Jessica Yu finds drama in extreme protagonists 

Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu grew up in the Bay Area — Los Altos Hills, to be exact — but her love of filmmaking and storytelling led her to the Oscar red carpet.

She won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien," a look at the Berkeley writer and poet who lived for decades paralyzed by polio, confined to an iron lung.

But you may remember her best for her famous Oscar acceptance speech, when she climbed to the podium, looked into the camera with statuette in hand and said to an audience of millions, "You know you’ve entered new territory when your outfit cost most than your film!"

"It wasn’t just the dress, it was all the other stuff (the dress, the jewelry) that had to be returned!" laughs Yu over a plate of edamame at a Park City, Utah, Chinese restaurant.

Yu is at the Sundance Film Festival with her new film, "Protagonist," which looks at the lives of four men who share intimate details about growing into "extremists" of one kind or another.

One man becomes a terrorist, another is a bank robber. One man is gay but tries to sublimate it by becoming an evangelical Christian, only to "revert" back to homosexuality. Another is a peaceful martial arts student.

The film emerged out of an odd challenge. Yu was approached by a foundation to make a documentary about Euripides. "Upon hearing the idea, I laughed," she says. "Not out of dismissal, but pure surprise."

After reading up on the Greek playwright, she was struck by how universal and relevant his themes are, and decided to focus her film on people whose lives reflected the dramatic arc of Euripidean tragedy.

"The film uses excerpts from Euripides as thematic chapter headings," she says. "I wanted to echo visually the original staging and underscore the connections between our stories. A crucial part of that approach was the use of puppetry in parts of all our stories — those of Euripides, and our four subjects."

Finding the men was difficult, she says. In addition to searching on the Internet, she read books, called friends and brought up the topic in casual conversation.

"I really tried to be strict about finding people who had certain points in their lives where they realized that they were becoming the thing that they most abhorred and the catharsis that followed," she says.

Yu, who went to Gunn High School in Palo Alto before attending Yale University, did production on small-film projects before deciding she wanted to direct. "But it took a long time to say that," she says. "When you’re working independently, you feel like you are just an unsuccessful fundraiser."

But she’s glad she grew up in the Bay Area. "Los Angeles is a bit industry-centric," Yu says, "and for me it was good growing up and not thinking I wanted to do that, and discovering it on my own."

In other Sundance news, the world rights for Berkeley-born filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s film "My Kid Could Paint That" were sold to Sony Pictures Classics for just under $2 million. The A&E Channel has limited broadcast rights. The film chronicles the life of Marla Olmsted, who, at 4 years old, was painting canvases that were compared to Kadinsky, Pollock and even Picasso.

Also, The San Francisco Film Society announced Monday in Park City, Utah, that George Lucas will receive the one-time-only Irving "Bud" Levin Award, to be presented May 3 at the 50th International San Francisco Film Festival. The international film festival has also partnered with San Francisco-based Jaman, Inc. to offer online screenings of a select group of feature films, and will premiere the film "Fog City Mavericks."

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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