NY Locations Add Authenticity to “Taking Woodstock”

Cannes Film Festival

Focus Features

Enhanced incentives and tax credits offered by the state of New York, coupled with a production team’s desire for authenticity in location and setting, allowed filmmaker Ang Lee and his team on the new film “Taking Woodstock” to indulge in their flower-power fantasies with six weeks of location shooting in the same area that the renowned rock gathering took place 40 years ago this month. The comedy, about a Catskills, New York family whose run-down hotel and forward-thinking son (Demetri Martin) inadvertently play a major role in the creation and legend of 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, is produced and distributed by Focus Features, which will release it theatrically on Aug. 28.

Filmmaker Lee has lived in New York State with his family for the past 23 years and has worked in the general area twice over the course of his past 11 features: His first film, 1992’s “Pushing Hands,” which concerned a retired Chinese Tai Chi master who moves to Westchester to live with his family but struggles to adjust to a modern American lifestyle, was filmed in Westchester. And 1997’s “The Ice Storm,” Lee’s acclaimed adaptation of Rick Moody’s 1994 novel about Seventies suburban angst and ennui set in an upscale Connecticut town, was primarily shot on location in nearby New Canaan, Connecticut, one of the country’s most affluent communities.
In late spring 2008, location filming for “Taking Woodstock” was set for New York State’s Columbia and Rensselaer Counties, as well as a couple of days in New York City. Shooting of the film began in August, 2008, 39 years to the week after the actual event and in the same general area where it was mounted.

“Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock,” says Lee. “But we don’t think of it as ‘White Lake’or ‘Bethel,’ we say ‘Woodstock.’ We filmed just east of Woodstock. The real place doesn’t look like the old days; people are probably still suing each other and we didn’t want to go anywhere near that.”

The majority of the 42-day shoot actually took place in the town of New Lebanon, in Columbia County, marking the first time that a major motion picture had been filmed there.

“We shot at the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town near New Lebanon,” Lee said in a recent interview. “We found this hotel you see in the movie which was pretty perfect.  We had to make acres of mud by bringing it in and making a mess. It had to be so thick you could not take your foot out.”

The hotel, a primary location for the film, is the “retired” but still intact Valley Rest Motel, which was put back into temporary operation, re-dressed and restructured by production designer David Gropman and his crew to represent the El Monaco, the Catskills motel owned by “Taking Woodstock” author Elliot Tiber (portrayed in the film by Demetri Martin as Elliot Teichberg.)  The El Monaco provided headquarters and housing for the Woodstock Festival’s promoters and crew, not to mention a handful of musicians.

“True to the actual motel and all of those Catskills motels of that era, everything was painted white,” says Gropman on re-creating the El Monaco. “We did put little splashes of color on some of the trim and doorways – working from photographic records and re-creating what Elliot had done.”

“Taking Woodstock” is one of the first films to take advantage of a newly devised group of enhanced (by 300%) incentives and tax credits that the state of New York began to offer in April, 2008. Governor David A. Paterson and the New York State Legislature agreed to raise the New York State Film Production Credit to 30% of qualified costs, which is three times larger than the credit it replaces. As a result, the production ‘Taking Woodstock’ generated an estimated $8 million to boost the local economy and spent nearly $25 million throughout New York State.“ (Unlike some states, New York’s credit is fully refundable, meaning that if a production does not owe any state taxes, the credit earned will be treated as a refund.)

 “We were thrilled when we heard that ‘Taking Woodstock’ decided to film in New York,” said Pat Kaufman, Executive Director of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development. “Competition for film business is fierce, and we’ve seen other states trying to draw our business away with an array of aggressive programs. But our enhanced tax credit has attracted over 90 film and television projects since it was increased in April, and is projected to generate $1.4 billion of spending in New York State.”

“’Taking Woodstock’ is a New York story, but without the enhanced tax credit incentive we never could’ve filmed in New York,” says executive producer Celia Costas. “We were so thrilled when we heard about the tripling of the tax incentive. Columbia County was the perfect location, and the community was fantastic. Rarely have any of us had a better location filming experience. The people from the town of New Lebanon, and throughout Columbia and Rensselaer Counties, were warm and welcoming and became terrific partners in the experience of making this film.”