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.