GS: What year was that?
JY: That was in '82-'83. It was bought by the Disney Channel. Other than that I had had no hands-on experience working on a real production. And obviously it was on a different scale. There were 5,000 extras in period costumes on the first day of shooting for Empire of the Sun. That movie could not have been made earlier and it could not have been made later. Just that little window of time because Shanghai has changed so much.
Janet Yang was producer of the acclaimed People vs Larry Flynt (1996), starring Woody Harrelson. The actor is in costume for a scene in which the notorious porn publisher throws a satiric Fourth of July party.
GS: It was actually shot in Shanghai?
JY: The evacuation, the big crowd scene, all those exteriors shots were actually shot in Shanghai.
GS: What role were you playing on that film?
JY: My official title was production advisor. I helped set up the whole shoot. There were very few people who knew anything about China. It was a six-month production for a three-week shoot. We needed all six months. We had to get all the permits, running up and down the ladder. It was clearly a big big big deal and the approvals came all the way from the top levels of the government -- the State Council all the way down to the city level.
The good news was that the government was much more centralized then. Once we got all the proper approvals, we literally shut down the whole city for quite a few days, the big days when we had to mobilize the police and all the firefighters. And [everyone was] basically told to stay off the streets. They had this big conference there. 'Okay, the city has to shut down.' It was also possible to recreate thirties Shanghai then because it hadn't changed that much. All the skyscrapers hadn't been built yet. Also today a movie like that couldn't be shot in the same way. There would be a lot more digital effects and whatever.
GS: You were like Moses holding back the Red Sea.
JY: We did it because we had unlimited labor. We had the approval of the government.
GS: That was under Amblin and Universal?
JY: It was actually a Warner Brothers studio project. I was officially an employee of Universal but I was on loan to Warner Brothers and Amblin. Steven and Skip were good friends and they basically said, “We need somebody like Janet to work on this project.” I'm not being immodest. There was nobody else who knew China at the time. China was barely waking up, compared to what it is now. It was not on people's radar at the time.
GS: You had been hired by Universal in '85?
JY: At the end of 85. And then I was doing that other distribution job for a while. So part of the time I was doing a little of both. But my boss Skip was always very very nice, has always been very supportive of my career. He said, “This is a huge opportunity -- you really have to do it.”
GS: So you really got started on the nittygritty end of production.
JY: That experience was not to be recreated. There was really little entertainment in Shanghai, few distractions. So just a lot of good quality time I got to spend with Kathy and Frank [Marshall]. We would go bowling at the hotel with the crew. We had a chance to spend a lot of time together. They were wonderful with me. After that experience they asked me what I wanted to be. They asked me to be an Amblin executive. I was essentially transferred from the Skip Paul division of Universal to the production division. When it comes from Amblin, Kathy and Frank, people said, 'Okay.' I was really not qualified for the job. I got lucky or whatever, but that's how that transition happened.
GS: You really hadn't done anything literary or creative before that.
JY: Not per se, but they just felt comfortable with me. They got to know me pretty well. I did have to read a couple of scripts to get my feet wet.
GS: So they gradually worked you into that side.
JY: When Kathy was considering it, she asked me to read a couple of scripts and made sure I wasn't really dumb. [laughs]
GS: Seems there are a few other Asians with business backgrounds on the production side.
JY: There are a lot of people period with a business background. I went to business school but that was to compensate for my total liberal arts education. I had some notion of wanting to have my own company back then. I realized that business school was more to fill that hole.
GS: So then you got pulled into Joy Luck Club through Kathleen Kennedy?
JY: I didn't get pulled into it at all. I pulled. It was during that period that I was acting as an executive at Universal and I was not working exclusively on any project. I started thinking about what kinds of project I wanted. The first project that came to fruition years later was my idea to make a movie about Bruce Lee. I thought of that after I walked out of La Bamba. It was a movie about someone you wanted to know about who happened to be Hispanic. I wanted to make a movie about someone who happens to be Asian. Who would that be? Of course, Bruce Lee!
GS: This was about '87?
JY: This was about 87, 88. Tom Pollock was now the head of the studio at Universal and he said it was a great idea. I tracked down Linda Lee and had meetings with her. We ended up getting her rights. I passed the project on to Rob Cohen who was a producer at the studio. We started meeting with writers. I ended up leaving the studio to go with Oliver. Rob [Cohen] had the project, continued to work on the project and he ended up directing it. So that was the first thing.
GS: It wasn't released until much later.
JY: It may be '93, maybe later.