Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking pleasure is the motto for this "Woodstock"


Elliot Tiber, author of the source material for “Taking Woodstock,” was a first-hand witness to those unforgettable “3 Days of Peace & Music” that were celebrated 40 years ago in Bethel, N.Y. Michael Lang, then a 25-year-old wunderkind on the concert scene, was there, too, along with an audience some 500,000 strong.
What about James Schamus, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter who has adapted Tiber’s book into the joyful film now on screens nationally? Well, the Detroit-born and L.A.-reared film historian (and chairman of Focus Features, the “art-house” arm of Universal Pictures that is the “Taking Woodstock” distributor) was too young – he turns 50 on Sept. 7 – but there were other issues.
“I was on ‘lockdown’ at that time,” Schamus laughingly tells JMUvies.com correspondent Stan Urankar. “It wasn’t because of anything I did, but our neighborhood around Mulholland Drive was being terrorized by what we came to find out was Charles Manson and his ‘family.’ My parents were convinced we were next, as were everybody else’s parents.”
Schamus (shown above with star Demetri Martin) used Tiber’s book as the grounding point, then worked with others such as Lang and Joel Rosenman – both depicted on film and still partners in the Michael Lang Organization, involved in event promotion and artist management – to fill in the gaps. “Amazingly,” Schamus says, “the only thing they all couldn’t fully agree on was who got to Max Yasgur first.” Yasgur has gained renown for granting rental of the alfalfa field on his 60-acre dairy farm for the concert site.
Schamus’s resolution: “On screen, I put them all there,” he says. “In a way, they all were.”
“Taking Woodstock” marks the eighth straight collaboration between a Schamus screenplay and director Ang Lee. (For the record: “The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “The Ice Storm,” “Ride with the Devil,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hulk” and “Lust, Caution.”) “Believe me, that many with Ang is difficult work,” Schamus admits in a tone that flashes pride but can’t mask fatigue. “Plus, ‘Lust, Caution’ was really, really hard. Though it was a modest success here, it is considered a tremendous cultural milestone in Asia. Frankly, I think it’s his masterpiece.
“That said, it was time to change horses. I wanted a movie that expressed hope and reflected simple happiness. Think about it: You have action, you have comedy, you have adventure in film, but being happy? That’s not something that cinema really deals with very well.”
Schamus is high on the next two Focus releases. The apocalyptic computer-animated “9,” directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton, is set to open on “09-09-09, of course,” Schamus notes. October then brings the latest from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, “A Serious Man,” a dark comedy set in the late 1960s. “I don’t even try to describe that film,” Schamus insists. “All I’ll say is I’m ridiculously excited about it.”
He also is one of many to have submitted an adaptation of the Ben Sherwood novel, “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud.” The other-worldly drama, projected for next year, reunites “17 Again” star Zac Efron and director Burr Steers.
In the meantime, Schamus will run Focus while maintaining a faculty position at Columbia University, then sharing what time is left with his wife, author Nancy Kricorian, and their two daughters.
Read more from Stan about "Taking Woodstock" in the Sun News, where my reviews of "Shrink" and "Humpday" are also online.

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