Saturday, October 11, 2003

Cleaning Up Loose Ends Department

Yesterday I came across an old issue of the New Yorker that contained a quote I had intended to post here but didn't get around to. Since then, I had misplaced the magazine.

The quote is from a profile of filmmaker Ang Lee by John Lahr in the June 30, 2003, issue, and comes from a portion of the article that discusses Lee's screenwriting process. I'll give you the whole graf, but the golden nugget comes at the end. (Schamus, by the way, refers to James Schamus, one of the two founders of the production company Good Machine.) I've broken up the original single, long graf into three shorter ones, for easier reading.

"Lee's first three films — his Chinese trilogy — explore the dilemma of translation between East and West. The screenplays themselves, as Schamus writes in an introduction to two of them, 'were written in Chinese, then translated into English, rewritten in English, translated back into Chinese, and eventually subtitled in Chinese and English and a dozen other languages.'

"The Lee-Schamus process is a testament to the trust between the two men. 'I go into my hole to write,' Schamus says. 'I emerge to give him pages. But there's very little of that standing over my shoulder. He will let me roam and screw up. What he wants to know, as I'm writing the stuff, is why. Why are we making the movie? What's so interesting about that? What's the theme? The topic? He trusts we'll get there. But he also knows that he will not be able to make a good movie unless he has the answer to those questions.'

"In the case of The Wedding Banquet (which was the most profitable film of 1993, based on budget-to-box-office ratio, surpassing even Jurassic Park), Lee kept sending back Schamus's pages, insisting that the psychology of the characters was not Chinese enough. 'Finally, in frustration, I'd simply give up and write the scenes as "Jewish" as I could make them,' Schamus writes. '"Ah-ha," Ang would respond on reading the draft. "Very Chinese!""