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Billion Dollar Filmmaker: Jennifer Yuh Nelson Moves From Toontown to ‘Darkest’ Side

There’s nothing in Hollywood that engenders confidence quite like earning a billion dollars at the box office, and in that regard, filmmaker Jennifer Yuh Nelson had every reason to stride onto the set of “The Darkest Minds” with a bit of a swagger. Making her debut as a live-action director, Nelson came into the project with a sterling record as a director of animation, having steered DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Kung Fu Panda 3” to a collective $1.18 billion worldwide. In doing so, she racked up a raft of milestones as a female director: The first woman to solo direct a big-budget animated film; the first lone woman to win the Annie Award for best feature; the first solo woman director to be nominated for the animated feature Oscar; and one of the highest-grossing female directors.

And yet, stepping into the director’s chair on her first live-action project, Nelson was well aware that she might have to navigate a whole new glut of perception issues, both as an interloper from the world of animation, and as a mild-mannered, low-key woman in a job that has often fetishized aggressive male energy.

“Going into live action, the perception I had was that to be a director, you had to be loud, you had be physically fit, wear cool hats, have a beard, and yell ‘action!’ really loud,” she says. “And I’m none of those things. I’m very soft-spoken. I couldn’t imagine screaming ‘action!’ on an outdoor set over a wind machine or whatever. And so I was kind of worried about that, because you’re always running up against perception.”

And yet, she says she was surprised by how “painless” the experience proved to be. “I had all these fears about showing up on the first day and not knowing the first thing about anything, everyone looking at me like, ‘Oh God, what’s she doing here?’ Instead I got total support.”

She even figured out a way around her fear of having to yell over the wind machines. “I think people understood that I’m not a yeller, and I realized quickly that I don’t have to be the one yelling action, that I can just make a very subtle hand gesture to the first AD and he’ll yell action,” she says with a laugh. “So that made it a lot easier. I just wanted a chill set.”

Darkest Minds” is an adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s bestselling young adult novel, starring “Hunger Games” veteran Amandla Stenberg. Developed by Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment and set to be released through Fox on Aug. 3, it isn’t just Nelson’s live-action debut as a director, it’s essentially the first non-animated film she’s ever worked on, save for a brief gig as production illustrator on 1998’s “Dark City.” And in truth, Nelson was an unusual choice to direct the material for reasons aside from her resume. For one, she isn’t exactly a devotee of the genre.

“I’m not necessarily a huge fan of YA movies,” she admits. “I haven’t watched a lot of them. I like action movies, and I prefer to watch a bad Hong Kong action movie to just about anything else. There have been a lot of great YA movies, of course, but I wanted something a little different. So when I first spoke to them about this movie, one of the first things we talked about was how I didn’t want to make a YA movie, I just wanted to make a movie with a great emotional core. And I didn’t want it to be this dark dystopian film, I wanted to make something joyous, uplifting and positive, where you’re energized and driven to action at the end.”

Per Levy, Nelson’s outsider status — as well as her reticence to be the guy in a baseball cap screaming “action!” — was actually an asset. “There’s no one right way to be a leader on set,” he says. “As a director, I might run a set with a certain volume level and a certain energy. But then there are people like Jen, or like Denis Villeneuve — who I worked with on ‘Arrival’ — who run a set with quiet decisiveness. We found Jen’s sensitivity and presence to be a huge asset, and it gave the film an aesthetic that was very different from other superhero movies or YA movies. Oftentimes a filmmaker has either a strong visual sense or a strong emotional, narrative sense. But Jen came with a finely tuned sense of both. Her visual ideas were vivid and incredibly specific, and yet those visuals were paired with an understanding of the characters and the emotional storytelling that was extremely well-developed. So it was the duality of Jen’s approach that made us certain she was the right filmmaker.”

For Nelson, those two attributes go hand-in-hand.

“There’s a part of me that just loves dudes in body armor doing cool stuff,” she says. “But I always look for an emotional hook. Even with fight choreography, I don’t know how to stage a battle unless I know emotionally what all of it means. Because then you can compose every shot to really reinforce that, rather than just randomly throwing confetti around, and then you have people arguing about what to do — if there’s an emotional clarity, then there’s usually only one right way to do it. The script, when I first read it, already had that [clarity].”

Nelson was born in South Korea and immigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was 4, settling in Lakewood, Calif. “It’s a little bit of middle America and little bit of California; it’s got a mall right in the middle, and that’s about it,” she says of her hometown. “Every time people ask where I’m from, I have to say ‘Lakewood, which is close to Long Beach,’ because nobody knows where it is.”

She started compulsively drawing at a young age, and fell in love with ’80s action cinema and anime — the works of James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Katsuhiro Otomo were childhood touchstones, she says. (“The things I liked about those movies were they were these beautifully crafted visual worlds, but they were also a little bit tweaked, a little bit weird. And they had a lot of really intense emotion as well as badass action.”) And yet she hadn’t seriously considered pursuing a career in film or animation until she sat through a talk from a storyboard artist in one of her classes at Cal State Long Beach, where she was studying illustration.

She took her first major industry job as a storyboard artist on HBO’s “Spawn” in the late ’90s, and subsequently moved to DreamWorks Animation, working her way up to head of story on the first “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008. When it came time to start on the follow-up, producer Melissa Cobb and then-DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg approached her to take the reins. It was quite a leap: She got to make her directorial debut on a $150 million blockbuster sequel.

While her first two directorial outings came in a familiar environment, with characters she’d already grown to know, she says her experience as a storyboard artist was invaluable on the set of “Darkest Minds” as well — in fact, it was by assembling a series of storyboards set to music to explain her vision for the film that she convinced Levy to give her the gig.

“Being a storyboard artist and an artist in general is particularly useful, because you can quickly communicate what you’re thinking,” she says. “A lot of the time on shoots I think people have a hard time trying to anticipate what the director’s thinking, and they’re trying to read the tea leaves a little bit or find the time to get ahold of the director, and that creates a lot of chaos. When you can draw, you can show everyone a quick diagram with the actual set, with the actual elements, and everyone can see exactly what you’re trying to achieve.”

Nelson is aware of how unusual her path to the director’s chair has been, and that even as the nation’s top animation schools have seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of female students, the number of women directing animated features — much like the number of women directing features, period — remains perilously small.

“I think the predominance of [animation] students being female has been the case for a while,” she says. “I’ve been going out to speak at schools since way back when, and I remember looking out at classrooms that were 80% women. Then later it was 90% women, just an ocean of women. But that was still at a time where I think me and a couple friends I knew were the only women directing in animation, and there were very few department heads that were women. I’d always ask myself, where are all these women going?

“I obviously kept going at it, and for reasons I don’t completely understand, ended up being a director. But it wasn’t like I did anything particularly extraordinary, in that I wasn’t more aggressive than anyone, or more loud than anyone. I wasn’t more of anything other than I happened to be useful and people wanted me for the job. So … I think it really just comes down to, are there people who are willing to give these women a chance? Because someone obviously gave me a chance — I had really supportive people around me who one day just turned around and said, ‘Jen, you’re gonna direct this thing.’ Someone has to do that. Because you can be a young woman graduating from school and you can be incredibly aggressive and yell and scream at The Man, but that’s not gonna change anyone’s opinions about whether they’re going to risk massive amounts of money and make you the leader of a project. That level of risk has to be taken on by somebody, and those are the people who are doing the hiring.”

With “Darkest Minds” debuting next month, Nelson is in the early stages of her next project — another live-action feature via 21 Laps, this one a remake of the Korean thriller “A Bittersweet Life,” with Michael B. Jordan set to star.

Though she won’t rule it out, the director says she has no immediate plans to return to animation, “but it purely comes down to the story and the characters. Just like YA movies, I’m not necessarily a huge fan of watching a lot of animated movies. I made them for years, but didn’t watch a lot of them, as strange as that sounds. But I think it shows I’ve always tried to find a different angle to what I was doing. The genre doesn’t matter, and the technique doesn’t matter. It’s all just about storytelling.”

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