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Janet Yang Interview

Picture of Janet YangJanet Yang is used to bringing challenging themes and characters to life on film.

The Hollywood veteran has worked with legendary filmmakers and is founder and president of Manifest Film Company.

Her latest production stars Ashley Judd a high-powered attorney who seemingly has it all - a thriving career and a loving husband. High Crimes is only the latest film on her impressive resume.

Yang ran Oliver Stone's production company Ixtlan as president for seven years, produced Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, acted as Steven Spielberg's liaison in China for Empire of the Sun, and walked in the shoes of executive producer of The Joy Luck Club.

StudioLA's Paul Lee and Suzanne Kai recently had a chance to talk with Janet about her perspectives on the film industry and the current state of Asians in cinema.

StudioLA: What kind of process do you go through in terms of looking for a film?

High Crimes
High Crimes
27 in x 40 in
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Framed | Mounted

Janet: First of all, if it's scripted...and sometimes it starts with a book, it starts with an idea, sometimes it starts with a true story, you never know where it starts. But the first thing is, does it hold my interest? Is this something that I want to know more about?

If somebody is telling me a story, do I lean in closer and do I want to ask questions? Do I go in deeper or do I go, "Mmmm..." You know, it's a very ...difficult experience to describe, but there is something that you either want to go in deeper or not.

Who are these people? What are doing? Why are they doing that? They're asking, they're raising interesting questions. You just want to know more.

When I'm reading the script, it's the same thing. Do I want to just keep reading. Do I want to know what happens, am I engaged with these characters? Are they surprising me? Do they feel fresh?

And of course, film being a blend of art and commerce, you want to know that there will be people out there who see it. Every now and then, not that often, every now and then I read something that is really, really well-written and has very strong characters, but maybe is too "off." You know, weird or something alienating for an audience.

So I don't want to make movies that nobody sees. So it's finding that blend of something that interests me and I'm acting like I'm sort of tuning fork of how I imagine other people would read it. And I feel like I can be a tuning fork.

It's not like everything that people want to see, I want to see. But I feel that what I believe people want to see, at least I know there will be some people who will want to see.


In the past, you could say, "Oh, people don't want to see Asians on the screen, period."

And I do tend to be attracted to stories about women, stories about people of color, because that's part of my experience, not because it's a conscious political thing, but because that's what I feel I can relate to a little bit or I know well enough to be that tuning fork. So I find myself after the fact, I never go in with an agenda. I never go, "Now I'm going to find..."

The only place where I've done that to some degree, because I feel that this is my particular area, is to find projects with more Asian content. I might go in, but it's not a specific thing that I have to tell or, "Do this." But just open up because I know there are so many rich stories.

I do try to support people of talent of Asian decent because I feel like there's so few opportunities. I'm so glad that African-Americans had their day in the sun at the Oscars, I was there...

That kind of thing does take some real, conscientious effort. And I was just saying to this other Chinese person, what blacks have that Asians don't have very naturally is...it's like "to yell" at people. You know, be up there, wave the flag, and say, "We've got it!"

But you know, they've been working at it a long time. This does not happen overnight. There's been years and years and years of people.

Their Sydney Poitier is maybe our Bruce Lee, and then nothing for a long time. But then they, for the last 10, 15 years, they've really had a steady stream of African-American personalities working the business, and Asians less so.

StudioLA: The Oscars reached a big milestone, because not only did you have the Lifetime Achievement Oscar going to Sydney Poitier, but Halle and Denzel also won Oscars. And Halle said this opens a lot of doors.

Janet: For African-Americans. I don't think it opens doors for other people.

StudioLA: So where in the state of things are Asian Americans or Asians in Hollywood?

Janet: We're at the stage....you know, movies like Joy Luck Club, and The Last Emperor, and The Wedding Banquet, they were good movies at the time, but in the long run, they were almost fluky things. Because they didn't together build any momentum. They were movies that were well respected and did well at the time, and there was this moment of, "Wow, look what's happening." And then nothing.

Crouching Tiger, [Hidden Dragon], probably because of the incredible economic phenomenon of having been made for $10 million, killing themselves to make $10 million and making as much money as it did, that is the result of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on many people's parts.

And [director] Ang Lee himself, who traveled all over the world, and hit every town, everywhere, and the company he has backing him, Sony Classics - I knew the Sony Classics people back in the 80's when I was distributing Chinese films. I knew back then they were very interested in working this market for a long time, finding every nook and crany, every way of reaching not just an Asian population, but anybody who would watch movies with Asian content.

They were one of the first people to bring over Zhang Yimou's films, and whatever. So it was the culmination of so many years of effort. And it was the right film at the right time, and it took more chances than most people take by having it in Mandarin, and, ironically, of course, the film didn't play very well in China because the Mandarin was bad, the story wasn't so great, [and] they've seen so many movies like that.

But whatever, it doesn't matter, it played well everywhere else. So the point is that now is the time to actually build momentum, And for the first time ever since Bruce Lee, so many years ago, we have stars.

We have Jackie Chan, we have Jet Li. Lucy Liu, somewhat of a star. Chow Yun Fat, somewhat of a star. And probably room for a few more.

Now most of the stars are action stars, but at least it's a beginning. And they've been tested. Jackie Chan movies were sitting around forever before they were brought over.

And Jet Li, they had to test [him] first in a Lethal Weapon [4] to make sure, and gradually build him up. And now they can open movies. Like Rumble in the Bronx for Jackie.

And at least now, people can say, "Oh, there's not a resistance to seeing Asians." In the past, you could say, "Oh, people don't want to see Asians on the screen, period." I mean, you can actually make that statement and people wouldn't laugh you out of the room. Now at least, there is some indication that people will go.

Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Courtesy Sony Classics. © 2001

I mean, Crouching Tiger, [is an] all Asian cast, people will go see Asians if it's the right movie.

Whether or not they're willing to bet $50 million on it, I don't know. But ten, yes, twenty maybe, thirty, whatever. And as the stars develop more clout, and Jet Li and Jackie have that now, that is how the doors open.

It always has to be opened first in a financial way, and then, the other things. Then the creative kudos will come and other things will happen. We need not only great writers to write subjects, to write stories that are true to Asian culture. We need directors.

We definitely need actors who can become stars. And we need money. Not only do we need people to go out and see these movies and prove box office-wise that they play.

I think the real thing that we need to do is actually to raise money, to have money from people in Asia who share this agenda that you need to actually go out and make it.

I feel confident that I can make movies at any studio...with movie stars or whatever. I've worked with some of the top directors. Any of those people, if I had the right circumstances, I can access them, but until I have money, I'm a slave to the studio. Everyone's a slave unless they have their own financial clout.

And by slave, I mean my own clout. I can get to people and all that stuff, and I have some influence, but I'm still at the mercy of the person who's writing the check. And that person is not going to have the same sensibility, is not a very progressive person.

That person is a very conservative person inevitably, who's banking on old formulas and stars that have been proven. And have no interest in creating a new agenda, have no interest in developing talent in Asia. They'll only do it after the fact, because Crouching Tiger did well.

Now we can make some action pictures with more comfort. But you know, that person who's writing the check is not a visionary. And until Asians put money into it, and have their own drive towards that, that's the way it will remain.

[Next Page: Janet talks about Ang Lee - the soundman!]

AsianConnections wishes to thank Janet Yang for contributing her valuable time for the interview.


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