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The Weight of Water: An Interview with Jessica Yu

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Jessica Yu’s timely new documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, brings into clear focus the severity of the water crisis – typically described as “impending,” but revealed here to have already arrived. Yu’s doc spotlights the water problems in such far-flung places as the Australian outback and the Middle East, but mostly presents case studies within these shores: Las Vegas and California’s Central Valley, both of which are running out of water; and Midland, Texas, and rural Michigan, where pollution from chemical and agricultural sources has not only made the water undrinkable but has also caused skyrocketing incidences of terminal illnesses. Though moments in the film are shocking or even frightening, Last Call at the Oasis is effective because of its accessibility – it lays out facts simply, moves smoothly from one location to another and is beautifully shot. And it is ultimately hopeful, stressing what we can all do to improve (if not wholly rectify) the situation.

Yu’s career as a documentary filmmaker is defined by her refusal to be easily categorized. In her nonfiction work, she has frequently taken on subjects or worlds that seem challengingly obscure or inaccessible. Her breakthrough film, the 1996 Academy Award-winning short Breathing Lessons, was about Mark O’Brien, a polio-afflicted poet and journalist confined to an iron lung. The Emmy-nominated In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) was a portrait of outsider artist Henry Darger, a recluse who was a complete unknown until after his death; the film brought to life his inner world through animation. And Yu’s 2007 film Protagonist, commissioned as a documentary on Euripides (about whose life little is known), shed light on the work of the Ancient Greek playwright by mixing four compelling modern-day stories with scenes acted out with puppets.

In addition to these compelling and inventive documentaries, Yu has also made commercials, and she is a gifted narrative director, most commonly working in TV (episodes of ER, The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy, among others.) And while the documentaries of this Yale grad may be characterized by their sharp intelligence, her narrative work displays a playfulness that can even manifest itself as silliness, such as in her debut short Sour Death Balls or the raucous comedy feature Ping Pong Playa, about an Asian-American teen who dreams of being an NBA player.

Filmmaker sat down with Yu to discuss her latest film, her unusual upbringing and the threads that tie together the disparate elements of her body of work. Produced by Participant, Last Call at the Oasis is released through ATO on May 4.

FILMMAKER: Last Call at the Oasis, in the context of your work as a whole, seems to me something of a departure. It feels like a shift toward a film about ideas, rather than about people.

YU: Right. I guess the real protagonist is the water crisis, and the challenge there was to populate the film with people whom you could connect with — adding the human element and making it integral to the film. But I know what you’re saying. And the weird thing is, I feel like with every film [of mine], there’s a tendency to think of it as a departure, a move into a different direction. My career is, in that way, so weird, but I always feel like if the next film isn’t significantly different, that would feel weird. When I was approached about making this film, it seemed very exciting to take on a big topic. Also the visual bar could be very high, and it was nice to be given license to do that.

FILMMAKER: What seems to unify your work, regardless of the kind of field that you’re working in, is that you seem to have a real knack for making stories accessible, whether it’s something as simple as Sour Death Balls or Protagonist or Ping Pong Playa. You tell stories really well.

YU: Thank you for saying that about stories and people, because for me it’s always [about] finding a character we can emotionally connect to so that it doesn’t matter what it is they’re contending with, but that it becomes universal. There are a lot of water documentaries out there, and that could have been daunting. “What am I doing that’s going to be different?” But you realize it’s not necessarily that — it’s about trying not to see it as a competition, about trying to find what interests you [in the material] and connect the dots.

FILMMAKER: I think your film did an excellent job of conveying a sense of optimism at the end, but as a cynic, I feel as if human nature will not solve the water crisis soon enough. Did you every worry while making the film that its impact would not be as significant as it needs to be?

YU: Yeah, well, I guess it’s almost two separate things. Making the film you’re thinking about all the important dots that need to be connected. You’re thinking about telling good stories and doing justice to the characters you’ve fallen in love with. That’s the part of filmmaking that’s easier to grasp. And then, when the film is done and you’re thinking about the butterfly effect, that’s the part that’s a little harder to grasp. Also, you don’t go in there thinking like, “I’m going to change the world” — just trying to make the film work is the real job. But, to speak to your question, I guess the thing that I like about the topic of water is that it’s visual and something you can quantify. You can see progress being made in specific areas or behaviors. Like with the interesting little experiment we did around recycled water in the film, we’ve already gotten a lot of feedback about how that might be used to try to advance recycled water programs in different areas. It could be small potatoes in terms of the big picture, but for those communities and ecosystems, it could have a pretty big impact.

FILMMAKER: I want to talk about your background and your filmmaking roots, because you had a sort of unconventional childhood.

YU: [Laughs] Yeah, and it’s funny when all that “Tiger Mom” stuff came out, people were like, “God, your parents must’ve really pushed you to achieve!” And my parents absolutely did not. They just assumed that everything would be fine, and so they never pushed us in any particular direction, never hovered over our homework. We had a lot of freedom, a lot of time outdoors growing up, just wandering around and doing whatever. We weren’t sent to summer camp or anything. It was really a casual childhood in that way. It still is unusual for a lot of Asian-American families. My parents were politically active, especially my mom, so we were taken to a lot of things that we probably didn’t understand at the time, but we thought were really interesting and fun. You know, when you’re out picketing grapes at Safeway, it’s a chance to yell in public. [Laughs.] They didn’t really press any particular ideology on us. It was just, “Come on, kids, this is what we’re doing today.”

FILMMAKER: What films and books did you grow up with?

YU: We were the kids who were always carrying books around, but I remember when we begged enough our parents would take us to kung fu movies in San Francisco in Chinatown. Also, we watched a lot of scary movies. I don’t know why, but those were the things that we gravitated to together as a family. The very first movie that my parents ever took us to was The Omega Man at a drive-in movie theater. We were trying to sleep in the back of the station wagon. And that’s a scary movie! I mean, the last man on earth, fighting zombies, but I remember not being as traumatized as I should’ve been by that movie.

FILMMAKER: What did you take from your time at Yale studying English?

YU: I remember enjoying it, but having that unsettling feeling as the years went by that I wasn’t getting any closer to knowing what I wanted to do after college. And then, I really was quite baffled the first year out of college. I had no idea what I was going to do. All of a sudden you’re out of school and everyone says, “Great, now you can do whatever you want,” and you have no practice at that. So, that was a bit of a tough transition.

Last Call at the Oasis. Photo Courtesy of ATO Films.

FILMMAKER: You were an elite fencer on the U.S. national team. Did your skill set as a fencer translate to film in any way?

YU: I guess the one thing they have in common is that they’re kind of individual activities, so you get to figure things out yourself and you have to live by those choices. In fencing, all the strategy and the approach is up to you. That’s probably why I was drawn to it, because I do like doing things on my own. And the funny thing about film is, although you need a ton of other people and the idea of a director as one-man band is kind of a fiction, you’re still the one who’s supposed to be steering the ship. And with documentaries, let’s face it, a lot of times no one’s really paying attention to what you do, so that definitely feels like a more individual sport.

FILMMAKER: At what point did the idea of being a filmmaker click for you?

YU: Gosh, that’s a really good question because I don’t think that there was one particular moment. There were probably two. One was after Breathing Lessons won the Academy Award, when other people thought, “Oh, she’s a filmmaker, right?” But it’s weird when there’s so much time between projects and you look at your calendar and think, “How many days out of the year did I actually direct?” But in terms of me really feeling like, “This is what I do, this is the label that I wear without hesitation,” it probably came later and in a very weird way. When I was starting to work in episodic TV on The West Wing, I remember talking to one of the directors I was shadowing, a person I really admire. I said, “When did you feel like really comfortable doing this? When did you lose your fear?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t lose it. I suppress it better. I used to throw up every time before the first day of shooting. Now I just feel like throwing up.” [Laughs] And I realized, “Wow, there’s not a moment when you know directing. The fact that I feel like I’m unprepared in this way, I don’t know what I’m doing here or nervous about tomorrow, that’s how I’m supposed to feel.”

FILMMAKER: In your career, you’ve shown a desire to go into new areas, and you’re somebody who’s very difficult to pigeonhole.

YU: In filmmaking you get to be a professional dilettante just by moving from project to project. Hopefully you’re not making the same thing over and over again, but I do think that I enjoy embracing the novelty of trying something different. I like embracing that ignorance that you have when you just walk into something. And the other thing is that film just takes so long, even ones where you do have the funding. It’s such a long process that having them be more different from each other, having each project be its own new country, is part of what keeps my curiosity and drive going.

FILMMAKER: If there’s one thing that I feel encapsulates your uniqueness as a filmmaker, it’s that in 2007 you made Protagonist and Ping Pong Playa, two films that could not be more different.

YU: It was funny, a friend said, “Oh no, they’re totally related. They both begin with P.” [Laughs] I didn’t feel conflicted, I just felt so delighted to be able to have two projects that were so different and to have such freedom. With Protagonist, the Carr Foundation gave me full license to just go forth. “You want puppet speaking ancient Greek? Go for it.” That was the most fun I’ve had on a documentary because it was completely unsupervised play. I kept thinking, “This might never happen again, so you might as well go for it.” And then with Ping Pong Playa, I was writing with my friend Jimmy Tsai, who had created this character years ago. And I remember thinking the first time I saw that character, “Oh my God, it’d be so great to make a whole film about this guy.” So, they were both just dream projects. I’ll probably never again have that kind of a crazy disparity in the sensibility of two projects, but at the time it just felt like, “Wee, this is the best thing ever!” [Laughs] When I was making both of those films, I was very consciously thinking, “OK, what would I enjoy or like to discover or think was funny?” Because my own tastes have always been eclectic, it doesn’t seem too weird to be trying to make things that were very different.

FILMMAKER: I want to talk about what happened after Breathing Lessons. You are among the relative few who have been able to parlay the success of an Oscar-winning short into something greater.

YU: I’m still quite honestly mystified by my career, and that’s not false modesty because I know what you’re saying. It takes a lot of luck and opportunity to be able to continue to advance, so I’m always amazed that I have a career where I’m able to work as much as I do in different things. After [the Oscar], I really didn’t expect anything. I was hoping that I’d have an easier time trying to fund the next documentary — and that was true — but I didn’t expect these other opportunities to come up. One thing I was heartened by was the invitation to go and learn at John Wells Productions and to get into the episodic world. That all came out of them having seen Breathing Lessons. They liked it and they thought, “Everyone who comes on the show is learning for the first time.” So it wasn’t a detriment that I hadn’t done TV before. I was close to being a one-person band most of the time on Breathing Lessons —editing and transcribing and working out the subtitles and all sorts. You are your own craft services. Going to something as large and multifaceted as The West Wing was a big, big change. You go from being very dependent on yourself to trying to integrate yourself into a much, much bigger thing that already existed before you were there.

FILMMAKER: How has your documentary work affected the way that you direct narrative material?

YU: Well I’m not a very loud director at all. I hear that all the time. The thing about documentaries is, everyone who’s a director probably has some control issues, but you can’t indulge in trying to control everything because you’re generally dealing with situations with real people or material that is going to help you dictate what the film is. So you don’t get to be a total lord and master. When I work with actors and scripted material, I also tend to like to have a little bit of a lighter touch, especially in the beginning to give people a little bit of freedom, especially actors. I just worked on the show Parenthood, which is shot with a lot of looseness and license and freedom for the actors to play, and I thought that was a great marriage of sensibilities. I really enjoyed that.

FILMMAKER: I think that some people take the “one for me, one for them” approach to mixing indie and bigger-budget work. But it seems like with you that it’s more than just helping fund a documentary or pay the bills, that both have a different, equally important place in your overall body of work.

YU: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And it’s funny because I think starting out there was definitely the time when you’re hanging out with other short documentary filmmakers being very indie, talking about the question of selling out. And I just remember thinking, “Well, it’s hard to sell out if people don’t want to buy us.” [Laughs] I just remember — going back to first learning at John Wells Productions — one of the other directors saying there’s this kind of fiction that you come in and you clock in, that you just work with the machine. And he said, “No, you’ve always gotta bring something to the table.” After that, it seemed all of a sudden infinitely more interesting to me.

FILMMAKER: Finally, when you talk to people about your work — everything from Sour Death Balls to Parenthood to commercials to documentaries — how do you, in your own mind, tie it all together? When somebody at a dinner party asks, “So, what do you do?”, what’s your response?

YU: [Laughs] Oh, man. You know, I usually just say, “Oh, I’m a director.” But, yeah, I feel like, God, if I really told people what I was doing it would sound dumb. I would probably bore them to death. [Laughs] I’m a working director, and when I started out I didn’t know if I would ever get to this point where I’d be regularly working on a variety of different things. So I guess that’s the consistency. Again, it’s a great mystery to me in a lot of ways, but that alone is a lucky accomplishment in my mind.

(Jessica Yu portrait by Henny Garfunkel)

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