[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Jessica Yu won an Academy Award in 1997 for her documentary short “Breathing Lessons“. This year, she brings “Protagonist” to the Sundance Film Festival. The film, inspired by Euripides, addresses storytelling by making a documentary about the subject itself. While the film centers on four characters, “Yu poses a crucial question: what happens when people are driven to such extremes that they become the thing they most abhor?” writes Sundance. “Through verite techniques and interviews interwoven with extraordinary puppetry functioning as the classic Greek chorus…[each character] lives out the eternal drama of how we control–or don’t control–our own destinies.” The film is screening in Sundance’s Documentary Competition category.
Please introduce yourself. Where were you born, and where do you live now? What do you do for a living?
I direct a lot of different things, but I always have a documentary going. I was born in NY, grew up in the Bay Area, and live in LA.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
I kind of fell into filmmaking, and fell in love with the process. (And I was lucky to have that rare thing, Asian American parents who encouraged their kids in the arts.) I don’t really feel pulled to do creative things other than film, which already involves writing, music, and visual expression. But since having kids I spend way too much time drawing dinosaurs and singing out loud.
Did you go to film school?
I didn’t go to film school. I was lucky to learn on the job. My first jobs in production were as a PA on commercials… very glamorous work like arranging frozen noodles on forks. My college degree really came in handy. Contrastingly, my first documentary job was full of real engagement and responsibility. It was with Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock, who were very generous about their knowledge.
Please describe your film. How did the initial idea come about?
This film emerged out of an odd challenge. In 2003, I was approached by Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation about making a documentary about the playwright Euripides. Not your garden variety doc idea — happily, they were open to everything BUT garden variety. I had no idea how to do this, so naturally I was half-obsessed already. Eventually what evolved was an idea about making a film about the a particular arc of Greek drama — that of the extremist — applied to people living today. I was intrigued by the path of someone who tries to shape his life in one particular direction because of logical reasons, but who becomes so engrossed that he becomes the opposite of what he had intended. The film interweaves the stories of 4 men who seem to have very little in common on the surface, but who have lived the same life for a crucial period in their past. It’s a film about morality, obsession, and the relationship between character and fate.
What was your approach to making the film? What are your overall goals for the project?
Visually, the film uses everything: interviews, verite footage, animation, and — drum roll please — hand-carved wooden rod puppets. This sounds like an odd mix, but there are several elements that run through all 4 of the subjects’ stories and underscore the parallels and give the film its momentum. My goal is to provoke the kind of thoughtfulness and debate that those earlier works generated — through a damn good story. While the concept sounds lofty and the elements are non-traditional, the goal is to make the experience of the movie suspenseful, engaging, and entertaining. You don’t have to know who Euripides is to enjoy the film, but maybe some people would like to find out.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project and making the movie?
The biggest challenges was in figuring out the overall concept of the film. I brainstormed with Greg and Noble over a summer, and there were definitely times when I thought I’d come up dry. But I had one of those Eureka! moments — I literally imagined a thought bubble over my head with a yellow lightbulb in it — when I knew what I wanted to do. Then in making the film there were a lot of other challenges which made the process exciting. Playing with the structure. Finding the subjects.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
In terms of “Protagonist”, I look forward to seeing it with an audience that loves film enough to trek all the way to Park City and neglect the slopes. I love the Q&A, hearing what people want to talk about afterwards. I also want to enjoy the festival as a festival-goer. It’s a mistake to “work” the festival all the time; it’s a privilege to see those films and hear from the filmmakers. You have to take advantage of that.
Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance. Where were you, and how did you react?
Delight, excitement, relief. Wondering whether my down coat still has any feathers in it.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
How much did the filmmaker suffer? OK, not really. Independent film is less about financing and more about spirit. It’s not about edginess or artiness, but that elusive evidence of an artistic compass that shines through. And, as they say with pornography, you know it when you see it.
What are some of your favorite films? What is your top ten list for 2006?
I like too many films to make a list of favorites. And I’ve been too busy finishing my own film to watch much else this past year, sigh.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
I don’t do resolutions. But I do like to be working on New Year’s Day.
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