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UC Berkeley

Interview: Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson of ‘The Darkest Minds’ on the power of the youth, and pursuing one’s passions

It’s not easy to be a young person in America. Today’s society always reiterates that authority comes with age, routinely allowing adults to dismiss young people and invalidate their experiences.

It’s just too easy to label young people as incompetent.

Those in positions of power actively choose to remain ignorant to the injustices young adults around the world face. Yet, instead of stifling the conversation for youth activism, this suppression has bred the opportunity for pushing empowerment. 2018 has become the year where teens are simply refusing to let their ideas and voices become silenced. When young people are regularly oppressed and prevented from receiving basic dignity, it makes us refuse anything but change.

“The Darkest Minds” imagines a world akin to reality, where children are left powerless, after the majority are killed by a disease. The ones who are spared remain with remarkable abilities, trapped in internment camps to rid them of their powers. Based on Alexandra Bracken’s novel of the same name, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the mastermind behind the last two films of the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy, weaves a tale of the power of young people taking action against blatant discrimination.

She spoke to HS Insider about the spaces in the entertainment industry for Asian American creators, how the film is different from your typical YA flick, and the reason for the its stark similarity to reality.

Q: What motivated the transition from animation to live-action?

A: I always wanted to try live-action, because I always thought of live-action. It seemed like a good time for me, after finishing the arc for the trilogy of the “[Kung-Fu] Panda” stories. I just wanted to try it. I thought it would be a good jump.

Q: What about “The Darkest Minds” resonated with you and motivated the bringing the film to life?

A: I think the emotional core in the story, the book had it, the script had it. When I first read the early draft of the script, the characters’ relationships were already appealing. I thought it could make an uplifting story for young adults.

Q: I read that you aren’t the biggest fan of YA films. What about “The Darkest Minds” sets it apart from a typical YA film?

A: Because it wasn’t a dystopian story, it became more of a “road-trip” story. It became a story about the best of friends, and their circumstances. I found that the dystopian, blue world of a lot of YA films has already been done. This was certainly not meant to be a YA movie. This was meant to basically be a movie about young adults, who are going through hard times.

Q: The film’s actors have talked about your emphasis on reality in the world you created for “The Darkest Minds.” What influenced your decision to portray a world so similar to real life?

A: It’s really to get away from the dystopian tropes of these films. I haven’t watched a lot of YA movies, so the film was a lot of finding some way to make it accessible to push certain elements of the film. I wanted to make something that made people be able to imagine that this was happening in their daily lives, right now. In this world, in this grounded reality.  

Q: A lot of fans of the books have said the women of ‘The Darkest Minds’ are really a force to reckoned with. How does the film tackle themes of women empowerment?

A: Our lead character, Ruby, is a very powerful person. She starts off with a lot of self doubt, which I think a lot of people can identify with. What’s important is her journey of finding the value of herself, and the things that make her unique — things that she might not know if they’re positive or negative. These are things that anyone could wonder about, when coming in their own in life. Ultimately, it’s figuring out that those unique things are things that make her special, and powerful. That message is something that I think a lot of young people can carry through their lives, when figuring out who they are and what their place in this world is.  

Q: Do you remember what inspired you to pursue being in the entertainment industry and directing?

A: I think it was more of a compulsion. I can’t help but make movies in my head, it’s just the way it is. For me, outputting it was always the challenge, thinking “How could I get a job outputting this compulsion of mine?” [Laughs]. So, storyboarding, animation, all these years of working on all these different productions, I got to explore outputting all these different movies in my head. It’s been a real joy.

Q: Being a director isn’t usually a path many Asian Americans take, with the lack of prominence of Asians at the helm of the entertainment industry. What has been the most difficult part of being a part of this industry when it’s not inclusive of Asians?

A: It’s always perceived as being unusual, because it is unusual. I had a lot of support within my own family, but I know, that culturally, it may not be the same thing that a lot of Asian parents want to see their children going into. There is a great deal of inherent risk involved. If you want stability, you shouldn’t be going after this job. [Laughs].

Q: Asian parents are all about stability.

A: All about stability, being dependable, and successful in a stable way.

Q: What advice would you give to young Asians wanting to be involved in the entertainment industry and want to direct, and look up to you, but don’t really know how to convince their parents?

A: I think it’s pursuing something that you’re passionate about, usually means that you’re going to be better at it than things you’re not passionate about. If you really want to do this as a career, and find what makes you happy, ultimately your parents will be proud of you. You just have to get over the hump of having that fear kick in.

Q: Do you want to continue with animation, or has live action won you over?

A: Both have their pluses, and they’re different from each other. They’re both very different. I love both, so it depends on the story, the characters, and the concept. It doesn’t matter what medium it’s in. I love both.