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COVER STORY : Joy, Luck and Hollywood

September 05, 1993|AMY TAN

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.


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.

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