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The focus was Euripedes, so she thought, `Puppets!'

Jessica Yu threw her creative energies into a doc that morphed into a complex style sampler.

January 28, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Park City, Utah — WHEN you're drawn to unusual subject matter, says documentary director Jessica Yu, to stories that lack obvious and abundant visual material, "those limitations make you order off the menu." In the case of "Protagonist," Yu's wonderfully accomplished, unexpected and challenging new work, those limitations sent her not just off the menu but to a different restaurant entirely.

"I definitely had the sense that this was risky. Puppets speaking ancient Greek -- is this going to make any sense at all?" says Yu of her new film, which debuted at Sundance last Sunday. "But if someone presents you with the opportunity, why not explore? Usually you're dealing with a lot of limitations and only a certain amount of freedom. Here, the freedom was enormous; I feel totally spoiled."

On one level, "Protagonist" intercuts the first-person narratives of four men who seem to have nothing in common except their charisma: a former German terrorist, a student of martial arts, a "formerly gay" evangelist and a serial bank robber. But this is only the beginning.

For Yu, who looks on editing as "weaving straw into gold," intercuts these stories not only with each other but with several different kinds of material. She has wooden rod puppets constructed by Janie Geiser doing brief scenes from the plays of Euripides, recited in ancient Greek. She has the same puppets performing scenes from the lives of these four men. And she has a dozen or so 15-second animated moments that go with single thematic words like "provocation," "certainty" and "doubt" that function as "little bits of breathing room."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Playwright's name: The headline on an article about documentary director Jessica Yu in today's Calendar section misspelled the name of the ancient Greek playwright Euripides as Euripedes.

To understand where this highly unusual structure comes from and why it is so successful, it's necessary to go back to the original idea for the film. In 2003, Yu (winner of the 1997 short documentary Oscar for "Breathing Lessons") was asked by Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation to make a documentary about the Greek playwright Euripides. "This was not an obvious documentary subject, like the new homeless shelter downtown, and when I heard it I did laugh out loud," Yu remembers. "No image came to my mind; it was a complete blank slate. Usually with documentaries, you have to have the concept hammered out before you look for funding. Here, the attention was on the process of discovery; it was 'see what you make of it.' "

Yu spent a summer reading Euripides' surviving 19 plays and discovering that "there was a certain complexity to his human characters; people talked about him being the first psychologist. While the other Greeks did morality plays, he wrote people as they are."

The filmmaker found herself most drawn to those characters (especially those in Euripides' "Bacchae") who "start out with a goal but get so completely obsessed with the journey, they end up [with] the opposite of what they intended. How does somebody go from here to there?"

The Carr Foundation was happy with this approach, and Yu's first task was to look for people whose stories mirrored each other, people whose lives not only had that arc but also "had that dramatic moment, that dark epiphany when it all became clear, like that moment in the Talking Heads song that talks about 'This is not my beautiful house.' That's much harder to find in real life."

Finding these folks, "individuals who seemed to have little in common but, if you made a graph, had essentially lived the same lives," turned out to be "a complete needle-in-a-haystack search" that went on for months and involved some 200 candidates. Oddly, almost all of them were men, not because women aren't obsessive but because women tend to find out things are going wrong gradually, not in one dark moment, according to Yu. One of the men chosen was found through Google searches "involving key words typed in like 'haiku,' " and one turned out to be Yu's husband, the writer and martial artist Mark Salzman.

Because Euripides had been the starting point of all this, Yu next searched for "some visual elements that tied together the stories with the Greek element." Though she shies away from using "the P-word" ("I think of them more as sculptures"), Yu went with puppets because they reminded her of the way actors in ancient Greece used masks when they appeared before an audience.

She started with the puppets doing moments from "Bacchae," lines that "were supposed to wash over you and reinforce the theme." She also decided to keep the dialogue in subtitled, difficult-to-pronounce ancient Greek. On the day of recording, with "everybody freaking out," Yu ended up with the mother of one of the actors, who happened to be an expert in the language, "on the phone for four straight hours, walking them through it." To tie everything even closer together, she decided that having the puppets act out scenes from everyone's dramas would enhance the "combined narrative momentum" she was after.

Though it all worked out in the end, Yu is well aware that the structure of "Protagonist" practices "tough love with the audience."

"There's a built-in lag period," Yu says. "It's disorienting, and there's not a lot of hand-holding. You have to have faith in the story, and you have to stick with it until the point where you get it." And they do.

"It's really fun," Jessica Yu says, "to see what people talk about when 'Protagonist' is over. They didn't know where this film would end up."

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