What’s it like watching your first novel become a movie? For Amy Tan, it was as unlikely an experience as “The Joy Luck Club” was an unlikely bestseller. The book, the interwoven stories of four Chinese-American mothers and their contemporary-minded daughters, has sold more than 275,000 copies in hardcover and had 33 printings in paperback since it was first published in 1989. And Wednesday, the $10.6-million Hollywood Pictures production of Tan’s novel, written by Tan and Ron Bass and directed by Wayne Wang, opens here and in New York. Calendar asked Tan, 41, to write about her experiences dealing with Hollywood, from her initial feelings about the movies to her first look at the finished film.
I was an unlikely person to get involved with filmmaking. I’ve never had a particular infatuation with Hollywood and tabloid stories of its stars--well, maybe I’ve taken an occasional glance at gossip having to do with Robert Redford. For the most part, though, I’ve always preferred to daydream about characters of my own making. At the same time, I didn’t hold any grudges against movies as an art form. I wasn’t tearing my hair out, vowing, “As God is my witness, I’ll show the world how movies really should be made!” Simply put, I was neither fan nor foe.
During the last decade, in an effort to control how I consumed my time, my appetite for television and movies dwindled to anorexic level. I spent whatever available time I had reading or writing. Until recently, I was not in the habit of “going to the movies,” although, because of a nine-month book promotion schedule, I occasionally saw them as “in-flight entertainment” but on anemic-colored screens. From time to time, I rented videos of former box-office hits. My choices took into consideration which movies my husband might enjoy as well. In other words, no tear-jerkers about reincarnated lovers and such.
But there was a time in my life, childhood, when I thought movies were the ultimate luxury. Perhaps once a year, my parents gave my brothers and me 50 cents each to see a matinee with friends--real doozies like “The Angry Red Planet,” “The Fly,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Flower Drum Song,” although not “The World of Suzy Wong” (too adult, according to my parents). I also saw “The Parent Trap,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Old Yeller,” “Flubber,” “The Absent-Minded Professor"--a lot of Disney movies.
I wanted to draw the cartoons that went into animated films. Mostly, however, I saw old movies on television, my favorite being “The Wizard of Oz,” which I watched faithfully every year, and continued to be awed by, especially when I saw it on another family’s color television set. I identified with Dorothy, a girl who felt she was misunderstood and went searching for a sense of home. Plus, she had the greatest shoes, ruby slippers, which could take her anywhere her heart desired. But Kansas? If I had been in her shoes, I would have stayed in Oz and started a new life there as a torch singer.
Shoes actually became an imaginative device for me as a fiction writer, especially if I was writing about a period outside of my life experience. I would literally place myself in my character’s shoes, look down at them and start walking. When I looked up, I would see the scenery in front of me, say, China in the 1920s. I would note what was to my left: a doorway, the light streaming through. To my right, a group of people staring at me critically. Up close: a coffin holding a woman, who no longer sees falseness or faults in others.
Now that I think of it, perhaps my imagination has always worked very much like a movie camera, at least in terms of visual framing. And like the camera, I do five or six “setups,” as I now know them to be called, those camera angles that are required to capture each scene from all the various audience perspectives. In fiction, however, I am both the audience and the character. And I never see the back of my own head.
Moreover, fiction, as opposed to film, allows me to include any characters I want; I don’t need a casting agent. I can write a scene with 5,000 angels dancing in the sky; I don’t worry about costumes, or special effects, or choreography, or liability insurance. In fiction, I can revise ad nauseam, tossing out hundreds of pages at a time, as well as the expensive locations that come with them. I can invent new characters, remove others. I’m not on a 77-day writing schedule. No union fines me if I make my characters work through the scenes with me after midnight or on the weekends. My characters do not become upset when I tell them I’ve eliminated their scene. Nor do my characters ever change my lines and ad-lib something better.
A fiction writer has the perquisites of solitude, artistic freedom and control. She has the luxury to go into a funk for two weeks and not get anything done. Why would any writer in her right mind ever consider making a movie instead? That’s like going from being a monk to serving as a camp counselor for hundreds of problem children.
I can only say that I went to Hollywood for many of the same reasons Dorothy found herself in Oz. I met a lot of remarkably nice people along the way. And they had heart and brains and courage.
DIDN’T ANYONE WARN YOU?
In 1988, before my book “The Joy Luck Club” was published, I attended a screenwriting workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in northern California. I went partly because it was a plum to get into the program, and largely because I felt I could learn techniques about character development that would also benefit my fiction.
The 10 other participants and I attended these sessions to discover where our best stories came from, the answer being from our worst life experiences. We collaborated on an adaptation of a short story, during which I discovered how much I preferred working solo. Writing in tandem seemed like a feat of coordination not unlike those three-legged races I used to run as a kid. How many different ways can a character enter a doorway? Ask four screenwriters.
At the workshop, we also heard war stories. One novelist-turned-screenwriter was still gnashing his teeth in regret. They had taken his literary novel, trampled it with pat formulas, padded it with shapely thighs. In the hierarchy of power and respect, they treated him as though he ranked somewhere below bacteria. They kicked him off the set. Later, he had to endure watching the movie in an audience that included his squirming literary friends, all of whom developed simultaneous coughing fits.
“Did you feel the movie ruined your novel?” someone from the workshop asked. “No,” he said. “It ruined my life.” Yet, later I heard he was doing another screenplay. Why? What was the addiction?
THE BLOW BY BLOW
As best as I can remember, here is the chronology of “The Joy Luck Club” being made into a movie:
October, 1987: Went to China for the first time.
November, 1987: Sold the book proposal to Putnam.
March, 1988: Met executive Janet Yang of MCA/Universal. Janet had read the three stories that my agent had sold to Putnam as the basis for a book. We met in an outdoor cafe in San Francisco’s North Beach, and there she told me how much she loved the stories, how she sensed she was reading about herself. That’s all she wanted to say, that she was a fan. As I recall, she felt that the book as a movie would be a hard sell. But should there be interest once the book was out, she would be waiting in the wings to help in any way.
March, 1989: “The Joy Luck Club” was published. After two weeks, it hit the bestseller lists, much to everyone’s surprise, including mine. While I was still trying to reason that all this was a temporary fluke, my literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, started to field inquiries from movie and television producers. She advised that we get a film agent, and to that end she linked me up with Sally Willcox of Creative Artists Agency, who handles a number of authors.
During the next few months, in between my book-promotion responsibilities, I met with a dozen or so producers or studio execs. Out of these meetings, we received about five or six offers to option the book. I did not accept any of the offers, because I was still not sure the book should be a movie. Of course, one could get option money and the movie might never get made. But I had this little worry running through my head: What if the movie did get made and it was a terrible depiction of Asian-Americans? What if the movie showed the women wearing coolie hats and tight dresses slit up their thighs? What if they were given them pointy, red-lacquered fingernails that they used to stab their philandering white boyfriends? (Don’t laugh--Lou, my husband, saw those exact images on television the very day I received one of those option offers.)
August, 1989: Met Wayne Wang. After a wonderful conversation about everything from the book to family stories to Asians in the arts, I knew intuitively that Wayne was the right person to direct the movie--if ever there should be a movie. Most of all, I was glad to meet him, and we thought we could work together on something in the future regardless of what happened to the movie. I thought I could learn something from him creatively--about stories, about the emotion of an image.
January, 1990: Wayne and I met screenwriter Ron Bass at the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles. Ron was the only one I ever met who knew exactly what to do to turn the book into a movie. He began with a specific analysis about each of the families depicted in the book. I had read many reviews of my book, but his insights about the characters as people--and not literary themes--made me feel that he knew this book better than I did.
Wayne and I mentioned the problem of so many stories, so many characters, how everyone thought it was impossible to make a coherent story out of the whole book.
“Impossible?” Ron said. “Why is it impossible? Let me tell you a few of my ideas.” He then pulled out a yellow pad with two pages of an outline. “First, we keep all the characters, all the stories. Second, we do what everyone in the industry tells you not to do: We use a lot of voice-over. Third, we use a wraparound that allows us to tell the stories through an ensemble, no single lead character.” The book as movie can succeed, he said, only if we break all the rules. And for the next hour and a half, he explained in detail how the rules would be broken.
Ron also thought I should be involved in the screenwriting. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to leave the book in these guys’ hands and go on with my work as a fiction writer. But then Ron said something irresistible to a writer: “I think I could help you find the poetry of the scene .” You have to realize that Ron used to be an entertainment lawyer. He knows exactly what to say to people to get them on his side.
We agreed on a handshake that we three would form a team. We would also seek creative control. Those two conditions were inviolable, and, without them, I would not option the book. The way I figured it, we had about a one-in-a-million chance of getting a movie made, but if it did happen, we’d have a great time.
Spring, 1990: Oliver Stone agreed to be our executive co-producer. Janet Yang, who was by then vice president of his production company, Ixtlan, had set up a meeting with Oliver. We met over sandwiches at an editing studio in Santa Monica where Oliver was cutting “The Doors.” Oliver said he would help us make “Joy Luck Club” under his deal with Carolco.
Fall, 1990: But, after six months of negotiating, we found the contract did not really guarantee us the creative control we required, so we walked away from the Carolco deal. Meanwhile, Oliver and Janet continued to help us try to find financing elsewhere. They agreed to serve as godfather and godmother, helping us find the best resources for making the film.
January, 1991: After the Carolco deal fell through, Ron believed the only way we would have a chance at creative control was to develop the screenplay “on spec.” Ron, Wayne and I then spent three days outlining the entire script in a narrative format that could then be plugged into the grammar of a screenplay.
August-November, 1991: Ron and I completed the first draft of the screenplay.
March, 1992: Met with Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Kathryn Galan and Henry Huang of Disney and its Hollywood Pictures. (Galan, then a Hollywood Pictures vice president, is now an independent producer; Huang is still a Hollywood Pictures creative executive.) Katzenberg had already read the script, and after an informal discussion, we had a handshake deal. Katzenberg gave us exactly what we wanted: creative control. He expressed enormous respect for Wayne as a filmmaker. We would be able to make our movie just like an independent production, and we’d be supported by Hollywood Pictures, headed by Ricardo Mestres.
Later, in Premiere magazine, I read about the “control freakism” that reportedly runs rampant at Disney. Naturally, I wondered what would really happen in our association with Disney.
October, 1992: Filming began.
February, 1993: China filming began.
March, 1993: Photography completed.
April, 1993: Saw the first rough cut.
I TAKE A MEETING
I can safely say that no one I met in Hollywood resembled my imaginings of a high-powered Hollywood type, with the possible exception of Oliver Stone, who happens to look exactly like Oliver Stone. I pictured women who wore a lot of makeup, tanned men who smoked cigars. Most of the film people I met were surprisingly young and obsessively healthy, at least compared to writers I know. They sipped water, not bourbon. They didn’t smoke. They wore jeans or leggings, baseball caps and running shoes. They drove Ford Broncos. Of course, I didn’t realize until later: That was the Hollywood type.
The one Hollywood-ish trait I noticed with great delight is that some of the producers I met during the early days of book-option talk would mention Bob, Jane, Steven and Francis, as if I too were on a first-name basis with Redford, Fonda, Spielberg and Coppola.
Another surprise: There was never an organized agenda to the meetings. People talked in broad, imprecise terms. I thought it was code for something else, shorthand for all kinds of criteria. But now that I’ve been in the business for a while, I realize that people leave the precision points to the lawyers.
I’ve always felt people treated me with respect, in fact, with such enormous respect that I felt like a fraud. Much to my surprise, given all the horror stories I’d heard, no one ever discouraged me from being part of the filmmaking process. They wanted me to be involved as much as possible. In fact, I was told I would be a producer, along with Wayne, Ron and, later, Patrick Markey, who came into the picture during pre-production. But why was I a producer? The reasons: I had selected the director and the screenwriter, we had developed the script on spec, we asked for and got creative control. Given all this, I often felt enormously guilty, especially during the production phase, when I was at home writing fiction and not sweating (or freezing) on the set with everyone else.
I still find it rather odd to see my credits on the screen as screenwriter and producer. When I first started this whole process, I didn’t know what any of the terms meant: spec , development , turnaround , green-light , above the line , below the line , scale , production , post , the bond company , principal photography , second unit --let alone all the credits, which I used to skip watching at the end of a movie: first AD, gaffer, best boy, PA and so forth.
The only part of moviemaking that I dislike is the business side. And there is a lot of business. By my own choosing, I’ve tried to stay away from business as much as possible. The person who handled all those business details was Patrick Markey, bless his heart. I thought he had the worst job as producer--talking to people about money and contracts and stuff. Yet he never tired of the details and, amazing to say, never lost his sense of diplomacy.
SEMINAR IN SCREENWRITING
The day the bombs fell on Baghdad, Ron, Wayne and I started to outline the screenplay. I would characterize our meetings as intense, extremely organized, filled with humor and mutual respect. We had a few minor differences in work styles. Ron Bass liked to get up at 2:30 a.m. each day and start writing; also, he ate only one meal a day, dinner. Wayne and I were more leisurely, preferring to start at 8 or 8:30, and for some reason, gosh darn it, we needed lunch, which we often ate while continuing the meetings. Ron worked with yellow pads and a box of 100 pre-sharpened pencils. I worked with a laptop and portable printer.
We first discussed the major elements of the movie, the emotional moments, as well as our viewpoints on the use of voice-over, subtitles, flashback and so forth. We then began to outline the entire movie, scene by scene. As a platform for discussion, Ron had already allocated how many pages each scene should take. Three pages for the opening party. Four and a half for the revelation of the letter from June’s Chinese half sisters in Golden Gate Park. And so on.
I didn’t have a lot to contribute in those early days, since I barely even recognized the terms being bandied about. I volunteered to be the chief scribe, taking notes on my laptop. Ron and Wayne worried that I was denigrating myself. And I told them I had no problems whatsoever with self-esteem. I knew when to lie low, until I had something to say, but when I got up to speed, they would definitely know it. For now, I was happy to be the screenwriting student, soaking up as much as I could. I asked a lot of questions. How does this scene make a transition into the next? What should we feel at the end of this scene?
After three days, we had 60 single-spaced pages of notes, a narrative form of the script. I volunteered to do the first draft. Ron would then revise my draft, which would allow me to learn from my mistakes. And then we would revise each other, making sure we both agreed on every single word, especially in dialogue. The process of collaboration turned out to be, much to my relief, more like a relay race than a three-legged one. It fit my work style perfectly--to be engaged in intense creative discussions first, then allowed to go off and write by myself. In between our internal drafts, Ron and I would meet with Wayne to get his take on how the script was going. We felt it was important that the three of us should be in alignment at every step of the process. We were on the phone with each other almost daily.
Our collaboration was so thorough that by the time we saw the movie during screenings, we often could not remember who wrote what. In fact, there’s a particular line the audience seems to love, where the daughter character Rose says to her mother, “I like being tragic, Ma--I learned it from you.” Ron and I argue over who wrote that line. He says I did. I say he did.
Looking back, I can’t remember any major disagreements. Certainly we had “discussions,” and when we didn’t reach an immediate consensus, both Ron and Wayne would start pacing like expectant dads. The project itself was always paramount, and each of us seemed willing to find a solution that was satisfying to everyone.
And so our “disagreements” went like this. Ron would say, “I’m concerned.” Or Wayne would say, “I’m worried.” Or I would say, “I’m confused.” We would then discuss the problem, separating out each strand of what was both important and problematic. And in this logical way, we’d get rid of the problems, without sacrificing what was essential.
I’d characterize Ron, the former lawyer, as our chief negotiator in most cases. For example, if I said something like “I’m worried about this line; it seems wrong,” Ron would then say, “Tell me exactly what bothers you about it.” And I’d start off being nebulous, because I really didn’t know what to say specifically: “It just doesn’t seem like something a Chinese mother would say.” And Ron would further probe: “Is it the words or the thought or the emotion?” And so on and so forth, until we had saved the baby, but had thrown out the bathwater and added a nice warm towel instead.
I LEARN TO ARGUE
Looking back, I can’t remember any major disagreements. We handled our differences in this way throughout the entire project: the screenplay development, the casting, the filming and the editing. While we each shared equal creative control, I think we eventually took on specific roles as arbiters. In general (but not always), I was the arbiter of character issues--that is, whether the scene seemed true to the heart and soul of what I felt about the characters as I knew them. In general, I would say Ron’s hobbyhorse was overall structure and emotional truth--e.g., did the specific “beats” of the scenes lead to what we intended? Was each emotional moment truly earned, or did it get shorthanded and seem contrived? We realized Wayne had to be the final arbiter on everything, because he was, after all, the director, and he had to feel everything was as he wanted to see it on the screen.
There was only one time when I didn’t get what I wanted. It was late afternoon and we were all a bit punch-happy with fatigue and the natural high of knowing we were inches from having the script we all wanted. Ron and Wayne decided we needed a new scene, a sex scene between a young woman in the 1940s and the man she has fallen in love with. To me, the idea of a sex scene was an automatic red flag for exploitation and gratuitous thrills. Ron and Wayne asserted the importance of showing how quickly and thoroughly the character lost herself to this playboy. I bantered back that they just wanted the requisite sex scene because they were boys. They bantered back that I was nervous about seeing a sex scene with a character who emotionally represented my mother.
Our “discussion” degenerated from there:
“Just how do you see this sex scene happening?” I asked.
“They’re at the back of the nightclub stage,” Ron said.
“Onstage? In public?”
“No, no, it’s after hours. And Ying Ying is leaning back as the playboy starts to kiss her tenderly, then more passionately--"
“Right, standing up. And then the bad man starts to brutally make love to her--"
“I see. . ..Does he make love to her from the front or the rear? You see, I have to know these things, because it makes a difference whether we get a PG rating or an R.”
“From the front, of course.”
After Wayne added a few more details having to do with silhouettes and voice-over, he said, “All right, we agree then--let’s write the scene.”
And I stood up and said: “You two want to do the scene, you write the scene. How long does it take you guys to do sex? Five minutes? Great, I’m going out now for the postcoital cigarette.” And when I shut the door behind me, I could hear them howling in the background. Anyway, that was the best time I ever had not writing something. And now that the scene is on the screen, I’m rather fond of it.
THE ASIAN QUESTION
From the beginning, I had a fair amount of cynicism about the possibilities of turning a book about Asian-Americans into a movie. I knew there would be no big-name stars, no male lead, no car chase scenes or trains being blown up. I tried to figure in my head what a movie could possibly do to distort the story into something commercial and appealing to a mass audience. Turn it into a interracial love story? I had this internal dialogue running through my head in which a high-powered producer says to us, “Loved the book, loved the script. Only one thing I’d change: Make the mothers and daughters Russian.”
Fortunately, nothing even close to that ever happened. Or, at least, we never met anyone who would have suggested such a thing. But I do think we understood the doubts about this movie without having to speak about them. How would a movie about eight non-Caucasian women play in Peoria?
I discovered that there were already quite a fair number of Asian-American directors on the scene. Most of them were making independent films that were shown in small art houses, if at all. They couldn’t get enough financing to do anything commercial. And we knew that if a studio sunk money into a film about Asian-Americans and it didn’t earn back its money at the box office, it might cast a pall on the future of other films about Asian-Americans. So, yes, I’m aware of the fact that Hollywood might look at “The Joy Luck Club” as some sort of proving ground.
That’s a terrible burden, especially when you’re just trying to create your own vision and not necessarily right past wrongs, or set the record straight on the history of China, or break down cultural barriers, or open up film job markets for other Asian-Americans or put every single stereotype to rest once and for all. I think that if we set out to do all those things, we would have been looking over our shoulders all the time, running scared, and would have been completely unable to make a movie that was personal and intimate, that had more to do with universal emotions than specific cultural issues. Certainly, the movie’s context is Chinese-American. But the subtext, or the heart of the book, has to do with emotions we all have.
Our abiding thought was this: If we could make a movie that seemed honest and true, a movie about real people who happened to be Chinese-American, we would have a better shot at making a movie people would want to see, that they would be moved by, that would get them talking to their friends, that would possibly give the movie legs, that would possibly bring in enough receipts to put Hollywood’s mind at rest that movies about Asian-Americans can’t be successful. And then, maybe, just maybe, many negative assumptions about Asian-Americans on the big screen would then be called into question and rethought.
I’m encouraged thus far by the advance reactions to the movie by test audiences. By far, the response is to the universal aspects of the movie, the heart of mother-and-daughter relations. And this, in turn, seems to leave people feeling that Asian-Americans are not so different (meaning “inscrutable” or “mysterious”). One blond-haired young man in a focus group said, “I never had sisters, but after seeing this movie, I feel I have four of them.”
I know there will be people on the watch for political correctness. “Why was she married to a Caucasian?” “Why aren’t there more positive male role models?” “Why isn’t there more having to do with the issues of American versus Chinese culture?” I know from reactions to my fiction that there are people who believe that the raison d’etre of any story with an ethnic angle is to provide an educational lesson on culture. I find that attitude about art restrictive, as though an Asian-American artist has license only to create something that specifically addresses a cultural hot point--and not a work that is about human nature and happens to depict that through Chinese-Americans.
I also realize the reasons why the attitude prevails. There are so few Asian-American artists who get heard or seen by the mainstream. And so people naturally get anxious that those who have the limelight have the responsibility to address the problems.
I’ll also be curious to see how the critics review the movie. With the book, there was a general tendency to compare my work to that of other Asian-American authors. One reviewer with the New York Times compared my book to “Shogun,” “The Good Earth,” “Spring Moon,” “Woman Warrior"--in other words, any book that had to do with Asia at large. Will our movie be compared to “Flower Drum Song,” “The Last Emperor,” “The Karate Kid,” “The World of Suzy Wong,” “M. Butterfly"--purely on the basis of face and race? Would it ever get compared to other stories largely about women, say, “Terms of Endearment,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Beaches”?
Come what may, I’ll be curious to see the reactions.
THE TRUTH ABOUT DISNEY
Obviously, I’d be in a bad spot discussing working with the people at Disney if I had loathed it. Happily, that’s not the case. Disney said we had creative control, and that’s what we got. Sure, we got notes on the rough cut. But Ricardo Mestres and Jeffrey Katzenberg seemed to go out of their way to assure us that the notes were only suggestions. We had the final say. We did take some of their suggestions, of course, but there was never any pressure to do so. Could we tighten the pacing at this point? We looked at it--sure. Would the scene be better if the mother lashed out in anger at the daughter as well? Let’s try it and find out.
From the beginning, they seemed very supportive and enthusiastic. We’ve also been included on marketing and distribution plans, as well as publicity and such details as the making of the trailer. By “included,” I mean that people from Disney frequently called me, not just Wayne and Ron and Patrick. I was also invited to a lot of business meetings, most of which I declined to attend.
I know that the budget was a problem. It would have been nice, of course, to have had a $20-million budget like most mainstream movies, instead of $10.6 million, especially when some of that money was eaten up by acts of God and the Union. For one thing, California’s seven-year drought decided to take a hiatus right when we started filming. It rained nearly every day. And then we went to China and nearly froze in the rain there. One scene in the script showed a family leaving their home in the midst of a drought. While sitting in a downpour, I x’d out drought in the script and wrote in flood . Also, a lot of the cast and crew became sick, yet we had to keep shooting. We couldn’t afford not to, especially when we’d lost some time when the peasants in some of our locations staged riots. Riots? I learned later that’s standard fare for shooting in China.
To sum up, I’d say Disney was a terrific studio to work with. They were great in giving us support and creative control; they were watchful about the money. We got a little extra money in the end, no Mercedes sports cars as bonuses. But, after all, this is a business. And they did believe wholeheartedly in this movie, when others had doubts.
ON THE SET
I was asked to participate as much as possible. I asked not to be included in any final casting decisions. I didn’t know anything about acting, and, more important, a number of my mother’s friends from the real Joy Luck Club were trying out for parts. Can you imagine me telling one of the real Joy Luck aunties she didn’t get the part? Fortunately, some of them actually got parts as extras--as did my mother and Janet Yang’s parents. Also, my niece Melissa Tan is one of the 4-year-olds with a speaking part.
I should mention that I also landed a part as an extra--or rather, two parts. One required me to dress in 1940s garb and wear a Betty Grable hairdo. I looked hideous and pleaded with the editor to “make sure you take out that scene.” The other extra part stayed in the movie. Ron and I are extras who walk into a party scene with his two daughters, Sasha and Jennifer. Ron is talking on a cellular phone, and I’m apologizing for being late, then nagging Ron to call his lawyer back later. None of this is in the script, of course. I can see how extras can get carried away with their bit parts, always trying to steal the scene.
As a result of seeing take after take, I can never watch one particular scene without getting a stomach ache. In it, a character named Harold (played by Michael Paul Chan) is eating from a container of ice cream. He eats it, take after take after take. Then Wayne calls for another setup. Michael Paul eats it again, take after take after take. After six setups, I was sure he was going to explode.
I now have enormous respect for what actors do. And I have great respect for how Wayne treated them--always with respect and gentleness, yet remaining persistent in getting their best performance. In fact, in the same scene, Harold’s wife, Lena (played by Lauren Tom), gets angry, then crumbles emotionally with fear and confusion. I thought each take was perfect, but Wayne would find some element of her performance--say, a certain tentativeness, or the fact that she had stumbled over a word--and he’d ask her to keep exactly that, that vulnerability. They’d do another take, and the scene was even better.
I was amazed to see the sets that Don Burt, the production designer, had built. It was as though he had taken a piece of my imagination and fully furnished it. In fiction, one can throw in a few interior-decorator touches--the plastic on the furniture, the framed photo of a dead ancestor--but the production designer has to put in everything, including the fingerprints next to the light switch. I felt guilty seeing all the work done on the sets--as though I hadn’t written about the details with as much care and devotion.
I went to the set maybe once a week in the beginning, then almost every day during the last two weeks of principal photography in the United States. That’s when Wayne anticipated he’d need Ron and me to make fast changes to the script, which we did indeed have to do every day. To stay on schedule, Wayne was shooting something like six or seven pages of script a day--which I understood to be a lot.
I went to China at my own expense and attended almost all of the filming there. If Wayne asked me to make scripts changes, I told him he had to give me a chit for breakfast. Filming in China was a definite hardship but completely absorbing. I wore seven layers of clothing and was still freezing. At one point, I was shaking so hard I knew I’d get hypothermia if I didn’t get out of the wind. So I went and sat in a van. The amazing thing is, Wayne and the rest of the cast and crew continued filming. Of course, I would have stayed out there if he really needed me, but I figured I shouldn’t have to die just to prove I was a trouper.
One of the most ironic comments I heard during a test audience focus group had to do with the scenes we shot in China. I think the scenes are stunning--so stunning, I guess, they strain credibility. To wit: A woman in the focus group said, “All the scenes were gorgeous--until we got to China. You should get rid of those matte paintings. You can tell they’re fake.” I turned to Wayne and poked him: “You see? We didn’t have to suffer in the freezing rain after all. We could have used better matte paintings.”
I CRIED MY EYES OUT
I saw all the dailies, most of them on video format at home. I cried throughout the making of the movie. I was very moved by what I was seeing. I was exhausted watching what the actors went through. At major stages, Ron and I worked with Wayne and the editor, Maysie Hoy, as the movie was being cut. That process was fascinating but tedious. I ended up thinking Maysie was a saint.
Around April, I got to see a first rough cut. I was supposed to watch it and take notes of problem areas and such. But I was too mesmerized to do anything but watch it pretty much like an ordinary moviegoer. I laughed, I cried. The second time I saw it, I said to Wayne: “I want you to remember this day. We’re going to get a lot of different reactions to this film later down the road. But I want us to remember that on this day, you, Ron and I were proud with what we’ve accomplished. We made our vision.”
Ron insisted that I come to the test previews because there I’d get one of the biggest highs or lows of my life, seeing how a real audience reacted. Fortunately, it was the former. I was surprised, though, whenever people laughed during a scene I never considered funny. I suppose it was one of those ironic laughs, in which one recognizes the pain of some childhood humiliation.
I’ve now seen the movie about 25 times, and I am not ashamed to say I’m moved to tears each time.
By the time you read this, I will have seen the movie with my mother and my half sister, who just immigrated from China. So that’ll be my version of life imitating art, or sitting in front of it. I’m nervous about what my mother will think. I’m afraid she’ll be overwhelmed by some of the scenes that are taken from her life, especially the one that depicts the suicide of her mother.
I hope those in the audience are moved by the film, that they connect with the emotions and feel changed at the end, that they feel closer to another person as a result. That’s what I like to get out of a book, a connection with the world.
As to reviews, I’ve already imagined all the bad things that can be said. That way I’ll be delighted by anything good that comes out. I’m aware that the success of this movie will depend on good reviews and word-of-mouth reactions. But there comes a point when you’ve done all you can. And then it’s out of your control. Certainly I hope the movie’s a success at the box office, mostly for Wayne and Ron’s sakes, as well as the cast and crew who worked on this. And certainly I hope Disney feels it was more than justified in taking a risk on this movie. By my score, however, the movie is already a success. We made the movie we wanted to make. It’s not perfect, but we’re happy with it. And I’ll be standing in line, ready to plunk down $7 to see it.
In the meantime, I’ve got a whole mess of Chinese lucky charms that are absolutely guaranteed to bring the gods to the theater.
I’VE LEARNED MY LESSONS
At different points in the making of the movie, I vowed I’d never do this again. It’s too time-consuming. It’s rife with ups and downs. There’s so much business. I’ve developed calluses and a certain sang-froid attitude about some of the inherent difficulties of filmmaking.
Yet, against all my expectations, I like working collaboratively from time to time. I like fusing ideas into one vision. I like seeing that vision come to life with other people who know exactly what it took to get there.
My love of fiction is unaltered. It’s my first love. But, yes, I’ll make another film with Ron and Wayne. It’ll probably be my second novel, “The Kitchen God’s Wife.” We’ve already started breaking the scenes out with page counts and narrative text. We started the day after we saw the first rough cut of “The Joy Luck Club.”