John Clifford
November 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Hobbled by more casting changes than Cher has comebacks, director Ang Lee endured a long hard battle to create his new Civil War movie, ”Ride With the Devil” (opens Nov. 24). First, studio execs at Twentieth Century Fox pressed the 45-year-old director to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as leading man Jake Roedel, a sensitive fellow caught between loyalties to his friends and his heritage. But Lee dug in his heels. He had his heart set on giving the part to Tobey Maguire, who starred in his 1997 film ”The Ice Storm.” ”When I read the book, I knew Tobey was the one,” says Lee. ”It took me an extra half year to NOT cast Leonardo, who was seen as the only chance to get this movie made.”

Luckily — at least for Lee — DiCaprio is said to have nixed the role because he was tuckered out in ”Titanic”’s wake. Lee took the casting shuffle as an opportunity to move the project from Fox to Universal. But that wasn’t the end of his troubles. The search for a hot young star to play Jack Bull Chiles found Lee at odds once again with box office demands. ”I met Skeet Ulrich for the part first, and I thought he looked more right for the role than Matt Damon. But by that time we had to have at least one star,” says Lee. Damon took the role, only to drop out when the chance to star in ”The Talented Mr. Ripley” came along. That was fine by Lee, who was then given the green light to return to Ulrich, his first choice: ”Skeet was pretty perfect for the part. He’s able to play this dashing Virginian aristocrat because he moves gracefully both on horseback and on foot.”

Because he ended up with a cast of lesser-known stars (with the exception of pop singer Jewel, who appears briefly as a war widow), Lee acknowledges that it won’t be easy drawing audiences: ”It’s a risk for this kind of budget. But they’re all good actors, and, as a filmmaker, I’m happy to have all of them.” He adds, ”Tobey Maguire is becoming a big star, I hope. He has a demeanor that’s very believable.” Unfortunately, believability isn’t exactly what made Leo’s fans see ”Titanic” 50 times.

139 minutes
Skeet Ulrich,
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