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COVER STORY : Joy, Luck and Hollywood

September 05, 1993|AMY TAN

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.

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