By Aaron Hillis
"When she was commissioned to make a documentary about Euripedes (a tall order, indeed), filmmaker Jessica Yu instead chose to see if she could apply the classical Greek playwright's dramatic structuring principles to present-day living," writes Michael Koresky at indieWIRE. "She then spent a long time trying to find four individuals who would reveal for the camera, in soul-bearing conversations, the social conditions and moral decisions that brought them to where they are today - which is, to say, emerged from cycles of destructive and extreme behavior.... Yu interlocks their stories, which dip in and out of each other and fall under strict chapter assignments such as 'Provocation,' 'Opportunity' and 'Doubt,' in order to further her central point that Euripedes's basic human portraitures are both relevant and universal, as well as to impose the idea that, despite our trials and tribulations, we are somehow beholden to fate - we may shed our skins, but we can't change our essential natures."
The four interviewees: Hans-Joachim Klein, a former German terrorist, Mark Pierpont, an 'ex-gay' evangelist, Joe Loya, a bank robber, and Mark Salzman, a martial arts student.
Aaron Hillis spoke with Jessica Yu on the eve of a theatrical release schedule that see Protagonist opening first in New York before rolling out across the country over the course of several weeks.
I understand that the initial idea for Protagonist came from Greg Carr of the Carr Foundation approaching you to make a documentary about the classic Greek tragedian Euripides, but what was their impetus? What were they hoping to explore with the subject matter?
It's funny, no one else has asked that question. Their interest was in the way that art was used in ancient Greece as a way of dealing with social problems publicly. I think they felt there was a lot of value in that idea. If you were a citizen, you would go see the latest play, and Euripides was one of the most popular because he dealt with the way that people actually acted. [It's been] said that he was the first psychologist, and I think people were drawn to those characters and their very real conflicts. That was the two-fold idea; art seen as an instrument for social dialogue, and then the other part is Euripides the man being the first person to really use what we know to depict the human condition in such a psychologically authentic way.
How did they stumble upon your name for such a heady task?
They had seen the last film I did, In the Realms of the Unreal, which is about this artist Henry Darger. In that film, Darger is a very absent subject in that very few people knew him when he was alive - there were only three pictures of the guy - and I think that they were struck by the idea that someone even more remote, Euripides, could be explored through a similar treatment. But that was as far as they got. They just kind of liked that film and were so open to the idea of finding out: What could this be? What ideas do you have? It's the closest I've had to a pure brainstorming session which actually led to a film. Not like the late night, go out with your friends, wouldn't-it-be-cool-if?, but like, "Hey, let's just talk about everything."
Cinematic problem solving, that's exciting.
In this way, I think I'm going to be spoiled from here on out because it's the first time I've ever had this situation. Usually, to raise money for a documentary, you have to say what you're going to do, say it again, say it again, say it again, do the blueprint, the outline, then you finally get some money and you get to shoot. Even an independent film, you have to figure it out beforehand, and it will change. But here, there was total freedom to add things, to change things, for the creative evolution to happen in a very organic way, which are words you don't get to say about a lot of projects. [laughs] The whole idea of using the puppets was very late in the game, but it wasn't like I had to run it through a committee or anything.
The puppetry is a nifty conceit, but it works more as support for solidifying the ideas you're presenting through the four accounts. Did that device come later on?
Actually, the concept to have some sort of visual connective tissue - I knew that that had to be there from the get-go, but I didn't know what form it was going to take. I was thinking maybe animation or something, but it ended up making more sense. The thing I like about [using] puppets, besides the fact that the creepy ones are cool, is having those masks. The heads were modeled after the masks that the actors wore in the original staging of the plays, so it seemed like a nice way to try to draw those threads together, but also a very useful storytelling device.
I'm not even sure it was necessary since you've done such a bang-up job with the parallel storytelling. I understand it took eight months to find all the players?
Yeah, you know, it was a very specific journey we were looking for. There were certain elements that we needed each character's story to have, but at the same time, we wanted the four characters to be very different from each other. We wanted them to have stories that were so powerful and entertaining that they could each be their own film, and they also had to be charismatic or interesting. Getting four people who also meshed together, who led stories that were different from each other, that was the hard part. We tried to find some women to mix in there, but we looked at a couple hundred people, and almost no women fit that exact blueprint. It took us a while to accept that.
What criteria were you specifically looking for?
The first thing is that the characters had to have started on whatever their journey is for reasons that made sense. Logical, even moral reasons. Then they had to go on this quest where they had lost track of the original idea - we called it the "Fever" stage - and then that fever needed to be broken by one moment, this dark epiphany, where they realized, "What am I doing?" It's like that Talking Heads song: "How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife." It's something you see in drama all the time, in narratives, but it hardly ever happens in real life, yet it seems to have happened to them. The five or six women we found, when things went awry, tended to notice things were falling apart. Then it would go to an end and they would stop what they were doing. But the men seemed to be going full speed and then crash into a wall. That, for many reasons, was what we were looking for: the crash, not things crumbling.
So you were looking for characters with self-awareness in hindsight?
Very good question. Yeah, because there were several good candidates who had great stories, but after things fell apart, they would go and become obsessed with something else. Or they'd say, "My god, I was doing X?" And then they'd do the opposites and become fanatics for the other side. So we wanted to find people who learned something from that, had some sense of perspective of what they had been through. Not necessarily "happily ever after," but you had to feel they regained some sense of themselves.
Who were some of your last-minute rejects?
There was a story that was similar to Mark Pierpont's, a very religious guy who was gay and went to one of those... I want to say camps, but it was basically a treatment center. We ended up going with Mark Pierpoint mainly because of the eloquence of his story, and the other fella seemed to be exploring his [issues through] a stage show, doing his own thing. We actually didn't have a very close Plan B. Our top four were far and away our favorites, so now I can't really remember who were the also-rans. [laughs] That's how it works; like when you're editing, you cut something out, you agonize over it, and then a week later you can't remember what it was.
How about within the quartet? Were there any nixed subplots?
Yeah, with everybody. All of our characters were so interesting that really, I could have made a film about each one of them. But since the idea of this story was a pretty truncated moment - well, not for some of them, but there was a very specific trajectory we were looking at in their lives - that helped make a lot of our decisions for us. Anything that was extra or a digression really stood out. Mark Salzman, our kung fu guy, had some hilarious stories about his kung fu teacher, going to tournaments, and sleeping under the van, but then it took you out of what was actually happening in this particular story. I wanted to make sure that, like the traditional Greek tragic structure, there's this sense of things tumbling; you have to keep the momentum up. It was painful sometimes cutting out stuff that you knew people would enjoy watching, but it wouldn't help the greater service. Joe Loya had many stories about bank robbing that would probably make a good movie someday.
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