Tuesday, July 12, 2016

TIANANMEN SQUARE: NOT YET READY FOR PRIME TIME



from HBO's "Tiananmen Square" script by Ed Hume


HBO Blinks


As a participant in the events described in "Tiananmen Moon" I was just one of a million people caught up in the midst of a peaceful uprising, a solitary observer and tentative foreign partisan in a multitude teeming with unsung heroism and perseverance, unbridled hope and pride. For over a month the mass mood was cooperative, spirited and generous; it was orderly and peaceful right up until the cataclysmic end. When I left China after the crackdown, I felt myself a refugee of Tiananmen, heartbroken by the horror of tanks rumbling onto the people’s Square, sickened at the sight of gun-toting soldiers opening fire on disbelieving citizens.



After exiting Beijing in June 1989 with a BBC television crew, carrying a contraband cargo of video tapes of the crackdown, I settled for a while in Hong Kong, where I wrote the basic narrative at the core of this book, and worked on two documentaries about what I like to call Beijing Spring, firstly the "The Rape of Liberty" (not my title) for BBC Panorama and later "Tragedy at Tiananmen" (not my title either) produced by Ted Koppel for ABC News.



Hollywood CEOs and stars, activists, and eager young actors interested in that thing called Tiananmen. 

Japan’s NHK News acquired my video footage and photos and HBO bought the film rights to my story based on my journal and notes. Shortly after moving to Japan, which appealed to me as a place where the excesses of both communist China and capitalist America were kept at bay by a unique and ancient culture, I was flown to Hollywood, picked up in a limo and taken to Chateau Marmont where I was treated royally, mixing with



It was exciting to talk to people like musician Tan Dun, whom I met at Ai Weiwei’s home in New York, to discuss a score for the film, and to reminisce with student activists Wu’er Kaixi, Shen Tong, and others who had already escaped. When HBO publicized their intent to do a film about Tiananmen, a number of Chinese film personalities including Joan Chen, Luo Yan, Yang Fengliang and Zhang Yimou got in touch about the project.


Ed Hume, a scriptwriter from Massachusetts whose apocalyptic film "The Day After" tackled nuclear issues with dramatic flair, wrote up my story for HBO based on the timeline of my journal and interviews. The script "
Tiananmen Square" was earnestly wrought but it did not entirely feel like my story to me, in part because of standard artistic liberties, such as putting my character next to the man standing in front of the tank. In fact, I saw many men and women standing in front of armed personnel carriers and tanks, but not the iconic shot. 

More generally, I was felt frustrated by the negative narrative arc flaunted by the US mainstream media –an obsession with death and destruction on a single day in June rather than the uplifting beauty of the movement as it blossomed in May. The tragic turn of events has been amply reported, but less so the bright and transformative spirit that reigned supreme until the tanks came rolling in.

In those pre-CGI days, to do a film about Tiananmen Square presented daunting logistical obstacles. The handful of East Asian locations that possessed the resources to construct a film-set Beijing were reluctant to offend the real Beijing, even arch-rival Taiwan. And HBO had marketing concerns as well; I got a memo saying Tiananmen Square had “too many
Chinese people in it.”

The film treatment of the "controversial" interview at the center of "Gate of Heavenly Peace"


The success of Joy Luck Club a few years later put to rest HBO's ridiculous assumption about casting, but in 1991 the imagined difficulty of making a story with a mostly Chinese cast was the excuse that HBO resorted to, unwilling to admit larger political concerns. 

After two years of script revisions, HBO decided to green light a film project called "Stalin" starring Robert Duvall and an all-Caucasian cast of American and British talent instead of Tiananmen Square with its teeming millions of Chinese. My consolation prize from the producers at HBO was to spend a few days on the set of "Stalin" as it was filmed in Moscow in the autumn of 1991.




High tide of people power in 1989

Low tide of people power 25 years later 



TIANANMEN MOON: INSIDE THE CHINESE STUDENT UPRISING OF 1989

The book is based on my first hand observations of events at Tiananmen Square in 1989