In the middle of a fall night in 1997, Diana Ossana stumbled upon a short fictional story by Annie Proulx in The New Yorker.
The story, "Brokeback Mountain," charted the love affair of two male cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who met in Wyoming in 1963 while taking care of sheep on the fictional mountain after which the story was named. The job would end, and the two would go on to marry and have children, but they continued their passionate love affair on the mountain over the two decades until Jack’s death -- all the time fearful of the homophobia around them and, at times, inside themselves.
“I knew before I was even halfway through that it was a masterpiece.”
The story deeply affected Ossana. She read it again the next morning and then asked her writing partner, Larry McMurtry, to read it as well. McMurtry was unenthused. He had never been able to write short fiction, and so hadn’t much interest in reading it, either.
“It took me probably five minutes to convince him that he needed to read that story,” Ossana told The Huffington Post. But finally, McMurtry went upstairs and sat down with it. Twenty minutes or so later, he quietly came back down.
“I knew before I was even halfway through that it was a masterpiece,” McMurtry said. “Once in a while you’ll read something that you just wish so much that you had written, and I felt that way about 'Brokeback.'”
The pair almost immediately decided they wanted to write a screenplay based on the story, so they sent what Ossana called a “fan letter” to Proulx expressing their desire to do so. They received a reply roughly a week later. Proulx said she didn’t see how the story could become a feature film, but she gave them her blessing anyway.
The process of turning the story into a screenplay was not all that difficult. The skeleton of the film was there, but Ossana and McMurtry hoped to fill out the domestic lives of Ennis and Jack, particularly their relationships with their wives, Alma and Lureen.
“I had questions reading the story,” Ossana said. “I wondered how the wives really feel. I wondered what effect this has had on the children. I wonder how the rest of the family, how this has stunted everyone. This kind of homophobia was not just about two men. It had a ripple effect, and it felt interesting to try and address that.”
The resulting screenplay was applauded in industry circles, but getting the picture made proved much more problematic than writing it. Gus Van Sant reportedly expressed interest in making the film. Jake Gyllenhaal said he met with a director other than Ang Lee about the project years before Lee was involved. But nothing stuck.
“One day I was just asking James, "How did that movie turn out?" And he said, "No, it’s not made yet." So I said, "Huh..."”
“From day one, once we decided to do the script, it was not an easy process. It was challenging, difficult and kind of relentless,” Ossana said.
James Schamus, the co-founder of Good Machine production company, which later became part of Focus Features, eventually picked up the option for the film in 2001. “Before it was what it was, it was actually quite a risky proposition,” Schamus told HuffPost. “Honestly, it was a bit of a laughing stock. You know, the gay cowboy movie.”
Ossana asked Schamus to show the screenplay to Ang Lee, who he worked with on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Schamus and Lee both liked the idea -- Lee told HuffPost he cried when he first read the short story -- but the pair instead decided to make "Hulk," which Lee directed and Schamus helped write and produce.
The years-long process of making, selling and promoting "Hulk" -- and "Crouching Tiger" before it -- exhausted Lee. So much so that he thought about retirement. “He had kind of given up frankly,” Schamus remembered. But Lee didn’t want "Hulk," a movie about anger, to be his final film. His mind came back to "Brokeback Mountain."
“I thought somebody did it already,” he said. “Then one day I was just asking James [Schamus], ‘How did that movie turn out?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s not made yet.’ So I said, ‘Huh…'”
The time was right. River Road and Focus Features were in, and Lee signed on, too. Once the film was in the works, Lee made casting decisions fairly quickly, according to casting director Avy Kaufman. But one of the greatest concerns was always finding someone to play the stoic character of Ennis. Actors would commit, then decide against it a month or two later.
Sometime in 2003, Ossana and McMurtry decided they wanted Heath Ledger to play the part. Ossana’s daughter, Sara, had suggested the Australian actor to her mother, and so the two had a weekend movie marathon. “It was clear to me from ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ that this was a young man who was sort of above and beyond his material,” Ossana said. “There was something behind his eyes that was very intense.”
“The studio just felt he wasn’t macho enough.”
Ossana and McMurtry, who became a producer and executive producer on the movie, respectively, now say they suggested Ledger to the studio, but that people there were not immediately convinced. “The studio just felt he wasn’t macho enough,” Ossana said. “Studios are strange,” McMurtry added.
Kaufman, the casting director, had trouble getting Ledger the script, but Ossana knew someone working with the actor on "The Brothers Grimm," and she asked the friend to show him a couple of scenes. Ledger, in turn, asked for more information about the screenplay, but by then, another actor had already been cast for the part.
“I said [to Ledger], ‘You know, someone else has committed but please don’t despair. I have a really strong feeling that this actor is going to back out, too,’” Ossana said. “Sure enough, come early December, we got a phone call from the studio and he had backed out.”
“When I saw them together there was no doubt, and I decided right away. They looked great together.”
Ledger loved the script, even telling Ossana that his girlfriend at the time, actress Naomi Watts, jumped up and down on a bed begging him to do the movie. But Lee actually met with Gyllenhaal first.
“He [Gyllenhaal] was not quite like [the character] the short story described, but I thought he was a great romantic lead,” Lee said. The day Lee finally saw Gyllenhaal and Ledger in the same room, he knew he had found his leading men.
“When I saw them together there was no doubt, and I decided right away. They looked great together,” Lee said. “The contrast -- they were a perfect match. A great pair.”
Lee interviewed 20 or 30 women for the parts of the each of their wives, Alma and Lureen. At the time, Michelle Williams was still struggling to be known as someone other than Jen Lindley from "Dawson's Creek." She was one of the actresses, if not the first, to audition for the role of Alma, the wife of Ennis who discovers his gay love affair. She pushed her Montana upbringing in her meeting with Lee. She didn’t need to.
“She walked in I was like, ‘Yes,’ before she even read,” he said.
Anne Hathaway had been originally asked to audition for what would become Williams’ part, but she felt herself drawn elsewhere. “I remember thinking, 'Alma’s not my part -- I’m Lureen,'” she told Out magazine earlier this year.
Hathaway was filming "Princess Diaries 2" at the time and had to audition during a lunch break with full makeup and what she called “big princess hair.” Lee said she apologized profusely for her appearance, but Hathaway remembers feeling confident, calm and focused. “I knew what I wanted,” she later told Out.
“She wasn’t the obvious choice at that point, but when she read it was a done deal,” Lee said.
The four leads -- Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams and Hathaway -- were all in their early 20s. But they displayed a maturity well beyond their years. “They were so young and scarily good. It really scared me how good they were,” Lee said.
The filmmakers looked at making the film in Wyoming, where the short story was based, but quickly decided the setting wouldn’t work. They looked at Montana, too, but that wasn’t quite right, either. Eventually they settled on the area around Calgary, inside the Canadian province of Alberta. That presented its own set of challenges.
“Oh, the sheep. That was the hardest thing,” Lee said. The director had heard that sheep would drink from running water, and he spent a long time trying to get a shot of it. They don't, and he couldn’t. Sheep prefer to drink from still water, he discovered. “I don’t know! I’m not a cowboy,” Lee laughed.
Alberta wildlife authorities also would not let the crew bring their hundreds of domestic sheep into high alpine passes where there might be big horned sheep or mountain goats as domestic sheep can harbor and spread a bronchial disease that doesn’t hurt them, but can kill the wild animals, according to Scott Ferguson, a co-producer on the film. That was a problem, seeing as the movie was in large part about two men taking care of sheep.
Eventually, the wildlife authorities allowed the crew to shoot on one mountain, miles away from every other one, and only then if they counted and drove the sheep in and out every day and allowed the authorities to pick a wildlife biologist to make sure the crew followed protocol.
The film had a small budget -- “well below $15 million,” according to Schamus -- but those involved in the making of it remember a rare sense of camaraderie on set. For that, Schamus credits Michael Hausman, an executive producer on the film who Schamus and Lee affectionately called the “Ang wrangler."
“What Mike was able to do was to create an environment in which it felt kind of like summer camp … mixed with survivalist training,” Schamus said. Hausman had much more experience in the wilderness than many others involved in the film. He had his own ranch and a friend who had herded sheep in Wyoming in the 1960s, the time and place of the short story. “Hausman is really the godfather of the environment that we were able to help create on this mountain,” said Schamus.
“We are all still close -- not just bonded by the success of the film, but bonded by the experience.”
Hausman rented Airstreams for Lee and the film’s stars, and the cast grew close. “We sat around fireplaces and made hot dogs and fished on the creek,” Hausman remembered. “In the morning people would come out with eggs and other people would come out with coffee and sit around.”
Gyllenhaal brought his dog. Ledger and Williams began to fall in love.
“It’s why we are all still close -- not just bonded by the success of the film, but bonded by the experience,” Gyllenhaal told Out magazine. “It was a really special, special time.”
“I was wrecked before that movie, and even though the story is tragic, it’s full of love. Everyone felt that,” Lee said. “That movie nurtured me back to filmmaking.”
The crew was taken with the film, too. Within a week, two members of it had come up to Ossana and confessed to her that they were gay -- one of them still closeted. Gyllenhaal remembers a number of the crew members crying after he filmed the scene in which Jack tells Ennis, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Gyllenhaal and Ledger were friends before the movie, but very different actors. Gyllenhaal was improvisational; Ledger methodical and meticulous.
“[Gyllenhaal's improvisation] bothered Ledger sometimes because he was well-prepared, so sometimes that could mess him up a little bit,” Lee admitted.
But most of the time, they were fine and professional. That was never more clear than during the 13 takes it took to get the sex scene up to Lee's standards. “I’m glad the 13th take was the best, that I didn’t have to torture them more,” Lee laughed.
On set, Hathaway was “Lureen-like,” as Ossana described it. “Snappy and sort of a smart-ass, but really adorable.” Williams was quieter, more like Ledger, who she was falling in love with both on screen and off. The two would eventually have a child before Ledger's tragic death in early 2008.
Just as filming began, Williams sprained her knee during a scene in which she is sledding with Ledger. He was already smitten and insisted on going to the hospital with her. Williams’ injury altered a number of the scenes in the movie, which according to Hausman, explains why she was so still during much of the movie -- sitting at the dining room table or standing in the kitchen.
“Michael just looked at me and said, "That’s bullshit. The guy’s bleeding."”
Ledger suffered his own injury during a scene in which an overwhelmed Ennis runs into an alley and punches a wall after leaving Jack. Hathaway told Out she thought the punch was improvised -- “Everyone was freaking out because it was a real wall,” she said -- but Lee insists it was planned and that the wall was padded.
Nevertheless, he bled.
“He hit it really hard, and I thought the cloud could be a little better; the tumbling weed could be more precise; the extra cowboy that looked at him, scolding him, was a little overacted, and this and that,” Lee said. “Michael [Hausman] just looked at me and said, ‘That’s bullshit. The guy’s bleeding.’”
“So I turned to Heath ... I looked and said, ‘Hey, let’s go, let’s go.' So we did another one and it was perfect -- one of the best shots, one of my favorite shots of my career. Everything perfect. Pretty. Heart-wrenching, Of course, he bled more as he hit harder. The moment was spot on.”
“Later, I told Mike, ‘Look, good actors, they like that. They don’t want you to be nice. They want you to pull the best possible [performance] from them,” Lee said. “He’s that kind of actor.”
Ossana remembers Ledger as very lively and open during the making of the film, except for one scene, when Ennis visits Jack’s parents house after his death and finds his shirt hanging inside Jack's in the closet.
“That one he was completely internal, and it affected him deeply,” Ossana said.
“I said, ‘You know, when you find those shirts, what affects you so strongly is that you realize how much this man loved you.'”
“He was very quiet,” said Roberta Maxwell, the actress who played Jack’s mother. “It was the last day, the last scene of a very long and hard, very difficult shoot.”
“We talked about it, and I said. ‘You know, when you find those shirts, what affects you so strongly is that you realize how much this man loved you,'” Ossana said. “‘When you find out he’s dead, it signals to you how much you really loved him. The love is so vast. When you find those shirts, you discover what you lost.’”
Ennis' visit to Jack's parents was one of Lee’s favorite scenes -- “It’s about repression, the thing that’s missing, everything they hold back,” he told Out magazine. Peter McRobbie, who played Jack’s quiet, angry father, John, distinctly recalls the tone of Ledger's voice. The actor hadn’t been particularly familiar with Ledger's work, and he was not expecting such a powerful performance from such a young man.
“I’ll never forget just hearing that voice for the first time,” he said. “It was such a ... you could call it the shock of reality because it was so real and so present.”
“Hearing that voice sort of made me reach for a reality in my character that I might not have found otherwise," he added.
On the day the crew was filming the final scene of the film, when Ennis opens up his closet and stares at the shirts and a photo of Brokeback Mountain, a giddy Ledger walked up to Ossana and grabbed her shoulders from behind. He told her they had decided to make a slight alteration to the film.
“I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about,” she said. When they filmed the first take, she saw it right away. The two shirts had been reversed. When Ennis found the shirts, his was inside Jack's. Now, Jack’s shirt was inside his.
“To me, that was just such a smart, smart thing,” she said.
“It had the whole force of the movie behind it. It was very, very powerful,” McMurtry agreed.
"Brokeback Mountain" was released to limited audiences in the U.S. on December 9, 2005, roughly eight years after Ossana first read the script. It was more successful than anyone involved could have imagined. A film that had been made for less than $15 million grossed $83 million domestically alone. The movie earned eight Academy Award nominations in 2006, more than any other film that year, and won Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay, although it famously missed out on Best Picture, which was given to “Crash.”
But there were people involved in the film that were frustrated by how the movie was interpreted by the public. Both Schamus and Ossana said it was important to consider it a story about homophobia first and foremost, rather than a universal love story. “People can argue over whether they’re bisexual. Who cares?” Ossana asked. “These are two men that fell in love with each other.”
“They just don’t get it.”
Proulx, who wrote the original short story, was particularly irritated after the film came out, telling The Paris Review years later that she wished she had never written the story at all because of how people wished to see it, particularly men.
“They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis,” she said. “It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it.”
But the effect of the film was undeniable. Maxwell remembers comforting a weeping man she didn’t know when she first watched the film. McRobbie received letters from fans around the world saying how profoundly the film affected them.
“I think the movie meant a lot to a lot of people and certainly to myself,” Lee said. “I’m glad people are still thinking about it 10 years later.”
The social landscape has changed immensely in the decade since. Americans have become more accepting of the LGBT community. The Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex marriage is legal under the Constitution. Whether "Brokeback Mountain," a film about two gay cowboys, played any role in that shift really depends on who you ask.
“Well, I’m going to ask you a question,” said Maxwell, herself a gay woman. “Is anybody 10 years later doing an article about 'Crash'?”