By Lael Lowenstein
When Jessica Yu strode onstage at the Shrine Auditorium to accept the Oscar for the 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, she provided the night’s most memorable one-liner.
“You know you’ve entered new territory,” Yu deadpanned, “when you realize that your outfit cost more than your film.” That comment may have famously caught viewers’ attention—the outfit, for the record, was borrowed—but it was her brief, eloquent speech that left a deeper impression. Saluting her team, she paid special tribute to reluctant hero O’Brien, a polio-afflicted writer confined to an iron lung. “It was not your bravery,” she told him, “but your humanity that earned this award.” With its unexpectedly nimble juxtaposition of the sardonic and the profound, the speech might have been a moment from one of Yu’s own films or, by extension, a metaphor for her career.
From her endlessly amusing Sour Death Balls, a 1993 silent black-and-white montage of assorted subjects’ unsuspecting reactions to a blindingly bitter candy, which she shot on an old school Bell & Howell wind-up camera, to Last Call at the Oasis, her recent feature-length chronicle of the worldwide water crisis, Yu’s directing career has been marked by its eclecticism. Additionally, she has directed commercials, episodic television (The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, Parenthood) and a narrative feature (Ping Pong Playa, 2007). “It’s a weird assembly of titles,” she admits with her characteristic self-effacement. “There’s not a lot that seems to tie them together.”
Filmmaking was not a predictable course for the northern California-raised, Yale-educated Yu. Her father, a Shanghai-born oncologist, and mother, a fourth-generation Chinese-American who teaches history and fencing, gave her “a pretty loose rein.” After college, Yu spent time on the international fencing circuit, competing as a member of the U.S. team at the World Championships. Back in the Bay Area, she dabbled in production on commercials and travel documentaries, but longed for more challenging assignments. “I parked cars and wrangled frozen food,” she recalls. “It was an education in humility.”
FAR FROM HOME: Yu directing a documentary about the restoration of Gornogosa National Park in Mozambique in 2011
Only when she relocated to Los Angeles in 1989 did her path come into focus. Deciding against film school, she gleaned her education on the job. She worked as a PA on commercials and an associate producer on documentaries. “On my first doc shoot, they needed someone to work the Nagra,” she remembers. “I jumped at the chance.”
Still, when a friend suggested she direct a film about Berkeley writer Mark O’Brien, Yu demurred at first. Making a film about a brilliant but virtually immobilized, at times inaudible and frequently irascible subject presented a host of problems. If O’Brien yearned to “transcend the limitations of the body,” as he put it, Yu sought to transcend the limitations and challenges of her material. That meant being ready to shift course at a moment’s notice, such as when O’Brien impulsively decided to allow the camera inside his apartment to watch him being bathed.
Yu’s chance to work in episodic TV came when she received an invitation to apprentice at John Wells Productions as the first participant in a program designed to increase diversity among directors. Shadowing directors such as Thomas Schlamme, Alex Graves and Christopher Misiano on The West Wing, Yu sensed she was a guinea pig. “If you screw this up,” she told herself, “they’ll never let another woman of color from documentaries do this again.”
On her first directorial assignment, an episode of The West Wing, Yu was heartened that Wells encouraged her stylistic input. “He made a point of saying, ‘You should bring your own ideas to the table,’ rather than just follow prescribed formula.” So she decided to open with a series of mood-establishing low, wide-angle shots to signal the calm before the gathering storm.
From working on The West Wing she gained an infusion of confidence and an appreciation for the kind of problem-solving efficiency it took to tackle a dense script in only eight days. “I learned that you have to embrace your biggest obstacle,” she says. “What’s great is that it gives you the license to order off the menu.”
One of the obstacles on In the Realms of the Unreal (2004), a nonfiction project about the reclusive artist and writer Henry Darger was the sheer volume of material: The wildly prolific Darger left behind a 15,000-page manuscript and hundreds of additional illustrations. Another problem was the fact that despite his astonishing output, only three photos of Darger were known to exist. Her solution was to create a more complete picture of her subject by weaving together three stories: a profile of Darger according to those who knew him; the story of his life in his own words read by actors; and the fantasy tale of the characters in his manuscript and illustrations. For the third part, Yu took the radical and risky step of animating Darger’s artwork.
“I knew the idea would be controversial,” she concedes, “but I saw that his work had all the elements of an animated story. I wanted to tell a story, not just [limit myself] to being a purist as an archivist.”
Yu took another creative leap when she directed the feature comedy Ping Pong Playa, a low-budget sendup of underdog sports movies and Asian culture that Yu co-wrote with its lead actor Jimmy Tsai. She tried to bring the same loose hand and adaptability she used for documentaries to scripted material. Her approach was to “have a lighter touch, especially with actors” to give them a sense of freedom.
In 2009, Yu was approached to direct Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary about the water crisis. Though she had mostly steered clear of explicitly issue-driven topics. “The more I thought about it,” she says, “the more personal it became.” When she considered the likely impact of the water crisis on her children (she and novelist husband Mark Salzman have 8- and 11-year-old girls), she was compelled to take on the project.
As a documentarian, Yu is adamant that story should come before politics. “I don’t feel like the message should take priority over the storytelling,” she says emphatically. “If something political comes out of [the piece], it needs to be motivated by whatever made it personal.”
Up next for Yu is a documentary on the restoration of a national park in Mozambique, a film about population issues, more episodic TV, and eventually a passion project about Mad magazine. She credits stay-at-home dad Salzman with helping maintain balance in her life, though with her busy schedule it’s no surprise that Yu, a self-described night owl, gets little sleep. But the range of projects seems to energize her. “It’s satisfying,” she says, “when you feel that your pendulum is fully swinging."