Jessica Yu‘s latest documentary, “Protagonist,” takes on the ambitious topic of applying the dramatic structure of classical Greek playwright Euripedes to contemporary life. Centering on four rather damaged individuals, Yu uncovers the conditions and decisions that brought them to their present state. They include a German terrorist, an “ex-gay” evangelist, a bank robber, and a martial arts student. Certainly a departure from her other current project, the narrative comedy “Ping Pong Playa” (which debuted in Toronto this September), Yu continues to expand her extensive resume, which includes the Academy Award winning short doc, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” and the heralded 2004 feature doc, “Into The Realms of the Unreal.” Yu talked to indieWIRE about “Protagonist,” which opened in New York November 30.
Tell us about yourself. What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
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. It’s not pretty.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I would love to make a totally frivolous documentary. Documentarians naturally gravitate towards social issues, but I’d also love to make a film about guys who build giant catapults and hurl pianos over remote fields for no reason whatsoever. Did I just say that out loud?
How did the idea for “Protagonist” come about and evolve?
Well, originally Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation had approached me about making a film about Euripides. I was intrigued but I had no idea how to do it. At their suggestion I read all the extant plays, and we talked about it over a summer. I was immediately struck by the relevance of Euripides’ work. His characters’ moral dilemmas reflect almost a contemporary sensibility in their complexity and lack of easy resolution. I was particularly drawn to the theme of the extremist: the protagonist who barrels down a path for rational, even moral, reasons, growing so obsessed along the way that he discovers he has become the opposite of what he had intended. Rather than attempt a literal biography of Euripides, I had this idea of finding modern-day individuals who have actually lived this story and telling those stories against the backdrop of Euripides’ work. I wanted it to be a film about the struggle between character and fate, but also about narrative itself. I know that sounds like the worst idea for a first date movie ever, but the focus was primarily on the storytelling, not the project’s conceptual trappings. Luckily the people we found are storytellers with incredible tales to tell.
In any case, it was probably not the film Greg and Noble were thinking of, but (bless ’em) they gave us total freedom to make it. It was the most thrilling creative experience I’ve had in documentary, because I was given the liberty to figure out how to do it while I was doing it.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
My primary influence during the making of the film was Euripides and the theatrical conventions of the time he lived in, and classic narrative structure. I know everything about the film starts to sound a bit abstract and remote when one starts to analyze it, which is kind of a bummer as my overall goal for the project was to entertain as much as anything else. I guess on one level I want it to be like the best cocktail party conversation ever, where one guy starts telling an incredible, personal story, and three other guys chime in with, “OMG! That happened to me too!” and by the end they’re ordering tour jackets.
During the first year of the project, I hadn’t determined what the shared aesthetic of the stories would be. The idea of the puppets came very late in the project. I knew I wanted some visual elements to run through all of the stories, and originally I had been thinking about more animation. But there’s something wonderfully immediate about working with puppets, especially these haunting (OK, creepy) ones Janie Geiser made for the film. Anyway, the connecting visuals in the film — the animation, the puppets, the sets and backdrops — all have roots in ancient Greek imagery. We researched the masks and clothing the actors used to wear, the staging, and the symbols and iconography of the period. From there, of course, the film takes great creative license, but I liked the idea of lending a sense of timelessness to the stories by suggesting their connection to an ancient time.
What was the process in getting together the people featured in the film?
As mentioned above, I wanted people who were storytellers. And they had to have experienced a Euripidean kind of obsessive quest (and moment of awakening). For about 8 months, we looked everywhere. With my fellow producers Elise Pearlstein and Susan West and some intrepid interns, we searched the internet, of course, books, periodicals, casual conversations at cocktail parties (“Say, do you know anyone who’s experienced a dark, personal, Euripidean epiphany?”). Of the men who are in the film, two I know personally, but finding the other two was a needle in the haystack search. I wanted people who seemed to have little in common on the surface, so that the connections between their characters would surprise.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
Of course, the only logical follow-up to a documentary about Euripidean tragedy featuring wooden puppets speaking ancient Greek is a comedy about ping pong. I just finished a feature comedy called “Ping Pong Playa“, which is about an Asian American basketball player who has to face up to the fact that his genes are more suited for table tennis. I co-wrote it with my buddy Jimmy Tsai and we premiered it at Toronto this fall. It’s an unexpected thrill to have audiences laughing through one’s film. Usually documentarians are happy when their audience is crying. “Tears! High five!”
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why?
I can’t answer this question… it causes me too much anxiety. I like a lot of films, and I see too few of them! Plus my memory sucks.
What are your interests outside of film?
Outside of film? What are you talking about? Oh right, children and family and all that. Eating. Sleeping.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I mean this: when you’re watching the rough cut of your first film, have a glass of wine. It helps one stand back, just a touch. Don’t have too much wine, though, or you may end up with a film fillled with wooden puppets speaking ancient Greek.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
That I have a career.