Despite being a competitive piano player growing up, Christine Yoo never imagined a career in the arts, especially with her parents encouraging her to be a doctor or lawyer. All that changed, however, when some college friends asked her to help out on a short film. She had no experience, but she agreed and it changed her life. Yoo discovered a love for storytelling, and decided to transfer to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
Upon graduation, Yoo did not find her initial success in Hollywood, but in Korea when her thesis film at USC got into the Busan Film Festival. Yoo stayed in Korea and started teaching editing at the Korean National Film Academy and also worked for a production company.
When she returned to the U.S., she did everything from editing to writing for “KoreAm,” a print magazine aimed at Korean Americans. “As a freelancer, I’m not really in a position to turn work down,” Yoo laughed. “I like to work as much as possible.”
Eventually, Yoo was able to make her first feature film, Wedding Palace, a Romcom with an all-Asian cast. And she did it without Hollywood.
“Hollywood, as we know, is not necessarily set up for people who look like me in positions of leadership,” said Yoo. “I had to create those opportunities and ultimately learn how to become an entrepreneur.”
With one feature under her belt, more opportunities began to come Yoo’s way. She even became a showrunner for “The Story of God With Morgan Freeman” under Freeman’s production company.
What exactly does a showrunner do? “It’s kind of a writer-producer-director type of role. You are helping to shape the story [and] find [the] story,” Yoo explained. As a showrunner for a nonfiction series, Yoo had to learn how to operate differently than she did on narrative sets.
According to Yoo, things aren’t as set in stone because the script is more fluid, and thus “a lot of discovery happens in the field,” something she enjoys. The titles mean different things in the nonfiction world than they do in narrative filmmaking; the roles and responsibilities are different.
“Being a director [on a nonfiction project] is about being a storyteller, not necessarily being organized,” she said. The organizational and operational responsibilities belong to production managers.
“There’s a lot more opportunities [in nonfiction] for people who are just starting out in the industry to get their foot in the door,” Yoo said. Still, personal tenacity is critical. Yoo admitted that “the situation for female directors is pretty bleak…no matter what, you kind of have to create your own opportunities.”
And, Yoo has developed the muscle for it. She also has good storytelling instincts. A friend shared a GQ article, “Inside the San Quentin Marathon” about inmates finding hope and second chances by training for the prison marathon. Yoo was intrigued and emailed the coach and set up a time to talk. She quickly learned that she wasn’t the only one with the idea to make a film out of this story—Condé Nast was also interested.
“It confirmed my belief that this was a great story I found,” Yoo joked. When pitching the coach, Yoo emphasized her more personal approach to the story. She posited that Condé Nast is a big company and wouldn’t give the level of attention to the story that she would. The subject was also personal to Yoo as she had a friend who was serving time. “I wanted to tell this story,” she said.
The coach gave Yoo the story, and she was soon on her own journey to becoming a first-time documentary filmmaker. Initially, she planned to make a narrative film, but as she spent more and more time at the prison, she decided that “people really need to hear this story from the people who experienced it, not me.”
Her film titled 26.2 to Life (trailer) focuses on three men convicted of murder and their quest to run this marathon. “I wanted to organically bring out other issues, like mandatory sentencing, what is it like to be a father or a husband from prison, what happens to a family when you are locked up for long periods of time,” Yoo explained.
With a no cell phone rule in the prison, “you get into intimate discussions very quickly,” Yoo said. “The first contact showed me how much I had dehumanized people who are behind bars [due to] the usual media portrayals that we get.” Since filming, Yoo has become a regular volunteer at the media center in the prison, where inmates are able to access film equipment and make stories.
In a very impressive feat, 26.2 to Life recently had its world premiere at the DOC NYC film festival. It is moments like this that inspire Yoo to keep pursuing film even during the tough times. “It’s about finding stories that you love… [with people who] will lift your soul up,” she said. “[This is] a story I’ve been carrying now for five years,” and soon the rest of the world will be able to experience it, too.
“26.2 to Life” is available to screen virtually at this link until Sunday, November 27.