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.