The Makers of 'Taking Woodstock' Ensure Hirsute Historical Accuracy

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

For "Taking Woodstock," director Ang Lee used three types of film stocks, negotiated rights for more than 20 songs and orchestrated a long, complicated tracking shot involving a constantly moving camera, 120 cars and about twice that number of people. But the hardest technical issue he had to solve? Bodies and hair.

"The biggest challenge was to get extras who were skinny but who were not working out all the time," producer and screenwriter James Schamus said to reporters at the Cannes Film Festival in May. "And who still had pubic hair."

Say what?

"When you think about it, that was really a generation of people who weren't fat, but who weren't staring at themselves in the mirror all the time," Schamus observed, "or shaving everything off down there. It encapsulates the difference in 40 years right there."

Schamus has a point. There's a lot of nudity in "Taking Woodstock." Hippie nudity. Which means hairy nudity. And some baby boomer parents -- sorry, grandparents -- may find themselves having to explain to younger viewers that there was a time long, long ago, when most young people let their nether regions grow wild.

That little detail turned out to be surprisingly pivotal in "Taking Woodstock." Perhaps more important than the film's name stars in establishing period authenticity were the extras who were often called upon to strip and go naked. (All that skinny-dipping! All that free love! All that brown acid!) Eventually, their numbers hit critical mass in the tracking shot that depicted the "half a million strong" immortalized in story and song.

For Lee, "Taking Woodstock" represented a chance to shake off the angst and tragedy that have driven so many of his recent films. "I was yearning to do a comedy-slash-drama without cynicism," he told reporters at Cannes. "It took me a long way to get there, but I thought after 13 years I'd earned that right to . . . just be relaxed and happy and at peace with myself."

Schamus concurred, noting that in many ways "Taking Woodstock" represents a prequel to their 1997 drama, "The Ice Storm," about 1970s suburban alienation and ennui. " 'The Ice Storm' was really centered around a very specific technical film problem we wanted to solve," Schamus said, "which was how to film the least comfortable, worst sex scene in the history of cinema.

"The technical problem for Woodstock," he continued, "was how you [depict] sexuality and a real sensuality of life without cynicism."

In many ways, the innocence and optimism epitomized by Woodstock's "three days of peace and music," was literally embodied by the era's youth, who weren't toned, waxed or bronzed into taut, narcissistic perfection. "They were more relaxed," Schamus said simply. "They didn't always have one eye on the mirror."

The laid-back personal grooming habits and slouchy posture of the era became a coded way to communicate tribal affiliation, according to Lee. "I think that relaxation was the way they rebelled against the establishment and their parents," he said. "And it was a way of connecting, to nature and to each other, without saying anything."

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