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Proulx, McMurtry and Ossana Discuss Adapting “Brokeback Mountain”

Author Annie Proulx joined Larry McMurtry and screenwriter Diana Ossana at the Denver Press Club Saturday to discuss the adaptation of Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” into the new Ang Lee film of the same name. Film critic Howie Movshovitz moderated the panel, and the three writers made it clear in their answers to his questions that their work on “Brokeback” generated few disagreements among them, as they all shared a similar “collective vision.”

Proulx wrote the story about eight years ago, and said it was “generated by years and years of subliminal observation. But the incident that actually made me start writing it was one night when I was in a bar in Sheridan, Wyoming—the Mint bar. There was a ranch hand I used to see. This guy was back leaning against the wall by the pool tables. The bar was packed with good-looking women, and he wasn’t looking at them—he was watching the guys….He was about sixty, and he watched them with a kind of subdued hunger that made me wonder if he was country gay.” She counted back from his age and decided to set the story in the ‘60s, when he would have been a young man.

Proulx said that when she was first approached about turning “Brokeback Mountain” into a screenplay, she “was terrified because this wasn’t my idea of a story that could be made into a film. It’s the sort of thing that Hollywood has been avoiding for a hundred years, and it would call for great acting.” Proulx stressed that the rural Wyoming landscape of the story was integral to it, and that she “feared that the landscape would be the first thing to disappear.”

Diana Ossana, who has partnered with Larry McMurtry in writing screenplays for many years, first read Proulx’s story in The New Yorker when she was staying up late with a case of insomnia. “My first impression was that the story was about these very macho guys, working class fellas, who were doing this ranching job, and then all of the sudden they’re in a relationship.” Ossana was moved by the landscape and “the picture [Proulx] painted with the words. They were spare, precise, evocative, and unsentimental.”

Ossana was staying in McMurtry’s home in Texas when she discovered the story, and the next morning she urged him to read it. McMurtry said, “You know I don’t read short fiction.” Once he finally consented to read the story, he was so struck by it that he said, “Only twice in my life have I read something that I wish I’d written—this story and Grace Paley’s ‘Faith: In A Tree.’” That same day Ossana called her manager, and when she explained that she wanted to buy the screen rights to a story about “a doomed love between two ranch hands in Wyoming in 1963,” her manager asked, “Are you out of your mind?” Ossana and McMurtry called Proulx that day, and paid for the rights out of their own pockets, something McMurtry said he’s never done before. Proulx agreed to sell the rights to them because she felt they were “two extraordinarily fine writers who understood the place and the people.”

McMurtry said he thought the story was “perfection. A genius-level story.” And so when they wrote the first draft of the screenplay, “we used every single line and sentence and stuck to Annie’s language like a tick.” This resulted in a 60-page screenplay, and then Ossana and McMurtry “amplified it on lines Proulx had suggested, mostly adding in the characters’ domestic lives.” [Correction from McMurtry and Ossana (see comment below): “When we first scripted only what was contained in the short story, those pages only comprised about one-third of the final script for Brokeback–about 35 pages of script. The shooting script was 110 pages long; the other 75 pages were added by us.”]

Proulx said that the three of them had no disagreements over the screenplay. “The journey was seamless,” she said. “I’ve come to the point where I think I wrote half of what they wrote.” Proulx said that it had taken “eight years to exorcise these characters from my mind, and when I saw the film they roared off of the screen and into my head with a ferocity I didn’t think was possible.”

Movshovitz asked if the original story gained anything from its film adaptation, and McMurtry, whose devotion to the story is clearly complete, said that it didn’t. But Proulx said that she “came to realize that film is hugely powerful. The film plugged into the great myths, though it also chipped away at a few.” She also said that when she wrote the story, “the last thing I’d been thinking about was gay rights, but the film does raise this issue because it touches on this great, universal sorrow.”

Ossana explained that the only aspect of the story that the film could not capture was the “beauty of the prose. The dialogue is very spare. These men are from a non-verbal culture, so in the screenplay, I wanted to have the quality of [Proulx’s] prose, to direct the actors in the stage directions, which is rarely done.”

Movshovitz asked the panel, “What makes the West so powerfully cinematic?” And Proulx explained, “This is one of the most powerful landscapes on earth and everybody who roams it knows it. There’s a visceral, unexplainable, indecipherable force that binds people to this place. I’ve known people from here who’ve gone east and they become just heartsick to be back here again.” She also explained that the “central mythology of this country is about the West. It’s the most perfect setting for everything. It’s got balls.”

All three writers seemed to be thrilled with the final product, which was sensitively directed by Ang Lee. As McMurtry explained with what would appear to be his highest measure of praise, “It says what it needs to say and then it shuts up.”

For a review of the film Brokeback Mountain see Brokeback Mountain: The Best Contemporary Realistic Western Ever?

About Jenny Shank

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10 comments

  1. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry

    Hello Ms. Shank–

    Thank you for your thoughtful article about our panel last Saturday in Denver. We just wanted to clarify one thing: when we first scripted only what was contained in the short story, those pages only comprised about one-third of the final script for Brokeback–about 35 pages of script. The shooting script was 110 pages long; the other 75 pages were added by us.

    We’re so glad you enjoyed our discussion. It was quite a lot of fun for the three of us as well.

    All best,
    Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry

  2. Ms. Ossana and Mr. McMurtry, thanks for your comment. We have noted the correction in the story. And thanks for your fine work!

  3. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry

    Dear Jonathan Weber,

    Thanks for your attention, and thank you, too, for your generous comments regarding our little film.

    All best,
    Diana and Larry

  4. I replayed the dvd over and over but I still could not understand the last line Ennis says as he buttons Jack’s shirt. What was it, please? Such a sadness. Thank you, Michele

  5. Ennis says, “Jack, I swear…”

  6. That was rather enigmatic. Can you explain what he was referring to? Thanks very much, Michele

  7. I think I’ve figured it out on my own. He’s living with a ghost. The shirt keeps coming unbuttoned, and the picture needs straightening, often, right? Gosh, so sad, Michele

  8. He is not living with a bleeding ghost! When Ennis says, “Jack, I swear…” it is simply meant to break the last bit of your heart that wasn’t ripped to shreds by the rest of the film. It wasn’t an enigmatic line at all. He just misses Jack and he can’t get over it. That’s what love’s all about in the movies, no?
    Stop reading too far and throwing ghosts into films where there were previously none.

  9. i think this movie is very truthful and very inspireing i am a girl and and all my life i have thought i was confused i never new what i was and i never told anyone upuntill the 8th gread i thought hey if i like both then i must be gay or bi as i called it and then i just reasntly i have watched this movie and it has enspiered me to take a chance and to find out who and what i realy am becuse of this movie i found out that u cant say your one thing then know your something elts i thought this movie was amazing it showed what love realy is no matter if its with a guy or a girl its love and you cant excape it people say oh yeah brokeback is just a gay cowboy movie and they are dead wrong you cant say something about it unless you have seen it i dont know mabey becasue of my experiances i might be a little bias but what the hell its a realy good movie and if your all about the romatics abouit love then this is the movie for you but if your a homophob then i would seggest not watching this but then again mayby u should t see that we all arethe same we all love in the same way! i just thought this movie was incredable!!!!!!

  10. I am a 47 yr old heterosexual woman who has been married for 20 years with two sons. I saw Brokeback Mountain a couple weeks ago for the first time. I can honestly say that I was profoundly affected by this film. This was a love story that just happens to be between two men. Unfortunately, due to intolerance at that time and place, it became impossible for these two men to nurture their relationship. This was a tragic love story. Annie Proulx is a wonderful author. I have since read her collection of short stories “Close Range – Wyoming Stories” and it gives you a good perspective of Wyoming and the difficult lives that perhaps some residents might have had. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry did a wonderful job of making Annie Proulx’s work into a wonderful screenplay which produced a truly remarkable film. I’m only sorry that it took me so long to see the film (and read the story).