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2002 Alumni Spotlight: Jessica Yu

Former Yale fencer Jessica Yu was faced with a crucial decision following graduation in 1987 -- law school or no law school? At a time when many of her friends were going to law school, Yu wasn’t sure that was the right career path for her. An English major, she had a creative flair fueled by the unyielding support of her parents.

Unlike other high-pressure parents, Yu’s folks indulged her creative ways...and dissuaded her from attending law school.

“A bunch of my friends were going to law school,” she says from her Inscrutable Films office in Los Angeles. “And when I asked my dad if I should go too, he said, ‘Don’t go to law school.’”

An excellent fencer and member of two NCAA national championship teams (1984 and 1985), Yu is now a world renown film director with an Academy Award under her belt. Shunning law school never looked so good.

As a student at Yale, Yu studied English and spent much of her free time on the fencing circuit.

“Fencing took up most of my weekends,” she says. “I was on the team, but I was also on the national circuit, so I was doing the college tournaments and national tournaments at the same time. So, in some ways, I feel like I spent more time fencing than I did in other college experiences. But that certainly wasn’t a bad thing.”

A two-time All-American and three-time All-Ivy fencer, Yu was equally as successful as a student as she was an athlete. She had her choice of universities that she could have attended, but she says she chose Yale because of fencing coach Henry Harutunian.

“I took fencing really seriously when I was in high school,” she says. “And I met the coach Henry Harutunian &endash; he’s just an amazing person &endash; and so, I knew that fencing was going to be a big part of my life when I was in college. So that kind of tipped the scales for my applying to Yale.”

She went on to have a great fencing career (see aforementioned national championships and All-American selections), but also had an equally spectacular academic career. Yu was a first-team GTE Academic All-American her senior year and an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship Award winner. She calls the 1985 NCAA championship season her fondest memory of her Yale fencing career.

“Fencing is such an individual sport, and I always thought the ‘team’ label was kind of pushing it a little bit,” she says with a chuckle. “I didn’t necessarily feel that you had that much of a connection with your teammates, but that year, we really did. I remember that our fourth-string person had an incredible bout where she beat someone that I think most people didn’t think she’d have a chance to beat. And she ended up winning the championship for us. That was a great experience, and we ended up really pulling for each other that year. It really felt like a team experience at it was just incredibly fun.”

After a stint fencing around the world upon graduation, Yu started doing some production assistant work in San Francisco in 1989, working mostly on commercials. Shortly thereafter, she began working at a bigger production company in Los Angeles and began to make short feature films.

Her first short feature was titled “Sour Death Balls” (which won several awards, including Best Live Action Short at the Santa Barbara Film Festival) and was followed by “Home Base: A Chinatown Called Heinlenville.” Other shorts of hers include “Iron Silk” and “Men of Reenaction.” In addition, Yu was the associate producer on the Oscar-nominated “Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember” and the 1995 Academy Award winner, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.”

However, Yu is most famous for her Oscar Award-winning documentary about Mark O’Brien, called “Breathing Lessons.” The film captures the life of Berkeley, Calif., poet and journalist O’Brien, who has been confined to a 900-pound iron lung since contracting polio at the age of six. Using his teeth and a rubberized pencil tip, O’Brien writes essays about the world as seen through the eyes of a severely disabled person. The documentary, which had viewers and critics weeping throughout the film, debuted at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and won several honors before the Academy Award, including the International Documentary Association Achievement Award for Best Documentary.

She is perhaps best known for her quip at the 1997 Academy Awards as she accepted the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film: “You know you’ve entered new territory when your outfit costs more than your film.” Admittedly, Yu wasn’t sure what to do with the Oscar Award after she received it. It now sits in her house.

“They give you a velvet bag for it and I always keep it covered,” she says. “I’m not being disrespectful &endash; I just can’t brandish it. I just make sure the cats don’t knock it over.”

She comments that she struggled to get her legs under her after hearing her name called for the award. As the pinnacle of a filmmaking experience, Yu still recalls the night as a dream.

“It was all sort of unreal to me,” she says with a slight chuckle. “At the time, I was just doing documentaries, so it’s sort of the last thing you expect when you’re working on a low-budget documentary to be standing there in a borrowed dress.”

Although Yu doesn’t fence anymore, she can still quickly draw parallels between her experiences as an All-American fencer and an Academy Award winning filmmaker.

“In fencing you feel like &endash; even if it’s a tournament &endash; you feel like if you do well, if you win, or whatever, you feel like you earned it,” she says. “But with a film, you have to feel that sense of accomplishment once you finish the film, not necessarily winning the award. It’s a wonderful thing to have other people say that they like your film, but that can’t be your reason for doing it. The award was icing on the cake.”

These days, Yu is working on another documentary and is also working for John Wells’ production company. She recently directed an episode of “The West Wing” for NBC and will direct an episode of “ER” in the coming months. When asked if her athletic accomplishments, filmmaking accomplishments, or television accomplishments are the most special, she doesn’t hesitate to offer her choice.

“Well, all of that pales in comparison to the fact that I have a baby this year,” she says. “I know it’s such a cliché, but it’s so true. All that stuff was incredibly fun and good, but when you have a kid it just changes your prospective.”

So is there a future Yale fencer in the house?

“I don’t know,” she says with a laugh. “But I think it’s really important to be involved with something that has to do with sports or athletics. So you never know.”

As Yu looks toward the future with her husband (a writer) and her new baby, she still keeps in touch with people of her past. One of her good friends is
Andrea Metkus, a former teammate at Yale (now a surgeon in San Francisco), and Henry Harutunian, her coach at Yale (“He still looks the same,” she says brightly.).

Nearly 15 years ago Yu was faced with the decision of whether to attend law school or not. She obviously made the right decision. Now, when posed with a question of where she wants to be in 10 years, there is no decision to be made.

“I want to do what I’m doing now,” she says. “I just don’t want to be driving the same car.”

--by Nathan Fry