From Page to Screen: 'Brokeback Mountain' Director Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is the story of the love and friendship between two cowboys in the early 1960s. NPR film critic Bob Mondello reviews the movie. Then, writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry discuss adapting Annie Proulx's short story into the two-hour film.

From Page to Screen: 'Brokeback Mountain'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The new movie "Brokeback Mountain" has been tagged a `gay Western,' which makes the film sound like a shot fired in today's culture wars. But Bob Mondello says its strengths are those of classic Westerns: acting, story and big sky.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, dirt-poor ranch hands looking for summer jobs, meet outside a Wyoming trailer in 1963, except they don't really meet because neither says a word until a foreman finally shows up and asks their names. For much of that summer, tending sheep on a mountain called Brokeback, they stay remote from each other. In fact, even after they fall into a drunken sexual encounter that both shocks them and feels right enough to repeat, they barely talk except to mutter that what happens on Brokeback stays on Brokeback. Then at summer's end...

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Well, I guess I'll see you around, huh?

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Jack Twist) Right.

MONDELLO: ...they return to convention, getting married, having kids. But when Jack gets back in touch with Ennis four years later, those feelings they didn't talk about come flooding back, longings that can't be sated with twice-a-year fishing weekends where no one fishes. Jack wants more; Ennis can't see how.

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Mr. LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) You got your wife and your baby in Texas and, you know, I got my wife in Riverton.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Jack Twist) Is that so? You and I know that's a lie.

Mr. LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Now you shut up about all that. This ain't (unintelligible). The bottom line is we're around each other and this thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place, in the wrong time, and we're dead.

MONDELLO: Rugged individuals stoically facing longing and loss--that's the essence of Annie Proulx's short story, and it also describes a lot of Westerns if you make allowances for the kind of longing. So director Ang Lee blends the genre's spareness and the characters' terseness into a persuasively epic horse opera with iconic heroes silhouetted against spectacular scenery, pondering questions movie cowboys seldom ask. Jake Gyllenhaal's reckless Jack is engaging, but the film rides mostly on the shoulders of Heath Ledger's Ennis, all grumbled denials and downcast stares. It also fleshes out the men's families, establishing that no one wins when they bow to social pressures.

Alas, they don't see an alternative, a time-honored tale that even in this telling has less to do with sexuality than with the dreams that get deferred. Jack and Ennis crafted an Eden atop Brokeback Mountain, but when they came back down, they couldn't bring themselves to be themselves, and it evaporated. Sad story. Terrific movie. I'm Bob Mondello.

NORRIS: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain." McMurtry is known for his novels--"Lonesome Dove," "The Last Picture Show," "Terms of Endearment"--but he's also written many screenplays, often with Ossana. They told our colleague Melissa Block recently that they've been at it long enough to have a particular way of working.

Mr. LARRY McMURTRY (Screenplay Co-writer, "Brokeback Mountain"): The process has been this: I am a very early riser, a very early riser, and I strictly limit myself to five pages a day. And I'm usually done with those pages by 8:30 in the morning, and I give them to Diana.

Ms. DIANA OSSANA (Screenplay Co-writer, "Brokeback Mountain"): And they come through rather skeletal, and then I fill them in and then expand them. And we do that every single day, seven days a week, through holidays and whatever.

Mr. McMURTRY: For the length of the project.

Ms. OSSANA: Yes, for the length of the project, to get to a first draft.

MELISSA BLOCK reporting:

What was it about the Annie Proulx story, about "Brokeback Mountain," that made you think, `This is a movie, and we want to be the ones to write that screenplay'?

Mr. McMURTRY: Well, it's a great, great story. It's the best material I've ever had to work with as a screenwriter. It's a tragedy. It's an 11-page tragedy about a doomed love.

BLOCK: Diana, what about you?

Ms. OSSANA: Well, I first read the story in The New Yorker in 1997, when it first came out. And of course, instantly I saw the beauty and simplicity in Annie's prose, but it was--even though it was very simple, I still think, `My God, I want everyone I know to read this story. It is so amazing.' And then I began--it was just this thing that sort of happened. It began to snowball, and I thought, `This should be a film. It should be a film. It should be a film.'

BLOCK: Diana, you were talking about the simplicity and the spareness of the language in that story. Does part of the challenge become, then, how to flesh that out, how to take something that's so spare and make it a feature film, make it something that has flesh?

Ms. OSSANA: That was the challenge, but it was one that we greeted happily, because the material is so good.

Mr. McMURTRY: And we fleshed it out along clearly suggested lines. That is, we put in the domestic life. We put in the kind of parallel story of the women in their lives and showed them how complicated this tragedy actually was.

BLOCK: I'd like to talk to you a bit about Annie Proulx's language. A lot of the dialogue that's in her story ends up more or less verbatim in your screenplay. Let's take a listen to a scene from the film. This is when Ennis' ex-wife--at this point they're divorced--Alma confronts him about what she has long suspected, really known.

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Alma Beers Del Mar) You still go fishing with Jack Twist?

Mr. LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Not often.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Alma Beers Del Mar) You know, I used to wonder how come you never brought any trouts home. You always said you caught plenty, and you know how me and the girls like fish. So one night I got your creo case(ph) open the night before you went on one of your little trips--price tag's still on it after five years--and I tied a note to the end of the line. It said, `Hello, Ennis. Bring some fish home. Love, Alma.' And then you come back looking all perky and said you caught a bunch of browners and you ate them up. Do you remember? I looked in that case first chance I got, and there was my note still tied there. That rod hadn't touched water in its life.

Ms. LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Don't mean nothing, Alma.

BLOCK: Such a great scene.

Ms. OSSANA: Just makes my heart ache.

BLOCK: And that is a scene that's pretty much word for word from...

Mr. McMURTRY: That's verbatim from the book.

Ms. OSSANA: You bet. You bet.

Mr. McMURTRY: A lot of times we didn't see a single thing to change.

Ms. OSSANA: The dialogue is pitch-perfect.

BLOCK: It's interesting if you read the short story and the screenplay side by side--which I wouldn't recommend for everyone, but it's an interesting exercise--there are lots of places in this story that are not dialogue, but that are Annie Proulx's description of emotion or landscape that become part of the script, again not as dialogue but as--I don't know if there's a word for it, but as instructions to the director or to the actor.

Ms. OSSANA: Sort of--it's narrative instruction.

BLOCK: Narrative instruction. There's one I'm thinking of; this is a scene when Ennis and Jack have reunited four years after their original summer on Brokeback Mountain, and they've embraced very tightly, and then they've separated and there's a paragraph where Annie Proulx writes, `Ennis can still smell Jack, the intensely familiar odor of cigarettes, musky sweat and a faint sweetness like grass, and with it, the rushing color of the mountain.'

Ms. OSSANA: Isn't that beautiful? How could you not put that in there? I mean, I felt it was very necessary to have that in the narrative because I knew that ultimately if we were to cast this, we would probably be casting young actors who hadn't had a lot of acting experience, let alone life experience. That's such evocative prose, and I felt it was--it would be an aid to anyone, the actors and the director both.

NORRIS: Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain" with Larry McMurtry. They spoke with Melissa Block. The movie opens today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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