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COVER STORY : Joy, Luck and Hollywood

September 05, 1993|AMY TAN

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.

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