Editor’s note: This story originally published in 2021. It has been updated.
While watching the documentary about her life, “Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan had one big observation: “I look like I’m on the verge of crying all the time.”
At its heart, that statement is really a testament to director James “Jamie” Redford.
Tan was reluctant when Redford first approached her about doing a documentary. The 68-year-old author had been in the spotlight ever since publishing “The Joy Luck Club” — her first novel — in 1989.
The story about four Chinese American families in San Francisco became a pivotal work for Asian American representation. Last year, the 1993 film adaptation of “Joy Luck Club” was preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
The book also inspired writers like “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan. But it also put a lot of pressure on Tan going forward.
The author, who on Tuesday receives a National Humanities Medal from President Joe Biden, was enjoying a phase of life somewhat obscured from the public eye when Redford pitched the documentary to her. Instead of writing for a publisher’s deadline or to meet the expectations of a fanbase, she was doing things in private, for herself — like playing the grand piano and drawing pictures of birds in her nature journal.
But Redford was her friend. And he was persuasive.
“He was somebody I trusted so much that I felt he was never going to judge me, he was never going to pity me. He was just going to listen,” Tan said after the Sundance Festival premiere of the documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.” “I ended up saying yes — no hesitation.”
With that go-ahead, Redford began to dig into Tan’s life. The deeper he got, the more excited he became. And through it all, he inspired Tan to open up in ways she wasn’t even expecting.
“He became a little obsessed with Amy, I’ll be honest,” Redford’s wife, Kyle, said with a laugh after the premiere. “We could not get into a car without an audio playing Amy’s story. There was no music anymore, no NPR. It was just Amy on audio.”
“Unintended Memoir,” which will appear on PBS’ “American Masters” at a later date, paints a full picture of Tan — growing up with a suicidal mom and the ensuing childhood trauma; how she began to find healing in writing fiction; her sweet relationship with her husband, Lou; the pressure she felt when her success shaped her into being a representative for Asian American communities; ultimately, the creative ways she’s achieved balance and inspiration in her life.
Following the premiere, Tan was visibly pleased with the result.
But Redford won’t ever get to see the final product. The filmmaker and son of Sundance founder Robert Redford died in mid-October, when the documentary was in the final stages of editing.
A final project
Redford knew he might die before the documentary was finished, according to Karen Pritzker, the director’s longtime friend who produced “Unintended Memoir.”
The 58-year-old director saw his liver disease return two years ago, and cancer was discovered while he was waiting for a transplant, the Deseret News reported.
This created a sense of urgency. Even in his final months, Redford got a lot out of life, creating and exploring different ways to bring Tan’s story together, Pritzker said.
“Jamie was completely energized by working on this. He wanted to get this over the finish line and wanted to see this film happen,” she recently told the Deseret News. “He was very frail and ill toward the end, but he was going to show up. That was just the kind of person he was.
“I found it all the way through inspirational to work with him.”
Right before he died, Redford sent the film to Tan for approval.
It didn’t have any of the detailed animations that are used to tackle some of the more traumatic elements. It also didn’t have a note of music, and the color correction wasn’t complete. This made Redford a little hesitant and nervous to send it to Tan, Pritzker said.
But the heart of the story was intact, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s all that really mattered.
“When I saw the finished piece that he sent me right before he died, I was astounded. I was so grateful,” Tan said after the premiere, adding that she had since learned Redford read her thank-you note before he died.
Following the director’s death, meetings at work often veered from discussing the documentary and other technical matters to sharing memories of Redford.
“Having to finish this film without our leader was just emotionally so difficult but also so important to everybody to really get it right,” Pritzker told the Deseret News. “Everybody just brought their A-plus game and was kind to each other, because everybody was suffering. … It was a beautiful experience to watch people come together to do this.
“I’m so sorry that Jamie isn’t here or can’t send a message down somehow, because I know with every fiber of my being that he would be so pleased with the work that was done,” she added.
A special connection
The end of Redford’s documentary takes an interesting turn.
After chronicling the roller coaster of Tan’s life, Redford slows down the pace. He shows a calm Tan sitting out in nature, observing and drawing detailed pictures of birds. It’s what sustains her when she’s upset or overwhelmed. It’s helped her navigate through the pandemic. And unlike her writing, no one will ever see these drawings.
”The drawings are for no one but myself,” Tan said after the premiere. “They’re all just for me. There’s no expectation.”
In fact, Tan said when her friend and editor once asked if she would draw a bird she couldn’t do it anymore. The expectation made her freeze.
Redford, too, found healing in nature, Pritzker said. It’s just one of the many things that helped him create a strong connection with Tan — a relationship that shines through the documentary as the author opens up about some of the harder moments in her life.
And then, as the post-screening Q&A was coming to a close, Tan remembered something and corrected herself: She had drawn a bird — a golden-crowned sparrow — for someone other than herself before.
“The only person I ever drew a bird for was Jamie,” she said with a smile.