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We Can Be Heroes: 'Protagonist' Tracks the Euripidean Drama in Contemporary Lives

By Cathleen Rountree

Jessica Yu won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, an intimate portrait of the writer who lived for four decades paralyzed by polio and confined to an iron lung. Her 2004 feature documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, about the enigmatic "outsider" artist Henry Darger, won numerous prizes on the film festival circuit. Her other nonfiction films include The Living Museum (1999), about an art community in a New York mental institution, and Men of Reenaction, about Civil War reenactors. Yu also directs popular television programs, including episodes of ER, The West Wing and Grey's Anatomy.

Protagonist explores extremism and the limits of certainty as it weaves the stories of four men--a German terrorist, a bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist and a martial arts student--all consumed by personal odysseys. The four stories in Protagonist are told in parallel threads structured like a multi-layered Greek drama. This adventurous documentary is inspired by the works of the 5th century BC playwright Euripides, and uses quotes from his plays as thematic chapter headings, providing a provocative common link between our contemporary stories and lending them a timeless quality. The film asks, What is the path to extremism? In responding to the turmoil of life, where does one draw the line between the reasonable and the unreasonable?

IDA met up with Yu at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, which screened her first feature-length fiction film, Ping Pong Playa. Protagonist opens November 30 in New York City  and December 7 in Los Angeles, through IFC First Take.

IDA: Did you read the Classics in college? Is that where you first encountered Euripides, in particular, and Greek tragedy in general? 

Jessica Yu: Well, like a great many students, I read the great works of art much too quickly! And Euripides was one of them. I remember reading The Bacchae, but I really had zero recollection of it. So this project was a way to revisit Euripides' work in the context of being able to re-read it, actually absorb it, and think about it. So, just that alone, even if the film hadn't happened, was a great experience.

IDA: How did it work to take this classic and set it in our contemporary world? 

JY: The concept of the film came to me from the Carr Foundation--Greg Carr and Nobel Smith--and they were interested in making a film about Euripides. I think they were more interested in Euripides, the man. And I couldn't quite figure out how that would work, because there is very little known about him. But, there were 19 existing plays. So in reading the plays, I was trying to stay open to what emerged out of them. But at the same time, I was aware of a couple of things: Could you make a film about who Euripides was? Could you make a film about ancient Greek Literature, in a way that is not going to be totally alienating to the viewer? Of course the film ended up being about the themes, the structure of storytelling. But I think that turned out to be the connection between the architecture of narrative structure and the power of the human narrative structure, from the time those plays were written, until now.

And it also struck me that Euripides was called the "first psychologist," that he really wrote about the way people think and the way they act. So in reading these stories, they came across as very fresh in a lot of ways. The same flaws he was interested in are the ones I'm interested in as well. So finding stories to populate that particular arc was not as far of a stretch as one might think.

IDA: Talk a little more about "the human narrative structure"?

JY: What I think was interesting about what Euripides was attracted to is that you have an idea of a "hero," who has good moral reasons behind what he is doing. But because of his very devotion to that cause, he loses track of it; he loses track of who he is. It's kind of an extremist story that intrigued me: When does a good quality become too much? Or the classic character versus fate: Are you who you were born, or are you the circumstances into which you are tossed? Where does the real person emerge?

The other thing is that those stories really work. They're great, compelling stories about the anti-heroic character. Your hero goes off track; how does he or she recover after they've created damage by their own very strong qualities? So in making the film, I was trying to find stories that were strong enough to stand on their own.

But, first, they had to be really strong stories, because I think that's how Euripides attracted such a large audience--that sense of, What happens next?

IDA: Well, let's address that component now. You interviewed 200 individuals?

JY: Actually, we didn't interview that many. I worked with my producers, Elise Pearlstein and Susan West, and we had a couple in interns who were helping out. We scoured every place we could think of: reading a lot of books, reading memoirs, going on the Internet, doing crazy Google searches, talking to people at cocktail parties.

IDA: What did you say you were looking for?  

JY: It depended. Originally, I was looking for people who'd had a kind of "dark epiphany." And it had to happen in a moment. So we were looking up weird phrases like,  "All of a sudden I realized my whole life changed at that moment ...." But that's actually how we found one of the subjects in the film, Hans Joachim-Klein, the German ex-terrorist: from a bad Googly-translated German website.

IDA: How long did this process take?

JY: It was about eight months looking for everybody.

IDA: How did you select the four men who made it into the film?

JY: Two people I knew could work in the film right away--Joe Loya and Mark Salzman. But we had to hold off on how it was going to work, until we had all four, because they couldn't be exactly the same story. And, ideally, we wanted to find four characters whose circumstances seemed very different.

It was really hard to find them. In fiction, there is often the great "clarifying moment," but in real life it usually doesn't happen that way, that the moment of realization strikes so definitively.

IDA: Or sometimes if that does happen, the person is on his deathbed and it's too late. 

JY: Right! And we also didn't want people who just became the same person for another cause--someone who is a fanatic for one cause becomes a fanatic for the opposite side. And we found quite a few cases of that.

So, we didn't want the exact story, but there had to be certain elements in the arc of each person's experience that had to be the same for the film to work.

The other part we looked for is what we called "the fever." There's some moment that sets things into motion--this idea that "Oh, okay, this has happened to me and this is how I'm going to fix it. I'm gonna keep going down this path until it works." And that "fever" is when someone becomes completely obsessed with whatever this journey or activity is. So they had to have that obsession, that "fever," that would lead up to that moment. 

IDA: So we've got the "fever," then the epiphany ...

JY: Right, and the other thing is that there had to be an acceptance of responsibility. That didn't mean that we were looking for people who were going to flagellate themselves for the rest of their lives. But it couldn't be someone who has this moment and then makes a lot of excuses. And that was also very difficult to find. We realized how true reckoning in someone's life is quite rare.

That was something I was very grateful about, that the four characters in this film are at a point in their lives where they are completely clear-eyed about what happened and what they did. This doesn't mean that they are all fine and good with what they did and that it won't always stay with them. But they are at a place in their lives where they can talk about it. Then, their eloquence in talking about it was also important. They're all good storytellers! 

IDA: You have a very visual style. It's not just a matter of point-and-shoot talking heads. For instance, in In the Realms of the Unreal you were able to make the imagination--the unconscious--visible.  

JY: I really appreciate that because, with In the Realms, and Protagonist as well, it makes it difficult when you have so many limitations. For example, in the Darger film, there's no living person; and there's so little evidence of who he was, in terms of photographs. But we had this room that was filled with everything he had gathered over many years. It was like the room was who he was. And I was trying to figure out how to show that; and, of course, how to deal with the paintings, how to make them come to life.

With Protagonist, I wanted to have the themes of Euripides provide the chapter headings in the film. So, again, it was like, how do we tie it together with some kind of look that's a more versatile form of storytelling device? And it was lucky too because again, Joe Loya, the bank robber, isn't someone who's life is filled with pictures and home movies, and he wasn't a famous guy, so how do you depict those scenes that happened, or how they might have felt? That's where the whole puppet thing came to fruition.

IDA: Had you had any previous experience with puppets?  

JY: None at all. I have to say that it was very late in the production that the idea of the puppets took shape. I had been thinking animation, but as much as I love animation, it's very expensive and it's too time-consuming. And it's very mutable; it might be difficult to create the same look and feel for each of the stories. I did some research about the look of the plays during Euripides' time and, actually, the actors wore these large, exaggerated masks. I liked the idea of having the masks as a way to represent several characters in the stories and then the pivotal events from our subjects' pasts. Almost like a little theater troop of puppets. That process with our puppet designer, Janie Geiser, was so collaborative and immediate and fun.

IDA: I read that out of the many possibilities the production team had found, only six of them were females! You've noted that "Men, it appeared, were far more likely to experience the particular breed of obsessive pursuit--and crashing revelation--that we were looking for."  

JY: Well, I didn't set off to find only men subjects. Toward the end of the searching process, we said, "God, we've got to find a woman!" But what seemed to happen is that when things started going south, women might sense that things were crumbling and they would kind of stay with it and things would fall apart that way. It wasn't them hitting the wall. It was just a lot of signs that things were falling apart.

As an example, we looked at a couple of memoirs of candidates, but when things started going not so well, we saw phrases like, "Well, I realize that it wasn't working out," or "I knew that things were falling apart ...." So they seemed to have a self-knowledge about it, which doesn't mean that they can save themselves from terrible disaster. But the men had such dramatic cases. Like a guy wakes up one morning and he's king of the world, then that afternoon something happens to change it all. It's like the Talking Heads' song: "How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful life."

IDA: Protagonist is a great primer on storytelling--what makes for a strong story, and how the essential architecture of a story is so timeless and rooted in something so ancient. 

JY: The story in a documentary still has to have a structure. It doesn't have to be the classic three-part structure, but it's still about what happens to the character, whether it's a person or a place. What is the event that sets everything in motion? What is the turning point and how is your protagonist changed by it? Is there something learned or lost, or what's the result at the end? So I think it's the sense of dramatic tension that there is always something in balance, something that is pivotal.

Protagonist is a very classic kind of anti-heroic journey in a way: These four men set out to change destiny in some way. There was a moment when they decided, "I need to become another person. This is the way I'm going to control my life"--it's a lot about control--and then this super-human monumental effort to make that happen, and the consequences, the ramifications of that. That there was damage and how do you recover your sense of yourself after you've completely lost track of yourself?

Cathleen Rountree is a film journalist and author of nine books, including The Movie Lovers' Club, about the process of creating community through finding meaning in movies. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications.