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.”
Costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi, whose credits include “Charlie’s Angels” and “Shaft,” agrees: “We didn’t want it to look like they were playing dress up.” To keep “Taking Woodstock” as authentic as possible, Aulisi made custom pieces, such as Lang’s brown leather fringed vest and shoulder bag. Additionally, he found vintage sweaterlike T-shirts, striped tops, chambray button-downs, Levi’s 501 jeans and Frye boots at thrift stores such as Ring Around the Moon Alice in the Catskills and Universal Costume in Los Angeles. “These were mostly college and high school kids, so we weren’t doing real high style in any way,” he says. “A lot of the clothes were definitely pre-designer.”
The accessories were especially important to Lee when it came to establishing a pieced-together style. “Whether it’s a bracelet or a peace symbol or an earring or a headband, [the look] was mismatched,” he says.
For all of his work, Lee recognizes that “Taking Woodstock” will mostly attract an older audience, given Woodstock’s iconic place in America’s past, but he is hopeful younger generations will connect to the film, as well. “Last year when I was cutting the film, my younger son called me when he snuck up to Obama’s presidential inauguration. He said, ‘My friend talked me into going. It’s just like Woodstock. You have to participate. It’s a historical moment.’”