Brokeback Mountain could have been a very different film. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger may be forever seared into our memories as their iconic characters of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, but as the film’s almost-director Gus Van Sant revealed, he originally intended for it to star Hollywood heavyweights such as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Van Sant, who was initially approached to direct the film before Ang Lee, spoke to IndieWire about the cast he had in mind for the flick. “Nobody wanted to do it,” he recalled. “I was working on it, and I felt we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast. That wasn’t working out. I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no.”
The film’s co-producer Dana Ossana confirmed the news to the publication: “Yes, all those young gentlemen (at the time) turned down the project, for various reasons.”
The 2005 movie tells the tale of two star-crossed gay lovers who fall in love while working together herding sheep, but are kept apart by fears of coming out and family commitment.
As Ossana revealed, finding the role of Ennis proved to be tough. “Casting Ennis in particular was the ultimate hurdle. As the more introverted and repressed of the two characters, Ennis (Ledger) was the more challenging role.” (Ledger died in 2008 after accidentally overdosing from a lethal combination of pills.)
Van Sant stepped down from the project due to differences in creative opinion in the script. “I kind of wanted to go back to the simplest view of the short story, which I couldn’t do … I didn’t really want to go and talk [writer] Larry [McMurtry] and Diana out of what they had created, because it was great,” he said.
Still, he thinks Lee was right to choose actors that were lesser-known at the time. “What I could have done, and what I probably should have done, was cast more unknowns, not worried about who were the lead actors,” he said. “I was not ready. I’m not sure why. There was just sort of a hiccup on my part. There was something off with myself, I guess, whatever was going on.”
The film went on to win three of eight Oscars nominations — the most nominations given for the 78th Annual Academy Awards.