When it was released in 2005, Brokeback Mountain drew plenty of comment. It was a romance between two men released at a time when Hollywood was only just ready to explore same-sex relationships. Despite being banned in some territories, the film was a big success. And there’s a few things about its creation that even fans of the two lead actors might not know.
20. The writers wanted Heath Ledger after seeing Monster’s Ball
Heath Ledger was an up-and-coming young star around the time Brokeback Mountain was being written. In 2015 screenwriter Diana Ossana told Out magazine that her daughter suggested Ledger. So she and her co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry sat down to watch a movie he starred in, Monster’s Ball.
Ossana remembered, “I had Larry watch Monster’s Ball, and he watched it until Heath’s character killed himself, and he stood up and said, “I can’t watch any more of this, it’s too brutal — but that young man is Ennis.” They sent the script off to Ledger’s agent, and luckily the actor loved it from the moment he read it.
19. Ang Lee was “half asleep” making the movie
Ang Lee, the director of Brokeback Mountain, won an Academy Award in 2006 for helming the movie. However, he’s humble about his success to say the least. In 2019 he told The Star newspaper he was, “practically half-asleep making it. I just secured the actors and got them to perform. The shots are boring, really basic.”
Lee went on, “I just make pretty shots. It’s the easiest thing. Shoot some pretty shots, I can do that all day. It’s, like, really easy. I had limited time, and the actors were great, Texas was good. It was a gay drama and I didn’t think many people would see it.” He was, of course, wrong on that front.
18. The movie poster was based on a famous one
If you’re selling a romantic movie the poster needs to be instantly recognizable as something, well, romantic. The poster-makers of Brokeback Mountain decided that in order to convey their film’s themes they should look back over movie posters of the past, and starting searching around for the most acclaimed romantic movies and their corresponding posters.
In 2005 Focus Features co-president James Schamus told Newsweek magazine, “If you look at our poster, you can see traces of our inspiration, Titanic.” Indeed those posters, with their design of the two lovers looking away from each other to hint at an unhappy ending, do bear some similarities.
17. Jake Gyllenhaal was scared about the love scenes
In a 2005 interview with the website liveabout.com Jake Gyllenhaal talked about some nervousness he’d experienced on set. He said, “When it came to doing love scenes and stuff like that, the best metaphor I can give is that it felt like [me and Heath Ledger] were both like, ‘Are you ready? Yeah. Let’s go,’ and we dove off the boat into the deep end.”
Gyllenhaal went on, “It’s like when you’re terrified of the water, you see a little kid thrown in the water and they’re trying to get back to the boat as fast as they can. That’s what it was like. But at the same time when we were there we really went for it.” Gyllenhaal also admitted he couldn’t remember a lot of those scenes.
16. Focus Features weren’t sure about Ledger
In a 2015 interview with the radio station SiriusXM Progress, the Brokeback Mountain screenwriters discussed the process of finding someone to play the character of Ennis. It was, Diana Ossana said, “the most difficult role to cast.” Another actor had actually committed to the part, but the filmmakers had their heart set on Heath Ledger.
And yet, Ossana said, “The studio didn’t feel he was macho enough. I thought that was a rather odd comment. But we just sort of stuck with it.” When the first actor backed out of the project — Ossana wouldn’t say under what circumstances — she was able to call up Ledger’s agent and get him involved again.
15. The film was banned in China
When it first came out, Brokeback Mountain proved controversial in some parts of the world. Although homosexuality was in fact legal in China, the censors of the country still refused to put the movie in cinemas. Anyone wanting to see it had to make do with bootleg DVDs.
Despite this, the official newspapers of China celebrated Ang Lee’s Oscar win, with China Daily writing, “Ang Lee is the pride of Chinese people all over the world, and he is the glory of Chinese cinematic talent.” Although unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain wasn’t the last film with gay content to be pulled by the country’s censors.
14. Ledger was really good with the horses
One thing Gyllenhaal always remembered about Brokeback Mountain was how good Ledger was with the animals. He remembered in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Heath, you know, would walk up to a horse and could like silence the horse. Just literally he’d be like, ‘Shh. Shh.’ And then he’d get on the horse.”
An old interview from Ledger himself attests to this. In 2005 he told straight.com, “I grew up in Australia, where you are around farm folk, and I think there is something universal about someone who spends all day on horseback. Even when they get off, they walk like they are still on the horse. I adore horses and horseback riding.”
13. A film critic had to apologize for his review
No film is universally acclaimed on its release and Brokeback Mountain was no exception. Gene Shalit, the film critic of The Today Show, gave it a poor review. But the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) were angry about his description of the character of Jack, as Shalit had labelled him a “sexual predator.”
Shalit felt compelled to issue a statement which said, “I did not intend to use a word that many in the gay community consider incendiary…I certainly had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone in the gay community or on the community itself. I regret any emotional hurt that may have resulted from my review of Brokeback Mountain.” GLAAD accepted the apology.
12. Gyllenhaal assumed he would play a different character
Gyllenhaal got plenty of good reviews for his performance as Jack Twist. When the movie was released, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said, “Gyllenhaal may be full of charm and easy affability but you miss none of the longing he harbors, or the frustration which slowly begins to coarsen him.” Yet Gyllenhaal didn’t expect to play that role initially.
As a matter of fact Gyllenhall assumed he would play Ennis. He said to liveabout.com in 2005, “I thought, ‘Oh Ang will probably want me to play the Ennis part’ because I’ve played much more isolated characters before, and that’s a very obvious, very actorly way of thinking about it. Because, actually, Heath and I as people are really more of the characters that we play.”
11. Heath Ledger almost broke his hand
One scene in Brokeback Mountain sees Ledger’s character punching a wall in desperation… but it wasn’t scripted. In 2015 Anne Hathaway told Out magazine, “The plan was for him to put his face against the wall — that’s what the shot was supposed to be — and he just wound up punching the brick.”
Hathaway went on, “Everyone was freaking out because it was a real wall. It wasn’t a movie brick wall. It was a f**kin’ brick wall. And he did it, and they got it, and they said his hand was mangled. He might have actually broken it.” Ledger had such an intense time on set he immediately went on to film a comedy, Casanova, once Brokeback Mountain was done.
10. Ledger found the kissing scenes “surreal”
Much was made of the love scenes between Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s characters. In 2010 Gyllenhaal remembered it all. Speaking at the New Yorker Festival, he said, “We just basically went up and slammed our mouths together. We were the instruments for something that was much bigger than both of us.” But what did Ledger think?
Before his untimely death Ledger gave an interview to The Guardian. In January 2006 he said, “It was certainly a surreal moment the first time I had to kiss Jake. But once that was done, I quickly realized that it didn’t make me want to run out and do it again. And you think, okay, what’s the next shot? Those scenes were just a small part of the package.”
9. Anne Hathaway told a lie to get cast
Anne Hathaway really wanted to be in Brokeback Mountain, and she really wanted to play Lureen. So she told a little fib in order to keep herself in the running. When Ang Lee asked her if she could ride a horse, she answered that she was really good at it. In fact, she’d never ridden in her life before.
Hathaway quickly began teaching herself how to ride before filming started, but it wasn’t quite enough. She remembered to Out magazine in 2015, “I went to a rehearsal in front of 300 extras, all of whom work in rodeos, and the horse wouldn’t do a damn thing I wanted it to. And at the end it threw me — in front of everyone.”
8. Diana Ossana wasn’t able to watch the film for a while
As the world knows, Heath Ledger died of an accidental sleeping pill overdose in 2008. Though it may have been a blow to the industry of moviemaking, it was of course a much bigger one to those who knew him. These included Diana Ossana, who told HuffPost in 2015 that she was left “stunned” by it.
Ossana told HuffPost, “To be honest with you, I haven’t been able to watch the movie since he died. I’ve watched it probably 150 times before that. But since he passed away I haven’t been able to watch the film. And I’m destined to watch it again. I’m hoping that I can get through it.”
7. A wildlife biologist was hired for the sheep
One unexpected problem on the Brokeback Mountain set was the sheep. There were lots of them and getting them from place to place proved difficult. The wildlife authorities wouldn’t allow the filmmakers to take their sheep into the mountains for fear that they would either be killed by predators or spread disease.
The animal authorities eventually decided that the moviemakers could film with the sheep on the mountain if they followed some strict rules. They had to stick to one isolated mountain, they had to count and check the sheep every day, and they had to have a wildlife biologist to oversee everything. The movie crew agreed.
6. Randy Quaid sued the filmmakers
Randy Quaid, who played the sheep farmer Ennis and Jack work for, ended up suing the Brokeback Mountain producers in 2006. His complaint was that the filmmakers had sold the film to him as a low-budget endeavor so as to convince him to take a smaller salary, when they actually stood to make millions.
However, Quaid dropped the lawsuit shortly afterwards. Later on in 2006 a Focus Features spokesperson released the statement, “Focus Features never negotiated, offered or agreed to any settlement agreement with Mr. Quaid or his attorneys, but we are happy to put this behind us, and do wish [him] all the best.”
5. Many actors turned the movie down
Before Ang Lee became the director of Brokeback Mountain, Gus van Sant was tipped to helm the project. His plan was to get A-list actors on board. But, he told the website IndieWire in 2018, there were few takers. He said, “I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no.”
IndieWire emailed Diana Ossana for confirmation, and she told them, “Yes, all those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons.” The lack of willing actors discouraged Van Sant. He told IndieWire, “What I could have done, and what I probably should have done, was cast more unknowns, not worried about who were the lead actors.”
4. Ian McKellen wasn’t happy with Jake Gyllenhaal
Ian McKellen doesn’t actually appear in Brokeback Mountain, but because he was an openly gay actor he was asked about it. And he appeared to take issue with something Gyllenhaal had said. McKellen declared, as reported by World Entertainment News Network, “I got very upset when one of the actors said it was the most terrifying job he’d ever had because it involved him kissing another man.”
The veteran actor went on, “Imagine how rude that is. Suppose I’d said the most appalling thing I ever to do was kiss Helen Mirren!” In fact, McKellen seemed fairly ambivalent about Brokeback Mountain in general. Asked about it at another point in 2006, he said it probably wouldn’t do much to help gay actors.
3. Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams fell in love on the set
Ledger and Williams were playing husband and wife in the movie, and while filming they fell in love. In her 2015 interview with Out Diana Ossana remembered that at one point Williams had to go to the hospital for a twisted knee and, “Heath was not about to let her go alone, and as he was getting into the vehicle with her he was smoothing her hair back.”
Ossana went on, “I remember him looking at her, and she looking up at him with these wide eyes. She was almost startled by the attention he was giving her, but you could see it every day from thereon. For him it was truly love at first sight. He was so taken with her.” Ledger and Williams went on to have a daughter together, but they split up in 2007.
2. Ledger refused to make jokes about the movie
Heath Ledger wasn’t up for jokes about Brokeback Mountain’s gay love story. In a 2019 interview with Today Jake Gyllenhaal explained, “He would never joke. Someone wanted to make a joke about the story or whatever, he was like, ‘No. This is about love.’ Like, that’s it, man. Like, no.”
In fact, Ledger even refused to present the 2007 Oscars because he thought homophobic jokes might be involved. In 2020 Gyllenhaal revealed to Another Man magazine, “I remember they wanted to do an opening for the Academy Awards that year that was sort of joking about it. And Heath refused.”
1. The movie inspired some to come out
Brokeback Mountain was a big moment for many people. In 2018 the Focus Features website posted an interview with writer and journalist Dave Cullen, who said, “Watching Brokeback Mountain, I was thinking, ‘This is us too. This is me.’ I was just as deprived because I was just as scared as Jack and Ennis.”
And members of the Brokeback Mountain production team were also inspired. In her 2015 interview with HuffPost, Ossana revealed that two crew members came up to her just a week after filming started and let her know that they, too, were gay. For them it was a very powerful movie to be part of.