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Manifest Destiny

GS: Did you get a credit on that?
JY: I got a thanks or something. I didn't get credit because I couldn't work on the project. First of all, as an executive you never get credit anyway. So had I stayed on as an executive I wouldn't have gotten credit. But when I left it was still so unripe, we didn't really have a script.
Janet Yang
Janet Yang received the Golden Globe for an HBO movie called Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995). Shown with Abby Mann, the writer and co-producer.

GS: You had pulled all the elements together but not actually begun production?
JY: We didn't have the elements because Rob wasn't planning to direct at the time. So he was just producing it and I was just the executive on the project. I didn't have enough clout to say, “Oh, I want to produce it.” The other thing that happened was I was in New York with Kathleen Kennedy and we were meeting with publishers. A woman named Phyllis Gram at Putnam had paid an unparalleled amount of money for a first-time novelist. She said, “We only have a small part of the novel and it's not even connected yet. We read three or four short stories. We just fell in love with them. We paid a huge amount of money and we don't even know what we're getting yet. You might enjoy reading it.” She gave me a couple of chapters. They were three discrete short stories that ended up being a part of Joy Luck Club.

GS: So she was trying to sell it to you?
JY: I don't know if she was actively selling it. She was curious in a way. Selling it in a way and curious about the reaction. She thought I would like it. I read them right away and I did gobble them up and I had never read anything like it. I had read very few novels about Asian Americans and none that I could relate to. I had read Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston and I thought they were interesting but I didn't really relate. This was the first time I read something that I thought, “Oh, somebody's found my life!” So I ended up calling Amy in San Francisco. We got together and she started sending me chapters as she was writing them.

GS: You read them before they got to the editor?
JY: Well, simultaneously. She was a total unknown writer. She was thrilled that somebody liked her writing. So I think that just the same way that my filmmaker friends in China [were flattered] because I was there before they became [well known]. A lot of it is just timing. I just liked those Chinese films. They weren't people clamoring for them and they weren't shown in film festivals all over the world. I just liked them and they were pleased that somebody expressed any interest. I think that helped me in China later and also with Joy Luck Club because she could see that I had a genuine fondness for the book.
     We just stayed in touch. When the book came out and it became a best seller, all these other people started circling around and many people tried to set up the book. As a film producer, of course the first place I went to was Amblin. They said, “We just did Empire of the Sun and we don't think Steve is up for another Asian project.” You know, I was feeling a little bit shy about pushing my Asian agenda because I was a Universal executive but I always had affection for the project. A couple of years later when I went to join Oliver, it was one of the first things I talked to him about.


GS: You kept it harbored.
JY: Yeah. I had talked to other people, but it was such an odd movie.

GS: Not exactly an Oliver Stone type thing. Typically he does hard-edged war movies and social commentary.
JY: I think that was why we had a successful partnership at the time because he could see the value of it without it being an Oliver Stone movie. It turns out his wife was reading the book at the time and she loved it and one thing led to another

GS: Is his wife Asian?
JY: No, this was Elizabeth. He had not divorced her yet. He does have a Corean wife now.
     So Oliver liked it and Ron Bass and Wayne Wang were attached -- Ron to write with Amy and Wayne to direct. It was a good package and we had decided we definitely wanted to do the movie. We had made a deal with Carolco and they were going to come up with the money, but the deal just wasn't getting closed. Months and months had gone by and a year had passed and it turned out that Carolco was going under. So the deal was never consummated. Amy and Ron had a window of time when they were both available to work on the script and they just said we're going to do this on spec.
     They didn't want to wait for us to set it up. Technically they didn't have to come back to our company but they did. At that point we didn't have any rights to it. We couldn't get the money out of Carolco to pay them and therefore we had no binding agreement. They were very nice to do that. I read the script and I was flying up to San Francisco. When I arrived at the airport, I had tears in my eyes. It was just a great script. So we ended up sending the script out. This was over ten years ago and there were only a handful of buyers, the studios. So we went to seven or eight places. Everyone passed except Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney. And he said he would give us ten million dollars.
     That deal would never get made today. No studio would make that movie to begin with. No studio would give us ten million dollars. They don't make ten-million-dollar movies. If we were lucky, we'd get a million dollars or a half million dollars from some digital company maybe. So times have really changed.

GS: We take it everyone made out pretty well on that film
JY: We got paid our fees. We will never see backend on it even though it's on TV every other day because of the very very elaborate, sophisticated accounting practices of the studios. PAGE 5

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“We will never see backend on it even though it's on TV every other day because of the very very elaborate, sophisticated accounting practices of the studios.”