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Jessica Lingmin Yu (born 14 February 1966) is an American film director, writer, producer, and editor. She has directed documentary films, dramatic films, and television shows. Yu won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien (1997).[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).

Jessica Yu
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Yu on location in Mozambique, 2016
Jessica Lingmin Yu

(1966-02-14) February 14, 1966 (age 53)
OccupationDirector, writer, producer
Years active1993–present
Spouse(s)Mark Salzman

Early life and educationEdit

Yu grew up in Los Altos Hills, California and graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto. There she wrote for the school newspaper, The Oracle. She then went to Yale University, majored in English and was an NCAA All-American in fencing. 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. Jessica Yu graduated from Yale University summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in English, 1987.

Personal lifeEdit

Jessica Yu in 2016

She, her husband, acclaimed author Mark Salzman, and their daughters, Ava and Esme, live in Los Angeles.[2] 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. Jessica has an older sister, Jennifer Yu, a technical publications manager, and a younger brother, Martin Yu, an actor.[3]


Yu originally planned on going to law school before becoming a filmmaker. She began her film career when stumbling across film production while searching for a job that allowed flexible hours to allow her to compete in fencing. She dabbled in production on commercials and travel documentaries but longed for more challenging assignments.[4]  She started as a production assistant on a few commercials, where she got to do things like arrange frozen noodles on forks and re-park cars. When she started working in documentary, she became more and more intrigued by the process.[5] 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.[5] The opportunity to make film is a random occurrence for Yu.[6] 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.[7] Her films intend to inform the general public to incite people to become active in every day issues such as water conservation and regulation.[8] When not making documentaries and feature films, Yu spends time directing television shows.


In 1993, Yu started off with her career with her amusing 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.[7] 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 became her first feature at Telluride Film Festival in 1993.[9] Yu then makes her first documentary, Men of Reenaction (1994), which explores the extremes of people searching for authenticity through Civil War reenacting.[10]

Perhaps 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, who was a brilliant man immobilized to an iron lung. 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.[11] Yu was presented with the opportunity to work with Mark O’Brien through his editor, Sandy Close, who introduced the two and suggested a film be made.


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 in a program designed to increase diversity among directors. 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.”[7] While working for John Wells’ production company, she began directing in television for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The West Wing.[11] 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.[7]

She directs a sport comedy film, Ping Pong Playa (2007), that explores Asian family culture through a Chinese ping pong 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. Her and her comrades felt that Asian American cinema had plenty of good dramas, and wanted to fill the void of superficial comedy.[5] 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.[7]


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.[12] 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.[13]

Majority of her work after 2015 is focused toward television production and directing. She directed episodes of the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why and has done one Netflix comedy special called Maria Bamford: Old Baby.[1]

Filmography as directorEdit


  • The Conductor (1994)
  • Men of Reenaction (1994)
  • The Living Museum (1998)
  • In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)
  • Protagonist (2007)
  • Ping Pong Playa (2007)
  • Last Call at the Oasis (2011)
  • The Guide (2013)
  • Misconception (2014)
  • Maria Bamford: Old Baby (2017)


  • Sour Death Balls (1993)
  • Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996)
  • Better Late (1998)
  • The Kinda Sutra (2009)
  • Meet Mr Toilet (2012)
  • Focus Forward: Short Films, Big Ideas (2012)
  • We the Economy: 20 Short Films, Big Ideas (2014)
  • James Turrell: You Who Look (2016)
  • ForEveryone.Net (2016)

TV SeriesEdit

  • ER (1 episode)
  • The Guardian (1 episode)
  • Mister Sterling (1 episode)
  • The Lyon’s Den (1 episode)
  • American Dreams (1 episode)
  • The West Wing (3 episodes)
  • Grey’s Anatomy (6 episodes)
  • Scandal (1 episode)
  • Parenthood (4 episodes)
  • Lady Dynamite (1 episode)
  • Pure Genius (1 episode)
  • American Crime (3 episodes)
  • Ten Days in the Valley (1 episode)
  • 13 Reasons Why (4 episodes)
  • Billions (1 episode)
  • I’m Dying Up Here (1 episode)
  • The Affair (1 episode)
  • Sorry for Your Loss (1 episode)
  • The Rookie (1 episode)
  • ‘’Fosse/Verdon’’ (1 episode)’’
  • ‘’Bluff City Law’’ (1 episode)’’

Awards and NominationsEdit

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

Further readingEdit


  1. ^ a b "Jessica Yu". IMDb. Retrieved 2016-05-03.
  2. ^ "Ava Salzman - Biographical Summaries of Notable People - MyHeritage". Retrieved 2018-11-13.
  3. ^ "Martin Yu". IMDb. Retrieved 2018-10-12.
  4. ^ "Jessica Yu". IMDb. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  5. ^ a b c Indiewire (2008-09-05). "indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Ping Pong Playa" Director Jessica Yu". IndieWire. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  6. ^ "Interview with Jessica Yu". Joel Mora. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Finding Her Way - Jessica Yu". Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  8. ^ "INTERVIEW with Jessica Yu". Filmwax Radio. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  9. ^ w455 (2011-04-25), The Jon Stewart Show - Jessica Yu, retrieved 2018-11-12
  10. ^ Yu, Jessica; Inscrutable Films (Firm); Independent Television Service (1995), Men of reenaction, Inscrutable Films, retrieved 2018-11-12
  11. ^ a b "Ivy League Sports". 2013-12-13. Archived from the original on 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  12. ^ "INTERVIEW with Jessica Yu". Filmwax Radio. Retrieved 2018-11-13.
  13. ^ The Daily Quirk (2015-01-07), An Exclusive Interview with Jessica Yu, retrieved 2018-11-13

External linksEdit