When Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005, the film drew plenty of comments from the press and the public. After all, this was a movie about a romance between two men – released at a time when mainstream Hollywood was only just ready to explore same-sex relationships. Yet the picture was a critical and commercial success, earning $178 million at the worldwide box office and three Oscars. There are a few things about its creation, however, that may even surprise fans of the two lead actors.
20. 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.” And despite another actor committing to the part, the filmmakers had their hearts set on Heath Ledger – against the wishes of the studio.
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.
19. The film was banned in China
When Brokeback Mountain first came out, the film proved controversial in some parts of the world. In China, for instance, the censors refused to put the movie in cinemas – even though homosexuality is legal in the country. So anyone wanting to see the picture had to make do with bootleg DVDs.
Despite this, the official newspapers of China celebrated director 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.” Still, Brokeback Mountain wasn’t the last film with gay content to be pulled by the country’s censors.
18. 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 on Today, was one reviewer who gave the movie a poor write-up. But the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) was angry about his description of the character of Jack – as Shalit had labeled him a “sexual predator.”
Shalit felt compelled to issue a statement that 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.
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. 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?
Well, 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.”
15. 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 to keep herself in the running. What was it? Well, when Ang Lee asked her if she could ride a horse, the actress answered that she was very good at it. But in fact, she’d never ridden in her life before.
Hathaway did quickly start to teach 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.”
14. 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 to convince him to take a smaller salary when they actually stood to make millions of dollars.
However, Quaid dropped the lawsuit shortly afterward. Later in 2006, a Focus Features spokesperson released this 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.”
13. Ian McKellen wasn’t happy with Jake Gyllenhaal
Ian McKellen doesn’t appear in Brokeback Mountain, but because he is an openly gay actor he was asked about the film in 2006. And he appeared to take issue with something Gyllenhaal had said in the press. 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 had 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 the film probably wouldn’t do much to help gay actors.
12. 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 fact, in 2015 screenwriter Diana Ossana told Out magazine that it had been her daughter who’d suggested Ledger for the role. So she and her co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry sat down to watch Monster’s Ball, a movie in which he starred.
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.’” So the writers sent the script off to Ledger’s agent, and luckily the actor loved it from the moment he read it.
11. 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” while making the picture. He said, “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.
10. 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. So the poster-makers of Brokeback Mountain decided that to convey their film’s themes, they should look back over movie posters of the past. They therefore started 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, the films’ posters – with their designs of two lovers looking away from each other to hint at unhappy endings – do bear some similarities.
9. 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.”
8. Gyllenhaal assumed he would play a different character
Gyllenhaal got plenty of good reviews for his performance as Jack Twist. For instance, 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.
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.”
7. 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.” Incidentally, Ledger had such an intense time on set that he immediately went on to film a comedy, Casanova, once Brokeback Mountain was done.
6. 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. That includes Diana Ossana, who told HuffPost in 2015 that she was left “stunned” by the news.
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.”
5. 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, either, for fear that the animals 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. The conditions? 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.
4. Many actors turned the movie down
Before Ang Lee became the director of Brokeback Mountain, Gus Van Sant was tipped to helm the project. He planned to get A-list actors on board, too. But, he told the website IndieWire in 2018, there were few takers. Van Sant 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.”
3. Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams fell in love on the set
Ledger and Michelle Williams played 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. She said, “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.”
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, for instance, 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.
Clearly, then, Brokeback Mountain is a film people love to return to. But there have been many movies down the years that reward repeated viewings to catch every nuance of sight and sound intelligently inserted into them by their creators. The following 20 snippets of cinematic splendor will almost definitely have passed you by on first viewing, for instance. Please be warned, though, that there are spoilers ahead…
20. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
It’s not uncommon for superhero movies to make subtle references to previous successes and failures in their storied pasts. Sly references to characters from other films are considerably rarer, however, and that’s where Spider-Man: Homecoming sets itself apart. In the 2017 blockbuster, there is a very brief nod to none other than the Incredible Hulk himself – Mr. Bruce Banner. You can spy a portrait of Banner in Peter Parker’s science class among real-life scientific geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. Certainly not bad company for Ol’ Green Eyes to find himself in.
19. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Reloaded may not be the best movie in the mind-bending action trilogy, but the 2003 sequel does feature a rather clever Easter egg. Specifically, if you look closely at the license plates on the film’s vehicles, you may notice that a number of them hold secret references to verses from the Bible. For example, the “IS5416” on the car driven by Hugo Weaving’s character, Agent Smith, seems to nod to Isaiah 54:16. Eerily, that verse reads, “Behold, I have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy.”
18. Cloverfield (2008)
Subliminal audio is not an uncommon phenomenon in the music industry, but rarely does it surface in the movie business. Well, Cloverfield changed all that upon its 2008 release thanks to an ingenious aural secret buried away at the very finish of the film. Director Matt Reeves’ mammoth monster movie features a grand finale that sees an airstrike hit New York City. But is the creature killed in the attack? For those audience members familiar with backmasking, the answer is likely an emphatic “no.” Why? Well, after the end credits to the film have rolled, an incoherent sound clip can be heard. And if played backward, the message suddenly becomes, “It’s still alive.” Spooky!
17. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is so uproariously funny that it’s a good idea to watch it twice to catch all the amusing lines. As such, Adam McKay’s 2004 comedy can probably afford to pepper subtle jokes throughout that are likely lost on many viewers during their first views of the movie. One example is specifically set up for eagle-eyed Spanish speakers, and it can be seen during a moment set in a Mexican restaurant. That’s because the name of the food joint is “Escupimos en su Alimento” – which, in English, means, “We spit in your food.”
16. I Am Legend (2007)
Believe it or not, but there’s a very early reference to a Batman-versus-Superman movie in 2007’s I Am Legend. Indeed, almost the exact same logo that would later be seen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is pictured on a billboard in the post-apocalyptic thriller. I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence shed some light on the subject in an interview with Collider in 2014. Lawrence recalled, “The reason that [the logo] was there is that the producer and writer of I Am Legend, Akiva Goldsman, actually wrote an early, early [draft of Batman v Superman].” Shame the final product was not so legendary when it eventually did arrive…
15. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Okay, so The Usual Suspects is a total mind-messer of a movie from start to finish, but did you know that the big reveal at the end of director Bryan Singer’s flick is hinted at much earlier? Those who have already seen the 1995 thriller – and if you haven’t, cover your eyes now – will know that Verbal, played by Kevin Spacey, is revealed to be master criminal Keyser Soze. But how could we know this before it played out? Because Verbal states that Soze is Turkish, and “sözel” in that language just happens to mean “verbal.” Coincidence? No way!
14. Aladdin (1992)
Surely Disney’s animated fantasy Aladdin is all innocence, right? Well, for the most part, you would be correct in thinking that about the 1992 children’s favorite. However, there is that one bazaar scene in which a darker story is hinted at. Jasmine is caught red-handed attempting to pocket some apples at a market. Then, after being confronted by the stall owner for her fruit-filching crime, Jasmine comes close to losing her hand. However, while our heroine is lucky to come away intact, a very subtle sequence reveals that not all were as fortunate as she. When the camera cuts to the chopping block, we can see some pretty gnarly gouges in the wood – presumably from previous shoplifting reprisals. The moral of the story, then, is to not steal.
13. Fargo (1996)
Most of us have had the misfortune of sitting through movies that make us wonder, “How much longer can they spin this one out for?” Well, in the 1996 drama Fargo, the Coen Brothers address that question directly through the mouth of Steve Buscemi. In fact, the actor relays the information to his co-star William H. Macy – but you would be forgiven for missing it on first viewing. When Buscemi’s character is speaking to Macy’s over the phone, he says, “30 minutes, and we’ll wrap this up.” Potentially, he may just be referring to the deal the protagonists had planned, but a glance at the timer reveals that it also just happens to be the remaining length of the film itself. Cute!
12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Don’t you just love it when one movie series references another? And that situation is arguably even more satisfying when those two franchises happen to be Indiana Jones and Star Wars. George Lucas famously created both and manages a nod to his earlier work in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, if you look carefully during the scene where Indy reveals the location of the Ark, you may just about spot otherwise unexplained R2-D2 and C-3PO hieroglyphics on the pillar behind him.
11. King Kong (2005)
Speaking of R2-D2, there’s a Morse code reference in the 2005 remake of King Kong that even the adept droid would have been left puzzled by. In Peter Jackson’s version of the classic tale, as the approach to Skull Island nears, some coded audio comes through to the captain of the ship. And while the audience is led to believe that the burst of Morse is pivotal to the plot, the reality is wholly different. The message reads, “Show me the monkey.” It’s nice to hear the filmmakers sneak a prime piece of primate humor in there – even if the hidden pun has sailed over most people’s heads.
10. Toy Story 3 (2010)
The Toy Story trilogy has to be one of the greatest and most loved animation series of all time. But did you know that there are some sinister undertones to the third installment of the franchise? That’s because the hotel room number from The Shining pops up a handful of times in Toy Story 3. The digits “237” appear on the number plate of a garbage truck, for instance, as well as in the online username for one of the internet-savvy toys.
9. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Did we need a live-action remake of the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast in 2017? Regardless, the flesh-and-blood flick did feature a welcome and clever little Easter egg that you probably missed on first viewing. The character of Cogsworth, played by the impervious Ian McKellan, spends an age under an enchantment. And, bizarrely, you can see this referenced by looking at the state of the actor’s mustache. McKellan’s top lip adornment is wildly uneven and pointing in different directions – much as the hands-on a clock often do. It’s a supremely sly reference by director Bill Condon to the cruel passing of time.
8. IT (2017)
Need another reason to be terrified by Andy Muschietti’s 2017 version of Stephen King’s IT? Then you’re looking in the right place. During the library scene, when Ben is scouring through the archives, he comes across an old photo that depicts a bunch of kids from the local area. Nothing strange there, right? Well, not if the heavily distorted glimpse of Pennywise lurking behind the unwitting children passes you by. The killer clown’s blurred visage can just be made out on the left-hand side of the photo; the image is so subtle, however, that you would be forgiven for missing “it.”
7. The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed features a rather odd device that conveniently pops up whenever someone is about to die. Whenever you see an “X” on the screen, the overwhelming chances are that the character nearest to the letter is about to meet their demise. Furthermore, the symbol is so prevalent in the Oscar-winning film that several deaths are all signposted by the ominous mark. Now that’s what we call an x-treme attention to detail.
6. The Social Network (2010)
In The Social Network, director David Fincher didn’t miss the opportunity to make a winking reference to one of his most enduring characters. During a scene in the Facebook-featuring drama, Mark Zuckerberg can be seen typing away on his computer. However, if you look very closely, you’ll notice that the link at the top of his screen reads, “Tyler Durden’s Photos.” Of course, Durden is the crazed lead character in Fincher’s Fight Club – an excellent example of two completely separate projects converging.
5. Fight Club (1999)
Speaking of Mr. Durden, the film featuring the character is certainly up there with the best when it comes to missed clues. Yes, Fight Club’s elaborately woven plot features an insane number of hints alluding to its big twist at the denouement – not least whenever The Narrator is in the telephone booth. A notice on the phone itself informs us that the unit cannot take incoming calls; however, Durden manages to get through soon after. This is a very subtle and clever clue that Durden is just a figment of The Narrator’s imagination. Mind well and truly blown.
4. Fight Club (1999) – again
The canny Narrator hint is far from the only Easter egg in Fight Club, however. Indeed, the 1999 film also includes such tiny references that even hardcore fans have probably missed them altogether. A case in point is the priest, who can be seen early in the movie as one of the participants in the initial homework assignment. But did you catch a glimpse of him later on? Chances are that you didn’t, but it appears that the man of the cloth joined the fighting fraternity in the end. Watch it again, and see the father in the throng for the scene in which The Narrator pummels his hapless opponent. The priest has plenty to confess, then, it would seem…
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
We learn from watching Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that the fictional breeding of female dinosaurs is something that is bound to come to an end at some point. However, the solution to this plotting problem can be found near the start of the 1993 blockbuster. Just before he arrives on the doomed island, Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant has a very illuminating struggle with his seat belt. In particular, Grant has a problem connecting the belt because both ends are “female.” This prompts the impatient doctor to tie them together instead; in other words, Grant finds a way, just as Mother Nature does in the film.
2. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s Memento is an incredible piece of work in terms of how intricately plotted it is. And, of course, we find out at the end of the film that Leonard is Sammy – and it was the former who killed his wife, not the latter. But the audience may have spotted this fact earlier than the reveal. During the scene where Leonard talks about Sammy’s time in the insane asylum, Sammy – played by Stephen Tobolowsky – can be seen sitting down. However, just after one of the nurses passes by – and for the merest of milliseconds on screen – Guy Pearce’s Leonard can be seen sitting in for Sammy. Long before the twist transpires, then, the fact that Leonard is Sammy is there for all to see.
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Reservoir Dogs is recognized as one of the very best mob movies of all time, but the 1992 film is also a massive informant. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino litters his feature-length debut with all sorts of ingenious hints and clues. For example, the rat in the pack is plain to see if you pay very, very close attention. Yes, the orange balloon that follows Nice Guy Eddie’s car, the stacks of orange bottles on the table in another scene and the exposé of the tell-tale nature of Mr. Orange early on all point prematurely to the fact that Tim Roth’s character is the snitch.