Jessica Yu

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Jessica Yu
Yu in 2010
Born1965 or 1966 (age 57–58)
Alma materYale University
Occupation(s)Director, writer, producer
Years active1993–present
SpouseMark Salzman

Jessica Yu (born 1965 or 1966) is an American film director, writer, producer, and editor. She has directed documentary films, dramatic films, and television shows.

Yu won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1996 for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien (1996).[1] Yu's film Last Call at the Oasis (2012) is based upon Alex Prud'homme's Ripple Effect. Her more recent films have been: Misconception (2014), ForEveryone.Net (2016), a documentary film about the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and a Netflix comedy Maria Bamford: Old Baby (2017). In 2019, Yu was nominated for an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Direction for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special" for the Fosse/Verdon episode "Glory".

Early life and education[edit]

Yu grew up in Los Altos Hills, California. Her father, Dr. Kou-ping Yu, an oncologist, was born in Shanghai. Her mother, Connie Young Yu, writer and historian, is a third-generation Californian.[citation needed]

Yu graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto.[when?] She was a reporter for the school newspaper, The Oracle.[2]

She went on to attend Yale University, where she was a two-time NCAA All-American and three-time All-Ivy in fencing.[3] As a world-class foilist, she was a member of the Junior World Team and the United States national team at the World Championships and World University Games.[citation needed] Yu graduated from Yale University in 1987[4] summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa,[citation needed] with a bachelor's degree in English.[5]


After graduation, Yu thought of pursuing law school like her peers. However, her father discouraged her from doing so.[6] She discovered film production while searching for a job that allowed flexible hours to allow her to compete in fencing. She started as a production assistant in 1989[3] on a few commercials, where she got to arrange frozen noodles on forks and re-park cars. When she started working in documentary, she became further intrigued by the process.[7] Yu refused to attend film school and gained her film education on the job. She focuses on making documentaries but says that one day she'd love to make a fully animated comedy feature.[7] The opportunity to make film is a random occurrence for Yu.[8] Her documentary films present worldwide issues that people face every day and allow the subjects to speak for themselves as much as possible. She is adamant that story should come before politics.[1] Her films intend to inform the general public to incite people to become active in everyday issues such as water conservation and regulation.[9] When not making documentaries and feature films, Yu spends time directing television shows.


Yu began her career in 1993 with her short Sour Death Balls, a silent black-and-white montage of assorted subjects’ reactions to blindingly bitter candy, which was shot on an old school Bell & Howell wind-up camera.[1] She got her inspirations from daily interactions in her life, i.e. when a child offered local people sour candy. Yu sent the short film to film festivals, and it became her first feature at the Telluride Film Festival in 1993.[10] Yu made her first documentary, Men of Reenaction (1994), which explores the extremes of people searching for authenticity through Civil War reenacting.[11]

Her most famous work was her Academy Award-winning Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. The documentary short features Berkeley writer Mark O'Brien, a disabled poet with an iron lung. His editor at the Pacific News Service, Sandy Close, introduced the pair and suggested that a film be made.[6][12] It debuted at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and won several honors, including the International Documentary Association Achievement Award for Best Documentary, before the Academy Awards.[3]


In the 2000s, Yu's chance to work in episodic TV came when she received an invitation to apprentice at John Wells Productions as the first participant of their director diversity program. Shadowing directors, Yu sensed she was a guinea pig. “If you screw this up,” she told herself, “they’ll never let another woman of color from documentaries do this again.”[1] While working for Wells’ production company, she began directing in television for shows like Grey's Anatomy and The West Wing.[3] On her first directorial assignment, an episode of The West Wing, Yu was heartened that Wells encouraged her stylistic input. “He made a point of saying, ‘You should bring your own ideas to the table,’ rather than just follow prescribed formula.” So she decided to open with a series of mood-establishing low, wide-angle shots to signal the calm before the gathering storm.[1]

She directed a sport comedy film, Ping Pong Playa (2007), that explored Asian family culture through a Chinese ping pong playing son that is trying to prove himself to his family. Her producer friends Joan Huang and Jeff Guo approached her with the idea of working on a comedy together. They felt the time was right to have an obnoxious Asian American character on the screen. Yu and her comrades felt that Asian American cinema had plenty of good dramas and wanted to fill the void of superficial comedy.[7] She tried to bring the same loose hand and adaptability she used for documentaries to scripted material. Her approach to Ping Pong Playa was to “have a lighter touch, especially with actors” to give them a sense of freedom.[1]


In her later documentaries such as Last Call at The Oasis (2011) and Misconception (2014) , Yu focused on capturing the big picture and understanding how these issues intertwined with other aspects of life such as climate, population, and the environment.[13] Last Call at The Oasis addresses the water crisis in the United States, and working on the film made her consider the impact of the crisis on her children and their children. This project became more personal to Yu and compelled her to complete it. It took six months of research prior to filming, as Yu wanted to create the big picture of the facts and threats of the water crisis in the domestic United States.

Last Call at the Oasis inspired Yu to direct her 2014 documentary Misconception, which paints the population issues from a person-to-person point of view. While filming Last Call at the Oasis people questioned the purpose of acting on water conservation because they cannot control the population growth affecting it. Her main goal is to take this topic and tie with emotionally, entertaining, and interesting stories.[14]

The majority of her work after 2015 has been focused on television production and directing. For Netflix, she directed episodes of the dramas 13 Reasons Why and Hollywood and did Maria Bamford's comedy special Old Baby.


Jessica's work in the 2020s includes directing a number of television drama series. This Is Us (Don't Let Me Keep You, 2021), The Morning Show (Kill the Fatted Calf, 2021), In Treatment (Brooke, Laila, Colins, Eladio, 2021).

Personal life[edit]

Yu is married to author Mark Salzman. They and their daughters, Ava and Esme, live in Los Angeles.[citation needed]

Jessica has an older sister, Jennifer Yu, a technical publications manager, and a younger brother, Martin Yu, an actor.[citation needed]


Short films[edit]

Year Title Director Writer Producer Editor
1990 Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember No No Associate No
1993 Sour Deaths Balls Yes No No No
1996 Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien Yes Yes Yes Yes
1998 Better Late Yes Yes No Yes
2009 The Kinda Sutra Yes No No No
2012 Meet Mr. Toilet Yes No Yes No
Focus Forward: Short Films, Big Ideas Yes No No No
2014 We the Economy: 20 Short Films, Big Ideas Yes No No No
2016 James Turrell: You Who Look Yes No No No
ForEveryone.Net Yes Yes Yes No


Year Title Director Writer Producer Editor Notes
1994 Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision No No Associate No
The Conductor Yes No Yes No
1995 Picture Bride No Uncredited No No Script advisor
1996 Men of Reenaction Yes Yes No Yes
1998 The Living Museum Yes Yes No Yes
2004 In the Realms of the Unreal Yes Yes Yes Yes
2007 Protagonist Yes Yes Yes Yes
Ping Pong Playa Yes Yes No No
2012 Last Call at the Oasis Yes Yes Yes No
2013 The Guide Yes No No Yes
2014 Misconception Yes No No No
2017 Maria Bamford: Old Baby Yes No No No
2023 Quiz Lady Yes No No No

TV Series[edit]

Year Title Notes
2001-2004 The West Wing 3 episodes
2002 ER Episode "Bygones"
2003 The Guardian Episode "You Belong to Me"
Mister Sterling Episode "The Sins of the Father"
The Lyon's Den Episode "Ex"
2004 American Dreams Episode "Real-to-Reel"
2006-2011 Grey's Anatomy 6 episodes
2012 Scandal Episode "Blown Away"
2012-2014 Parenthood 4 episodes
2015-2017 American Crime 3 episodes
2016 Castle 2 episodes
Lady Dynamite Episode "Mein Ramp"
Pure Genius Episode "You Must Remember This"
2017 Ten Days in the Valley Episode "Day 4: Below the Line"
2017-2019 13 Reasons Why 6 episodes
Also consulting producer (4 episodes)
2018 I'm Dying Up Here Episode "Deathbed Confessions"
The Affair Episode "405"
Sorry for Your Loss Episode "Jackie O. and Courtney Love"
2018-2019 Billions 2 episodes
2019 The Rookie Episode "Flesh and Blood"
Fosse/Verdon Episode "Glory"
Bluff City Law Also executive producer;
Episode "Pilot"
2019 This Is Us 3 episodes
Stumptown Episode "The Other Woman"
2020 Hollywood Episode "A Hollywood Ending"
Ratched Episode "Got No Strings"
2021 Walker Episode "Pilot"
This Is Us Episode "The Music and the Mirror"
The Morning Show Episode "Kill the Fatted Calf"
2022 This Is Us Episode "Don't Let Me Keep You"
2023 Citadel 2 episodes
American Horror Story: Delicate Episode: "Multiple Thy Pain"

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Work Result
1995 International Documentary Association IDA Award 89 mm od Europy Won
1996 Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien Won
1997 Academy Awards Director of Best Documentary Short Subject Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien Won
Shorts International Film Festival Best Short Film Won
Asian American International Film Festival Asian Media Award Won
1999 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Documentary The Living Museum Nominated
2002 Online Film & Television Association OFTA Television Award: Best Direction in a Drama Series The West Wing Nominated
2004 Gotham Awards Best Documentary In the Realms of the Unreal Nominated
Ojai Film Festival Best Documentary Feature Won
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Nominated
Vancouver International Film Festival Best Documentary Feature Won
2005 Writers Guild of America, USA Documentary Screenplay Award Nominated
2006 Primetime Emmy Awards Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking Nominated
2007 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Protagonist Nominated
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize Nominated
2012 Tokyo International Film Festival Earth Grand Prix Last Call at the Oasis Nominated
SXSW Film Festival Audience Award Nominated
2013 Aspen Shortsfest Audience Recognition The Guide Won
Hamburg International Short Film Festival Friese Award Sour Death Balls Nominated
2014 Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary Feature Misconception Nominated
2019 Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special Fosse/Verdon Nominated

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lowenstein, Lael (Fall 2012). "Finding Her Way". DGA Quarterly. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  2. ^ "Welcome to the 50th Volume of the Oracle". The Oracle. Gunn High School. September 17, 2012. p. 13. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d Fry, Nathan (2002). "2002 Alumni Spotlight: Jessica Yu". The Ivy League. Archived from the original on December 13, 2013. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  4. ^ Belli, Brita (September 18, 2019). "Showcasing Yale women in film, who fought for legitimacy on two fronts". YaleNews. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  5. ^ Dawson, Nick (April 17, 2012). "The Weight of Water: An Interview with Jessica Yu". Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Inoue, Todd S. "Learning to Breathe". Metro Silicon Valley. No. May 22–28, 1997. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c Indiewire (September 5, 2008). "indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Ping Pong Playa" Director Jessica Yu". IndieWire. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  8. ^ "Interview with Jessica Yu". Joel Mora. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  9. ^ "INTERVIEW with Jessica Yu". Filmwax Radio. May 16, 2012. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  10. ^ w455 (April 25, 2011), The Jon Stewart Show - Jessica Yu, archived from the original on December 19, 2021, retrieved November 12, 2018{{citation}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Yu, Jessica; Inscrutable Films (Firm); Independent Television Service (1995), Men of reenaction, Inscrutable Films, OCLC 53876608
  12. ^ Times, The New York (July 11, 1999). "MARK O'BRIEN, 49, JOURNALIST WHO WROTE WHILE IN IRON LUNG". Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  13. ^ "INTERVIEW with Jessica Yu". Filmwax Radio. May 16, 2012. Retrieved November 13, 2018.
  14. ^ The Daily Quirk (January 7, 2015), An Exclusive Interview with Jessica Yu, archived from the original on December 19, 2021, retrieved November 13, 2018

External links[edit]