Among today’s top film producers in Hollywood, Janet Yang, stands out as one of the more daring. During her career she has brought audiences controversial stories such as The Weight of Water, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning TV movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial.Among today’s top film producers in Hollywood, Janet Yang, stands out as one of the more daring. During her career she has brought audiences controversial stories such as “The Weight of Water”, “The People vs. Larry Flynt”, and the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning TV movie “Indictment: The McMartin Trial”.
For “Dark Matter”, Yang teamed up with Larry Dodge of American Sterling Productions. She also helped the company produce a documentary, “The Defector”, based on the story of a high-profile Soviet defector under the Stalin regime, and the son he had with a beautiful American socialite.
Yang mostly produces films under her own banner, The Manifest Film Company. For seven years, she also served as president of Ixtlan, the company she had with Academy Award-winning writer/director Oliver Stone.
Additionally, Yang served as executive producer of “The Joy Luck Club”, based on Amy Tan’s best-selling novel and directed by Wayne Wang. She also worked with Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment as a production executive at MCA/Universal.
In 1996, Yang was Spielberg’s liaison in China for “Empire of the Sun”. While at Universal, she also initiated a Bruce Lee biographical feature film, which later became “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”.
Yang holds a B.A. from Brown University in Chinese studies as well as an M.B.A. from Columbia University. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a member of the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese-Americans, and an advisory board member of Asia Society Southern California. She has also taught production and filmmaking at the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project.
Yang’s latest production, “Dark Matter”, is the feature film debut of renowned Chinese opera and theater director Chen Shi-Zheng. The film delves into the world of Liu Xing (Chinese for “Shooting Star”), a science student pursuing a Ph.D. at a university in the United States during the early 1990s. Driven by his ambitions, but unable to deal with academic politics, Liu Xing is pushed to the margins of American life, until he erupts in violence.
Originally slated to be released last year, “Dark Matter” was pushed back because of the tragic shootings on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16, 2007. The film recently opened in limited release on April 11, 2008.
Yang took time to speak with Asiance Magazine recently about Dark Matter’s controversial subject matter, the impact films can have on audiences and the role of filmmakers in society.
Asians in general don’t have a habit of talking about their feelings. They tend to keep anger and frustration bottled up. I want to tell Asian parents: “Don’t pressure your kids so much.” This goes for all students. There are about 1,000 suicides a year on college campuses across the nation.
ASIANCE: How did you get involved with Dark Matter?
Janet Yang: I read the script and it was one of those I just couldn’t put down. I was attracted to it for a number of reasons. It resonated with my own parents’ story of coming over as students. I’m always trying to do something a little bit different to push the envelope. Often this is to try and integrate more Asian content and characters into my movies. One of the main impetuses for my being and staying in the film industry is related to the time I spent in China and believing that there are many more interesting roles available for Asians than I had seen. And I found that growing up in this country I was as much subjected to and susceptible to stereotyping as everybody else from watching television and movies. So here was a movie that had a lead that was Chinese and that would have as its supporting roles other American actors, and I just thought that it was a fascinating opportunity. Furthermore, it had so many cross-cultural references that I could relate to.
ASIANCE: (Warning Spoiler Alert!) The ending to the film is very dark. Can you talk about that?
Janet Yang: It’s not much different from what often happens when we pick up the newspaper and read about a violent incident. We read the reactions of neighbors: “Oh my God, I would have never suspected this guy. He seemed so nice.” This is what happens. Our movie tries to dissect why this happens. When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, we were obviously stunned by it and we really did feel very uncomfortable. Going out and showing the film in the wake of that would have been insensitive, so we didn’t do anything last summer and into the fall. But curiously when school started last semester, a lot of people at universities who had either seen the film or heard about it wanted to screen it. It started fostering a really positive dialogue between students, faculty and administrators about some of the issues that we’re now facing, like the mental and emotional health of students, how to get help for them, academic pressures, cultural biases and cultural assimilation. All these issues are prevalent today and which our film addresses. The screenings really started to have a healing effect. And I’ve found from observing the interactions that sometimes it’s easier to talk about a movie than to talk about your own life.
By the end of the year Virginia Tech wasn’t as much on people’s minds. Early this year, we started booking theaters again. And then all within a few weeks, we had the NIU shooting, an incident at another school, and then another… At that point, we felt like we actually had to get the film out because it was becoming an epidemic of sorts. And if the film can help in any way to open up a discussion and have people talk about these issues, that will be a positive. That’s what we’ve found has been the case. We’re now getting requests from many prominent institutions – we screened at CalTech and Rockefeller University, and have had requests from Harvard and many others. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the film has taken on a whole other life that no one could have anticipated. So we feel we can’t hide our heads in the sand anymore. We made this movie. And now that these incidents are occurring with alarming frequency, we feel we must focus attention on what’s going on for students, especially Asian students who often are known by the school deans as being particularly close-mouthed. Asians in general don’t have a habit of talking about their feelings. They tend to keep anger and frustration bottled up. I want to tell Asian parents: “Don’t pressure your kids so much.” This goes for all students. There are about 1,000 suicides a year on college campuses across the nation. There really needs to be more attention paid to the students. People need to know these things are happening.
ASIANCE: Do you feel filmmakers or producers have a responsibility when it comes to the subject matter or stories they choose?
Janet Yang: There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts in my book. We did not approach this at all from the standpoint of let’s stop campus violence”. It was meant more to be as a portrait of one student, a sort of cross-cultural story, with many dimensions. I think that the best movies are the ones that are specific culturally as well as universal. I use “The Joy Luck Club” as an example because I think that’s a movie that on the surface seems Chinese but because so many people found universal themes [in the film], they can relate to it. If you touch people, if you make a film that has authenticity, it will resonate with people on many different levels, and you can’t ever anticipate what all the different levels will be. And that’s what happened with this movie. But I don’t make judgments about what other filmmakers do. It’s really easier to criticize than to create. I applaud any filmmaker who is passionate about a subject and attempts to make a film about it. It’s pretty darn hard to get one made these days.
ASIANCE: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Janet Yang: I hope that people are moved, after seeing the film, to have more empathy and compassion towards others unlike them, to try and see things from a different perspective. And I hope that truly, there is more dialogue on University campuses about the conflicts and the dynamics that exist there. That’s my hope.
ASIANCE: Any last thoughts on the role of producers and filmmakers in society?
Janet Yang: What I’ve noticed with great writers, artists, athletes, anybody who does something really well, is that these individuals feel they are more vehicles for their gift, than that they are pure independent creators of them. I don’t believe anything grows purely out of an individual, or that an individual can have a wholly unique thought or creation. What we all do is a blend of genetic information and societal influences. We’re all constantly affected by one another. I think we know that now more than ever. I think scientists have proven that. We’re interdependent as a species and our beliefs affect who we are and our sense of reality. We can’t really escape the zeitgeist of what goes on around us. Whether we consciously do so or not, we affect and are affected by one another. Everything we do has a ripple affect. So I think our consciousness and intentions are very important. Once we set our intentions, the rest falls into place.
For more information about Dark Matter, please visit the website at: www.darkmatterthefilm.com