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Ang Lee partnership gives him broad film focus

ANG Lee and James Schamus have two of the best jobs on the planet.

Lee gets to direct films ranging from Academy Award winners ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain") to superhero tales ("Hulk") to the sexually explicit thriller "Lust, Caution."

Schamus, Lee's writing and producing partner, is a Hollywood rarity, a writer who wields power as head of his own production and distribution outfit.

So when Lee came to Schamus with his latest idea - the Cannes Film Festival entry "Taking Woodstock," a behind-the-scenes look at the 1969 rock music love-in - they were off and running in an instant.

"I got back to him right away. I was like, 'let's do this one'," Schamus said in Cannes last week. "I was actually writing the screenplay here at Cannes last year. So it's weird to be back here a year later."

The two have been working together since Lee's first film, 1992's "Pushing Hands," produced through Good Machine, a production company Schamus co-founded.

Since then, Schamus has had producing or writing credits on most of Lee's films, among them "The Wedding Banquet," "Sense and Sensibility," "Crouching Tiger" and "The Ice Storm," which earned Schamus the screenplay prize at the 1997 Cannes festival.

Schamus' distribution banner - Focus Features, a unit of NBC Universal - released "Brokeback Mountain" and is issuing "Taking Woodstock" in August around the 40th anniversary of the concert.

After their frothy first films together, Lee went into a dark patch, beginning with the sober domestic drama "The Ice Storm." The tone stayed bleak for five more movies.

No cynicism

"It feels like I was in a deep abyss, so I had to come out for a breath of fresh air," said Lee, who won the best-director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain." "Ever since the first one, 'The Ice Storm' 13 years ago, I said, 'someday, I'm going to do a comedy, warm at heart, with no cynicism'."

Schamus joked that Lee's mid-life crisis was "really going on."

"It was like the line from Woody Allen. 'I like your early, funny movies'," Schamus said. "I found myself saying that to Ang for like a decade."

Lee finally listened after coming across Elliot Tiber's memoir "Taking Woodstock," which chronicles the hurdles concert organizers jumped to pull off the concert that drew half a million people to a muddy farm in the Catskills.

"Crouching Tiger" was a rare foreign-language smash hit in the United States and "Brokeback Mountain" was Focus Features' top-grossing hit with US$180 million in ticket sales worldwide.

Yet Lee and Schamus had no qualms about moving on to smaller productions such as "Lust, Caution" and "Taking Woodstock," even if critics sniped they were slumming in art house films or little comedies.

"It's unfair, so I don't really care," Lee said. "Nothing's more rewarding than making the movie you want to make. How good is that? There's nothing to top that."

"Taking Woodstock" has no major box-office draws, counting Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy and Imelda Staunton as its best-known cast members. The film stars Demetri Martin as Elliot and also features Henry Goodman, Paul Dano and Kelli Garner.

Even with no big stars, "Taking Woodstock" was a good investment for Focus, Schamus said.

"I'm a very conservative businessman. I'm a petty bourgeois. I am like a small businessman at heart," Schamus said, noting that "Taking Woodstock" was shot on a tight budget, much of which has been recouped from overseas sales. "So we only need very modest returns from the North American side of it, for example, to be very happy."

Lee is not tied to making films with Focus and could go off on a big studio flick if something came his way that he wanted to do. He also could bring Schamus along as screenwriter on any films he might make elsewhere.

While Lee is not sure what he might do next, Schamus has some ideas.

"I actually have something to pitch to you later today," he told Lee.


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