[Pierre Tremblay, Brokeback Mountain’s first assistant director, was among a very select group of expert filmmakers who collaborated during the summer of 2004, believing that they were making a “limited-interest” “specialty” film. How very wrong they were!
Tremblay generously agreed to share some of his recollections from that special time with Lauren Gurney and Jim Bond. This is Part 1 of his interview. A PDF version of the complete interview is available in Downloads.]
July 21, 2007
Part 1 of 3
Tell us something about your background.
Well, I did a little bit of acting in high school, and small school productions at the University of Alberta, but I actually found my way into filmmaking through news.
I’d intended to pursue a career in news. Being bilingual and having a degree in political science, I gravitated towards journalism where I thought I’d be able to make a contribution.
Once I got into journalism I realized that it was more of a business than I had initially realized. The training I was receiving was really about maximizing audience ratings. I became somewhat cynical about it. At the same time, and at the same school, we had a production department; it was headed by a man who had graduated from USC [University of Southern California] Film School and was well connected in the industry. He ended up corrupting me and pulling me away from journalism and towards production. [Laughter.]
Eventually I slid into production. Right out of school I started as a production assistant, which is the bottom rung on the ladder, an entry level position, and I worked my way up to assistant director over the course of a couple of years.
Share with us some of the other projects you have been involved in.
There have been many features and TV commercials, some of them well known, some not known at all. There was a small Canadian TV show, Jake and the Kid, which was significant to me only because it was my first long-format job away from commercials, documentaries, and news. There I really got to see how a professional set works. I worked very hard on that show for very little money, but it was a great training ground.
Eventually I moved to Calgary and became a second assistant director. I worked on Rat Race, which was another big step for me. It was a massive American feature film. I’d not worked on a film of this scale before, so it was a big step for me, a huge step, to see how a production of that size worked.
There were also many television movies; we make a lot of them in Canada for the major networks. I’ve worked for all of them at one time or another. They involve short, intense assignments, which are excellent ways of learning the craft because you are in a constantly changing environment. The situations—every one is unique—force you to figure out ways to make things work. That is the great thing about my job, but it is also the bad thing about it—you must constantly think about how you’re going to accomplish what you must achieve.
I have also done a number of TV movies. I did one ABC miniseries, DreamKeeper, as a second assistant director, which aired over the course of two nights in 2003. It was notable for me because it was among the most difficult shows I have ever worked on. We had to tell native stories set all over North America. The logistics were demanding. We had to change tribes, actors, locations; we had different everything—art departments, for example—for each tribe.
In the typical film, the start-up period tends to be quite difficult because you are figuring how everything is going to be done and how much time you are going to take, but eventually, after the first week or two, you are rolling and you have everything resolved. But with DreamKeeper, once we would get settled, we had to completely change everything. We had to start-up all over, again and again. We had to move across the province together. In fact, still, whenever people who worked on DreamKeeper get together, we act like veterans who fought in a war together. We invariably end up telling stories about how difficult it all was!
Then there was Brokeback Mountain. That is undoubtedly the highlight of all of the projects I’ve worked on, and possibly of all of the projects that I will ever work on.
How did you learn that Brokeback Mountain was going to be made in Alberta?
From Tom Benz; he was the [unit] production manager. I had just returned from Austria, where I had been working on a production. As soon as I arrived there was a message from Tom saying he wanted to arrange an interview. I did not completely understand the message, so I called him. He explained the situation: he wanted to bring somebody in to be able to work with Michael Hausman and Ang Lee so that some of their knowledge and expertise would remain in the province after the filming was completed. That would benefit the film industry in Canada on another level, apart from the economic advantages and the obvious notoriety associated with having the film made in Alberta. I was interested, but there were other candidates for the position as well.
So we arranged an interview. I was slightly jet lagged when I showed up. I’d read the script, which was phenomenal. That was when I realized what I could be in for. The opportunity I was being presented was incredible. I had done some other research. Of course, I knew of Ang Lee, but I learned more about Michael Hausman, Scott Ferguson [co-producer, and unit production manager], and Diana Ossana. I immediately recognized the caliber, significance, and quality of the project before me.
The interview itself was very interesting. It’s difficult to describe. Michael Hausman conducted the interview and it was very casual. Tom Benz and Scott Ferguson were there. Ang Lee stopped in to meet me; he was there for only a couple of minutes. They made me feel at ease right away as they told me about the project. They were very clear about what they planned on doing.
I think the reason that I got the job was that when they asked me if I had any questions, I asked if they had an idea of what they wanted me to do on the show. And they were not very clear about that, so they asked me what I wanted to get from the show. I told them I did not want to be what is known in the industry as a “match,” that is, somebody that, under union rules, they have to hire locally because they are bringing in an outside person. I didn’t want to simply show up, put in the time, leave, and pick up a paycheck. I genuinely wanted to make a contribution. I did not want to end up a match, which has happened on other shows with other assistant directors I know.
The interview did not last very long, maybe 20 minutes, and I went home and I told my wife, who was, of course, very interested. I explained that they were going to take a couple of days and that there were other candidates. Tom had told me that they were planning to discuss it among themselves and then they had to vet their selection through the hierarchy. So I told her, “We’re going to forget it ever happened.” Then, about 20 minutes later I got a call from Tom Benz, and he said, “They want you.”
I was overjoyed; an extremely happy day!
It was not very long; I think it was two weeks. That just gave me enough time to become a little more familiar with the script and the cast, and figure out who was going to be involved. You never really know when you go into these types of projects what your role will be. You really can’t know unless you have worked with everyone before. I did not know Michael Hausman, Ang Lee, Scott Ferguson, or Michael Costigan [executive producer]at all, and, since they were my direct supervisors, I didn’t know what I was in for. It was “ to be determined.”
I showed up on my first day and it was then that I realized I was going to be very much involved in the production. I was handed the script, and the schedule, by Michael Hausman and was told to do the breakdown, which is essentially taking the script and putting it into its tiniest components—for instance, specifying the trucks that are to be used—in a program called Movie Magic, which is a computer program that tracks all of that information regardless of where you put them in the schedule, and it generates reports that go to individual departments. Then, in my example, there are meetings to determine exactly what kind of trucks, to see what the art department can offer, discuss the options, and find out what the director expects. There are lots of meetings: truck meetings, art meetings, stunt meetings, special effects meetings, meetings within every department. Oftentimes more than one department is involved.
I was given a big part in organizing those meetings and making sure that everyone got their time to raise and address issues. So I was very pleased that from the get-go I was making a contribution. I certainly wanted the education as well, which was also great, because Michael Hausman made certain that I was in his office for all of the high-level meetings with the executives, actors, and agents. All of the high-level meetings. I was invited to be a part of, not to contribute to, but to be there and learn from a master of film how decisions were made. And I appreciated it, and I deeply appreciate it to this day. What I learned there has had a profound influence on the way I do my job today.
Both Lee and Hausman have had praise for the professional expertise and craftsmanship they encountered in Alberta.
Michael Hausman is an instructor at Columbia [Columbia University, New York City], and I came to realize that he is a natural born teacher. When you meet someone who is a natural teacher, you instantly recognize that they love to connect and share with young people. That’s the way he is. He volunteered to put on a master class, in fact he “coerced” Ang, and Tom, Scott, and Diana, to come up with clips from their projects. They brought them to a special seminar and explained their importance, which was unprecedented.
Of course we have made many other films here, but nobody has ever gone to the trouble of putting on that kind of educational presentation for the film community here. It was incredibly generous and so very typical of his approach to filmmaking. So it was not just us trying to please him. He made a point of giving something back to the community. Very special.
With whom did you work most closely?
As an assistant director you have to work with everyone; that is your job. But my direct supervisor was Michael Hausman. Even though technically the production manager would be my immediate supervisor, there was never any question as to who ran that show. Michael Hausman ran that show. And because of that, everything, every decision, went through him. Of course, creative decisions were made by Ang Lee, and script decisions by Diana Ossana, but every decision went through Michael Hausman, and the duties I had, everything I did, came from him.
He made it very easy; he was very encouraging and he was very generous in letting me do my job. He could have quite easily made unilateral decisions regarding just about everything, but he did not. He always included the production team in those decisions. He would gather us together and ask our opinions on anything that came up, and it gave us a good feeling to be able to contribute. He certainly didn’t have to run things that way, but he did.
Can you capsulize what you learned from working with Michael Hausman?
I think the most important lesson I learned from Michael Hausman is that our position is basically one of management. A film is a hard thing to manage; it is, at best, an artistic endeavor. Especially Brokeback Mountain, which is one of the purest artistic endeavors I have ever been a part of. Management does not just mean the schedule, or the paperwork, or being a good communicator, or doing all of the basic things properly, or being thorough. The most important thing about management is that you are working with people—producers, crew, cast, artists—and that you need to hire people to do their best. People look to leaders to be examples. If people respect who they are working for, they will give their best.
Michael Hausman opened my eyes. Rather than adopting authoritative style, he showed me a better way to manage—by inspiration. That is the best way to manage. If people are inspired, they will give you their best. I believe to this day that you can actually see the difference on the screen. I certainly know that there are many films that are not run that way, but I think that the ones that are made by inspiring the cast and crew have a certain special quality, because people give that extra bit.
I’ve known and worked with many of the [Brokeback] crew members for years. Eventually any crew will start to complain, after working for many days, lots of long hours, God knows where, in awful weather conditions. None of that necessarily shows up on the screen, but it invariably happens. It’s only natural for crews to grow weary and complain. In Brokeback Mountain nobody complained.
We have done many westerns here, all sorts of westerns, but in this case there was a definite realization that we were doing something important. There was a sense that we were not part of some money-making machine. We were not here for that. In fact, many of us did not expect that the movie would make much money; we thought we were making a contribution to film. As pretentious as it may sound, we truly believed that we were doing something artistically important. So there was something more in our thoughts than just doing our jobs. Michael Hausman made us feel like we were doing something important. He was the best kind of leader. That’s what I learned. Yes, I learned about leadership.
Because Michael Hausman was the producer he was, Ang Lee left the non-artistic matters to him. Of course, Michael always consulted with Ang, but Ang did not have to worry about production issues because Michael took care of them. And Michael always consulted with others—Diana Ossana, Tom Benz, and so forth—in making those decisions. He held meetings with everyone; everyone was part of the effort.
That way, Ang Lee was able to concentrate on performance, story, visuals—all of the things a director should do. He didn’t get caught up on production, technical, and budgetary things that tend to be distracting.
Ang Lee was really very firm about what he wanted. He was always quite clear about his expectations, then he let Michael Hausman take the reins as the guy out front. Michael “led the charge.” Because Ang was so clear about what he wanted, I learned that if you are doing your job as an assistant director, the director won’t be distracted. If you do your best as an assistant director, a good director will give you his best. Ang Lee is the standard of what a good director should be.
I read that Ang Lee said in many films he had to be a director who pulled people along, but in making Brokeback Mountain he felt as if he was being pushed along by the crew. There is some truth to that. That is ultimately what you want to happen. It speaks to him as a person, and as a professional, that we wanted to do that for him; that we felt the desire to support him, and his creative spirit, in every way.
Again, it was very educational to work with him. I’ll tell you a story. When he first handed me the schedule and started to talk about it, I asked him questions. He did not have a copy of the schedule in front of him. I asked questions about days I thought might be too light, or too heavy, or where travel between locations might pose problems. It was amazing; he was discussing it without anything in front of him. He had absolute knowledge of the material, a detailed document some 20 pages long covering some 50 days of shooting, hundreds of scenes, all across the province; it was all in his head. And he knew it all cold.
And scheduling was just one of Scott Ferguson’s enormous responsibilities. He worked with Michael Hausman on the budget. Primarily the budget and negotiating with the unions. He also negotiated with the park authorities to get permission to bring domestic sheep into the parks, which is completely illegal for good reason. I don’t know if you are aware of this but domestic sheep carry diseases that kill Rocky Mountain sheep, and there were many long negotiations over that issue. All of that was Scott’s responsibility, along with Murray Ord, who is a local producer. It was a challenge to get that access.
Scott’s ability to manage and retain huge amounts of detailed information, and yet be an incredibly personable guy, taught me that a great production manager or assistant director should have complete knowledge of the show. Scott had complete knowledge of the show. Michael Hausman had complete confidence in him, as he should. Scott Ferguson is among the most capable production managers I have ever encountered.
First of all, she is a joy to work with. Brokeback Mountain was not the first opportunity I had to work with her; I had met her on a small miniseries that they made here, Johnson County War. I had a smaller role in that; I just helped with second unit.
Diana Ossana was so great in keeping us focused on the story. I hope that we didn’t need too much reminding, but that was her role. Whenever there was a change that needed to be made it was done very smoothly and, of course, the craftsmanship was unparalleled. I say that not only from a creative perspective—she is a superlative writer—but also from a production standpoint. Pages came out in an efficient manner; she has a good knowledge, an excellent knowledge, of production.
Oftentimes there are problems in production. You do not have access to a certain location, or certain actors are not available; it happens. Some writers do not understand the production implications of what they are writing. They will respond to a problem by writing something that makes a situation even worse. But Diana is not like that. She has an excellent production background so she will rewrite a scene that both makes the story better and also helps production. We admire her quite a bit around here. She is one of our favorite people; I hope that she comes back.
He’s one of the finest people I have ever worked with: a gentleman, incredibly talented, soft-spoken, down to earth, approachable. You won’t find anyone who will have anything other than the highest praise for him as a person or as a cinematographer. What else can I say?
You know the scene in the Mexican Alley, which we teased him about—he was happy to do it! To have that lack of ego and be willing to go to that extent to make a contribution to the film, recognizing that he had already made a massive contribution to the film, it is astounding. He is a remarkable person in every way. I wish he would come back to Alberta.
His technical knowledge is said to be extensive.
You are right. To his credit, Rodrigo Prieto has publically acknowledged the beauty of the Alberta locations, but he did not give himself nearly enough credit for the difficult job he had to do. There were distinctive technical things about that film. So much of it was shot outdoors, meaning that there were different kinds of challenges involved than there are in a film which is mostly made inside the studio. And there are issues with natural light.
Natural light can be a very difficult thing for a director of photography to deal with, especially in the summer in Alberta. You may have noticed how quickly the weather can change here. Of course, you could be shooting a scene for a day, or two days, but you must match the sky light for a scene which will be on the screen for only a minute or two. So that becomes the director of photography’s issue. The sun will be passing through the sky, and I remember specifically that we often encountered clouds. Inconsistent clouds.
Consistent clouds can be fine, because they alleviate the problem of varying brightness and shadows as the sun passes among the clouds. But, unfortunately, we did not have those. The clouds would pass in front of the sun, and I remember specifically many times at the Goat Creek campsite [Campsite #2] when we had to wait for clouds to shoot.
Sometimes we would even do two versions, one in the clouds and one in the sun. Then we’d wait to see which version we had to match! That was very hard on the actors because they had to sustain their performances under both situations. And, at one point, we were literally running between two different parts of a scene, one we had established in clouds, the other we had shot without clouds in sunlight. Fortunately, at that point we were shooting with hand-held cameras, so when the sun came out we would move to the sunny area, and when it was in the clouds we would rush back to the other area. It was the only way to move forward with our day. This kind of thing is very tricky for the director of photography, the actors, and the director. They all know what they were doing.
Of course, clouds were not Rodrigo’s only challenge. When we did the Mexican Alley scene, which was very elaborate and extensively lit, he was able to deal with the complexities of that as well!
[Script supervisor] Karen Bedard?
I love her; she is fantastic. Script supervisor—that is a job for which there will never be any kind of Academy Award, and there absolutely should be one. A great script supervisor, or continuity person, will save your keister several times in any movie, because directors are not necessarily thinking about continuity in a movie.
But a great script supervisor will also point out continuity issues in story or performance, and Karen is at that level; she is one of the top script supervisors. Directors will trust her to tell them when scenes might have some kind of incongruity. I am not referring to just the physical elements, which of course they will point out as well, but also how actors are playing a story line.
I’ve known Karen for many years, and she is incredibly respected by all of the directors for whom she works, and she has worked with many of them because they come from all over the world to shoot here. She is a consummate pro.
Commentators have related the clothing patterns and colors to themes in the story. Yet there is nothing in the script itself about the clothing.
The people who were involved in that decision were Marit Allen [costume designer] and Ang Lee. Ang would probably inform the creative people, but they would be the only people, other than the actors, of course, who would know why they are wearing those colors.
I wouldn’t assume that those are all conscious choices. It could be a case of people infusing things into the film that are not there, though that does not mean that it did not happen. This issue arises in all artistic criticism. I was a student of film criticism early in my career, until I realized that sometimes people put too much faith in the filmmaker, crediting him with incredibly deep decisions when really, much of the time, what appears in the film is simply what looks best. It may not have to do with the story, just that it looks good.
That having been said, a director chooses a color palette for the scenes in a film. The director, the director of photography, the production designer, and the costume designer all engage in very serious discussions and decisions about colors. For instance, Mexico obviously required a different color palette than, say, the rodeo or the dance hall sequences. They are very specific about choosing those colors, and, because Brokeback Mountain is a movie of many individual frames, they are very conscious of the ways in which colors are used in those frames. You can never know with certainty, but Ang Lee is a real artist. He may have gone that deep, but I never heard any discussion about that.
[Part 2 of this interview is available here.]
Revised 05 April 2009