The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan's 1989 book, inspired by her own Chinese mother, was a surprise hit in the literary world. The Joy Luck Club remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for 75 weeks and was translated into 23 languages worldwide. Before the book was even published, Tan had interest from Hollywood.
Janet Yang, then an executive at MCA/Universal, had read some early drafts of The Joy Luck Club in 1988 and loved it. A full year before the book hit stores, she met with Amy Tan to discuss the possibility of selling the book as a movie project. Since stories about Asian-Americans were all but non-existent in Hollywood, it would be a tough sell.
The project was met with rejection at first. However, when the novel began to climb the Best Seller list, Tan received several offers from Hollywood to option the book. She turned them all down. "I was still not sure the book should be a movie," Tan says in her 2003 memoir The Opposite of Fate. "What if the movie was made and it was a terrible depiction of Asian-Americans?" She was riddled with fear and doubt about what Hollywood might do to her story, and she wanted to be sure of her decision.
In August 1989 Tan met with Chinese-American director Wayne Wang through their mutual agency, CAA. Wang, who had just completed Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), wasn't particularly interested in doing another Chinese themed film. However, he was impressed with Tan's book and was open to bringing The Joy Luck Club to the big screen. The two clicked immediately. "After a wonderful conversation about everything from the book to family to Asians and Asian-Americans in the arts, I knew intuitively that Wayne was the right person to direct the movie," says Tan in her memoir.
Soon Oscar®-winning screenwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man ) joined Tan and Wang to help write the screenplay. Tan had already received a lot of negative feedback from people about how difficult it would be to turn the novel into a script. The novel was too complicated. It had too many characters to keep up with. It had too many different storylines. It didn't have any single cohesive element. Creating a screenplay would be a daunting task, to be sure, but Bass convinced Tan and Wang that it could be done. First, Bass said, all the rules that normally applied to screenplay writing would have to be tossed out the window. There would have to be extensive voice over. It would have to be an ensemble piece rather than a focus on any one particular character. There would be a framing device added of a bon voyage party to pull all the different stories together and help smooth out the numerous transitions between flashbacks. "Ron," says Tan in her memoir, "was the only person I met who knew exactly how to turn the book into a movie."
Meanwhile, Janet Yang, who had been behind the project from day one, was now the Vice President of Oliver Stone's production company, Ixtlan. With Yang's encouragement, Stone became a co-Executive Producer on The Joy Luck Club. Stone said he could help get the film made through a deal he had at the time with Carolco Pictures.
However, the one thing that Amy Tan, Ron Bass and Wayne Wang wanted above all else was to make sure that they maintained creative control of the project. Unfortunately, Carolco could not provide that assurance, and the deal fell apart. Following this setback, Ron Bass convinced Tan and Wang that the only way that they would be able to maintain creative control over the material would be to develop the screenplay by themselves before making any deal.
Tan and Bass completed their first draft of the screenplay in November 1991, and Ixtlan (Oliver Stone's company) circulated it around Hollywood. In March 1992 Tan, Bass and Wang met with executives at the Hollywood Pictures branch of Disney Studios, including then Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. To their surprise, Disney was very interested in The Joy Luck Club. Katzenberg told Wang that the script reminded him of the popular Academy Award-winning film Terms of Endearment (1983). Disney wanted to focus on the story's universal themes. "(Katzenberg) wanted to know that (we) weren't looking to do something that would just play to art houses," Ronald Bass told Entertainment Weekly in 1993. When the trio agreed, The Joy Luck Club had a green light, and Katzenberg handed over the creative control that they had been seeking. It was a victory and a relief. "We would be able to make our movie like an independent production," recalls Tan, "and we'd be supported by Hollywood Pictures."
Before shooting began, the creative trio continued to collaborate on several more drafts of the screenplay. Each contributed an important and unique role to each version of the story. "In general," says Tan in her memoir, "I was the arbiter of character questions - that is, whether a scene seemed true to the heart and soul of what I felt about the characters as I knew them. Ron's hobbyhorse was overall structure and emotional truth...Wayne, we realized, had to be the final arbiter on everything, because he was, after all, the director, and had to feel that everything was as he wanted to see it on the screen."
With a relatively low $10.6 million budget, The Joy Luck Club began shooting in November 1992. The fine cast of almost all Asian-American actors including Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom and Rosalind Chao gathered for 10 weeks of filming on location in San Francisco. Later, the production moved to China for one additional month of location shooting in the midst of some uncharacteristically cold weather.
Despite the positive experience she was having with her first movie, Amy Tan never stopped being concerned over how the final version of The Joy Luck Club would turn out. She knew that the success or failure of the film would very likely determine the future of Hollywood films with Asian-American themes. "That's a terrible burden," says Tan, "especially when you're just trying to create your own vision and not necessarily right past wrongs, or set the record straight on the history of China, or break down cultural barriers, or open film job markets for other Asian-Americans, or put every single stereotype to rest once and for all...Our abiding thought was this: If we could make a movie that seemed honest and true, a movie about real people who happened to be Chinese-American," says Tan, "we would have a better shot at making a movie that people would want to see, that they would be moved by, that would get them talking to their friends and so give the movie legs. It might thus bring in enough receipts to change Hollywood's mind that movies about Asian-Americans can't be successful."
The Joy Luck Club opened strong in limited release in September 1993, and positive word of mouth soon spread. The decision to focus on the story's strengths and universal appeal more than made up for the lack of big stars in the ensemble cast. Disney's gamble had paid off. "Our film is trying to bring to the theater people who are not Asians," Ronald Bass told Entertainment Weekly in 1993, "to have them look up on the screen and see Asian faces and walk away feeling they aren't that different from these people."
Reviews were exceptionally positive. "Handsomely brought to the screen...The Joy Luck Club is anything but a traditional woman's picture," said Janet Maslin of the New York Times. "As directed simply and forcefully by Wayne Wang, with a screenplay skillfully written by Ms. Tan and Ronald Bass, The Joy Luck Club is both sweeping and intimate, a lovely evocation of changing cultures and enduring family ties. Admirers of the best-selling novel will be delighted by the graceful way it has been transferred to the screen. Those unfamiliar with the book will simply appreciate a stirring, many-sided fable, one that is exceptionally well told." Newsweek said, "Melodramatic? Manipulative? Sure, at times, but great storytellers can get away with anything, and the trio behind this film are in that class. Director Wayne Wang and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Tan herself have come up with a shamelessly irresistible tale. The first-rate cast is another treat. Indulge yourself." "Beautifully made and acted and emotionally moving in the bargain," said Variety, "this dramatic study of trying relationships between Chinese mothers and daughters through the century will be widely accessible to all viewers."
Producer: Ronald Bass, Patrick Markey, Amy Tan
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenplay: Amy Tan, Ronald Bass; Amy Tan (novel)
Cinematography: Amir Mokri
Art Direction: Diana Kunce
Music: Rachel Portman
Film Editing: Maysie Hoy
Cast: Kieu Chinh (Suyuan Woo), Tsai Chin (Lindo Jong), France Nuyen (Ying-Ying St. Clair), Lisa Lu (An-Mei Hsu), Ming-Na Wen (Jing-Mei 'June' Woo), Tamlyn Tomita (Waverly Jong), Lauren Tom (Lena St. Clair), Rosalind Chao (Rose Hsu Jordan)
by Andrea Passafiume