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. This is the third blog where David opens up about his worst career moves and unleashes his Asian Shame. Read parts 1 and 2 here and here.
Sometimes, you feel like you must have made a terrible mistake, without knowing what you should have done differently. Such was the case regarding an afternoon I spent with the great Irish film director Neil Jordan.
First, some back story: I remain to this day best-known as the author of a 1988 play called M. BUTTERFLY, which was loosely based on the true story of a French diplomat who had a twenty year affair with a Chinese actress, only to discover that his lover was a) a spy and b) a man in drag. More than two decades on, it’s easy to imagine that M. BUTTERFLY had always been destined to be a hit. Believe me, it hadn’t.
Most everyone thought M. BUTTERFLY was much too bizarre to achieve commercial success on Broadway. Even its cast members took bets on how long it would take for the show to close. My play only reached the Great White Way thanks to a brave (some would say, reckless) producer named Stuart Ostrow, who partnered with David Geffen, the legendary record executive and future “G” in Dreamworks SKG.
En route to Broadway, the show premiered in Washington, DC, where it got clobbered by reviews in the Washington POST and VARIETY, the latter flatly proclaiming, “This is not Broadway material.” With anemic ticket sales, the production was hemorrhaging money. A Geffen executive came to DC and told me to “take out all the sex and politics.” Had I actually done that, there would’ve been no play left. The executive then decided to close down the production. Violating his partnership agreement, Stuart Ostrow mortgaged his house to get the show to Broadway, where, happily, everything worked out fine.
David Geffen then wanted to produce the film version of M. BUTTERFLY. Given our history, I was dead set against the idea. Geffen, however, had built a “last right of refusal” clause into the original Broadway contract: if anyone else tried to buy the movie rights, he had only to match their offer to acquire them for himself. Sure enough, when another offer came along, Geffen exercised his rights and became the producer of the M. BUTTERFLY film. Though pretty steamed, I had little choice but to try and make the best of the situation. Which led to my lunch.
Neil Jordan was a dream choice of mine to direct the movie. Sets and costumes for the Broadway production had been designed by Eiko Ishioka, a genius whose extensive resume now includes everything from graphic design for Issey Miyake to an Oscar for DRACULA to costumes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Eiko knew Jordan and arranged a London lunch, which I enjoyed immensely: smart and charming, he had great insights and ideas about how to adapt my play. Our conversation also drifted to our other projects. I told him I was writing an original screenplay set in the 1950’s about an FBI agent who hounds a suspected Communist Chinese man to death, then falls in love with his daughter. Interestingly, Jordan was working on an original script with a similar dynamic: an IRA terrorist involved in the abduction and death of a British soldier falls in love with the dead man’s girlfriend. I felt I had found the perfect director for M. BUTTERFLY.
Except Geffen wouldn’t approve him. I’m not quite sure why; Jordan’s biggest hit at that point had been MONA LISA, four years earlier, and perhaps he wasn’t hot enough. At any rate, it took several more years for the M. BUTTERFLY movie to go into production, with David Cronenberg directing.
One day in 1992, while M. BUTTERFLY was still in post-production, I read rapturous reviews of a new Neil Jordan film with a twist which upended conventional notions of gender and sexuality. Sounded right up my alley, so I bought a ticket for the first day of the picture’s release. I ended up seeing THE CRYING GAME: an IRA terrorist involved in the abduction and death of a British soldier falls in love with the dead man’s girlfriend … who turns out to be a man in drag. Amazingly, it took me several days to put two and two together: wasn’t that the same story Jordan had told me at our lunch, with the addition of — a gender-bending twist? Hey!
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never felt angry at Neil Jordan over the whole affair. (Neither, apparently, did Geffen, who in an ironic twist, subsequently hired him to direct INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.) Who’s to say that M. BUTTERFLY would have succeeded, even if THE CRYING GAME had not come before? Moreover, the plot device of mistaken gender identity is not copyrightable; it’s as old as drama itself. Most importantly, I loved THE CRYING GAME, and therefore feel the film deserved the acclaim and success it received.
Several years after both films’ releases, Eiko ran into Neil Jordan and asked him, “You made THE CRYING GAME as revenge because you didn’t get M. BUTTERFLY, right?” According to Eiko, “He didn’t say ‘yes,’ but he didn’t say ‘no,’ either.”
Looking back, I suppose I should have found out before I met with Jordan whether or not David Geffen would approve him. At the time, however, I was still angry that Geffen had become the movie’s producer in the first place. Other than that, I’m still not sure what I should have done differently. So, although I probably made a colossal mistake, I do not in this case feel particularly Ashamed.