Brokeback Mountain: Interview with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger (right) star in Ang Lee’s
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a Focus Features release. Photo: Kimberly French

Films produced from Larry McMurtry’s works have garnered ten Oscars and 34 Oscar nominations, beginning with his first novel Horseman Pass By, which in 1963 was made into the film “HUD,” starring Paul Newman. Larry was previously nominated for an Oscar back in 1971 for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Peter Bogdanovich for their adaptation of Mr. McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show.”

His first attendance at a Hollywood awards ceremony was for the Broadcast Film Critics awards in Los Angeles (January 9th, 2006), and his first writing award ever received in Hollywood was at the 78th annual Golden Globes (January 16, 2006), where he received, along with Diana Ossana, the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay of 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain.”

On February 4th, McMurtry and Ossana won the WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay. They have also been nominated by the Academy of of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for “Brokeback Mountain.” Larry will turn 70 years old on June 3, 2006.

MEGHAN WHITE: Diana, you read the short story “Brokeback Mountain” (written by E. Annie Proulx) and immediately recommended it to Larry. Was your primary intention to adapt it into a screenplay, or did that come later?

DIANA OSSANA: When I first read the short story in October 1997, I knew immediately that this was a masterpiece of a short story, with the potential to touch many, many people. And so yes, it was most definitely my intention to adapt it into a screenplay. I asked Larry to read it because I wanted him to agree to adapt it with me, and to ask him as well to option the rights together with me. We weren’t certain in what incarnation it would reach the screen, although we were fairly certain it would be an independent film with a modest budget. We never did lose faith in the power of Annie’s story or in our screenplay, even though it took eight years to get it up and going. It was worth every bit of hard work it took to get this film made. We feel very, very fortunate

MW: Would Proulx’s story have appealed to you as much if it had been a tale of forbidden love between a man and a woman?

DO: If I had read a story about forbidden love between a man and a woman that were written as powerfully, precisely and affectingly as Annie’s, the answer is yes, of course. But it was THIS story I read—Annie’s story—about a forbidden love between two men.

MW: When tackling someone else’s story, how do you approach the creative process?

DO: We approach the creative process in adapting someone else’s story much in the same way as we would adapting Larry’s and/or my own material. Larry and I are unsentimental when it comes to the adaptation process. We make the same kinds of choices no matter what the source material. When the source material is a long novel, we often find it necessary to cut large portions of the book, and many times simply create new scenes from our imaginations as well. When it’s a short story, it is even more necessary to access our imaginations in order to fill in, flesh out, and create new scenes that aren’t contained within the story itself, in order to enrich the context of the screenplay.

MW: Because you were expanding a short story to accommodate feature film length, you had to delve more into the psychology of the main characters. Who did you find the most fascinating to explore? The most tragic? Who did you relate to the most?

LARRY MCMURTRY: I definitely found the women most fascinating. I always do, even in my own works. My belief is that if one wants to find out about, access or examine emotion, one must go to women.

DO: I found each and every character intriguing, and their specific circumstances tragic in their own way. I relate to all of the characters, and didn’t really think about who was more tragic than the others while writing the screenplay.

MW: Was there one character in particular that was the easiest/most enjoyable to write? Who was the most challenging?

DO: We both found the process of adapting this particular short story a challenge in the sense that the material was written in a very specific manner, both technically and emotionally. We were extremely concerned about staying true to the tone of the story and determined not to veer off into sentimentality nor to lose the language of the characters and the time and place. We wanted the finished screenplay to be as emotionally honest and straightforward as the short story from which it was adapted.

MW: The film’s script had a wonderful element of humor, more so than the short story. How did this evolve? Was it conscious, or did it happen as part of an organic writing process?

DO: The humor in the screenplay was simply a product of the actual writing process, in developing the characters and their interaction. It felt completely natural to us, particularly during their time up on Brokeback Mountain and in the development of their emotional connection. Larry is excellent when writing humor into a script.

MW: Of all the new scenes that were written specifically for the screenplay, do you have a favorite? Was there one in particular that you struggled with writing?

LM: I am affected most by the scenes involving the women. One of the scenes I find particularly appealing is the last scene in the film between Ennis and his daughter Alma Jr (Kate Mara). No scene was any more or less a struggle than another; all of the additional scenes came from our collective imaginations, mine and Diana’s.

DO: I found (and still find) several scenes particularly affecting—the scene where Ennis staggers into the gangway after he and Jack’s first parting; their reunion scene after four years apart; the confrontation scene about Mexico (the last time we see Jack); and the scene when Ennis goes to Jack’s home and interacts with Jack’s parents. All the added scenes were a challenge, but I found myself excited and exhilarated every morning to be returning to the script and doing the actual writing of these scenes

MW: There were some moments from the short story that didn’t make it into the screenplay or film, in particular Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) recollection of a painful childhood experience with his father. Was there any particular reason for the omissions?

DO: Any omissions from the short story to the screenplay were dramatic choices. Most of what is in the short story is contained within the finished screenplay, although when we actually scripted the short story, it only amounted to about a third of the final script. We had to imagine and create the scenes that we added or fleshed out, meaning, essentially, that we had to create two-thirds of the screenplay from our imaginations.

MW: Do you feel there was any significance in Jack’s relationship with his father, and the moment when he finally stands up to his father-in-law at Thanksgiving? How important was this moment for the character of Jack?

DO: Jack’s father was narrow-minded and culturally deprived, not unlike other men who come from similar backgrounds and places. Jack, however, was clearly more open and adventurous about life and the world outside his childhood home, and what that world had to offer.

When Jack finally stands up to Lureen’s father (Graham Beckel) in the Thanksgiving scene, it is a reflection of his own emotional frustrations, not just in his relationship with Ennis, but within his life as a whole. His response to the stud duck father-in-law demonstrates that he has just about reached the end of his patience rope.

MW: When writing the screenplay, did you envision the characters’ aging process, and if so, how did it affect the way you wrote them? For instance, did Lureen’s (Anne Hathaway) physical transformation reflect the growing cynicism of her character through the years of her marriage?

LM: We did envision the characters as we wrote them, as they developed, as they aged and as they experienced their own lives. To us, Lureen’s physical transformation merely reflected her general dissatisfaction and frustration with her life, her disappointments and the realities within her marriage: that she and Jack’s marriage was, at least internally, emotionally superficial and somewhat hollow–though for appearances’s sake, successful.

MW: Larry, when expanding on the characters of Ennis and Jack, did you ever feel an echo of Call and Gus? In his review of Brokeback, Roger Ebert said that you seem to be wondering what your Lonesome Doves would have been like if the characters had been gay. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

The movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. The screenplay is by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. This summer I read McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove trilogy, and as I saw the movie I was reminded of Gus and Woodrow, the two cowboys who spend a lifetime together. They aren’t gay; one of them is a womanizer and the other spends his whole life regretting the loss of the one woman he loved. They’re straight, but just as crippled by a society that tells them how a man must behave and what he must feel.

-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

LM: reading this paragraph, it seems to me that Mr. Ebert is comparing Call’s emotional repression with that of Ennis’s, and relating it more to society’s expectations of them as men, rather than any notion that their sexuality is similar in any way. This seems to be an accurate assessment on Mr. Ebert’s part. Gus and Call’s bond is one of friendship, not passion.

MW: Were there any alterations made to the shooting script that you may have disagreed with initially, but reacted to differently on the big screen? How well do you think Ang Lee’s interpretation of your script honors Proulx’s original words?

LM: In the original script, we had the dialogue in the reunion motel scene and the dialogue soon after up on the mountain occurring all in one scene: in the motel. Ang wanted to divide that dialogue into two scenes, with the scene wherein Ennis returns for his things and has to confront Alma’s (Michelle Williams) confusion in between. We weren’t certain at the time whether or not it would work onscreen, but of course, it does. Ang also questioned whether the audience seeing Alma’s reaction to witnessing Ennis and Jack kissing wouldn’t be too shocking, too powerful for the audience, that their reaction would create a kind of narrative sag in the film. But we argued, convincingly as it turns out, that this scene is pivotal, and that Alma must see them kiss—otherwise, how would she know that her husband was in love with another man? Thus the scene that you see in the final film.

Ang’s translation of our screenplay up onto the screen feels very true to the tone and tenor of Annie’s short story, simply because our screenplay maintains, fleshes out, and expands the emotionally straightforward nature of her writing. Annie herself said that her writing is mainly skeletal, but that our screenplay added the flesh to the long bones of her story. We’re honored she feels that way.

MW: Diana, you were a producer on the film in addition to being a writer, and took a very hands-on approach in the filming process. How close was the set, and what kind of relationship did you develop with the young cast?

DO: Our crew was small—less than 150 people, including all support staff—and so we developed a very familial kind of interaction on set. Each person working on the film at one time or another approached me during filming and expressed to me how much they admired the screenplay, and how privileged they felt to be working on the film, which was both extremely gratifying and humbling, to say the least.

Ang worked very closely with all the actors before filming began. He interacted with each of them, one-on-one and in a very detailed fashion, in order to make certain they understood their characters’ natures and motivations. Once filming began, the actors approached me a few times to ask some additional questions about their characters’ motivations, back stories, why or why not they felt and/or behaved in a certain way. At times they had questions about specific turns of phrase in the dialogue, what a phrase meant or if it were “fish and game” or “game and fish”. One actor didn’t know what “talking a blue streak” meant, for example. I had lived with these characters for nearly eight years, and the actors knew this, and simply considered me a reliable source of information. I also worked with the wranglers and props departments concerning details of authenticity and time and place and simply served as moral support and an information resource as needed on set.

MW: For what purpose did you expand the role of Cassie (Linda Cardellini), and what part did she play in Ennis’ relationship to the women in his life?

DO: Cassie somewhat exemplifies Ennis’s continual denial of his emotional makeup, and his attempts to have what he believed was a “normal” relationship with a woman. After his and Jack’s final confrontation about Mexico, Ennis realizes that it is Jack he truly loves, and he simply cannot continue in his attempts at a relationship with Cassie, thus her confronting him in the diner about his whereabouts and her frustrations and painful realization that she’s not “the one.”

MW: What is your reaction to the film’s warm reception at various critics’ awards, and its leading 7 nominations at the Golden Globes? How do you feel about its sudden transition from dark horse to front-runner, and what are your hopes for the Academy Awards?

DO: The response to our film at the various awards shows has been immensely gratifying. We both feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate, all the way around. We never imagined, when we were writing the screenplay and trying to get the film made, that it would seep into the culture to the degree that it has, that it would enter the zeitgeist.

MW: Do you have any response to the charges by some conservative groups that the film promotes adultery and is anti-family? Do you think there will be a backlash over the film’s critical success?

DO: “Brokeback Mountain”doesn’t promote the “gay lifestyle”, or any lifestyle, for that matter, and there are no winners in its outcome. It is a tragic story about a doomed love between two unremarkable men from working-class, rural backgrounds in Wyoming. It is a realistic story, and a human story, universal in its humanity, but very specific in its detailing of the tragic consequences of a love denied.

Meghan White is a contributing editor to Read her essay on “Brokeback Mountain” in the Editor’s Blog.

  • Steven Coster – London, UK

    A great interview with good questions and not the standard ones about sex sex sex! Well done!

  • An outstanding catch for you Meghan. You’re *really* making a great contribution to the accumulated visions of everyone involved in the making of this outstanding movie. I’m going to link to it on my own site, which is devoted to helping people take Annie Proulx’s story to heart and help them finish the story in their own lives.

    We’re trying to make sure our endings are ultimately happier than Jack and Ennis, and your interview helps document what made such a life-changing movie possible.

    Thanks for the referral. It’s always encouraging to see others who share a passion for outstanding cinema.
    – Meghan

  • Mark Sanders – Santa Monica, CA

    Diana Ossana’s last reply in this interview says it all…it is indeed a realistic story in every sense about the consequences of love denied. Being forced to live a lie is like attempting to escape an ideology which is near to impossible. The tidal waves of emotion in response to this little movie are far from over. It’s a key that has once again unlocked Pandora’s box, and I hope it serves to move people towards greater acceptance versus tolerance of other’s needs.

    Ms. Ossana provided very astute observations regarding the film and was instrumental in bringing “Brokeback Mountain” to so many people across the globe. I’m grateful to have interviewed both her and Mr. McMurtry, and for the opportunity to share these insights with others.
    – Meghan