‘Fosse/Verdon’ Director Jessica Yu on Getting Inside Bob Fosse’s Mind, Tackling #MeToo

Jessica Yu Director Portrait
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Oscar winner Jessica Yu was previously Emmy-nominated for a nonfiction project (in 2006), but helming the fourth episode of FX limited series “Fosse/Verdon” saw her receive her first-ever scripted directing accolades. In the episode, Yu tackled a #MeToo tale about the titular male choreographer (played by Sam Rockwell), and crafted intricate moments of that larger-than-life man losing his spark — and almost his life.

How did you get brought into the “Fosse/Verdon” world, and was there ever consideration of directing a different episode?

I was working in New York on “Billions” and I met with Tommy Kail and Steven Levenson, and it was just a lunch where we were enjoying chatting about everything. From the beginning, the idea is, “This is going to be hard work, but it’s going to be super fun. We’re all grownups, and best idea wins, so everybody brings something to the table.” That was something I sensed from the get-go. But it was just this episode that came to me, and it happened to fit into my schedule well.

Aside from the team, what attracted you to this subject matter, especially specifically this script?

There were two parts of it that were especially appealing to me. The first was the scene where Bob Fosse is charmingly forcing himself on a dancer he’s working with. That scene was pivotal in a lot of ways and there was a lot to mine and discuss and how to lend truth to that moment through the lens of that time — not try to re-imagine it but really try to look at it starkly and honestly and, it’s weird to say, non-judgmental in that it is looking very openly at what the dynamics were. The second one was the last act, which is the “Pippin” inspired fantasy sequence. When I got to that part in the script, I could already see it in my head. So that was just really exciting. I like when I get something that’s different from what I’ve done before.

Did you shoot the scene where Bob was forcing himself on Sherry [Alexis Carra] in “Glory,” differently now, when #MeToo is on everyone’s minds, than you would have a few years ago?

One thing that was really important to mine was her moment, which was incredible, where he is pushing her up against the fence and has his hands on her, and she knees him, but then she’s the one who apologizes and says she had a good time. Where did she feel complicit? Why is she apologizing? And why he is the one who feels wounded at the end? Looking into that — because that is something that I would hope would not play out exactly the same today — and then what it took for her to go back and say, “I’m ready for you to be what you want me to be,” those were the key discussions. For both of these characters, how are their actions supported by what they’re experiencing? But then we put it out and allow the audience to decide how they feel. One of the things that Joel [Fields] and Steven and Tommy all talked about when researching this particular part of Bob’s life was that a lot of women who had gone through that time said, “Oh, it was just a different time.” So we tried to contextualize it without condemning the entire era.

Did work with Sam and Alexis as actors differently than you would have a few years ago?

We were very fortunate to have rehearsal time that was very separate from shooting [and the same with] discussion time. I’m big on sensitivity meetings. Everyone is so relieved when you can talk openly about that, not only to go through the emotional dynamics but also the mechanics. A lot of people have said it’s like choreographing a stunt, and all of that is in play, but within that, making sure the actors can still find spontaneous inner moments and let them come out.

How did you handle the tonal shift in the episode of Bob finally getting the recognition he wanted but realizing it didn’t really make him happy?

I was trying to lean into the sameness of the awards and coming home and putting them on the dresser. There’s something that can feel empty pretty fast if you’re coming home alone; you realize what you sacrificed to get the bauble. So it was tracking man at his height and then how the emptiness is being filled up with other things. It’s funny because there’s that moment of Paddy Chayefsky telling Bob Fosse, “The Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, this is all bulls—.” So when we got the Emmy nominations, Joel Fields wrote me this really beautiful email, and I wrote him back and said, “I know Paddy says this is all bulls—, but it feels pretty nice, and as long as we don’t celebrate with coke and quaaludes, I think we’re OK.”

For a little while he tried to keep the party going, especially with his female dancers, though.

One of the things that was so fun to shoot, and it was interspersed in the episode, was Bob at the disco. It’s like, the party’s fun until it’s not, and then you still end up staying longer than you should have. We were trying to create the atmosphere of a club, and that also had this feeling of being a little bit of a netherworld: You have the lights, you have the smoke, you have the beautiful people, but the disorientation of that was something we really played with. So one of our operators suggested the idea of having Sam move backwards through the crowd, and then we ran it forwards, and it has the feeling of a guy just slightly out of sync, even if you’re not sure what that feeling is. It’s only in a couple of little glimpses, but then what kind of effect we wanted the lights to have, and then to keep it in the period. We were really careful about the tiny details and the songs that came out that year, and not the year after, to really steep everyone in that time.

And as he spirals, the show spins into that “Pippin”-inspired fantasy sequence.

I had one organizing principle, which is point of view. We’re always being reminded that we’re within Bob’s head. So I wanted the camera to stay close to him when we’re on him, but everything where we’re looking out is where he’s standing, more or less. And then the shots have to be clean [to preserve] that idea. It’s, “Is this character a ghost, a hallucination? What are the rules here?” I wanted to keep that in mind. So we talked about how, generally, the characters would populate the thoughts he was having and how they would close in on him. So there was a lot to do with when his daughter’s voice would come into his consciousness, and I talked through those ideas of when people are closing in and when they’re disappearing.

How did the volume of dancers and actors affect this?

We had this wonderful choreographer named Susan Misner, and she really worked with the dancers and really coordinated that beautiful invasion into what was a very small space. And from there we worked through the shots and more specific things about where people were going to be. But the other really big discussion was, “When the wall of the room comes up, what’s beyond it? Do we want to read that it’s a literal space? Do we want to say that all the world’s a stage? What can we see out there?” I wanted it to more or less fall off to black. What we were just saying is that we’re in his mind at this point.

How much compromising did you have to do to get that vision executed on a television budget and with tight scheduling?

Fortunately I didn’t have a big moment of, “OK fine, we’ll do it this way!” But yes, a lot of times there’s — I’d like to say it’s not compromise but — parameters. Here we were certainly limited by the space on the stage and scheduling the unbelievable talent on that show; we can’t keep shooting with them forever. But coming out of low budget documentaries, I was like, “We can do this, it will be fine.” Sometimes I like those challenges because it forces you into the solutions that are actually available to you, and people can be very creative.

Speaking of your past documentary work, what made you want to crossover from nonfiction into scripted in the first place?

For a long time I was doing those things in parallel, but I was very lucky in that when I was making documentaries I got involved in John Wells Prods., and John Wells wanted to address the entry of new directors in that world. At the time, statistics for women were very bad, and they’re still not great, but I haven’t seen anything like the uptick in the last few years. John said, “Well, we like what you do. We’re willing to bring you in to observe, and then you’re guaranteed to direct.” I had no idea what that really meant: I was coming from the indie documentary world, where your friends are helping you with crafts service and you have a tiny crew. And then moving into “The West Wing,” I was really lucky that was the opportunity I had to learn. With episodic it is so hard to learn if you’re not just there everyday. This became a program, but I was a guinea pig in that it wasn’t like somebody was guiding me through, “You have to learn this, you have to learn that”; I think the attitude was more, “We don’t even know what you need to know, so you have access to whatever meeting you want to attend.” I basically had to go to everything because I didn’t know anything, but the world was open.

How does working in episodic television affect how often you feel you have to prove what you can do to a new crew or potential employer?

I think with every show you reintroduce yourself. But I would say that when I was starting out, I knew there were some crews I was working with where the majority were men and the majority of those men had not worked with a female director before. I don’t think I found particular pressure from that; I think I found pressure from being relatively new and wanting to do the job in the best way. I think it took awhile before I was not completely motivated by fear.

On what project do you feel like that shifted?

I don’t know if there was one particular project, but the more freedom I was given as a director, the more comfortable I felt — because then you feel like you’re being invited to the table with your ideas, versus, oh there’s an idea of how this job absolutely needs to be done and I’m just working towards that. I will say that working on “American Crime” was quite liberating because John Ridley would say, “Be bold.” He wanted to see something that treated the material deeply but also was maybe something that we hadn’t seen before on network.