Monday, July 11, 2011

"The 'Yen Family' Experience - Part Two"

Short recap: I have seen a Japanese movie called “The Yen Family”, and get excited about the possibility of writing an English language adaptation.

At my encouragement, my agent set up a meeting with a successful producer on the Universal lot, where we were both under contract. I met with the producer – who was hardly sleazy at all – and I pitched him the idea of an English-language version of The Yen Family.

The producer responded positively. Which is a considerably more encouraging response than, “You’re kidding about this, right?” Which, on more occasions than my self esteem could adequately handle, I have also received.

Shortly thereafter, the producer arranged a meeting between the “auspices” of the project, the producer and myself, and the Japanese company that owned the rights to the original Yen Family, the Fuji Film Company.

Fuji’s L.A, offices were headquartered in Century City, an L.A. business district, populated mostly by law offices. This was not a show biz environment. And I was instructed to dress accordingly, jacket and tie, rather than my usual attire, which was not substantially different from what I wore in Junior High School.

We were led into the Big Boss’s ante-chamber, where I was greeted by a number of young Japanese Junior Executives, all of who immediately pressed their business cards into my hand.

Also present was an American Fuji employee, who would serve as interpreter. Which seemed apparently redundant, as all the young Japanese executives spoke impeccable English.

Before the formal meeting began – we were awaiting the Big Boss to wind up a business call to Tokyo – I tried to win over the young Japanese executives with my, admittedly narrow though enthusiastic, appreciation of Japanese movies, most notably the renowned Tora-san series, a Japanese favorite for over a quarter of a century. It seemed to work. The young Japanese executives could not stop smiling.

The smiling abruptly ended when the Big Boss walked in through a door leading from the main office, a room, which we were, incidentally, never invited to enter. The man was significantly older, and all business. Suddenly, no one in the room spoke English anymore. I mean producer and I still did, but none of our hosts, including the ones who were speaking English quite nicely before.

After a short introduction by the producer, it fell to me to pitch the Fuji movie people the idea of an English-language remake of The Yen Family, with me as the adapting screenwriter. I spoke for about five minutes.

I did not prepare for this meeting. I figured I knew what I was talking about, and that would carry me through. I did not, however, factor in speaking to a room of people who (allegedly) did not speak English. When I finished, my head throbbed from the intensity of the effort.

At that point, the American Fuji guy took over, delivering a Japanese recreation of my presentation for Big Boss. The man had not taken notes, and yet, he spoke for at least as long as I did. And he did it in Japanese. I was considerably impressed. On both counts.

It was now the Big Boss’s turn to speak. Which he did. For ten minutes. In Japanese. When he finished, the interpreter, again without notes, provided a ten-minute translation.

Fuji was apparently open to the idea of a remake of The Yen Family. But under two conditions. Condition One: They wanted one of their executives to be in the room with me while I wrote the script. And Condition Two: They reserved the right to replace me if they were not happy with my work.

The second condition in the movie business is “Duh.” Replacing screenwriters is so common, movie writers barely think twice about it, though this same practice is forbidden in the theater. (Playwrights own their scripts. Movie scripts are owned by the studios.)

Condition One, however, was insane. Even in a world where the power is balanced overwhelmingly in favor of the studios, writers are not required to have executives peering over their shoulders while they write. I tried to explain this, as politely as I could, to my potential employers, my remarks, once again, being dutifully translated for their convenience.

A few more minutes of give-and-take ensued – I’d talk, and the interpreter would translate for the Japanese executives, then the Japanese Big Boss would talk, and the interpreter would translate for the producer and me. Finally, after some handshaking, and, at least on my part, some awkward bowing,

It was over.

When we got outside, my head was throbbing and simultaneously spinning, and my stomach hurt as well. In all my professional years, I had never experienced a meeting like that before. The concentration that was required was so intense, it hurt parts of my body beyond my head and my stomach. I mean, listening to a guy speak straight Japanese to me for ten minutes without subtitles? I nearly wilted in front of him. I remember informing the producer that my fondest wish was to never have to endure such an ordeal again.

As it turned out, I got my wish. The relationship ended there. Since Fuji owned the film rights, The Yen Family was never made in English.

Normally, when a movie project goes away, I end up with nothing. Not this time. On this occasion, I walked away with a half dozen beautifully embossed business cards. If I ever visit Japan, I am seriously considering giving those guys a call.


Happy Birthday shout-out to Rachel on her special 7/11 lucky day. Love and wishes for all good things. Best wishes also to whoever's inside, the name of whom is still up for grabs. It's your Mommy's birthday, Baby No-Name. Give her a little kick.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; that did go strange. Not the outcome of no movie deal, but how you got to no deal.


Mac said...

Earl, you've had a weird life. Thank you for sharing it.