Interview with Jessica Yu
Jessica Yu is an Academy Award®–winning filmmaker working in a variety of media and genres. She has directed numerous short and feature documentary films, including In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist, and Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, for which she received an Oscar® in 1997. In addition to her work in documentary, she has directed multiple episodes of popular television series like The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal, along with her own narrative works such as the feature film Ping Pong Playa.
The fact that she can move between these various mediums is a testament to her ability to relate to the subject at hand, to adapt and torque her artistic vision to match an individual idea. This has led her to implement bold techniques. In the film In the Realms of the Unreal, the personal storybook drawings of reclusive artist Henry Darger blossom into an animated landscape of his visions. The testimonies of four dissimilar men in Protagonist are linked together through ambitious, large-scale puppetry. A Greek chorus of delicately maneuvered wooden figures lifts these various accounts into a singular arc that relates to the Euripidean dramatic structure. Writer Mark O’Brien opens up to Yu’s lens in Breathing Lessons, allowing us to imagine his experiences of working and maintaining relationships while confined to an iron lung. He is remarkably candid with Yu in his descriptions, and she keeps his accounts uncluttered by external commentary or techniques. Because each of her films is so distinct, it’s clear she gages her techniques to what’s before her.
Yu’s first film, Sour Death Balls, observes a series of children and adults as they attempt to consume this extremely sour candy. It’s impossible not to cringe along with these people as their faces contort—eyes squinting, cheeks concaving—while partaking in the pucker. In a way that short is emblematic of what Yu has continued to do in her work. Even when approaching broader topics like her more recent Last Call at the Oasis, which examines the worldwide water crisis, she presents individual stories that cannot be ignored. These depictions do more than ask us to bear witness to other peoples’ lives; they ask us to feel, to inhabit, other lives. Along with the documentaries mentioned above, Full Frame is also showcasing The Kinda Sutra, The Living Museum, and Meet Mr. Toilet as part of the tribute. The festival is also proud to feature the world premiere of Yu’s most recent film, The Guide, which focuses on the human side of environmental sustainability in Mozambique.
In the following interview, Jessica Yu talks with Joel Mora, publishing intern at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and one of the editors of this year’s Full Frame program, about her approach to directing, the difference between her television and documentary work, and the thematic intersections amongst her films.
Director of Programming, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Joel Mora: You studied English at Yale. You were an All-American fencer. How was it that you picked up a camera and created something like Sour Death Balls?
Jessica Yu: This is the funny thing—it was pretty random that I ended up going into film. People always say it’s great to major in English because you can go into so many different fields, but the lack of direction can also be paralyzing. I started working in production mainly because it was freelance. I was somewhat interested in the process, but I mainly thought, oh, I can try this out, work a few days, and then still compete in fencing. Yes, fencing. I knew that I wanted to compete for a year after college. Working as a production assistant was interesting, and it also gave me that freedom to travel.
As I didn’t go to film school, I would just grab bits of knowledge wherever I could. I don’t remember thinking, gosh, I can’t wait to make my first film. I was having lunch with some family friends, and their kids had this really terrible sour candy. They loved passing it around and seeing all the adults spit it out and make terrible faces, and I thought this would be a fun film and so then I was, of course, on the hunt for the world’s most awful candy. I found the Sour Death Balls, and I thought it was a truth-in-packaging sort of thing so I decided to make a film. I borrowed a friend’s camera; it was a little Bell & Howell that you cranked by hand, and I could afford a couple of tiny reels of film. So that’s how the first one started—it was kind of a lark—and it was a perfect film to start learning. it was so small that i was able to do everything pretty much on my own in terms of editing and that kind of stuff.
JM: I think one interesting thing about your career is that your films are so varied; you don’t necessarily know you’re watching a Jessica Yu film. How do you go about choosing the subjects of your films? You went from playful and light in Sour Death Balls to complex and profound in Breathing Lessons, which is a very striking portrait of writer Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung.
JY: In my experience the opportunity to make a film is usually a random occurrence. I was traveling with Sour Death Balls and going to festivals and having a good time. So I’m at Telluride and I’m walking down the street and people start coming up to me and complimenting my film and asking for my autograph. This was one of my first festivals, and I was like, wow, this is how it works, how cool. And of course it turned out that The Joy Luck Club was playing at the festival, and everyone thought I was in that film because it has this all-Asian female cast. There aren’t a lot of Asians milling about Telluride, Colorado, so most people just assumed. . . . it was like being in a Twilight Zone episode. I wrote a piece about that experience. The Pacific News Service picked it up, and Sandy Close, the director of Pacific News Service (I’m sorry this is such a long answer to your question) was also Mark O’Brien’s editor. She said you should meet this guy—someone should make a film about him. I remember thinking that was weird because I had just made a film about people eating candy, but that’s how I ended going from one to the other. I guess if there’s any deliberate movement from one film to the next, it’s that I like the chance to do something different. Sometimes in between films subjects come up that seem too close to the last film so I tend to gravitate away from those.
JM: While your films deal with different subjects, in different styles, one thing that they all have in common is that you let the films’ subjects speak for themselves as much as possible. In Protagonist the four main characters tell their own stories. In Breathing Lessons, only Mark O’Brien does the talking. In in The Realms of the Unreal, while having artist Henry Darger speak for himself is impossible, we learn the most about him through the narration of passages from his 15,000-plus-page epic journal and his autobiography. How do you approach your subjects, your interviews? How do you choose what to show or not show?
JY: When a film is more or less centered on an individual or, as in the case of Protagonist, a group of individuals, I find that I’m drawn to the person’s voice, meaning that . . . ok, I bet a lot of documentary filmmakers feel this way—you hear from people who say, oh, have you heard of this person, they’ve had such an interesting life, they’d make a great documentary. But it’s not just an individual’s circumstances that make for a strong story, it’s the character of the individual that draws you. I’m always looking for that essence of a person that makes you want to know more—what does this particular individual do with the cards that he or she is handed?
Mark O’Brien is a perfect example. On the surface, the film could sound like what Mark called a “cripple-of-the-week story.” I remember that when I first heard about him I thought that his situation sounded extreme, to say the least, but it wasn’t until I read his poetry that I was drawn in to the idea of making a film about him. I thought his work was incredible. this was an early, good lesson for me to learn, that, again, a person is not just the sum of his circumstances, and that you need more than a situation to create a story that connects with an audience. I would say that in the films you’ve mentioned that is what i’m always trying to do—to draw out the essence of the person. Of course I’m not going to be able to capture everything, but I’m trying to explore what is it that attracts me to the person, and what it is that I want other people to see. It also helps if you have an articulate subject, and I’ve been very lucky on that front. With the film about Henry Darger, the problem was that there was so little of the material that you would normally rely on to make a biographical film. There were no home movies or recorded interviews, but there was this pile of evidence. The challenge was to go through enough of it so that I felt like I was presenting something representative of those personal, intangible qualities.
JM: In Breathing Lessons did you ever think about talking to Mark O’Brien’s friend Elizabeth Duvall to get her perspective, or did you know it should only be Mark talking throughout the film?
JY: There were people in Mark’s life, and certainly some family members, who could have been in the film, but I think that the decision was kind of twofold. One was that after reading his poetry I realized he was someone who had such an urgency to communicate, had so much to say, that it wasn’t like I was going to be pulling teeth to uncover emotional insights. Also Mark is very funny and has this incredible charisma, so there is an openness that is rare. The second thing is that in our first conversation together I didn’t go in with the idea that I was just going to get his ok and make a film—it was more like, let’s talk and see if we get along. One of the first things he mentioned was that there had been a lot of media stories about him but usually the reporter would let him say about two words and then there would be the voiceover of a newscaster spinning this heroic story about how a person can overcome anything. So he didn’t get to say very much, and people probably thought that he would be too difficult to understand. But I thought if we had the opportunity to make this film, why not make him the only voice in the film? That was an idea we both liked immediately, so that became the basis for the direction of the film.
There’s a point at which you decide the rules for each film. The films, as you were saying, feel different, because once I start doing my research, the material starts to point to approaches that make sense for the story—the material dictates how the story should be told. Finding out what’s going to work is an interesting point in the process. But once I discover what the rules are, if I try to step outside of them it can be really jarring. I have to remind myself, oh, wait, we’re not doing that. Not that films shouldn’t have a looseness to them, but I think that you need to remind yourself that the audience is trusting you in a lot of ways, and part of that means that you have to honor their investment in the story by following through with what you set out to do.
JM: Another connection between the films, I think, is that they deal with transcendence, whether it’s transcending the darkest parts of humanity or overcoming a disability or, as in The Living Museum, battling mental illness through art. Is there something personal that makes you gravitate toward those stories?
JY: That’s an interesting way to put it. I think when you start a story you want it to end up somewhere that is a little—I mean, it’s something you can trace back to classic dramatic structure, which is something Protagonist played with, the different moments in, and drama of, somebody’s life. I think that when you are telling stories about individuals, you are looking for that change. Sometimes it’s transformative in a positive, unexpected way, and sometimes it’s the opposite. I don’t necessarily think that the change is a change in someone’s character so much as it is the absorption of wisdom or experience . . . a change in perspective almost, that the character finally accepts. And that is something that is always unexpected to the character, although it may seem inevitable to the outsider.
It’s really interesting to hear your take on the films, because I get tunnel vision when I’m working on something, and then I focus on the next thing so it’s very hard for me to see connections between them. So it’s kind of cool to think about them in this way.
JM: I’m really engaged with how you don’t seem to grab your subjects and put them in a Jessica Yu box, by which I mean, make films about unique people that still look and feel the same. Instead, it seems that you allow yourself to be engulfed by a story, and the best way to tell that story.
JY: That makes it a lot more fun, although the idea of an all-purpose "Jessica Yu Box" on my editing desk has its appeal. So easy! Sometimes I wonder about my tendency towards difficult doc subjects, like the story of Henry Darger, or Protagonist—how do I tell the backstories of people who weren’t expecting to have a documentary made about them, people who aren’t media figures or anything. Sometimes these kinds of limitations are what give you the license to do something different, and that is something that I enjoy. It’s a nice irony that limitations lead to freedom. You don’t want to make a film and be self-indulgent about it, but when there is a narrative puzzle, it’s just a great feeling to figure out a way to solve it that starts to make sense. And then there are times when you think, this is just insane. With Protagonist I remember there was a point when we were doing the puppet shoot and we had all these puppeteers rolling around, practicing choreographed moves on these ancient Greek–inspired sets, and we had the voiceover in ancient Greek blasting through the room, and I realized that everyone thought I had lost my mind. I remember a cinematographer telling me once that crews often think the director is clueless, because no one has the full picture of what’s going on except for the director. You have to make sure that people know enough so that they can follow and do their job, but you have to also accept that everyone probably thinks you’re a little nuts. You have to just keep moving forward as long as you, at least, know what’s in your head.
JM: Did you read a lot of comics or watch a lot of cartoons when you were younger, as there tends to be animation in your films? And even in films that don’t use animation, like Last Call at the Oasis, you find a way to illustrate facts and anecdotes through graphics, some visual representation. How did you get started with animation, and how do you balance it with the stories you’re telling so that it’s not gimmicky or a distraction? For instance, in your film about Henry Darger, some of his art is animated but some isn’t.
JY: That’s a good example because in In the Realms of the Unreal the animation was used only for showing parallel threads, the story of his "real life" and of his "fantasy life." So when he tells the story of what’s happening in the world of his novel that’s when the animation happens. I try to find ways to use it in which it is necessary.
And yes, I did grow up reading a lot of comic books and MAD magazine. I’m someone who always wishes she could draw better . . . or at all, really. I like the collaborative nature of working with an animator or a good graphics person because it’s kind of like working with a composer. You share the ideas together, you talk about the story, you get all excited. I do terrible storyboards, and then it’s like Christmas when the person comes back for show and tell. It is such a cool feeling when you think, this is even better than imagined. Maybe it’s the want-to-be artist getting a vicarious thrill.
JM: After The Living Museum you spent many years working in fiction, as you still do, whether for television series, commercials, or films. What brought you into that world?
JY: That work actually came from Breathing Lessons. I was having a lot of nice meetings with nice people who said, oh, we’d love to work with you on our tv show so just let us know when you start directing TV, which was a nice way of saying no one wanted to take a chance. Then I had this meeting with John Wells Productions, the company that did The West Wing and ER, and they said, come in and we’ll have you observe, and we’ll guarantee you a shot at directing. I realized why people were hesitant to bring on newbies—it’s a very different world, the polar opposite of what I was doing with Breathing Lessons, running around with a crew of three people using short ends of film. And there’s The West Wing, with a bigger than life-size replica of the White house with cranes and steadicams and a huge crew. As for commercials, I had the good fortune to start with Nonfiction Unlimited, which is a commercial production company that works with documentary filmmakers. LJ Jeneski and Michael Degan were able to see the potential in marrying nonfiction techniques and sensibilities with those kinds of jobs, and they’ve been great partners. I’ve been so lucky, not only because I enjoy the varied work but because these other directing avenues support my documentary habit. People talk about this being a time of renaissance for documentary, and there are so many good films out there, but it’s still very, very hard to make documentaries exclusively for a living.
JM: You’ve said that working with fiction versus documentary is like working different muscles . . .
JY: When you work on the set of a show that’s been running for a while, you enter someone else’s home, and time is very different. It’s a strict schedule; there’s a lot of work packed into each day. And there are different personalities, different jobs, and the scale is much bigger; your role is intense but it’s circumscribed. What I like about working on a series is the intensity. You go in and work madly for three-and-a-half weeks and then you’re out of it. Plus, you get to work with actors, various teams with different skill sets, and there is a wider range of equipment and toys to play with. With documentaries, you have different pressures—you have time pressure and money pressure, and the story pressure is on your back. You’re steering that ship much more personally. I like doing them both. When I’m working on documentaries, I might not have all the same resources, but it’s more my thing, and I have more creative freedom that way.
JM: But do you feel that you have less control in documentaries because you’re not working with actors and you can’t predict what will happen on any given day with a subject?
JY: I think creative freedom gets confused with control sometimes . . . maybe what we’re talking about is authorship. And a lot of the authorship comes in editing. Anyway, when I first started directing episodic TV, I remember being concerned about working with actors and learning actor-speak. I was talking about this with an actor-director, and she reminded me that actors are people, and you don’t have to talk to them in some special code, just find a way to communicate that works. That made sense to me, because it’s the same thing in documentaries: there’s no single way to communicate with a subject. You have to be flexible and navigate each relationship. Over time, you start to understand that while you might be exercising different muscles in talking with actors or subjects, the underlying dynamic is similar.
JM: What makes you decide whether a film should be a short or not? Meet Mr. Toilet could have easily been a feature.
Isn’t that guy awesome? He’s great. I love Jack Sim. Jack’s story kind of launched Last Call at the Oasis. A long time ago, my producer, Elise Pearlstein, wanted to make a film about sewage, and so of course I’m like, ok. The opportunity to make a film about water came up, and we ran into this incredible person, Mr. toilet. We filmed a sequence with him at the World Toilet Organization conference, which was part of our water story in Singapore, but in the edit, we couldn’t find a way to fit him in and do him justice. The chance to make a short with him came up, so that was just serendipity. There are a lot of times when I shoot things that I enjoy, or think are great, but in the end, I’m not able to use them, and it drives me nuts. But I also like the immediacy and instant gratification of a short. They can definitely take time—The Kinda Sutra took a lot of work, but I don’t feel that a film has to be feature length to be worthy of one’s time. It’s hard for me to turn down the chance to do one.
In making shorts, I have had a long-running fantasy that my career retrospective would be an hour long. Although, at this point, I think I am past my self-imposed running time.
JM: One of the subjects in Last Call at the Oasis quotes Einstein, saying, "Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act." With Last Call, The Guide, and certainly, Meet Mr. Toilet you seem to be focusing more and more on global environmental issues. Is that a trend you’re actively focusing on at the moment, or is this a case of films that just came up?
JY:That’s another good question, because, again, I haven’t st—maybe it’s also being a parent—the immediacy of environmental issues is inescapable, but I’m not someone who is necessarily drawn to an issue first. I like the idea of finding the story first, with the exception of Last Call at the Oasis. In the case of Last Call, I was approached by Diane Weyermann at Participant Media, and once I started doing research I discovered how precarious the water supply is, and how little we are aware of it—the immediacy and urgency of it all got us really motivated to make the film. It’s a different kind of film for me, but it definitely opened up some ideas about the assorted ways that we can tell these stories and connect with others, because there are a lot of issue-oriented films out there—it’s tough to figure out how to reach an audience without people feeling conservation fatigue. That said, the opportunities to make Last Call and The Guide were totally unconnected. the executive producer of Protagonist, Greg Carr, is somebody I met at Full Frame years and years ago when I was in Durham with In the Realms of the Unreal. Carr’s foundation approached us about making a film about the restoration of a national park in Mozambique, and that’s where The Guide came from.
I wouldn’t label myself an "issue" filmmaker, but I can see how many feel that the environmental pivot point upon which we are teetering is the story of our time. Of course filmmakers should be telling every kind of story, but the challenge of tackling subject matter with such universal ramifications has an undeniable pull. Now, watch, my next doc will end up being about recreational catapulting or something. . . .
JM: I understand that the documentary you are making now also has to do with a global issue. Can you tell me about what you’re working on?
JY: The new film is going to be about population, which is a topic directly related to Last Call. When we were traveling all over and talking with people for that film, the topic of population came up so many times that the film seemed inevitable: What is really going on with population? Is that the conversation we should be having? How are people’s lives affected by demographic shifts? And usually when we say population, we mean over-population. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at, and I think it will be a very different film from Last Call in that it will probably include the kind of personal storytelling that you see in some of the films that we were talking about earlier.
JM: You told me you were sitting in an editing room all week, so I’m wondering about how you approach editing. Is there a common thread or a feeling that you look for, that you want the audience to experience in the movie theater?
JY: I love editing. There’s always a point when I look up and see that it’s like four in the morning and I thought I just had dinner. You experience this total engagement, and while you can’t expect an audience to feel that way the whole time, you hope that, at least at points in your film, they’ll have that feeling of being completely absorbed and invested in what’s happening. There is this filmmaker that I knew a long time ago, and he had a Post-it note on his editing table that said something like: Don’t be boring. Just put the bar a little lower and don’t bore them. So i guess the choice is either transcendence or “don’t bore me.”