himself in a more contemporary and conservative blazer.
“I also care about hopefulness, which is how I viewed the era around Woodstock growing up in Taiwan. Looking back on it, I think America was at its [zenith] culturally,” he added. “America had the most popular culture, and the kids who were called hippies at the time were able to work against the establishment in an unpredented way. They challenged issues from the environment, morality, music and the power structure,” Lee told indieWIRE with a big smile as partygoers tapped him on the shoulder and arm to get his attention.
Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, the comedy stars Demetri Martin as Elliot, who inadvertently played a role in making 1969’s Woodstock Music and Arts Festival the pinnacle of the counter-culture movement in his economically depressed hometown in Upstate New York. Elliot worked as an interior designer in New York City’s Greenwich Village and felt empowered by the neighborhood’s gay rights movement, but he also felt a familial obligation to his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. In the summer of ’69, he moved back to his parents’ home (played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) to help them save their dying business from being taken over by the bank.
In order to draw more tourists to the town, Elliot contacted producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to offer his family’s motel to promoters after learning they had lost a permit for a music and arts festival in a neighboring town. Elliot also introduces Lang to his neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who operates a 600-acre dairy farm down the road. Soon the Woodstock staff was moving into the motel – and half a million people were on their way to Yasgur’s farm for “3 days of Peace & Music in White Lake.”
“This is a movie about happiness – going from a state of unhappiness to happiness. How often do you see a film like that,” said “Taking Woodstock” producer and Focus Features chief James Schamus, chatting with iW on Wednesday night. Schamus’ teenage daughter had a hand in casting the film, he shared with a smile, after she showed him a clip of the Comedy Central comedian online. “I was helping my daughter with her homework, and she showed me Demetri doing his show on YouTube. In all the years [in the film business] I’ve never done this, but we called him up and nine months later, we were all doing ‘Woodstock.'”
“They just contacted me out of the blue,” said Martin, who also circumvented the ’60s-wear Wednesday night in favor of a very stylish Prada suit (despite the oppressive New York City summer humidity). I had done nothing in movies before, but once I heard about the subject, I was intrigued. I’ve been into music of that era, especially the Beatles – though they didn’t actually play Woodstock. I respect how non-cynical the era seemed.” Though this is the 36 year-old’s first lead in a film (an he could easily pass for 26), he told indieWIRE he’s only seen the film in its entirety once, and found the medium a bit challenging, saying he wasn’t used to giving up control and not having a say in the editing process as he has been used to with his work in Comedy Central. “I had to get used to leaving it all to [Ang Lee], I just did the dialogue, but I’m used to doing more…”
While obviously the film is set during the period leading up to and the three days of Woodstock, the production found parallels with the small town where they shot in Upstate New York near the border of Massachusetts, which was also in an economic slump and was very happy to see the arrival of this large film crew. “The hotel owner where we shot was very much like Elliot,” Lee said, laughing. “New York State Film Office (aka, NYS Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development) connected us with them, and the state offered an incentive. I think the hotel owner was also able to pay off his mortgage [after the shoot].”
Back to the party, invitees sporting the ’60s look and those too cool for school were not going without at the film’s debut soiree. Focus typically throws some of the best film parties in New York, though we hear they also “got a little help from their friends,” including popular party planner Peggy Siegal, lifestyle company Gilt Groupe and London-based global concierge outfit Quintessentially. Amidst the champagne (served in a small bottle with straw), cocktails, cups of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the bountiful buffet tables, partygoers were also fueling it all with ubiquitous Red Bull.
“This was an incredible time,” offered Oscar-winner Ang Lee to iW before being swooped back into the party. “It was brilliant, and I think we will get past the backlash that has surrounded Woodstock and the ’60s.”