After a decade of making such dramatic films as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust, Caution, Lee says he needed a change of pace. "I was in an abyss of profound depression and two things happened to me. I wanted to try to regain some innocence and to do a comedy. Then I was on a San Francisco TV show to promote my last film and so was Elliot Tiber, who gave me a copy of his book, Taking Woodstock. And it just clicked for me. I had watched Woodstock on TV in Taiwan when I was 14, but wherever you were, you wanted to be there."
The first challenge was finding someone to play Tiber, a semi-closted man who helped his parents run a small hotel in the Catskills. Comedian Demetri Martin, who won the role of Tiber, was discovered by James Schamus, co-founder and CEO of Focus Films and Lee's longtime collaborator (and co-writer of Taking Woodstock), all thanks to his teenaged daughter. "She kept after me to watch a clip of him on YouTube and I saw he had this sweet outsider awkwardness that we wanted for Elliot," Schamus says.
"My audition was actually a screen test of four scenes with Ang directing me," Martin recalls. "First, there was all this rehearsal with Ang and he'd say things like, 'Do it louder, now do it like you're afraid.' I think he just wanted to find out what, if anything, I could do. And the next thing I know, I'm in a scene with Imelda Staunton [who plays his mother] and all I can think is she's Vera Drake!" As for eventually meeting his real-life counterpart, Martin notes: "I actually did meet Elliot, but breaking away from my family and being a bit awkward are about my only real-life parallels with him."
The cast is full of theater-trained actors, including Mamie Gummer, Henry Goodman, Skylar Astin, Daniel Eric Gold, Paul Dano, and Steven Kunken, amomg many others. Among the most prominent is Broadway (and current Bacchae) star Jonathan Groff. who plays Michael Lang, the real-life mastermind behind the original Woodstock. The curly-haired actor (who performs in the film shirtless in a fringed vest) has perhaps the best on-screen entrance and exit in years; he arrives in a helicopter and leaves riding a big white horse. Getting the chance to do that, however, was not something Groff expected.
"Five days after I wrapped up Spring Awakening, I put myself on tape for the film's casting director. I do that a lot and I never hear anything, because for a theater actor film can feel very distant and strange and unattainable," recalls Groff. "Three hours later. I got a call from my agent who said they had fast-tracked my tape to Ang and he loves it and thinks I might be the right guy for this part. And he said they'd call me."
And indeed, they did. "I went home to Harrisburg ,and I'm singing songs from The Sound of Music in an old people's home with my mom and then we get in the van and there's a message on my cell phone from my agent -- and he says, 'You just got your first movie!'" says Groff. "So last summer, I would go do Hair in Central Park and finish by 11, take off Claude's wig, and then get in a white van to drive three hours upstate and put on Michael's wig to rehearse with Ang," he notes .
Tony Award winner Liev Schreiber also donned several wigs for the film -- but his were long, blonde, and wavy, since he plays Vilma, the large transvestite hired by Elliot to provide protection for his family's hotel. "Wearing a dress really does affect how you move," he confesses. "You keep trying on clothes until something inspires some movement, at least that's how I did it. And then you feel, 'oh that scarf really does nail the outfit, and now I know how to move.' You have to walk in the shoes and spend a few days in a corset." Although Vilma is happy with who she is, Schreiber felt some sadness for his onscreen counterpart. "There's something quite tragic in these big rough-hewn men who actually imagine themselves to be very effete, small, beautiful women," he notes.
But the final words on Taking Woodstock -- which are anything but tragic -- belong to Lee: "Shooting the film felt like a dream -- like a really cool happening."