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?