As a filmmaker, Oscar winner Jessica Yu is smart, adventurous, and utterly fearless. You’d have to be to make a talking-head documentary inspired by the 5th century B.C. playwright Euripides (an idea proposed by the Carr Foundation) and then decide to outfit key scenes with wooden rod puppets speaking ancient Greek. But her new film, Protagonist, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and gets a theatrical release November 30 from IFC Films, is not high-concept marionette theater, it’s a fascinating investigation of what drives passionate people to acts of radical self-negation—and of the dangerous certainty that fuels fanatical belief.
Narrated by a bank robber, a Baader-Meinhof terrorist, a martial-arts zealot, and an evangelical missionary “cured” of his homosexuality, the film is structured like a modern Attic tragedy, with puppets created by Janie Geiser acting out dialogue from The Bacchae as these four men recount their agonized and ultimately cathartic life experiences. What’s surprising in the candid, cross-cut interviews is how similar the dramatic arc of their stories are, and how often their accounts overlap and resonate in unexpected ways. New Jersey native Mark Pierpont, for instance, recounts his struggle to reconcile his queer sexuality with an all-loving but authoritarian Christian God, while political idealist Hans-Joachim Klein describes how his seditious activities in the’70s grew largely out of disdain for his own almighty father, a German police officer sympathetic to Nazi ideology.
In one sense, Protagonist is a film about extremes, and about how far one can go in singleminded pursuit of a goal or a fixed idea before disaster forces an attitude of clarity. One of the four participants is Yu’s own husband, Iron & Silk author Mark Salzman, who as a much-bullied Connecticut youth became wildly obsessed with the art of self-defense after glimpsing the TV show Kung Fu. And then there’s Joe Loya, a victim of horrific abuse who grew up to become a Nietzsche-quoting stickup artist and all-around badass. (Now he’s a journalist for Pacific News Service.) Yu interleaves these tales of to-the-brink-and-back obsession to ingenious effect, pairing her subjects’ soul-baring with chapter headings like “Threshold” and “Resolution,” while teasing out the connection between trauma and terror, male identity and the ascetic mastery of the body.
Of course, Yu is no stranger to the varied ways that torment and anguish drive creative enterprise and self-reflection. In 1997, she won an Academy Award for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, her intimate portrait of the polio-stricken Berkeley poet who was confined to an iron lung. Two years later, she made the HBO documentary The Living Museum, about an arts community based at a psychiatric hospital in Queens. And in 2004 came In the Realms of the Unreal, a lyrical postmortem on self-taught artist Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago janitor whose enormous cut-out-doll tableaux and mythic urtexts have become iconic examples of outsider art.
Filmmaker spoke with Yu about Greek tragedy, human nature, and the creative challenges she faced making Protagonist.
Filmmaker: What in your research on Euripides provided the spark for this film?
Yu: Reading the plays as an adult, I was amazed by how many of the themes struck home. There was a complexity to those works I didn’t pick up in college. At the same time, I had no idea how you would make a film about Euripides, the person. One thing said about Euripides is that he was the first psychologist. He wrote about the way people think and struggle with internal concerns, so I thought there was a way to take that idea and sort of impose it on people living today, but keeping some sense of that continuity.
Filmmaker: How did you come to decide on casting Mark Salzman and Joe Loya, both of whom are close to you?
Yu: I immediately thought of Joe Loya because he’s someone I’ve known for a while, and he’s just a fantastic storyteller. He lived this story. And then my husband, Mark, was interested. [laughs] He would joke about it, not seriously, you know. And I said, well, let’s try interviewing you and we’ll see if [it works] in the final mix. As important as it was finding four amazing stories, we needed to find four stories that worked together. It wouldn’t if you had three stories that were very similar and one that was really out there.
Filmmaker: How were you fishing around for those kinds of stories and finding people who might be comfortable speaking on camera?
Yu: It turned into an eight-month-long process, because if you think about it, it’s a very difficult proposition to find people who’ve lived a very particular arc in their life. They have to have had this moment of epiphany—that was a crucial part. Then the other thing, too, is after that moment of discovering they’re not in the place they thought they were, they couldn’t go back and become fanatics for something else. And they also had to be great storytellers. So that was tricky.
Filmmaker: It was very revealing to learn at the end of the film that all four of your subjects are used to being in the public eye.
Yu: The other thing they share in common is they’ve reached a point in their lives where they’ve lived through this sort of anti-heroic journey, and they’ve come to terms with it. It doesn’t mean that everything’s okay, that they’ve figured everything out, but they’ve found a way to reconcile the person they were with who they are now.
Filmmaker: Did you know their life stories were going to overlap in such interesting ways?
Yu: I think I anticipated some of them. Certainly some of these guys had been abused. But there were things I didn’t know going in, even with Mark Salzman [laughs]. I didn’t know it was that bad for him in grade school!
Filmmaker: He was my favorite character. And the fact that you actually had footage of his crazy martial-arts teacher made his story so much richer in a way.
Yu: Well, I have to tell you a little story about that, off the record. [laughs] Not totally off the record. The footage of his teacher is actually Mark portraying his teacher. [Sheepish grin] I didn’t really want to advertise that because it’s great if people [don’t know]. Mark is a great mimic, and his friend who’d been in the class was like, Oh my God, that’s him!
Filmmaker: I found it interesting that all of the participants were male, particularly in light of the fact that Euripides is known as a psychologist of female characters.
Yu: Right, right.
Filmmaker: Did you have any impulse to include a woman?
Yu: Very much so. I think one of the reasons our research went on for so long was because we kept trying to find a woman’s story. We kept thinking, Gosh, is there just less coverage of female stories? There were a couple hundred people we looked at, and probably five or six were women. What we found was that most of the women seemed to have more self-awareness as things started to fall apart. They weren’t less obsessive than men, but in a different way. They’d get deeply involved in something, deeply committed, and then things would crumble around them. What we were looking for is that moment you see in drama so much—you know, the crash of lightning and then the person says, Oh my God, what have I done? Based on our unscientific research, that doesn’t seem to happen to women nearly as much.
Filmmaker: That’s very telling.
Yu: Yeah. Maybe there’s a companion film that one could make about that, I don’t know. But to your question about how the stories would overlap: There were times when the men said almost exactly the same thing. It was great in that the whole idea was the film should be more than the sum of its parts. It should tell, you know, one bigger story. And there’s a time in the film when you realize you don’t have to revisit all four characters in each chapter the same way, because your mind starts to see, Oh okay, they’re connected.
Filmmaker: It made me wonder how much fiddling you had to do in order to create a dramatic arc for all of those narratives. I’m sure you had hours and hours of interview footage to edit down. What was that process like?
Yu: That process was pretty clear, and part of it was because in doing the research and choosing the right people, I didn’t have to force a lot or think, This is exactly like him, but I’ll slip past 12 years of this guy’s life. It seemed pretty natural, I think because they’re not literally living the same life. It’s more about their psychological journey.
Filmmaker: So it wasn’t a matter of having to steer people back onto the central path you wanted them to narrate.
Yu: Right. It was more in the interviews, in asking a few of the same questions to each man—you’d get very similar answers. What was nice was not having to tell them a whole lot about what we were doing, just do an extensive interview and then have everything that was stylistically imposed on it come afterwards.
Filmmaker: At what point did you decide to use the puppets?
Yu: The idea of the puppets came in quite late. I knew there needed to be some visual element tying together the different stories, including the Euripidean story in the background. Originally, I’d been thinking about animation. But it would seem odd to have the same animation for every single story. So then I thought, after there was a rough cut, of having puppets be the element. And it was really inspired by the fact that, in the original staging of those plays, the actors would wear these large, fixed masks. So if you were sitting way up, you’d be able to read the expression of the characters. That’s what I got really excited about, but I didn’t know any puppeteers.
Filmmaker: How did you choose Janie Geiser, an accomplished filmmaker in her own right?
Yu: Sue West, one of my two producers, said she knew this incredible woman named Janie Geiser. So I met with Janie, and she gave me some of her films. I think she was wondering, Do I want to drop things for a while to work on this other project? And it was a tough project to describe. But she did agree to come on-board. And that was so much fun. Talking with her about the designs, how much we wanted to deviate from the traditional look of those masks and what would be allowed in this puppet world. I wanted to have a modular stage, a stage that was just a few pieces we could move around to suggest these other environments. And the puppet shoot itself was just great. Now, of course, it seems obvious, but at the time I was thinking, Wow, it’s really complicated.
Filmmaker: According to the end credits, you were actually helping manipulate the puppets.
Yu: I was apprenticing. I had to put that in there because I was so excited, and the other puppeteers were looking at me like, Uh-oh, she’s got puppet disease. [laughs] Cause it’s true, if you hold a puppet, you’re like [puppet voice] Hello, how are you? Look, I’m bowing! There was a moment when they were all thinking, She could either turn a corner and be okay—or she could be like one of us.
Filmmaker: Like your film, the Euripidean plays engage with many facets of human nature, and I wondered if there was something about the idea of anguish and obsession and catharsis and epiphany—all of these points along the trajectory of these four stories—that came out of the work you were already doing.
Yu: It’s hard for me to articulate why my work leads up to a particular piece, but with this I definitely could see what appealed to me in those plays was the role of the obsessive, driven person. Actually, I remember talking to Mark Salzman about it, and he said that we look at the stories like the ones in Protagonist and we think, Oh, it’s a tragedy and this person suffered from hubris, but the very qualities that drive someone [to extremes] lead to great works and great acts in another context.
Filmmaker: It also resonates a bit with the situation we find ourselves in politically nowadays. That must have been somewhat present in your mind.
Yu: We didn’t want to make something overtly political, but of course it has a political context, and it’s amazing at how many Q&As someone has asked [gruff male voice], “Has George Bush seen this movie?” [laughs] And somehow I don’t imagine it’s on his Netflix queue.
Filmmaker: His movie would be called Antagonist.
Yu: [laughs] Right, exactly. But the other thing was, I didn’t want it to be an abstract experience, nor did I want it to be preachy. It’s the idea that everyone thinks he or she is justified in his own actions to a certain extent. When you read a play or you hear someone’s story, there’s always a sense of being more aware than they are of what they’re doing. So I guess it’s asking whether it’s possible to stand outside of what you’re doing and assess how close you are to what your professed motive is.
Filmmaker: Whose story did you identify with the most?
Yu: I think probably Mark Salzman’s, and not just because we’re married. His is more of a suburban story—a suburban weirdo story. Growing up, I wasn’t obsessed with kung fu, but I did have a lot of slightly morbid interests.
Filmmaker: Did you have any difficulty interviewing Hans-Joachim Klein or getting access to him considering how remotely he lives?
Yu: It was very difficult finding Klein. My producer, Elise Pearlstein, was on the track of that one. We had to look through old publications, find names of people who had said they’d spoken with him to see if they were still alive. And finally Elise got someone who gave her a number that “may or may not be” Klein, or who knows Klein, and it actually was his number. But even after that, it was difficult just because of the language barrier and the fact that he can’t leave France. I realize how lucky we were to find him at that time.
Filmmaker: Had you seen Alexander Oey’s My Life As a Terrorist?
Yu: It wasn’t finished yet. Klein had just done that interview, I think. And he didn’t tell us about it, and I don’t blame him. I’m sure it’s a very different film, so it’s not really a conflict. This has come up in the past with documentary subjects, where I find out afterwards that someone’s done something else—and I’m fine with it. Unless you’re trying to get an exclusive about a celebrity, everyone’s got to do what they have to do. It’s not your story just because you happened to call him up.
Filmmaker: No one’s going to be making a film like yours anyway.
Yu: [laughs] You don’t think it’s going to start a new wave of Greek-puppet professionals?