The Reeler


November 26, 2007

Mistress of Puppets

Oscar-winner Yu back at the controls for Protagonist's challenging doc-narrative hybrid

Greek to her: Director Jessica Yu gets Euripidean on the set of Protagonist (Photos: IFC films )

While her Oscar will likely always precede her, the designation's clubby imprimatur is a mildly awkward fit for an adventurer like Jessica Yu. After wowing audiences (and Academy voters) with her 1996 short documentary Breathing Lessons, about iron lung-bound Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, Yu's visually arresting 2004 feature doc debut In the Realms of the Unreal unraveled the impossibly prolific creative life of janitor-cum-author-illustrator Henry Darger. If each film is ultimately about art's impact on the soul, Yu maps the topography of this impact with uncompromising -- even confounding -- precision.

Yu's latest, Protagonist (opening Friday in New York), prismatically upends that style, juxtaposing the early-life conflicts of four men -- ex-bank robber Joe Loya, closeted evangelical Mark Pierpont, former terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein and bully fodder Mark Salzman (also the filmmaker's husband) -- against reenactments and fraught snippets from the dramas of Euripides. Performed by wooden-rod puppets. Really. The result is an engrossing, head-scratching meander through the twilight zone of art, obsession and violence. Yu recently spoke with The Reeler about Protagonist's concept, its subjects and her brief stint as puppet mistress.

THE REELER: I don't mean this the way it probably sounds: I've seen the film one and a half times, and I quite like it. I just don't get it. Help me out here.

JESSICA YU: I think a lot of people get hung up with the Greek stuff, thinking somehow they have to follow what the puppets are saying. But what I think is more important is following the four guys' stories the best you can. There is a built-in disorientation in the beginning; definitely there's a feeling of, "Why are these four men in the same film? What do they have in common?" But the chapter headings -- the little animations -- those are the main structural elements to take you from one step to the next. The men are at the same turning points in their paths of obsession. That's the basic idea. The idea of it being told against the backdrop of the ancient Greek stuff is kind of a way to echo back to the structure of classical Greek tragedy. It's a way of suggesting there's something about that narrative that is appealing on an almost visceral level -- it's such a basic human complex to try to transcend circumstances without losing one's mind.

R: But you were approached to make this film on the basis of a story linked to Greek drama -- Euripides in particular.

JY: I was approached by Greg Carr and Noble Smith (of The Carr Foundation) about making a film about Euripides. But they were thinking something more along the lines of Euripides the man. Then we started talking and they said, "Well, we're into anything." So I was reading the plays and brainstorming about what it could be; I called them and said, "I have this idea..." The basic idea was to tell the story of those four people and impose the structure of Greek tragedy on those stories.

R: You found one of the men -- your husband, author Mark Salzman -- pretty close to home. What about Mark appealed to you for this project?

JY: Besides the fact that he's a great storyteller -- I knew that he would work wonderfully as a performing subject, and I think we needed some humor in the film as well. The most important thing is that of the four individuals in the film, we needed one person that most people could relate to in terms of the degree of his fall and his obsession. The fact that it's more of a suburban coming-of-age story is important; not everyone is going to be able to relate to Hans-Joachim Klein, this German ex-terrorist. It adds more of a feeling that it could happen to anybody.

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R: Why didn't you disclose your relationship with Mark to the viewer? Did you think at any time it might compromise the story you were telling or the way it was depicted?

JY: I just think it would be terribly distracting. It doesn't really have anything to do with the story or the film. All that stuff happened long ago. It wasn't a big secret, but I didn't think it needed to be told as part of the film.

R: Do you think if viewers knew Mark was your husband, they might consider it an advantage in a way? Did you see it as an advantage?

JY: If it were in there, I think it could be distracting in the sense that people might wonder, "Oh, does she treat his story differently?"

R: Did you?

JY: The only difference was that I'd heard these stories before -- not to that same degree. I created a list of questions and gave them to Joe Loya, who's also a friend, to go in and feed them to Mark. I went in and did the follow-ups. That way, in the initial conversations, Mark wouldn't feel like, "Here I am telling Jessica this story that I've told her 25 times before." That way it felt fresh to Joe, and the follow-ups were questions I certainly wanted to know -- stuff we hadn't necessarily talked about.

R: What about Joe and the others? How did you find them, and what about them appealed to you for Protagonist?

JY: I had known Joe for a while. I think I'd always just been really impressed by Joe on a lot of levels; he's another great storyteller, and he has an interesting perspective on just about anything you could think of to talk to him about. Then there's the fact that he was a bank robber and was in prison for 10 years. So you wonder how he had that reversal from when he was born, and how he had the reversal to who he's become now. He's got a family; he's doing wonderfully. When the Euripidean idea came up, the first person I thought of was Joe.

The subjects of Protagonist (clockwise from top left): Hans-Joachim Klein, Mark Salzman, Mark Pierpont and Joe Loya

The other two, we had to look for eight months to find people who fit the particular story we were looking for. Good storytellers, but people who were different from each other. It was like a Rubik's Cube. We'd find someone, and then we'd be like, "No, his story's too close to so-and-so's." Part of the time we were looking for women's stories, but we couldn't find any that fit. So that extended our search for a couple of months.

R: I was going to ask about that: If you resolved to stick with men from the start.

JY: The thing is that Euripides is famous for his female characters. It was odd that we couldn't find women. It wasn't that women couldn't get obsessed and lose track of themselves. But in the film there's this moment that everyone has where they say, "What was I thinking? How did I wind up here?" But when things didn't work out for women, they usually said they knew it was going to be time to move on. Men didn't see it coming. They would continue full-speed, hit the wall and crash. That's what, for dramatic reasons, we were looking for. Maybe there's another film to be made about women.

R: At least puppets are represented. How and when did you determine they were an ideal counterpoint to the Euripidean theme and the subjects themselves?

JY: We did some research into the original stagings of those plays, and the amphitheaters were so large that the actors would have to wear these big, thick masks. The thing about a mask is that as the drama goes on, you interpret the features differently; you impose your own emotions on them. That was very useful thematically. But I also wanted some visual connection between the Greek backdrops and the stories of the four men. Besides Klein, the ex-terrorist, there's not a lot of visual material for some of these key influences in their back stories. I didn't want to do reenactments with actors. So it was a way to give those stories echoes in classic drama. So if you've got Mark Salzman as a kid watching TV in his living room, all of the sudden it has this feeling of being from an old Greek drama.

R: I can't believe I haven't asked yet about your narrative feature debut Ping Pong Playa. How is everything going with that film since its premiere at Toronto?

JY: It's been great. As a documentary filmmaker, it was so great to have people laughing through a film. I mean, in this documentary you'll have laughs, but you're waiting for the next segment to see how they're connected. We have a couple of offers. And it was fun to do something different. It was really a happy accident. It's still strange to me that ended up happening right after Protagonist. But I like that -- jumping from one thing to the next, on to something completely different.

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