David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. He spent the past weekend in San Diego to help YOMYOMF celebrate the end of INTERPRETATIONS at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and to attend the production of his play YELLOW FACE at the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company which runs until this weekend.
Having just served as a juror for INTERPRETATIONS and returned from the impressive San Diego Asian Film Festival, I find myself inspired by the talent, dedication, and passion that went into each and every film. This causes me to reflect on my own experiences as a screenwriter working on movies, most of which did not get made, as well as the handful that did.
I should explain that I come to the filmmaking world as something of an outsider. I’m not referring so much to my being Asian, as that I’m basically a theatre guy, having written plays, Broadway musicals, and libretti for operas. So, as a writer, I am spoiled. In every form involving scripts, someone holds the primary creative vision, which the other collaborating artists support. In opera, for instance, that person is the composer. When it comes to plays, it’s the playwright.
In the theatre, best practices hold that not a single word of a play can be changed without the approval of the author. This tradition is rigorously protected by the Dramatists Guild, which is sort of the union of playwrights, lyricists, and librettists (it’s not legally a union, but that’s another story). In the theatre, the writer rules.
Movies operate according to a very different chain of command. Here, it’s the director who holds the primary creative vision. I completely get why this is the case. In theatre, most of the story information is conveyed through dialogue, which visuals support. Movies, however, tell their stories basically through visuals. The earliest films managed to do so without any audio track at all. The screenwriter supplies story, structure, and dialogue (which may or may not be used), but it falls to the director to make all the elements work. So he or she rules.
This often places the writer in an unhappy position. Hollywood lore is littered with tales of screenwriters who complain of having had their work butchered and rewritten, of getting fired from their own projects. From a legal standpoint, playwrights own the copyrights to their scripts; screenwriters sell theirs to the producers. To which one might reply, “Well, if you don’t like it, stop taking the money.”
My experience is further complicated because I am an Asian American who often tries to write stories from this perspective. Previously, I’ve blogged on this site about my most shameful career mistake, a TV miniseries called THE LOST EMPIRE. But even my most famous play, M. BUTTERFLY, underwent a complicated translation to film. M. BUTTERFLY was based on the true story of a French diplomat that had a 20-year affair with a Chinese actress, who turned out to be a) a spy, and b) a man in drag. I tried to use this story to explore the West’s stereotyping of Asian women as submissive, and its emasculation of Asian men. The play opened on Broadway, ran for two years, won lots of awards, and was produced around the world. It’s a tricky story, requiring the right tone and content to succeed. Some have accused me of reinforcing the very stereotypes I sought to critique. Those critics are certainly entitled to their opinion, but I disagree and am very proud of my play.
When it came to the movie version, the producer and studio eventually hired the brilliant filmmaker David Cronenberg. David is a groundbreaking auteur, whose impressive body of work, including THE FLY, EASTERN PROMISES, and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, has proven consistently challenging and visionary. Affable and accessible in person, David worked with me to develop a draft of the screenplay with which he was happy. Then he went off and made his film. I was invited to visit the set for one day, and never saw a cut of the movie nor even any footage until its final test screening before a preview audience.
David’s M. BUTTERFLY is a beautifully disturbing film, very effective in its own way. But it is, at its heart, quite a different creature than my play; it is “David Cronenberg’s M. BUTTERFLY.” David said at the time that he was trying to explore how all romantic love is self-delusion. This is a provocative and fascinating theme. But it’s not really what my play is about. The critique of Western imperialism, the sexual stereotyping of Asian men and women – none of these issues particularly struck a chord with David and so, understandably, are not deeply explored in the movie version. So, though I like the movie, all things being equal, I like my play better.
Through my experiences with the M. BUTTERFLY movie and other projects, I have come to understand how difficult it is for a screenwriter to dictate the tone and content of a movie. This becomes doubly problematic when dealing with Asian and other non-mainstream stories. Ironically, my experiences working on movies with non-Asian content have been easier, because I don’t have to worry if the finished film will end up “shaming the race.”
What to do? The INTERPRETATIONS initiative as well as the SDAFF helped open my eyes to the current flowering of emerging Asian and Asian American filmmakers. Perhaps they are the kind of directors with whom I should aspire to work. Granted, these would most likely be low-budget, indie pictures. But “if you don’t like it, stop taking the money.” Today’s Hollywood increasingly resembles the theatre, where most serious and important work is done on low budgets, Off-Broadway or in the regionals. Only a handful of interesting pieces ever make it to Broadway or gain widespread studio distribution
Of course, I will also continue to pursue my first love, the theatre. I started out as a playwright wanting to tell stories that hadn’t been told, and make a real impact on the form. I feel I have been, and continue to be, largely successful in that arena. I then believed I could similarly change the world of film. To date I have failed. Perhaps an individual artist cannot change a culture, but a community of artists can begin to do so.