Jessica Yu met the late Ted Shen, a frequent Reader arts contributor, in 2000, when Yu was here giving a talk on The Living Museum, her documentary about self-taught artists in a Queens psychiatric center. Shen asked her whether she was familiar with Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who died in 1973, leaving behind hundreds of paintings depicting the child heroines of his 15,000-page epic novel titled in part “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.” When she said yes, Shen offered to introduce her to the artist’s former landlady, Kiyoko Lerner, and show her Darger’s old room. “So the next day I’m in Ted’s rickety little car and we’re driving up to Kiyoko’s place,” Yu recalls. “It was such an amazing experience to go into that room that was still intact.” The room was a chockablock jumble of paintings, drawings, books, clippings, and Catholic icons. Yu stayed for four hours, and not long afterward arranged to shoot footage of the studio. It was dismantled later that year, most of its contents donated to museums around the country. Five years later her portrait of Darger and his work, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, has her short-listed for an Oscar.

A graduate of Yale, Yu started working as a production assistant on TV commercials to finance her tournament fencing, of all things. When in the early 90s she moved to Los Angeles with Mark Salzman, author of the memoir Iron and Silk (and now her husband), she looked up some friends of the family, documentary filmmakers Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock. They put her to work as an associate producer on Mock’s film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, which went on to win the 1995 Oscar for best feature documentary. Along the way, Yu got a hands-on introduction to moviemaking: “On my first shoot I was out there . . . doing the production sound,” she says.

The next year Yu herself won an Oscar for her documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, about a writer confined to an iron lung. She’d landed an agent, but nothing much came of it until 1999, when he got her a meeting with John Wells Productions. Wells, the executive producer of ER, The West Wing, and Third Watch, was setting up a program to promote diversity within the Hollywood directors’ pool. He enlisted Yu, and again she learned by doing, eventually directing an episode of ER. This gig led to other TV directing jobs, including stints on The West Wing.

Meanwhile, Yu hadn’t dropped the Darger project. She spent a few years doing research and shot on location in Chicago using a volunteer crew and donated equipment rounded up by local filmmaker Karen Carter–also a Darger fan–whom Yu had met at the Facets Children’s Film Festival. Carter “just pulled out all the stops,” Yu says, “so that not only did we have what we needed to film the room, we had the best [of everything]. It was like stone soup that turned to something that you get at Spago.”

Yu next began trying to muster postproduction funding, applying for a grant from the Independent Television Service, the nonprofit that underwrites many PBS documentaries. ITVS offered her completion money–but by then she realized that the documentary would exceed the mandated 60-minute running time. Reluctantly, she turned it down. The following year, however, she got a call from ITVS director Patrick Wickham, who asked her to resubmit her proposal, promising to find a way to waive the length requirement.

Yu got the funding, which covered about 80 percent of the film’s $500,000 cash budget. She spent the next two years animating Darger’s creepily hermaphrodite innocents and battle scenes of child slaves pitted against brutal adults. In the Realms of the Unreal was one of several ITVS-funded films that premiered at Sundance last January. After it was nominated for the festival’s grand jury prize, Yu signed on with sales rep Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, who brokered a distribution deal with Wellspring. It opens tonight at the Music Box and the Century 12 and CineArts 6. The film will also be shown on PBS.

Yu plans to continue moving back and forth between television and filmmaking, though she admits that “the shifting gears thing, it is tough. I think that I enjoy the challenge, but at the same time I am fueled by fear a lot of the time. And the fear is not so much of trying something different; it’s just that acknowledgment that at every step of the way you are being given a chance that is something that may not come again. You don’t want to squander that chance, or to let down the people who thought you deserved this.”

The final Academy Awards nominations will be announced on January 25.

For more on In the Realms of the Unreal, see J.R. Jones’s review in Section 1.

In the Realms of the Unreal

WHEN: Through 1/27

WHERE: Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; Century 12 and CineArts 6, 1715 Maple, Evanston

PRICE: $8.75; $9

INFO: 773-871-6604; 847-492-0123

MORE: Darger expert Michael Bonesteel will attend the 7:30 PM screenings Friday and Saturday at the Music Box.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Nathan Lerner.