After a recent sneak preview of Ang Lee's gay-themed Western "Brokeback Mountain," the filmmaker and his longtime producer James Schamus took questions in the University of Chicago's dimly lit Max Palevsky Cinema.
"Is there a film or films that set the precedent for this movie?" one audience member asked.
"'The Bridges of Madison County,'" Schamus replied without missing a beat.
He said this as a joke, but the audience didn't laugh immediately - perhaps with good reason. The two movies, after all, target similar audiences.
"Like all great love stories, our first, but not our only, audience is women," Schamus elaborated later. "For upscale movies, it is often women who are the arbiters of what to see - which doesn't mean men don't like movies like 'Titanic' and 'Casablanca,' just that they initially watch them often at the behest of their wives and girlfriends."
In a time when pundits are telling us the red-state politics and morality rule the land - and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry - "Brokeback Mountain" is an unlikely movie released in a tense cultural climate. Yet Lee, Schamus and Focus Features are banking on the interest - and emotions - of a wider audience, following the precedent of "Philadelphia" and the comedy "In & Out."
Based on the Annie Proulx short story, "Brokeback Mountain" stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, Wyoming cowboys who fall in love during a 1963 summer job herding sheep at isolated altitudes. Despite separate lives, wives and temperaments, the two maintain a clandestine, decades-long romance.
With few screenings since it took top honors at the Venice Film Festival in September, the US$13 million film is already generating Oscar buzz, particularly in the best picture, director and actor categories. Ledger, in particular, is drawing attention for his tortured, tight-lipped performance as Ennis.
"Heath says this is the most macho role he's ever taken," Lee said the next day over breakfast. "But think about it, and he's right. Right after this, he went to play Casanova, where he put on makeup every day. It's not a very macho role."
Like his producer Schamus, Lee lives in New York state with his family. Both middle-aged, both married with children, they seem like an unlikely duo to produce what one writer has called the "Gay 'Gone With the Wind.'" Lee said he never even heard homosexuality talked about openly until he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1976.
But when Lee read Proulx's short story after filming "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it haunted him.
"I cried at the end. When it comes to crying, I'm a tough customer," Lee said. "I had to get it off my chest somehow."
Lee, the quieter of the two, is graying at the temples and defers to Schamus' enthusiasm. Professorial and bespectacled, Schamus proves that you can wear a bow tie, swear charmingly and still be a respected academic. (Schamus teaches film theory and history at Columbia University, in addition to his duties as co-president of Focus Features.)
The pair's ninth feature together covers familiar thematic ground. Though the Taiwan native's chameleon-like style and outsider's eye allowed him to genre-hop among Jane Austen ("Sense and Sensibility"), family drama ("The Ice Storm") and comic book movies ("Hulk"), each carries themes of alienation and repressed emotion.
But "Brokeback" is as much about the characters' own homophobia as it is about any social condemnation.
In town recently to speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival, author Proulx said of the film, "For once gay people are not shown as comic characters. ... (They are) two ordinary human beings wrestling with problems they simply don't have the experience or the education to control or understand."
It's a polarizing time in American culture. While a slate of anti-gay referendums work their way through state governments, TV's "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Queer As Folk" remain popular entertainment.
In the past, mainstream gay features on the big screen have been scarce. But this year alone, both Bennett Miller's "Capote" and Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" center themselves on lead homosexual characters.
Yet "Brokeback" signifies something different, a test of the country's acceptance of an alternative take on a beloved Western icon: the cowboy.
Screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry ("The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove") saw promise in Proulx's story, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1997. They optioned it and wrote a screenplay, though it took years to get the movie off the ground. Film rights changed hands. Scott Rudin tried to produce it with director Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting"). Joel Schumacher ("The Phantom of the Opera") was attached briefly.
The film became somewhat of a "hot potato," Proulx said. Her tragic short story seemed prescient when, in 1998, 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered outside Laramie, Wyo., near Proulx's home in Centennial. (Proulx was called for jury duty in the trial but did not serve.)
More time passed. Lee emerged from the mammoth production of "Hulk" and was looking for a smaller, more intimate project. Was "Brokeback Mountain" still available? Schamus, who co-wrote almost all of Lee's previous features before being named co-president of Focus Features, found himself in the position to green light a picture he couldn't make as an independent producer.
"I didn't feel a resistance, I didn't feel a change ... some kind of 'Now is the time to make it; the world is ready!'" Schamus said. "I was kind of like, 'OK, we'll make it for a low budget, we'll be very conservative and have a very specific marketing plan.'"
Integral to that plan was targeting the "fourth quadrant," also known as the "women 35 and older" demographic - the "Pride & Prejudice" audience. But initially, Lee and Schamus were concerned with the reaction of just one person: Proulx herself.
"Here's this guy, born in Taiwan, who just came from doing 'The Hulk,'" remembered Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Shipping News." "I was terrified. I was sure it would be watered down and made acceptable to the general public."
Even Lee said, "What do I know about gay ranch hands in Wyoming?"
But after meetings in New York and a dinner of Rocky Mountain Oysters (bull testicles) with Lee in Wyoming, Proulx's fears were assuaged.
"The story is intact, the language and characters are intact. ... It's a seamless join," Proulx said of McMurtry and Ossana's adaptation. As for Lee, she added: "The fact that he got that essence of the rural West is still amazing to me."
But Lee's vision of the West has met with some resistance.
Wyoming playwright Sandy Dixon told The Casper Star-Tribune last month she never met a gay cowboy and thought the movie was damaging to the cowboy image. "(T)hose that know real cowboys will say it's all hogwash," she said.
Schamus' response: "That woman has met more gay people than she is capable of counting; she just has no idea."
For background, Proulx interviewed a gay rancher for the story, although at the time, she had no idea of his sexual orientation. Proulx said she continues to get letters saying, "You've told my story."
Several states have gay rodeo associations, and "Brokeback" is receiving support from a pair of country music icons. Willie Nelson and Steve Earle provide new recordings for the soundtrack. "It legitimizes us a little bit," Lee said.
The backlash thus far has been minimal, though pointed. Conservative news blogger Matt Drudge posted a story titled "Hollywood Rocked: 'Gay Cowboy' Movie Becomes an Oscar Frontrunner" and refers to "explicit gay sex scenes" in the film.
"I don't know why people say that," Lee said. "For the gay community, it's not explicit. It's suggested. But I think we devote a lot of realism to it. I don't think I'm even close to explicit."
But for Lee, focusing on sexual relationships misses the point.
"To me, it's a story about the illusion of love. That transcends being gay and being a cowboy and all that," Lee said. "Because they don't know what love is, they spend the next 20 years trying to catch it."
Lee is aware that he has made a controversial film, even though he usually shies away from conflict.
"My character is very afraid of offending or hurting anyone. It's my first nature, probably, to avoid confrontation," he said. "But I do like to challenge, to examine conflict. Inner conflict, particularly. You have to go there to examine humanity. Otherwise, we cover ourselves up."
In other words, Lee sees his movie as a unifying - rather than dividing - force. "It helps us understand, brings us together," he said. "I hope this movie has that kind of effect."