In "The Ice Storm" Ang Lee examined an American family unraveling during the era of Watergate and wife-swapping. The Taiwanese-born director has stepped back a century and turned his camera stateside again for "Ride With the Devil," a Civil War drama based on the battles waged between neighbors along the Missouri-Kansas border.
Adapted from the Daniel Woodrell novel "Woe to Live On," "Ride With the Devil" follows the ragtag band of bushwhackers who fought against Union sympathizers, particularly a first-generation German immigrant (Tobey Maguire) who grapples with his conscience as he befriends a former slave (Jeffrey Wright).
Just Asking caught up with Lee and Maguire at the Toronto International Film Festival for the North American premiere of "Ride With the Devil," due in Buffalo by year's end.
Did you take a look at other Civil War movies or documentaries to prepare for making "Ride With the Devil"?
Lee: We watched a few westerns -- just to check what not to do. For example, slow motion, violins -- I decided not to use those. After a while I figured out what to do with guns and big horse heads that somehow flatter the camera. And after the first couple weeks of shooting, people were saying, "We want to get closer to the characters because we care about them," so we started giving up those wide shots and started using hand-held cameras.
You directed 300 Civil War reenactors in this movie. What was that like?
Lee: At first I was really intimidated because they looked scary to me.
Maguire: They were scary.
Lee: But it was really fun. After a while I didn't understand how I could have made this movie without them. They get paid really little, they bring their own horses, they speak the right accent, and they have the right beard. I could not have paid 300 stunt men to do the same job.
So you didn't have to worry about their fitting the part.
Lee: Well, they're probably overweight for the period. And they all wanted to shoot, but no one wanted to die.
The actors look incredibly gritty in their roles. How did they prepare for them?
Lee: Before rehearsal I would meet with each actor for an hour to talk with them -- just to hear their thoughts -- and then we took it from there. Also, Tobey didn't take a shower for two months.
Maguire: A couple months before shooting, I started riding horses. I had a lot of fun. When you're (riding) in the middle of a couple hundred guys, it's a little scary because who knows what's going to happen? But it's also very exciting, and it's always been a boyhood dream of mine to shoot guns and ride horses and do your own battle cries and stuff.
Other actors in the movie have called Ang Lee a "Method director" and a "mellow taskmaster." You've also worked with him in "The Ice Storm." How would you describe him?
Maguire: Ang works so hard that I don't want to let him down at all. He gets so much out of you and asks so little. He's the great seducer. I think he's got powers we don't really know about.