Q&A with Mark Young about MANAA’s participation in a segment on the new DVD release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Why did you decide to do the Mr. Yunioshi segment?
Well to begin, I work with my brother Eric Young, his company is called Sparkhill. They actually produced all the extra bonus material for the DVD, so I was the producer on this one and it was his idea. To him it was obvious because of the Mickey Rooney character that the film just had, for its time, a mistake that was made. Now with the perspective since then it needed to be addressed. It was almost was like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on. He presented it to Paramount as part of the overall proposal for the DVD. They encouraged him to go further and see how it would turn out. When they saw the final product they were pleased with it and were happy to put it on the DVD. We were very proud of it, you know. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.
When you first proposed it to Paramount there was no resistance?
I wasn’t part of that presentation, but Eric indicated that they were willing to give it a try and see how it worked out. Do the interviews, put the piece together and see how it came across. They were quite pleased with how it was put together.
How did you decide who to interview?
That was a case of just making a lot of phone calls. One person would recommend another. I can’t really remember how I got to Jeff and Guy and the whole gang at MANAA, I may have just started googling around. I contacted a few people at UCLA, and there were several people in the academic world who I had contacted. Dr. Peter X. Feng is an academic who appears on the TCM channel. Several people at Chapman University who were experts in Asian affairs and Asian cultural affairs and media. But at the time we were producing this I believe it was at the beginning of the academic year and everyone was tied up getting ready for their classes. So when I was able to reach Phil and MANAA it was like reaching pay dirt, he was so receptive and he invited me to a meeting. I remember it was very unusual, when I contacted him he said hey why don’t you come over and meet the gang, we’re having our meeting in a day or two. So I drove over and went to the meeting and that’s where I met Jeff and Guy. Marilyn was also recommended because we wanted to get a female voice as well. Everyone was very receptive to the idea and available, so I was able to cover all of the topics I wanted to. We tried to go after Nancy Kwan because we knew someone who worked with her but that didn’t work out only because of timing and such.
Tell me about the editing process. Once you had completed the interviews, what were your thoughts on how to edit them together?
I did research ahead of time and we had certain goals in mind. We did an outline of the ideal way that it would fall together in terms of telling a story. Talking about Breakfast at Tiffany’s specifically but also some historical context for yellowface, and talking about some early films even going back to the 20’s that had Asian characters played by white actors. Then that kind of segued into talking about the internment camps and the treatment of Asians during the second world war. As I was talking to interviewees I gave them the questions beforehand so they could think about it and research it, and as always happens in an interview, something will happen that will spark another question and we’ll go down that path, that exploration on the topic. I know I’ll get specific answers to specific questions to build my story, but I like to leave room for personal stories or other topics or issues that are important to the person I’m interviewing. Then all of the interviews are transcribed. We go through the transcriptions and it’s called a paper cut, telling the story from the interviews with a clear beginning, middle and end. In this case I turned everything over to an editor who works at Sparkhill and we had a conversation about what the goal of the piece was and what materials we had to illustrate with. Like the Boris Karloff character where he was playing an ancient character, and Peter Lorre doing the same thing . The editor would put the piece together and based on how well it played or how long it was, we’d make suggestions about how to change it. When we work on these pieces for DVDs there’s no real time limit to the segment because it’s not being broadcast. It can be any length we want it to be, which gives us a lot of creative freedom. That’s how it happened, that’s how it came together.
Was there anything that surprised you in the making of the featurette?
In a way there wasn’t. When I first met the group at MANAA’s meeting I knew I’d have a nice lively group of individuals to interview, each with a different personality. Everyone’s background was different so we had different voices in discussing the same topic. I personally found it interesting because I like think of myself as being sensitive to the issue in the entertainment business and in society in general how we treat each other, how we view each other. I found it very interesting to hear from the interviews what it’s like, what impression the movie made on them, and growing up in the environment with yellowface being part of the culture. Myself, an Anglo, not having that sensitivity but in hearing the stories, I gained a real appreciation for it. The more time we spent doing these interviews, the more I got swept into really wanting to make it as good as we could and wanted to make it onto the DVD. That was a pleasant surprise. It opened my eyes to an area that I didn’t have as deep an appreciation for—those feelings, those emotions. I feel like I got closer to everyone I interviewed, and we’re friends. We keep in touch with each other.
Were you familiar with the issues that were raised in the segment? Had you worked on Asian American issues before?
Sparkhill has worked on similar issues. They produced some pieces for the Pearl Harbor Touchstone film, a segment on Japanese-US relations. Exploring what brought about the beginning of the war from both the Japanese and the American point of view. And for Disney some years ago they did a feature on Mako, who was in the movie The Ugly Dachshund. My brother interviewed him and said it was a wonderful interview. He was a wonderful Asian American actor who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Sand Pebbles. My brother perhaps even more so than I am is sensitive to this issue and likes to use the platform of featurettes for DVDs to give it a platform for discussion.
Have you heard any other responses?
Besides the responses from Paramount, there were some good reviews on the internet with websites that review DVD extras and releases. Traditionally the production company doesn’t really get any feedback from the viewing audience. The viewing audience in a way doesn’t really know that they exist. If anyone from the public from the audience contacted Paramount, we haven’t heard about it. I’d like to think that they did. But we did find some good comment online, and I felt good in reading those. A lot of times the stories that we do for DVDs are what you would expect to see—interviews with the stars and how they do the special effects, or what book the movie came from. Very mild, middle of the road types of mini documentaries. This one had a nice substance to it, and heartfelt conversations. So for me personally I’ll always remember it. It’s a standout both because of the subject matter and the people I met and interviewed for it.