This film emerged out of an odd challenge. In 2003, I was approached by Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation about making a documentary about the playwright Euripides. Upon hearing the idea, I laughed. Not out of dismissal, but pure surprise. I had no idea how to do it, and so of course I wanted to try.
Over a summer of reading and discussing Euripides, 5th century B.C. Greece, and ancient Greek theater, I was no closer to figuring out how to make a film about the actual character of the man. But I was struck by another idea, and luckily Greg and Noble were willing to grant me complete freedom to pursue it. The next two and a half years were to bring the most satisfying and adventurous experience I've had in my career as a documentary filmmaker.
In reading Euripides, I was struck by how relevant his themes were, how contemporary the mindset of his characters. The concept behind the film I wanted to make was to find people whose real lives mirrored the dramatic arc of a certain Euripidean tragedy - the tragedy of the extremist. I was interested in the character that embarks on a journey for valid reasons, only to find himself so deeply embedded in the cause that he becomes the opposite of what he had intended to become. He is blind to this fact, though, until the forces of fate and character boil and distill to a single moment of dark clarity.
The threat of extremism looms heavily today, but the issue has fed morality tales for centuries. What makes a person vulnerable to this particular moral misadventure? Can human beings be guided away from the trap of destructive righteousness, or are we fated to learn only from our own mistakes? Is character fate?
Finding our subjects proved to be a more involved process than expected. My fellow producers, Elise Pearlstein and Susan West, and I searched for candidates for eight months, combing through personal contacts, the internet, periodicals and publications, news sources, etc. In the end we considered perhaps two hundred individuals. Unexpectedly, only five or six of those two hundred were female. Men, it appeared, were far more likely to experience the particular breed of obsessive pursuit - and crashing revelation - that we were looking for.
I wanted to tell the stories of individuals who seem very different from each other at first glance. But as their stories unfold, one starts to see the parallels between their uncommon, common experience. To this end, the film uses excerpts from Euripides' plays, most notably The Bacchae, as thematic chapter headings to the stages in our protagonists' lives. Although the play excerpts provide more of a tonal shading than a full exploration of Euripides' work, I wanted to try to incorporate stylistic elements that would echo their original staging and underscore the connections between our stories. A crucial part of that approach was the decision to use puppetry in parts of all our stories - those of Euripides, and our four subjects. I wanted to create a world of shared elements that would lend a sense of timelessness to the sequences.
With puppet designer Janie Geiser and our master puppet construction crew, we discussed how the actors in 5th century Greece wore large fixed masks to project their characters - and in some cases, their voices - to an audience of thousands in a large amphitheatre. I liked the idea of our puppets wearing "masks," with the suggestion of an actor's inner life behind the eyes. I also favored rod puppets, operated from below. In contrast to marionettes, rod puppets offer a greater level of manual control. I also wanted to avoid the symbolic implications projected by puppets controlled by strings from above.
Our designs for the puppets were based on actual Greek masks, with modifications for proportion and our particular subjects' features. We also modeled the costumes on traditional dress of the time, and made our set a minimalist version of the earliest proscenium configurations. To accommodate the shifting needs of our scenes from ancient Greek drama and our subjects' narratives, our set is also modular - all the steps, layers, and walls, are constantly reconfigured to create new environments.
One challenge was the performance of the Euripidean dialogue in ancient Greek, which is less closely related to modern Greek than Latin is to modern English. In casting our Greek-speaking actors, we were lucky to find Chris Diamantopolous, whose mother is an expert in ancient Greek (and who became our dialect coach). With our consultant Jody Valentine we discussed the conventions of early Greek drama, trying to modulate the dramatic level of the scenes to set the tone for our contemporary stories.
The puppet shoot itself was personally exhilarating, in that it was all new directorial territory. The learning curve happened swiftly. Our rod-controlled puppets' movements were proscribed by our sets, number of hands available, and time, but their expressive capacity in the hands of our skilled puppeteers was limitless. Working with storyboards created with scale models, we choreographed the puppets' movements and blocked the scenes for three days before the shoot, matching the action to our production audio.
With cinematographer Karl Hahn and gaffer Stuart Cropley, we created a palette and lighting scheme that heightened the theatrical nature of the scenes. Our colors were generally muted, with the only color being the costumes of our four main characters.
Jessica Yu - Director